Thursday, January 28, 2010

Rosemary Stretch.

For any of you Baltimore readers out there...

John Walker of Hide and Creep fame (he played "Agent F") will be performing with his band, Rosemary Stretch, at Dangerously Delicious Pies tomorrow night.

I haven't had the opportunity to see Rosemary Stretch live, but I dig the heck out of their recorded stuff. Break a leg, John!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Big bag of Hurt.

I'm finally getting around to watching The Hurt Locker. It's great, but I'm having trouble imagining what the screenplay must have looked like. I mean, this thing is all about the acting and the editing. And the directing, of course. It reminds me of one of my favorite John Carpenter quotes: "If the writer thinks he's an auteur, then let him thread up his screenplay in a projector and we'll take a look at it."

I used to complain that Hurt director Kathryn Bigelow was overrated. I mean, Point Break? Whatevs.

I hope that Ms. Bigelow will accept my apology for ever doubting her. She's the real deal.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Blood and sand.

Spartacus: Blood and Sand is looking to be Gladiator via 300, with a little Deadwood pay-cable profanity thrown in for good measure. The show recently premiered on Starz, and the first episode is already available to watch instantly on Netflix. Netflix, starting at only $8.99 per month, is one of the best entertainment deals out there. (Plus, they stream Hide and Creep!)

When you add Netflix to all the free programming available online these days (like Hulu and Cartoon Network's Adult Swim), I'm wondering if I should drop DishNetwork and just watch all my TV via the interwebs.

* * *

Speaking of watching TV via the interwebs: XBMC.

Andrew and I briefly discuss (one of) the Asylum's problems.

Also... tambourine sticks!

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Ole Tavern.

Delicate Cutters, one of the bands I drum for, had a road gig on Saturday, traveling to Jackson, Mississippi, to play the Ole Tavern on George Street. As far as indie rock clubs go, I gotta say the Tavern is top-notch. On arriving, we were treated to a fantastic dinner (I had an excellent burger on sourdough toast, and bandleader Janet raved about the fried green tomatoes). The staff was friendly and professional, the stage sound was suitably rockin', and the audience was enthusiastic.

Many thanks to the Tavern for having us and to headliners Wooden Finger for sharing the stage with us. Check out the Tavern's Facebook page, and drop in for some eats and a beer the next time you're in Jackson.

Speaking of music, LoudQuietLoud is a very good documentary about the Pixies, a very awesome band. And you can watch it on Hulu right now for free.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Lost found.

Thanks to Netflix and Roku, I'm almost caught up on Lost.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Decade in Review (#1).

Two years after the Academy gave a Best Picture Oscar to one of my least favorite films of the 2000s (Crash, the Paul Hack Haggis one, not the David Cronenberg one), they sort of redeemed themselves by giving the Best Picture Oscar to 2007's No Country for Old Men, an honest-to-goodness great movie. It's actually my favorite movie of that year, even better than Pixar's excellent Ratatouille, and my pick for Motion Picture of the Decade.

No Country is one of the Coen Brothers' best films. Considering they're the guys responsible for Miller's Crossing and The Big Lebowski, that's saying something. I remember first hearing about No Country, and that it didn't feature the wicked humor of other Coen flicks. On watching the movie for myself, I was relieved to find that this was not the case.

Don't get me wrong. No Country is a bleak, bleak movie. It is also often funny as hell. Disclaimer: I do have a pretty black sense of humor.

As with most Coen Brothers movies, No Country is almost impossibly well staged and edited. Roger Deakins, frequent Coen cinematographer, turns in some beautiful work here--2007 was a heck of a year for Deakins, as he also shot The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The plot, about an unstoppable hit man on a mission to recover a big pile of stolen drug money, is lean and tense. At the same time, it utilizes an unusual structure, a fact you probably won't realize until the movie is almost over (hint: that guy you think is the main character might not be the main character).

I opined a few days ago that last decade was a pretty rough time for most folks. Though it's set in 1980, No Country gets across the mood of the 2000s better than any other movie I know of. Just watch the movie's last scene with Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), where he tells his wife about a dream he had. I don't want to spoil the scene by quoting all of Bell's lines. But, damn, I sure know how he feels.

Honorable Mention: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Another Oscar gripe: The Academy gave the 2003 Best Picture award to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Sure, King is pretty good. But did anybody see Master and Commander from that year? A ripping yarn about an 1800s naval captain (Russell Crowe) and his crew, Master and Commander should have been a blockbuster and started a franchise. Unfortunately for fans of epic cinema, it didn't work out that way. Thank goodness for DVD.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Decade in Review (#2).

Films about filmmaking get a bad rap. Maybe it's because the people making these movies are often beginners. They don't have a lot of life experience, so they figure they'll do a film about filmmaking. Unfortunately, they don't really have any filmmaking experience, either.

David Mamet has filmmaking experience to spare. He'd been working in Hollywood nearly twenty years by the time he wrote and directed his film about filmmaking, State and Main (2000). And, if the characters and situations in State and Main are any indication, Mamet's days in the business have been interesting, to say the least.

The plot is simple enough. A big Hollywood production company comes to a small town to make a movie. Also, since its Mamet, you can count on a con or two. Though the motivation for the biggest con is a lot more good-natured than in most of Mamet's work.

But the real joy of State and Main is the dialog. Mamet's dialog is always excellent, and he outdoes himself here. Line for line, this may be his best screenplay. And that screenplay is served by one of Mamet's best casts, an ensemble led by William H. Macy (as the experienced director), Philip Seymour Hoffman (as the first-time screenwriter), and Alec Baldwin (as the horn-dog superstar actor).

I am tempted to start quoting my favorite lines from the movie, but, if you've already seen State and Main, you undoubtedly already have favorites of your own. If you haven't seen it... well, I wouldn't want to spoil any of it.

Honorable Mention: The Way of the Gun

Another movie about filmmaking from 2000. But The Way of the Gun is a lot more metaphorical. In fact, I didn't realize the filmmaking subtext until I listened to the DVD commentary track from writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (who also wrote The Usual Suspects). Gun is also pretty quotable, and its plot is twisty as hell. Mamet would be proud.

Tomorrow: "Call it, friend-o."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Decade in Review (#3).

As I've said before, Wes Anderson sort of keeps making the same movie over and over. Lucky for me, it is a movie I like. My favorite of the Anderson variations, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, hit theaters Christmas 2004.

Aquatic is about a past-his-prime sea life documentary filmmaker (the titular Zissou, played by Bill Murray) trying to make one more great film while he hunts the shark that killed his best friend. Along for the ride is Zissou's adult son (Owen Wilson), who he has just met for the first time. He's also dealing with investors (represented by a bond company stooge), his estranged wife, some unpaid interns, a rival (and more successful) documentarian, and pirates. All that in 119 minutes. When Zissou says, "This is an adventure," he ain't kidding.

Anderson is usually a very meticulous director, but Aquatic is a little sloppy in places. I didn't know what to make of that the first time I saw the film. Then my good pal Eric McGinty pointed out that movie is edited like one of Zissou's documentaries. Sloppiness with purpose--I can totally get behind that.

This is one of my "watch anytime" movies. Heck, I keep a copy of it on my iPhone. Murray is great (as usual) as Zissou, as is the rest of the cast--especially Cate Blanchett (playing a feisty and very pregnant reporter) and Willem Dafoe. The production design is funky and detailed, right down to the fantastical sea life (created by stop-motion-animation genius Henry Selick, who also directed The Nightmare Before Christmas).

I'm particularly fond of the several filmmaking in-jokes. Zissou's scrappy crew isn't that different from the gang I make movies with. Team Zissou even uses the same 16mm camera as I do (Aaton represent!).

(I recently realized that Aquatic has basically the same plot as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. With a little of Trek III thrown in there, too. Bonus. Then again, maybe it's just that both movies are paying homage to Moby Dick.)

Honorable mention: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

After making a name for himself with live action movies, Anderson tried his hand at animation with The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). He chose to go totally retro with stop motion (no computers), and the results are spectacular--Fox is a beautiful film.

That said, the story is fun, too. It's kind of an Ocean's 11 thing, recast with animals. Appropriate, as George Clooney voices Mr. Fox.

Tuesday: "Well, first you've got to change the title."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Decade in Review (#4).

I don't know if you noticed, but Hollywood released a whole mess of comic book superhero movies in the 2000s. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man came out in 2002 and made piles and piles of money. Spidey wasn't the first profitable superhero movie--Superman was a hit in the 70s, and Batman was big in the 80s. But for some reason, Spidey's success was the one that greenlit a thousand comic book projects. Well, maybe not quite a thousand.

Like any genre, the quality of comic book superhero projects is all over the place. X-Men 2 is great, Spidey 2 is pretty solid, Watchmen is ambitious (if flawed), and X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a cold turd served on a paper plate.

But the decade's very best superhero movie, Brad Bird's The Incredibles (2004), isn't based on a comic book. Not officially, at least. Bird's movie owes a sizable debt to the Fantastic Four comic books--and, I suppose, a small debt to the original Watchmen books.

The Incredibles, animated by the geniuses at Pixar Studios, has an advantage over all of the decade's live action superhero films. Though modern special effects lets filmmakers put almost anything on the screen, the visuals in a fully animated movie like The Incredibles are truly limited only by the filmmakers' imaginations. That advantage is especially important in the superhero genre, where the characters are often engaged in... well, incredible feats.

Even without cutting-edge computer animation, The Incredibles would still be tough to beat, though. The screenplay, voice performances, editing, and score are all just about perfect. Bird's second film (his first is The Iron Giant, also animated, also excellent) set a high standard for superhero flicks, one that has yet to be bested (and, yes, I am counting The Dark Knight). It's a particular shame that the "official" movies based on The Fantastic Four comic books are so mediocre. Maybe one day some filmmaker inspired by The Incredibles will give audiences the great Four movie they deserve.

Honorable mention: the decade's other Pixar films

The worst thing I've ever said about a Pixar film (Cars) is, "It's pretty good." As much as I hate to throw around the "M" word, most of Pixar's releases are masterpieces. The Pixar gang doesn't make dumbed-down "kids" movies, they make family movies, movies that adults can enjoy just as much as the young 'uns.

If someone made a decade's top six list that contained only Pixar films--Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up--I wouldn't argue.

Tomorrow: "Son of a bitch, I'm sick of these dolphins."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Decade in Review (#5).

Before he was Tony Stark in Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes in... well, Sherlock Holmes, Robert Downey, Jr., was Harry Lockhart in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). After a long career of respected work that didn't quite set the box office on fire, Downey proved himself as an A-list superstar in Iron Man (kind of like Johnny Depp did in Pirates of the Caribbean). But, especially in hindsight, Downey's work in Kiss Kiss feels like a warning shot. His Harry character is funny and loose, charming as hell, and all but announces, "Hello, motion picture audiences, I have arrived."

As great as Downey is, Kiss Kiss writer/director Shane Black deserves a lot of credit for giving him plenty of good dialog to work with. And a great, twisty plot to untangle. Kiss Kiss is a neo-noir detective story, and Black is obviously a noir expert, embracing some tropes of the genre while destroying some others.

The Kiss Kiss story is set in Los Angeles, and there are a few gags about how tough it is to make it in the movie business. Those gags are especially relevant coming from Black, who knows of which he speaks. After being one of the highest-paid screenwriters of the 1990s (he wrote the Lethal Weapon movies), Black disappeared for a few years. Not only did he make it back to write maybe his best script ever, he got to direct for the first time. And, what do you know, Black's as good a director as he is a writer.

Tribute must also be paid to Val Kilmer--the Iceman himself. He's been in some less-than-stellar stuff lately, but his Kiss Kiss work as "Gay Perry" (and, yes, that's gay as in homosexual) is a reminder that Kilmer is a fantastic actor when given a good character to chew on.

Honorable mention: Spartan

Speaking of Val Kilmer, he had another great role last decade in writer/director David Mamet's Spartan (2004). If you know Mamet, you know he loves the con, so I won't even try to explain the story. It's kind of a kidnapping story, but... no, I'm not going to even try. It's fantastic, though, shot in beautiful anamorphic widescreen. And, since it's Mamet, it's worth watching twice just to make sure you catch all the awesome dialog.

Tomorrow: "No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again."

Monday, January 11, 2010


A few days ago, "Gesvol" commented about an epic seven-part Phantom Menace video review over on YouTube (you can watch the first part here). The review is funny as heck and explains in great detail exactly why The Phantom Menace is a terrible movie.

The Decade in Review (#6).

Last decade, spoofs were all the rage. Scary Movie, Date Movie, Epic Movie... the list goes on (and on). Sadly, we got a lot of quantity and not much quality where these spoofs were concerned.

One big exception: 2007's Hot Fuzz, directed by Edgar Wright. Hot Fuzz is a spoof of big action movies like Point Break, Bad Boys II, and The Last Boy Scout. Unlike those very American movies, Fuzz is a British film with a decidedly British tone--you know, polite accents and bone dry humor.

But that's one of the many great things about Fuzz. Where most modern spoofs are content to mindlessly recycle scenes from other movies, Fuzz tells an original story. That story, at the start, doesn't promise a lot of action. Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the screenplay with Wright), a big city police officer who is more interested in paperwork than gunplay, is reassigned to Sandford, a small town that happens to have the lowest crime rate in England.

Boring cop in a boring town, and this is supposed to be some kind of shoot 'em up flick? Well, yeah, it just takes a little time to get there. And when the action finally does start up, we find out that Angel is actually pretty handy with a gun. Or two guns.

Fuzz is more than a good spoof. It's a good movie. In fact, it's actually a lot better than most of the movies it pays homage to. Wright stages several elaborate and intense action scenes, but he never loses sight of Angel and the rest of the well-written characters. And he never stops delivering laughs.

Honorable mention: Shaun of the Dead

There were also lots of zombie movies released last decade. Heck, even I made one. For my money, Shaun of the Dead (2004) is the best of the bunch. Big on character, laughs, and gore, Shaun is about a slacker (Simon Pegg again) who finally gets motivated when he has to fight to protect himself and his friends from flesh-hungry zombies. Shaun is Edgar Wright's first feature film, and his directing here is almost as inspired as it is on Hot Fuzz.

Tomorrow: "This is every shade of wrong."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Decade in Review (#7).

Sofia Coppola won an Oscar for her Lost in Translation screenplay, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. Translation is a terrific movie, but that terrific-ness seems to have little to do with the script.

That script is by no means bad, but Translation, released in 2003, is all about the mood. And Coppola, who also directed Translation, definitely deserves credit for getting the mood just right.

The movie's two main characters, Bob and Charlotte (played by Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson, respectively), are Americans visiting Japan. Bob is traveling alone, and Charlotte might as well be, as her flighty husband is busy with celebrity photography gigs. Bob and Charlotte strike up a conversation in a hotel bar and spend the next few days exploring Tokyo together and getting to know each other.

Coppola really captures that feeling of being out of your element, a stranger in a strange land. The fact that both Bob and Charlotte are outsiders in Tokyo gives their relationship (which is platonic) an intensity it probably wouldn't have had if they'd met at another place and time. They're alone together, as it were.

Murray delivers a top-notch performance, as usual. He's funny in that smart, sardonic Bill Murray way, but he's never bigger than the movie. In one of my favorite scenes, Murray sings a karaoke (it's a Japan movie--gotta have some karaoke!) version of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" and manages to be silly and heartbreaking at the same time. Johansson, who I generally find to be hit-or-miss, is perfect as the quiet, thoughtful Charlotte.

Also quiet and thoughtful: Lance Acord's cinematography. His Tokyo is strange and beautiful, and his work makes the city the film's third lead character.

Honorable mention: Ghost World

I'm short on time, so I'll just say that Ghost World (from 2001), another movie about outsiders, features another very good Johansson performance. And Steve Buscemi!

Tomorrow: Monday: "Have you ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?"

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Decade in Review (#8).

Christopher Guest knows about "mockumentary" films. I mean, come on, he was Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap! So I guess it wasn't a big shock when he directed his own faux documentary in 1996, Waiting for Guffman. He (along with much of the Guffman cast) followed that up in 2000 with Best in Show.

Guest has said he doesn't like the term "mockumentary," because he doesn't mock the characters in his movies. He has a point. Even when his characters might be deserving of mocking (Best is about people who take dog shows a little too seriously), he manages to find some humanity in each of them. I'd guess he also probably understands that everyone has an obsession or two that others find odd (or flat-out silly).

Best was filmed without a traditional script. Guest relied on his talented cast to improvise all the movie's dialog, and each actor comes through brilliantly. In fact, the Best DVD contains more than an hour of improv material that didn't make the final cut, and these guys' "B" material is better than most actors' grade-A stuff.

Honorable Mention: A Mighty Wind

In A Mighty Wind, his 2003 follow-up to Best, Guest spends as much time developing interesting characters as he does developing jokes. But the movie still has plenty of moments of comedic genius. And plenty of great songs. Wind is about the folk music scene, and the original songs written for the film manage to both pay tribute to and poke gentle fun at the great folk music of the past.

Tomorrow: "For relaxing times, make it Suntory time."

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Decade in Review (#9).

By 2009, the real world seemed... well, screwed. The last ten years weren't too kind to anyone (except maybe terrorists and investment bankers). Then, when all hope seemed lost, our old pal Quentin Tarantino dropped in and saved the day.

Well, he didn't really save the day. But he released Inglourious Basterds, a movie about some World War II guys who save the day. And, in times like these, it's nice to live in a world (if only for a couple of hours) where the brave and just triumph over the stupid and evil. As I wrote a few months ago, Basterds takes a simple story--good guys try to kill Hitler and end WWII--and tells it expertly. The cinematography and sound design are breathtaking. And Basterds is old-school--no CG (that I noticed, at least), no 3-D. Even watching at home on Blu-ray, the movie is visceral--it grabs you early and doesn't let go until the end credits roll.

Also, for what it's worth, Basterds is the best movie of 2009. From what I've seen so far. And don't forget about all the great characters--well-written and near-perfectly cast.

Honorable Mentions: Kill Bill, Death Proof

It used to bug me that Tarantino split Kill Bill into two movies (the first released in 2003, the second in 2004). But, as Bill is an over-the-top homage to kung fu flicks and spaghetti westerns, why not go over-the-top with the running time, too? And Death Proof (2007) might be flawed, but it features a brilliant Kurt Russell performance and a climatic car chase that must be seen to be believed.

Tomorrow: "This is a fish! You know what? Just shut up."

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Decade in Review.

I didn't see nearly as many movies in the first decade of the 21st Century (anybody decide on a name for that decade yet?) as I should have. But that's not going to stop me from jumping on the bandwagon (admittedly, I'm a little late to the party) and doing a best-movies-of-the-decade list. Today's entry, at number 10...

A History of Violence

David Cronenberg, director of wacked-out (in a good way) flicks like The Brood and the remake of The Fly, went straight in 2005 with A History Of Violence, a tight little suspense movie. Except, when you think about it, Violence ain't that straight. The movie features a couple of raw sex scenes and several flashes of gooey gore.

But what really makes Violence great is the craft. Working with an intelligent screenplay and a talented cast (including Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, and William Hurt), Cronenberg and crew assembled a near-perfect movie. Every shot is beautifully composed, and no shot goes on for a frame longer than necessary.

Honorable Mention: Eastern Promises

Cronenberg teamed with Mortensen again for his Violence follow-up, Eastern Promises (released in 2007). This is another relatively "straight" Cronenberg movie. Well, except for that scene with the corpse. And the naked bathhouse fight. But it's good pulpy fun.

Tomorrow: "You probably heard, we ain't in the prisoner-takin' business..."