Sunday, January 19, 2014

Best Films I saw in 2013

2013 was an above average year in film. There were several films that were in the B to B+ grade range but no true A films and definitely not any A+. The year did feature the best performances I have seen in film in years. There are many performances that in any other year would be sure in Oscar winners. There were multiple films in which Directors moved what could have been mediocre films to excellent pieces of art either through special effects or getting outstanding performances. This seems to be a year where the sum is not as great as the parts. Note: Several of these films came out prior to 2013. They are included in this list of I saw them for the first time this year. Note 2: The best piece of filmmaking I saw this year was Breaking Bad. I watched all five seasons from beginning to end this year. I thought the performances were amazing. I thought the writing was outstanding. I thought the overall story was brilliant. This may have been the best TV series of all time. Best films: 9. Ted – this is a very crude, very funny and potentially very offensive film. I loved it. It has a much deeper message than the story implies. It is one of the funniest films of the year. Link: 8. World War Z – Brad Pitt kills Zombies. It is not deeper than that. It is the best action film I saw this year. It had stakes (survival of the human race). It had characters you care about. It scared you. It also has what every successful action film has, an upcoming sequel. Link: 7. American Hustle – this is the best group of actors in a film I have seen in years. There are five amazing performances. Bradley Cooper gives his best performance. Amy Adams gives the best performance of her career and is much better than I thought possible. Jeremy Renner gives the second best performance in the film and has been criminally ignored. Jennifer Lawrence is Meryl Streep 2.0. It is becoming redundant that she is great. She is always good. Christian Bale gives the best performance of any actor this past year. He gives a brave, smart performance full of anger, perfect comic timing and one devoid of vanity. The film has some great scenes with great actors at the top of their game, but they do not add up to a great film. Link: 6. Game Change – this HBO film about the selection of Sara Palin as the Vice President nominee and subsequent election in 2008 is incredible. It is entertaining, funny, sad (for America) exploration of how we choose our leaders and what factors go into deciding who we are going to vote for. This explores the concept of Cult of Personality, the desire for greatness (an under seen line in the movie “I wish there was a Thomas Jefferson out there, but there is not.”). The film has four outstanding performances; Ed Harris (is he the most under rated actor of his generation?), Sarah Paulson (a frustrated voice of reason, more on her later), Julianne More (who transforms herself into Sara Palin both good and bad) and Woody Harrelson (who has evolved into an actor who never plays the same character twice and always does interesting projects). Link: 5. Dallas Buyers Club – You expect great performances from some actors. Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey are not two of them. Jared Leto gives the best supporting performance of the year. Every scene he is in he dominates. His two best scenes are where he meets with his father who obviously hates him and when he leaves his home for the last time. Both scenes convey his fear and pain and anger. He is a man struggling to survive and that comes across. McConaughey’s 2012-2013 reminds me of Tom Hanks in 1992-1993. Hanks went from Joe Vs. The Volcano to more challenging and deeper performances especially for comedian including Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. Now he is considered the top actor of his generation. McConaughey has gone from 2008s Fools Gold, Tropic Thunder, Surfer,Dude and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past to much darker films where he 1. Kept his shirt on, 2. Played unlikable characters, 3. Did not play the lead actor. It was a very brave decision to take on these types of roles. He could have kept cranking out bad but profitable films such as Failure to Launch and How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days and make 10 million dollars a film. Instead he did Bernie, Killer Joe, Mud, Magic Mike, The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club. I am curious about what will be next. Link: 4. Side Effects – the best thriller of the year. This film was seen by very few people. The film was hurt by its advertising. It seemed to be a film about the problems with mass medication of America. It is much deeper. It touches of the role of medication but it is truly a film about greed and the compromises that some are willing to take to make money. Link: 3. Starbuck – this is a French language film is a comedy about a man who fathered over 500 children by donating his sperm to a fertility clinic. The film was remade into a seemingly formulaic Vince Vaughn film (Delivery Man). Starbuck is a film about growing up. The sacrifices we make for our children. The decisions we make to care for the people we love. The reason for his “donations” is incredibly thoughtful. Link: 2. 12 Years a Slave – this marks the third time that a Steve McQueen-Michael Fasbender film has ended the year as a top two film. Check out their two previous collaborations, Shame and Hunger, they are superior films to 12 Years a Slave. Michael Fasbender is the best actor working today. If Jared Leto had not done an amazing job in Dallas Buyers Club, Fasbender would have won the Oscar for best supporting actor. McQueen’s best trait as a director is that there is NEVER a wasted scene in any of his films. Every scene exists to support another part of the movie. His non-sequential film making style can be confusing and a disaster if not done correctly. He manages to balance the need for direct story telling with the audience buy in that comes with forcing them to think about what happens with these out of order scenes. While Fasbender-McQueen is an amazing combination, I would like for them to include Sarah Paulson again. She plays the wife of the sadistic Plantation Owner, played by Michael Fasbender. In a film where there are characters who rape, lynch, torture, enslave, beat and degrade, Paulson’s character is the most evil character in the film. She has had a career of minor supporting roles but has started to break out with great performances in Game Change, American Horror Story, Mud, 12 Years a Slave and Martha Marcy May Marlene. She may be better at supporting roles than lead roles, but she is becoming a performer who makes me want to see her latest film. Link: Link to Shame: Link to Hunger: 1. The Wolf of Wall Street – this was not the best directed film of the year. That would be 12 years a Slave or Gravity. Leonardo DiCaprio did not give the best performance by a lead actor. Christian Bale should get the trophy. Jonah Hill was good but Jared Leto and Michael Fasbender were much better. It did not have the most moving story (12 Years a Slave, American Hustle). The Wolf had not good roles or performances for women. It did have the best screen play of any movie this year. It had humor, stakes, great character arcs, and put the actors into roles that they could explore fully. DiCaprio has multiple scenes where he gives a physical performance that I did not think he was capable of. He took a great character and made him memorable. Link:

Monday, January 30, 2012

21 Best Films I saw in 2011 part 1

Someone once told me, “Best of lists are for people who can not come up with anything else to write about.” I hate to say it, but he had a point. My list is a very lazy writing exercise, but it is also designed to bring attention to great films. Many of these films made almost no money. They were great films, that either never found an audience or were produced knowing that they would probably not make money. Also, before one of my TWO valued followers sends me a note saying some of these films came out in previous years, you are correct. Many of these films I saw via Netflix. The only rule was that I had to watch the films during 2011.
21. Hanna – great action film about a teenage assassin raised by her ex-spy father near the Arctic Circle. This tells the story of her journey after she decided to tell the CIA that she is alive and they come to hunt her. Hanna was the best written feminist character of 2011 who did not have a tattoo.
20. Red State – Kevin Smith is not the first name you would think of to direct a action movie about a “Westboro Baptist Church LIKE” church in the south west who kidnaps young boys in order to kill them for their sexually deviant lifestyle. However, he pulls it off. Kevin Smith of Clerks and Dogma fame made a film that is the anthesis of his more traditional work. There is very little humor. There is not cameo appearance by Ben Afflac or Matt Damon. Instead, this film shows the behavior of a group of fundamentalist Christians who have corrupted the word of God in an attempt to satisfy their own blood lust. Smith has been heavily protested, and receives death threats, for his film Dogma and his regularily protested by Westboro Baptist Chuch. This film could be a reaction to those events. Whatever his reason, Smith created a very different type of film, but one that works. I am curious about what he will do next.
19. Beautiful Boy – OK, I have a little bit of a crush on Maria Bello. She is a great actress who consistently makes great film choices (after Coyote Ugly). She takes chances. She is vulnerable and is not afraid to go places as an actress that she has not been before. She could very easily take on roles in simple TV drams, but instead takes on a conflicted role as the wife and mother dealing with the decline of her marriage, to the very underrated Michael Sheen, coupled with the shocking news that her son has murdered multiple people by opening fire at his school. The film never shows the violence, but only the aftermath. The parents struggle with trying to put their life back together while trying to understand their role in their son’s rampage. Check out the trailer:
18. Client 9 – this a documentary on the rise, battle and fall of Elliot Spitzer. Spitzer could have potentially been President of the United States in 2016. In five years, no one will know who he is. Spitzer was the Govenor of New York who was kicked out of office after it was discovered that he had been hiring prostitutes for years. The documentary is a great study of what he was (both good and bad) and what he could have been. Check out the trailer:
17. Blue Valentine - I was wrong about Ryan Gosling. I thought he was an overrated hack, but this year he was in four very good films, The Ides of March, Drive, Crazy, Stupid, Love and Blue Valentine. Valentine is a films showing the beginning, middle and gradual end of a marriage. This film kept you guessing by showing clips in non-chronological order, like a memory. When you are in a relationship, you do not think of it as a time line you think of it as a highlight real. You have days when you remember the moments where you loved the person you are with more than you thought possible. Other times, you are consumed with pain by their thoughtless and selfish behavior. With most relationships, there is no good guy, no bad guy, just two people trying to make something work. Check out the trailer:
16. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Was it as good as the previous version? I thought so. Was American Lisabeth Salendar as good as the original? I did not think so. Is this a very good movie? Oh yeah!!! David Fincher is a genius. He proved it again. He made edits to the original story to cut the length, but the cuts worked. He got very good performances out of an all star cast. Trent Reznor is continuing with his David Burn like evolution from underground rock god, to Oscar winning film composer. It is a good movie that lived up to the hype. Check out the trailer:
15. The Company Men – Roger Ebert is famous for saying that a good film should never make you sad. This film will make you sad. It is very appropriate for the age of the recession. This film tells the story of how three men in different stages of their lives and careers deal with the recession and being downsized. It is powerful, sad and at the end of the day gives hope. I would recommend renting this in about two years when the recession is over. Check out the trailer:
14. Casino Jack – Jack Abramov is an evil person and deserved to go to jail for a long, long, long time. If you do not believe that watch this bio pic staring Kevin Spacey. This tells the story about how lobbyist Jack Abramov used money he received from his clients, to funnel to Speaker of the House Tom Delay, who also did some time, who sent money for reelection campaigns to members of congress who would then do favors for Abramov’s clients. It will make you sick. Also, if you want to know a little bit more about Ralph Reed, one time candidate for Lt. Govenor of Georgia, watch this movie. Check out the trailer:
13. Margin Call - Yes, I have a special place in my heart for Kevin Spacey. So does Independent Spirit Awards. This film received multiple nominations including writing, directing and ensamble cast. This film tells the story of 36 hours in a Lehman Brothers LIKE company that realizes that it has overleveraged it’s position and has to make some drastic decisions or the company will fail. This film subtly addresses issues that led to financial problems that hurt Wall Street and crippled Main street. This explores how some of the people who run financial analysis have Doctorates in Engineering and instead of going into research and development in manufacturing or go work for NASA take the much larger paycheck and go to work on Wall Street. This explores how people knew that the bottom could fall out well before the crash and choose to do nothing to advance their careers or protect their insignificant pieces of turf. This also shows how people are willing to compromise or completely disregard their ethics for money. The cast is outstanding; Paul Betney, Demi Moore, Kevin Space, the painfully underrated Stanley Tucci (Merryl Strep keeps casting him in her movies so she might think he is pretty good), Jeremy Irons and several up and coming actors. Go watch this movie and then go to the bank take out every dime and put it in your mattress. Check out the trailer:
12. X-Men First Class – I am not a comic book guy. I have never been to Comic Con. I have not liked any of the Spiderman movies. The only comic book films I have liked are: V for Vendette (the best comic book movie of all time), X-Men (Robert Downey makes this film), The Dark Knight Series (Christopher Nolan always gets the benefits of the doubt), 300 (I think I should probably be in the gym instead of writing this) and the X-Men films. Note: Wolverine is NOT a real X-Men movie. Wolverine sucks. The X-Men is more in the spirit of the Planet of the Apes films and not as much as Super Man. X-Men is really the story of discrimination and how we treat people who are different. The X-Men films hav been interpreted as a referendum on gay rights (especially the third film), detainment at Guantanimo and Anti-Semitism. This film acts as a prequel for the original batch of X-Men films that came out a few years ago. This is especially interesting as it shows how Magnetto (Michael Fastbender and then eventually Ian McKeller) discovers his power at Auschwitz and has his personal evolution from victim to vigilante to viscious murder. X-Men succeeds for the same reason that “No Country for Old Men” and “In the Line of Fire” succeed, they have a moral unflinching, uncompromising protagonist and a charismatic, entertaining villain that we all root for because he is the most interesting character. Check out the Trailer:
11. Warrior – I am not a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fan. After watching Warrior, I am now interested in it a little. Warrior tells the story of how two brothers who have not spoken in 12 years are both competing in “Sparta” winner take all, 16 person, 5 Million Dollar winner take all Mixed Martial Arts tournament. This seems to be a story that would make a very bad made for TV movie on ESPN, but this explores the characters and without spelling everything out lets you know why they are really fighting. These are not men who are macho and want to show the world how tough they are, one is fighting to save his family’s home and the other is fighting to support a fellow Marine’s family. The hub for this family drama is their father played brillently by Oscar Nominee Nick Nolte. Nolte plays a recovering alcoholic, three years sober, who now goes to mass every day and who use to train both of his sons in wrestling. We only see the “reformed” father and not the person he was. He is the reason the brothers do not speak. The marine left home when he was 14 with their mother who could no longer take the abuse of Nolte. The other son refuses to let his father see his grandchildren due to something that is never explained that occurred three years ago.
On the surface, this is a MMA movie. That is too shallow. It is really about forgiveness, empathy, doing the right thing when it would be much easier to do the wrong thing. Everyone has taken a shortcut sometime in their life. This is a mistake. We take the shortcut because we see what we want and the compromise we make destroys the goal we had. Shortcuts are discovered and will destroy you in the octagon and life. Fortunately, there is another round and if you are brave enough to test yourself you can be great. Check out the trailer:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Most Anticipated Movies of the end of 2011

What excites you?
It is a good question. It is not what makes you happy. It is not what interests you, but what excites you. What generates that Christmas morning when you are five emotions?
This fall there are seven films that do this for me. Will I be disappointed? Possibly. But these films give me hope. In a fall punctuated by school sex scandals, Presidential nominees who cannot remember their speaking points and epic collapse of my Braves AND Red Sox sometimes hope is the only thing we have. Hope for a brief 90 minute escape from a world that disappoints, saddens and at times angers us. These movies are my 90 minutes of hope.
1. Red State – Yes, this is a Kevin Smith film. No, it is not a regular Kevin Smith film. Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma, Ben Affleck career) decided that one controversial religious film that caused him to get death threats were not enough, he needed two. I think sometime during the filming he called Martin Scorsese a pussy! This is the only film on this list that I have seen so far. It is the story of a very far right religious cult/church, similar to the Westborough Baptist Church. The film directly states that this church is not like Westborough Baptist. I have a feeling that a lawyer made that line be added. This film does not have the great dialog that usually punctuates Kevin Smith’s films, but it does produce the best performances of any Kevin Smith film. The three that stand out are Kyle Garner who leads a group of three boys into the church’s compound and becomes a hostage leading to the conflict in the film. Kyle Garner is very good. I have seen him in two other projects; as a young serial killer committing his first crimes in the final season of The Shield and as a student who commits mass murder at his school in Beautiful Boy (GO RENT IT NOW. IT IS GREAT, SAD AND BEAUTIFUL). He braches out here and plays a damaged impure protagonist. He is someone worth watching. John Goodman proves that despite rising to fame on the strengths of comedies (Revenge of the Nerds and Rosanne) he is a much better dramatic actor. He plays an ATF agent who is conflicted about having to carry out an order that he knows is wrong in order to protect his job and advance his career. The best performance is by Michael Parks the charismatic, fire and brimstone, mass murdering “Father” of the religious cult (that is not the Westborough Baptist Church).  He takes a role that could have been a one dimensional creepy, evil role and gave it depth. You realize that he truly believes that he is saving the souls of his family and eventually the world by removing evil. His acts of vicious violence are counter balanced by seeing him gently working with his grand children. It is a performance that deserves to be recognized. It is one of the best performances of the year. These three characters reflect the overwhelming arch of the film. All three characters do things they either are afraid to do, hate doing, know is wrong but ultimately do the act because they believe it is what is best for either themselves or the people they care about in the long term. These are not initially selfish acts, but painful acts that they believe will lead to an ultimate reward.
2. Martha Marcy May Marlene – This is the OTHER religious cult film of the fall. This is a non-sequential film about a woman Elizabeth Olsen, yeah, yeah, yeah she is THOSE Olsen’s younger sister, who goes by all three names of Martha, then Marcy May and finally Marlene as we view her life before, during and after living in a small cult in northern New York State. Unlike Red State, this films’ focus is on Martha and not on the cult leader, played by the very talented John Hawks (The Perfect Storm, East Bound and Down, Winter’s Bone). Although there are two cult movies this fall, this takes different perspective on the cult and asks questions about “Is EVERYTHING about the cult wrong?, What is it that we want and need from others that we are not getting that leads people to cults?”.
3. Take Shelter – this does not look like a good movie. But it does have a performance that the previews have made me want to see. Michael Shannon (8 Mile, Boardwalk Empire, Lets Go to Prison (it is very funny)) plays a father who has “visions” of a massive storm that is coming and builds a storm shelter that his family truly cannot afford. This is not Field of Dreams underground, this is a man who may or may not be in the beginnings of becoming schizophrenic (sp). Is he crazy? Is he irresponsible? Is he doing whatever it takes to make his family safe? Worst case scenario it will be A Beautiful Mind in the Midwest. Best case scenario it makes us question “What would you do for your family?” “What sacrifices to our mind, soul, and essence will we make to take care of our family?”
4. Shame– I have seen him in two radically different movies this year and Michael Fastbender was perfect in both of them. He was the star of “Hunger” an independent, Irish film about a group of IRA prisoners who starve themselves to death and “X-Men” first class where he stared as Magneto. You saw X-Men. No explanation is needed. X-Men was a comic book movie, but it had soul and Magneto remains one of the most fascinating characters in comic book history. Fastbender reunites with Hunger director, Steve McQueen, in Shame as the story about a Sex Addict in New York City. The story and the presumed twist is being hidden, but Fastbender’s sister is being played by Carey Mulligan who starred in the best film I have seen this year “Never Let Me Go”, the only film that made me cry this year. Mulligan has not made a bad film choice yet. Fastbender’s and Mulligan’s acting and talent for choosing good scripts, now that they really can choose what projects they will work on, makes Shame seem intriguing Dangerous Method - OK, I may be a little fixated on Michael Fastbender. This movie also stars Viggo Mortensen. I wonder if they had a sword fight while on the set. Fastebender was in the movie “300” and Mortensen had a sword when he did those three long films about walking. This film tells the story of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud in the early days of psychotherapy in Vienna. This will be a DVD rental.
5. Like Crazy – this looks like the best film of the year. I have cried after watching one movie this year, Never Let Me Go, and after watching the preview for Like Crazy. This is the story of a British student who overstays her student visa in America because she has fallen in love. When it is discovered that she is here illegally she is deported to England. This tells the story of two people falling in love at a time of your life where you are not jaded by the bad relationships that everyone has in their 20s and you still believe in happily ever after because life has not happened yet. It is the love you can only feel at a time of your life when everything is possible, nothing else is that important and love is true, innocent and honest. This also explores what happens when life interrupts love. How do you handle it when the person you love most is suddenly on the other side of the world? Skype, emails and long distance phone calls are not as intimate and personal as sharing the Saturday morning paper at a Denny’s. How can you stay in love when you no longer truly share a live with that person? You love that person with all of your soul, but distance is a barrier that is difficult to overcome. Watch the trailer: PUT IN TRAILER and decide for yourself.
6. 21 Jump Street – Yes, I said it. 21 Jump Street. It is my blog. 21 Jump Street stars Jonnah Hill who has co-starred in a series of excellent movies over the last several years (Super Bad, Money Ball, Get Him to the Greek and Knocked Up). Hill strikes me as this generation's Phil Hartmen. Very talented but is much better in a supporting role than a starring role. Hill works best when he reacts to the insanity around him. His best performance is probably in Get Him to the Greek. Russell Brand is completely insane. He was perfect as a hard partying rock star. Hill is the perfect dose of normality in a bizarre situation. Hill takes good actors and makes them better than they really are (Ex: see reviews of Brad Pitt’s performance in Moneyball and the career of Michael Serra after Super Bad). Unfortunately, he is stuck with Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street. Jonnah Hill is the Johnny Depp to Channing Tatum’s Richard Greco. Tatum has been given an opportunity to be a movie star (GI Joe) but he is not that talented. 21 Jump Street looks like a great Saturday afternoon TBS movie. The producer of this movie can go ahead and make plans for Oscar night, but this looks like a nice escape for two hours. Sometimes we do not need questions answered in our movies, sometimes we just need to smile. 21 Jump Street will do that and that will be enough.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Emmys don’t mean CENSORED

Yeah, that’s right. I almost had the CENSORED to write that the Emmy’s don’t mean CENSORED!!!!
I am censoring myself incase children read my blog. For those of you under age 12 whose Mommy and Daddy are letting you read this please call DFACs so you can tell them what a great job they are doing.
The Emmy’s do not mean anything for real. They claim to recognize outstanding performance in TV, which is a good thing, but in reality it recognizes either: 1. The studio that has the best PR campaign or 2. What a group of high brow critics that are not worldly enough to do movie reviews think about TV. Some tv series can be evaluated in an entire season, but what is often forgotten is that many times only one to three episodes of a TV series is evaluated when selecting the nominees.
That being said I think the Emmys are good for TV and media in general. With the rapid expansion of TV channels, there are too many hours available to produce good thought provoking, smart, entertaining television. As a result, we have five, YES I SAID FIVE, shows about Real Housewives, and too many “Reality Stars” and not enough good TV. I think the Emmys can call out shows that are very well done, break barriers, challenge what is regular TV and take chances that 10 years ago network TV would NEVER have done. “The Shield” is the perfect example of this. When it came on TV almost 10 years ago, very few scripted shows were being produced outside the four major networks, HBO and Showtime. It’s first year, despite low ratings, it won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama and Lead Actor in a Drama for the great Michael Chicklis. The Shield had it’s critics. It did deserve the criticism it received. The show was produced for half of a regular network series and ALL of the actors took home about half of what they would have gotten on a network series. A network would also NEVER have it’s lead protagonist murder a fellow police officer on the first episode. That scene set the tone for the seven seasons that followed. That scene broke all of the rules about what a TV series could and could not do. It gave us a great anti-hero that you loved and hated. That opened the door for Nip/Tuck, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Justified and for other non-networks to produce challenging TV series. The Shield also gave a financial blue print for how to make a show financially viable. You made the show inexpensively, you provided an opportunity for people who wanted to direct to direct, you resold it via DVD, and you created a buzz.
Here are some thoughts on what is right with TV:
1. Louie – it is a very funny, but not great TV show. It’s budget is 3.5 million PER SEASON!!!! The cast of friends made 7.2 million PER EPISODE. It is a smart, funny show that is giving a blue print for how a star centric show can be made. Louis CK (star, director, writer, etc.) is given almost complete freedom to create the show because of minimal financial investment FX can easily make money on the show with very little risk. Louis CK , who is nominated for an Emmy this year, gets complete artistic freedom and as a Producer of the show, another trick that FX pioneered by giving their stars Producer credits after the first year of the show, he will make syndication money off of the show.
2. Breakout Kings (A&E) – no, you have not heard of this show. It may not come back for a second season, but the performance of Jimmi Simpson was the best thing on TV. He was robbed of a supporting actor nominee.
3. Dexter – best drama on TV. It is dark. When your lead character has murdered over 100 people and kills someone every episode it is not for the faint of heart. It is also very funny, human and somehow relatable. Michael C. Hall deserves all of the credit he receives. The rest of the cast, many of who started on the VERY underrated “OZ” on HBO, are equally great. Note: Check out the show OZ on DVD. The cast of Oz went on to populate the shows Law and Order: SVU and Dexter. The best supporting actor on the show is C.S. Lee who plays CSI Vince Masuka. His character is insecure, politically incorrect, self absorbed and a walking sexual harassment case. He is the perfect counterpoint to Dexter. Dexter is in no way open with the people he works with and Masuka is in no way closed. Their contrast is very entertaining.
4. The Chicago Code – RIP. It was smart, gritty and had amazing acting. Jason Clark was the cinematic of The Shield’s Vic Mackey. Damaged, but ethical and driven. I would want Jason Clark to patrol my neighborhood. Delroy Lindo was incredible as always. Has he ever been bad? They show did not find an audience and we are left with 13 episodes of what might have been.

This year the Emmy’s went to Mad Men and Modern Family. These are good shows. They are well written, well acted and take safe chances. They are the definition of solid television. Take a chance on the shows that are brave, bold and dare to do things that other shows do not.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Documentaries You Should Watch

Recently over more than a few drinks, a friend of mine commented “You know I have not really got into documentaries. What are some good ones?” I think right now we are in the golden age of documentaries. This is because of Michael Moore. OK, Republicans keep reading for 30 seconds. Michael Moore has led this renaissance in documentaries because he has made three movies that each one broke the record for domestic box office for a documentary. 1989’s Roger and Me brought in 6.3 million. 2002’s Bowling for Columbine brought in 21.2 million (along with the top Prize at Cannes and an Oscar). 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was the big winner with over 119 million. Documentaries are cheap to make (No stars, limited special effects, not a lot of advertising, any sound track, etc.) and can potentially make money. While most documentaries will not break 10 million, they can attract a strong following and produce multiple revenue streams in DVD purchases and provide prestige to studios when they are defending green lighting films such as Showgirls. Here are your lists of the 11 documentaries you need to see.
1. Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse – this documentary show why studios will give a director $250,000 to make a documentary that will probably break even and will possibly make allot of money. Heart of Darkness is a documentary about Francis Ford Coppola directing Apocalypse Now. Apocalypse Now is an amazing film with incredible performances. Coppola was on top of his game. His three previous films were The Godfather, The Godfather Part 2 and The Conversation (Two best picture wins and a nominee). Yeah, he was hot. Then he went to shoot Apocalypse. It was a disaster. Coppola fired his lead actor on the first day (Harvey Keitel), his replacement (Martin Sheen) had a nervous breakdown AND heart attack AND was still better to work with than his son, filming went over by 200 days, Marlon Brando showed up out of shape and refused to learn his lines and then Dennis Hopper, well he was being Dennis Hopper BEFORE rehab. It shows what a disaster making a big budget film can be. It also shows the potential for disaster that can happen when you record the making of a film. It also shows that no matter what goes wrong in the creative process a brilliant film can come out of it.

2. It Might Get Loud – I am just going to copy what I wrote about it when I ranked it one of the best films of the past decade.
Everyone with a soul has at one point wanted to be a rock star. If you are not a complete narcissist you wanted to play lead guitar instead of being the singer. It Might Get Loud will reawaken that part of you that came alive the first time you heard that first great guitar riff. It could be Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit”, Gun’s n’ Roses “Sweet Child of Mine”, Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lot of Love”, The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” but whatever it was you knew that you had never really been alive until you heard that music and a part of you knew that nothing would ever be the same.
That first great rock song is like your first great love. You discovered it almost by accident. You felt fear, raw sexuality, and like you were becoming an adult all in a few seconds. It Might Get Loud makes you feel that way all over again.
It Might Get Loud is a documentary featuring Jack White of the White stripes, The Edge of U2 and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Three great guitarist come together to talk music, to jam and talk about what influences them. The film comes across as a bystander who is a fan of great music who quietly sits while the three maestros experiment, jam, talk, joke and open themselves up in a way that you never see.
While most “Rock-umentries” (I hate that term. It is too contrived to have come from anywhere but a late 80s MTV staff meeting.) come across as a forced interview designed to say what genius the musicians are and that if you want to understand pure art you will buy their latest album. This documentary about musicians comes across as three people who are brought together because of their love of music and the guitar. You believe that despite the money, the fame, the adulation (aka groupies), that they would want to hang out on a Friday night in someone’s old house after a long week of work and play guitar.
This is the movie that is not a way to spend a Saturday night. This is the movie to watch alone. Then hang out with friends who like music (who really like music) ask the simple question “Which is a better Zeppelin song Rock n’ Roll or Whole Lot of Love?” in a bar that has a really good jukebox. Bring some quarters, a willingness to see where the conversation goes and blast the songs that need to be heard.
p.s. Ironically, my favorite Zeppelin song is “Going to California” not loud but still powerful and brilliant. The song that woke me up was “Stairway to Heaven” I was 13, my first kiss came three months later and life would never be the same.

3. Waiting for Superman – This is the second Davis Guggenheim suggestion (after It Might Get Loud). Ironically, of his three films, his two best did not win the Oscar for best documentary while the weakest of the three “An Inconvient Truth” (which is very good) did. Superman is a documentary that explores the state of public education in America. It explores the role of Teacher’s Union’s, raising kids who cannot add but have high self esteem and follows a group of children participating in a lottery to get into Charter Schools. The film ends with you finding out which children were accepted into Charter Schools and which ones are forced back into public schools. It is moving without playing on your heart strings. It also has the saddest ending of any film ever made. These are not characters. These are real people whose lives could have been changed with a simple twist of luck, but instead will be trapped in a circle of poverty that education is the only super hero that can save them.

4. Smartest Guys in the Room – John 8:3 “He that is without sin cast the first stone.” I think Jesus might make an exception about the executives at Enron. Smartest Guys tells the story of Enron’s rise and their financial collapse. This documents the excess of their executives, their decision to cause rolling blackouts in California, (The Governator should have told Maria that he just went in the wrong room during the blackout.), the political fallout (Gov. Gray Davis was voted out of office in California; George W. Bush’s largest campaign contributor was Enron), the impact to Wall Street, the loss of people’s 401K, it was devastating. Director Alex Gibney’s underlying them of how greed when taken to excess causes more problems than it removes is also explored in the next film on the list.

5. Casino Jack and the United States of Greed – this tells the story of imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramov and his relationship with Speaker of the House Tom Delay. I liked this film because I knew almost nothing about Abramov. This documentary told his story and how lobbying dollars would go through Abramov to Delay to members of Congress who supported Delay’s goals. It was a disturbing view of how things really get done in Washington. This film also explores the role of the Christian Right activist Ralph Reed were heavily involved in lobbying for Indian Casinos. It is incredibly disturbing. This is also another reason why Documentaries are a good film investment. This film made $174,000. The bio-pic “Casino Jack” about the same topic and stared Kevin Spacey (who is pretty good), Barry Pepper and Kelly Preston was a very good film and barely made 1 million dollars. Alex Gibney is the best director working in documentaries today. He is amazing.

6. ESPN’s 30 for 30 – yes this is a TV series that brings in some really amazing creative forces to address some interesting sports topics. Alex Gibney did a documentary on Steve Bartmen (Google him. If you are a Cubs fan you know exactly who he is.). Barry Levinson did a documentary on the Baltimore Colts Band. The series also featured stories on the USFL (best one in the series), Wayne Gretzky leaving Canada, Cancer Survivor Terry Fox’s attempt to run across Canada on one leg (warning: have some Kleenex around) and one on 2004 Red Sox World Series. Just like any series of short films there are going to be some misses but overall the series is amazing.

7. Murder Ball – if you like sports documentaries watch Murder Ball. This is a documentary about quadriplegic rugby players who play in wheel chairs. It is amazing. It changed m perspective on the disabled. The athletes (NEVER FOR ONE SECOND THINK THEY ARE NOT ATHLETES) are amazing. They will do anything to win. They have rivalries (some that are legitimate and others that are petty rivalries that people use for fuel to be better). They want to win.

8. Fall from Grace – Freedom of Speech vs. Freedom of Religion. This documentary is a true documentary about the Westboro Baptist Church and its minister Fred Phelps showing a fair and honest presentation of their core beliefs. Westboro Baptist church has for years protested at the funerals of US Soldiers who died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The church believes that the September 11th attacks were Gods punishment for Sexual Deviance of Americans. This documentary was made approximately three years before the Supreme Court ruled that their protest were legally protected. The documentary was originally screened for the Church before it was shown at any festivals. The church members were concerned that the film put them in too positive of a light and that some people would view the films as a propaganda piece. That is the best promotion about this film. It is honest, unflinching and accurately displays the group as they really are. You may hate what they stand for, but you get an unbiased view of their reality. This lets you see what they are really like and lets you form your own opinion instead of just reinforcing the opinion you had when you walked into the movie

9. Super Size Me – Being the funniest man in documentaries is sort of like being the nicest guy in prison. Their ain’t allot of good competition. Super Size Me director Morgan Spulock is very funny. He is your funniest friend to have a beer with. If it is 3:30 p.m. on a Friday when you do not have plans, you get a text message saying “Want to have a beer tonight?”You instantly know three things; 1. You will have a great time. 2. You will have some great conversations. 3. You will defiantly have more than 1 or 2 beers. DJ King Pigeon is my Morgan Spulock. Super Size Me is liked spending a month doing a crazy idea that was conceived at 2:30 a.m. after 2-3 beers have turned into Jaeger Bombs. Super Size Me documents how Spulock spent a month eating all 3 meals a day at McDonalds. He would only make a meal Super Sized if they asked him. The power of this documentary is shown when McDonalds, you might have heard of the restaurant, got rid of the Super Size meals after this documentary, that made only 11 million came out. Morgan Spurlock does not use this as a vehicle for corporate bashing but uses McDonalds as a reference point; he could have used Burger King, Wendy’s or any other fast food restaurant, to describe the obesity problem in the United States. Exploring School Meals, Exercise, and the role of a sedentary lifestyle on the physical and economic health of America. He took a silly concept and thanks largely to the force of his comedic personality take a potentially boring topic (Nutrition) and makes it entertaining.

Super Size Me works for the same reason that the show Friends and the movie Shrek work. They are all the story of very likable people going on a journey. You are instantly drawn to Spurlock not because of his looks, his charm, and his intellect but there is an everyman quality about him that shines through. He is easily relatable and very likable.

10. Man on a Wire – Massively overrated. It is a great concept full of great visual imagery that could have been heavy handed but was very well done. Man on a Wire describes how a French Tight Rope Walker broke in, strung a wire and walked between the towers of the World Trade Center. This story was great, but the film made it less interesting. This is one of the few topics that would be better as a bio-pic than it was as a documentary.

11. Exit Through the Gift Shop* - yes, Exit gets the ominous astrix. Is Exit really a documentary or is itself a piece of Graffiti art? Exit is described as a documentary about graffiti artist Banksy. He has achieved worldwide fame by not revealing his identity, not having his picture taken and more importantly by creating some of the best graffiti art in the world. Ironically, he became famous by being anonymous. This is one of the many questions to ask if what he is doing is for him or for massive self promotion. Google his stencils from the wall between Palestine and Israel. They are amazing. The film starts by describing the history of Graffiti art. This art form has many examples including mass producing iconic images (e.g. Atari Aliens, The Queen Mum and Andre the Giant)or ironic images (ex. Graffiti free zone in San Francisco) on public places. Technically it is vandalism. But the images are amazing, beautiful and as thought provoking as a piece in a museum. Banksy takes the camera and records how the “director” goes on a path to becoming a graffiti arts culminating in an amazingly successful art show in which the artist effectively outsourced the work to other artists. This film is a great commentary on how people “value” art and shows that the only real way for graffiti art to get back to its roots is to completely sell out as a way of saying “Fuck You! Pay $500,000 for a telephone booth with a pick ax in it. Tomorrow I will make a Che Guevara mural to be free for the world to view and enjoy. Thanks for financing my next trip to Israel. I will do a mural that the world will see for free. Go ahead and brag to your elitist friends about how you a “Master of the Universe” but at your heart you are truly Bohemian. You are lying to yourself and financing me. Oh yeah, thanks for renting ‘Exit through the Gift Shop’ I needed to buy more spray paint.

I was not familiar with his work when I saw this film. After seeing this film I purchased his coffee table book “Walls and Piece.” If it was meant to be an experimental film designed to laugh at film snobs the way his art shows will occasionally laugh at art snobs it worked. If it was designed to trigger thought and analysis about what really is art it worked, even if it was not a true documentary.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Rutger Hauer: King of the Hobosplotation Film

Rutger Hauer will complete his Hobo Trilogy this year with the release of “Hobo with a Shotgun.” This will complete his trilogy that began twenty five years ago with “The Hitcher” and will buoyed by 1994’s “Surviving the Game”. This trilogy showed an acting and personal arch for Hauer.

1986’s “The Hitcher” was a thriller in which a young, handsome Hauer played a quiet hitchhiker who is picked up by cross country driver C. Thomas Howell. This showed him in what would end up being the type cast he fell into. He played the man with no name who sought to destroy other people seemingly without reason. This paralleled the perception of how the homeless were viewed in Ronald Reagan’s mid 80s America. They were considered violent outcasts who would destroy good people and America itself if we let them. The often forgotten part of this was the large number of people who were removed from Psychiatric Institutions and had nowhere else to go.

1994’s “Surviving the Game”, which also stared Ice-T, kept Hauer as the preditor, but now he was hunting homeless veteran Ice-T. Both of these parts have the hobo be “chosen” by the successful person. In the Hitcher, Howell picked up the stranger. In Game, Hauer gives a tryout to Ice-T by offering him $100 if he can run on a treadmill for 30 minutes. When you are hungry, tired and cold you will do anything for money. In addition, to the $100 Ice-T unknowingly “won” the right to be hunted by Hauer, John C. McGinley and F. Murry Abraham. Unfortunately, the only thing they killed was Abraham’s career. This eerily parallels the “Bum Fights” that people would organize in Bill Clinton’s Internet Bubble Funded 90s. In an era where money was considered accomplishments, and overnight financial success was confused with real accomplishment, a popular sport was for people to pay two homeless people to fight for $10. Winner takes all. Fortunately, with the turn of the century we abandoned that for Mixed Martial Arts.

The Trilogy concludes with “Hobo with a Shotgun.” Hauer is showing his age. He made his film debut almost forty years ago. He is playing a Hobo who is frustrated with a city run by corrupt police and evil criminals. He finally has enough and becomes a vigilant with; yep you guessed it, a shotgun. This is reflective of 2000s America. Governors are arrested for corruption. People argue that the President was not born in the United States. (Those people are completely insane, but they are still a voice.) Crime is on the rise. People want to change things and violence is seemingly the easiest way to solve this problem. It is the path of least resistance and least personal commitment to real lasting change. Unfortunately, that is America in 2011.

In all cases, The Hobo wins. He either kills the hunters or kills what is inside someone that makes us human. In all cases, the hobo accomplishes his mission. Hauer’s mission is to be a working actor. These films are low level entertainment. It captures your attention for 2 hours and will eventually become hangover TV on TBS on Saturday afternoons. The Hitcher and Surviving the Game made under $10,000,000 combined. I doubt Hobo with a Shotgun will break that total. These are workable movies. They cost under $1,000,000 and they make money. Rutger Hauer is a better actor than this. He has made some outstanding films, Blade Runner and the great Escape from Sobibor, but he is essentially a working actor. He makes two to three films a year, most of which you never hear of. He creates somewhat entertaining films and the studio makes money. This is how most of us survive. We find something we are good at. We make enough money to pay our bills. If we are lucky, we like our jobs 8 out of 10 days. Do we change the world? Nope. Are we the best in the world at what we do? Only one person is. We end up with good careers and if we are lucky great lives. Hauer seems to have done it. He has become a working actor. He has never been nominated for an acting award and never stared in a blockbuster movie. He has had a very good career and all jokes aside more people will watch Hobo with a Shotgun than anything any of us will do this year. Mr. Hauer. Mission Accomplished.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Top 25 Movies of 2000s: 11 Hotel Rwanda

Recently, a survey was taken of Republicans in Mississippi about inter-racial marriage. Over 50% of the respondents believed that inter-racial marriage should be outlawed. Here is the link to the survey: This was disturbing for several reasons. The first is that half of the respondents said this. The second is that some people will say what is socially and politically correct but in their actions and their hearts they believe something else.
The actions and hearts of the world and a very, very few good people is explored in the film Hotel Rwanda. Hotel Rwanda is the true life story of a Hotel Owner in Rwanda named Paul Rusesabagina who in 1994 in the middle of a genocide that would ultimately murder over 800,000 people, that is more than the population of San Francisco, risked his own life to provide sanctuary in his small hotel.
Hotel Rwanda has three radically different and amazing performances. Nick Nolte, in his last great performance, as a United Nations Military Commander who is ordered to not engaged the murders. His pain, anger, frustration and indignation come through in a scene win a bar with Don Cheedle, who plays Paul Rusesabagina. This monologue echoes the underlying question of “Would the world have acted to stop the genocide if they people being murdered were white?”
Joaquim Phoenix gives the second best performance of his career (number one is Reservation Road). He plays a reporter/photographer sent to report on the genocide. His detached seemingly too cool for school false apathy serves as a great contrast to Nolte’s anger. Phoenix’s response to Cheedle asking why the world will not act when they find out the truth of “The world will watch this says this is horrible and go back to eating their dinner.” This shows that perhaps it was not racism that stopped the world from acting but general apathy.
The fulcrum that balances these two counterpoints that represents the world’s response is the brilliant Don Cheedle. If you only know him from the Ocean’s 11 movies check out this film. His character is forced to be a calm, iron butterfly that must be all things to all people to save the thousands of people who would otherwise perish. Paul Rusesabagina (Cheedle) does not ask permission to do the right thing. While Nolte and Phoenix character’s find excuses to let evil continue. Paul Rusesabagina (Cheedle) sees that there is evil in the world and he will do what he can to stop what he can. He does not save everyone, but he does save all he can.
This is one of the few bio-pics on my list. Please read about the true story of Hotel Rwanda on Wikipedia at: The world turned its back on innocent men, women and children. We let 800,000 be murdered. This should haunt us. We cannot change the past, but ask yourself these questions:
1. What evil did I stop today?
2. What evil did I create today?
The answers to those questions will tell you who you would be. The brave hotel owner, the soldier who would not fight, the journalist who would not feel or one of the people swinging the machetes.