Sunday, November 30, 2008

Home for the Holidays themes?

While watching "Home for the Holidays" (a great film with Holly Hunter, Robert Downey, Jr., and Dylan Mc Dermott, etc.) again over the weekend, I was reminded of a movie I'd seen recently, "The Family Stone", both of which deal with family members coming home again to celebrate Thanksgiving/Christmas and all the dysfunction that involves. That got me to wondering about other movies with this theme. I also love "Pieces of April" and "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles", but got stuck there. Anybody know of others along that line?

My Favorite Movies

OK, so I must admit there are probably better movies out there and many I love, but can't recall. However, these are the most memorable ones for me. There are few films I've seen more than once, but these are all repeats, and most of these seem even better with additional viewings. Not a snoozer in the bunch. So, here is my "Best Dozen" list (in no particular order):

The Wizard of Oz
Harold and Maude
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Sixth Sense
A River Runs Through It
Of Mice and Men
High Fidelity
Finding Nemo
Being John Malkovich
Body Heat
Twelve Monkeys

And a couple bonus holiday films:
A Christmas Story
The Nightmare Before Christmas

Feel free to comment on any of these, &/or and add your own list to the blog.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Manufactured Landscapes

I got the chance to attend at least one of the many free films presented at the Environmental Film Festival, Tales from Planet Earth, organized by the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. I had seen the preview of this film a while back, and the amateur photographer in me was intrigued by the images I saw. Edward Burtynsky’s photographs are beautiful to the eye at a glance, but distributing to the mind when you finally comprehend what you are seeing - the footprint of large scale industrialization and the environmental destruction that accompanies it.

The majority of the film focused on the industrialization of China and how this shift is changing not only the landscape of their country but their society as well. Their goal is to invert the ratio of their land use from 70% agriculture and 30% urban development to 30% agriculture and 70% urban. They believe this will improve their quality of life. In the discussion that followed the film, someone asked “Will this shift to urban living really make them happy and improve their quality of life”? I was reminded of a study which found that when a child’s poor, urban living conditions improved due to increased “greenness” (they regularly saw grass and trees), they notably experienced higher levels of cognitive functions compared to when they were living somewhere less green. And yet, as the film illustrated, we continue to bulldoze and exploit our natural places in the name of progress, marvel at our tenacity and ingenuity, and then still find ourselves wondering why we are so miserable.

Burtynsky and the film director, Jennifer Baichwal, make a point to provide very little commentary throughout the film, leaving the strong images to speak for themselves and requiring the viewer to come to their own conclusions. While I understood this argument to purposely avoid spin or persuasive narratives, I was left wanting more from the film. I wanted to know more about what I was seeing, who these people were, and what these places were about. I think more factual explanations would have pushed this slowing moving film along at a better pace. Nevertheless, the film did succeed in making me and other audience members think about the issues, as evident from the lively discussion afterwards.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

"Look Both Ways"

I recently watched a video of "Look Both Ways", an Australian character study which looks at love and death from many angles. This played at the 2006 Madison Film Festival, but my schedule was sadly overbooked to see it then. After the long wait, it was definitely worth remembering. Not your typical quirky depressing film (my favorite genre), this one had scenes of imaginary thoughts of the two main characters - one done in animation (the artist's mind), and the other done in Internet browse style (for the photographer). Threaded throughout the film are trains, train accidents, and train corridors, which gives it a very cool style and acts as a way of joining several of the stories. It's not unlike "Crash", although a bit slower paced and less intense. I had some issues with how the stories were resolved (or not), but overall I was very pleasantly surprised - one of my favorites this year. A great soundtrack, and the title was very apropos, too!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Dan on DVD - "Nashville"

The word Nashville has come up at both the last two meetups - once in the context of the city and once in the context of the great Robert Altman film. I therefore felt compelled by fate to watch it for about the 2,387th time. Here's the review:


Released: 1975
Director: Robert Altman
Starring: Ensemble cast of many great actors and actresses.

Nashville is probably the most talked about movie that nobody has ever seen.

People have filled newspapers, written books and penned at least three PhD theses about this movie. When it was released it got far more press than any other film in 1976. Even One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Jaws saw less press coverage. I could personally write fifty pages about this movie - and I say that with confidence because I did just that back in college. Thirty years on it's still a staple of film theory classes all over the world.

All that and I only know two people who have actually seen Robert Altman's true masterpiece. I think that's a real shame because Nashville really is one of the great examples of American film. To me Altman's movies are either fantastic or just plain horrible with this one clearly in the former group. M*A*S*H may get more attention for the cultural impact it had, but I think Nashville runs rings around any other Altman film. If you watch Altman's major movies in chronological order you'll see that this really was the peak of everything he did.

And what a peak it was! Altman's other movies are often marred by impossible or improbable events and characters that distract you from the experience. As with Dede's earlier complaints of the continuity problems in Knocked Up, my big general criticism of Altman is that his characters and plot twists are just a little too far outside the lines to keep me believing in them. Real doctors in Korea didn't behave like the characters in M*A*S*H. Real fishermen in LA don't fish for three days before reporting the discovery of a dead body like they did in Short Cuts. Sure, those are important plot elements and I'm not saying they didn't work. It's just that I can't get truly absorbed in a movie if I can't believe in the characters at a visceral level.

The genius behind Nashville is that both the characters and the story are as intensely real as . . . well . . . real life. The people on the screen behave just like your friends, neighbors and relatives do. I swear Altman must have met my aunt Gail at some point because one of his characters is her celluloid clone. There's no room or need for drug addicts, superheroes or murderous psychopaths in this movie. All of Nashville's characters reside squarely in the middle of the American social bell curve. These are everyday folks just going about their business as best they can. It's the true-to-life nature of the characters that make this movie so unusual and mesmerizing.

I've never had the pleasure of seeing Nashville on a real big screen but reviewers back in the '70's talked about people in the theater forgetting they were watching a film. I can believe that because the experience of this movie is so personal that you can get swept up in it to an almost absurd degree. When I put the DVD in the player the other night I also popped open a can of soda. Two hours later I found myself with 12 ounces of warm, stale Diet Coke that had completely slipped my mind. In these days of sound bites and special effects some people may be too inpatient to have that kind of experience. In the days before Star Wars and MTV Altman's direction and cinematography dragged people into the story like nothing had before. Watching this film makes you feel like you're up there living it out with the characters.

Joan Tewkesbury's "script" has a lot to do with that feeling. I use quotation marks around the word script here because - like all of the better Altman films - the script was really a general outline rather than a strict plot. At Altman's direction a lot of the dialogue in the movie was improvised by the actors themselves. What made it all work was Tewkesbury's subtlety in weaving the role of country music in and out of the lives of the characters. Much like last year's The Queen, this movie gives you a sense that the out-of-reach royalty of country music are people just as average as you or me who just happen to have some very interesting jobs. The script seamlessly integrates the world of the rich and famous into the diners and bars of Nashville and the not-so-rich-and-famous who work and play there. There's twenty major characters in this film and Tewkesbury manages to keep all of them tied together in a way that's effortless and perfectly natural.

But while writing and directing are exceptional, one has to give major credit to some of the best acting you'll ever see in any picture. How good was it? So good that both Lilly Tomlin and Ronee Blakley were nominated for Oscars even though neither of them were on screen for more than 15% of the film. At the time there was talk that all five of the Best Supporting Actress nominations might go to Nashville - and it did take four of the six Best Supporting Actress nods at the Golden Globes. The performances in this movie aren't just good, they're phenomenal.

Lilly Tomlin was a tremendously brave casting choice on Altman's part and she nailed the role to perfection in her first real acting gig. Gwen Welles, Geraldine Chaplin and Barbara Harris gave equally incredible performances. I didn't so much agree with Ronee Blakley's Oscar nomination, but that's more personal preference than objective criticism of her acting. The male roles were not quite as exceptional as the women in this film although both Henry Gibson and Ned Beatty gave fine performances that were as sincere and convincing as it gets.

The one flaw in the diamond - and again it's more of a personal thing I have with this movie - is that Altman insisted the actors write and perform all their own songs. Whether he did this out of desire for artistic purity or because he didn't have enough money to hire pros I don't know. Either way the result is more than a few instances of downright stinky singing. Half of the performances are wonderful (Keith Carradine won the Best Original Song Oscar for "I'm Easy"). The other half are so lousy that it blows the credibility of the characters. If Karen Black and Lilly Tomlin could sing then they would have been singers, not actresses. I think the poor musical performances really detract from the film in a very unfortunate way. Lots of people disagree with me, however, and the music from the movie has reached cult status in some circles. I have to say that Carradine's piece creates the perfect background for one of my favorite movie scenes ever and that Barbara Harris blows me away belting out a number that gives the movie one of the best endings in the history of film. I guess it's all a matter of musical taste but I cry thinking about how perfect this film could have been with professional song writing and a little dubbing thrown in.

As for what it all means, I'll leave that mostly up to you if and when you see it. If you ask ten film scholars to analyze this movie you'll get eleven different answers - each more pompous and complicated than the last. There's even one paper up on the internet comparing Robert Altman with James Joyce! You can spend a lot of time reading wordy stuff about this movie if you really want to. There was a book published for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release but I can't vouch for it personally. I suggest you just watch the movie instead.

When it comes to my opinion, though, I tend to think that the simplest answer is always the best. I therefore look at this movie as having one uncomplicated, basic message: Americans, in general, aren't all that bright.

The characters in Nashville represent a melting pot of the American populace who, like all of us, are more than a little clueless in their own particular way. Altman's characters bumble their way through life never really worrying about the why's or how's of the larger world. They're self-interested consumers who are more concerned with finding love, enhancing their wealth and power or becoming the next big star than they are with the nightly news. Ned Beatty's character is so self-absorbed that he doesn't even bother to learn sign-language so he can communicate with his deaf children. Meanwhile the nation gets led around by the nose by populist politicians using simplistic double-speak and hillbilly logic that drives the masses where the politicians want them to go. As Barbara Harris sings in the fantastic closing sequence "You may say that I'm not free, but it don't worry me." Sounds all too familiar, doesn't it? And that's what's great about it. It's the character's weaknesses that make them so interesting.

Southerners saw this movie as just another swipe at southern culture by arrogant yankees. It's easy to take it that way, but that's too casual a view. If you look close you'll see that the arrogant yankees, crazy Californians and hapless foreigners in this movie are even more clueless than their southern counterparts. At least the southerners have something they believe in and can call a culture . The rest of the characters just wander around looking for the next experience in life. Fried chicken and watermelon at a stock car race might not be your idea of fun but it does knit the South together and keeps it running smoothly.

Unfortunately the outcry from the South cost Nashville dearly at Oscar time. There was talk of an Oscar sweep for this movie until the southern critics started to harass it in the press. In the end it came home with just Carradine's Best Song statue despite nominations for Best Picture and Best Director along with the two Best Supporting Actress nods. I can see Nashville losing to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for Best Picture, but you'll have to watch it yourself to decide whether Lee Grant deserved the win for Shampoo over Lilly Tomlin. I remain eternally skeptical of that one.

Overall I think this is the defining movie both of Robert Altman's career and of American cinema in the 1970's. I see Altman as a kind of Jackson Pollack of film. When he's out of his element he's horrible. When he's inside it he's good beyond belief. Ask Altman to paint a portrait with a rigid script and outrageous characters and you'll get something confused and amateur (watch fifteen minutes of Buffalo Bill and the Indians and you'll know what I'm talking about). But let Robert Altman just dribble characters and scenery onto a movie screen the way he sees fit and you'll get something that's so wonderfully abstract yet familiar that you can't take your eyes off it. Nashville is the defining example of that process. It's one of the crown jewels of American film. Strongly recommended for the top shelf of any DVD collection.

Dan's Disc Rating: 9.5 outta 10


Friday, June 22, 2007

AFI Top 100 - What Were Those Guys Thinking?

Thanks to Dede for alerting all to the new AFI Top 100 list.

Now that the ballots are in, what say we post up the five movies we thought should have been on the list and weren't and the five that were there and shouldn't have been? That should bring on some good discussion.

Here's mine, not in any particular order.

A. I Couldn't Believe They Left Out:

1. Fargo

2. Woodstock

3. Ball of Fire

4. Being There

5. Patton

B. How Could Anyone Have Voted For:

1. Toy Story

2. Rocky

3. Tootsie

4. Platoon

5. The Sixth Sense


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Dan on DVD - "To Die For"

(Note: Since most of my movie viewing is done through the magic of digital media I thought I'd drop up a review from time to time of a DVD I've recently throw in the player. Hope it works for y'all. Dan.)

To Die For

Released: 1995
Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Joaquin Phoenix, Matt Dillon, Alison Folland

This is the movie that changed my opinion of Nicole Kidman. Before this film I thought Kidman was just more Hollywood phluff that would be long gone once the novelty of the cheek bones and the red hair wore off. Ten minutes into this flick and I knew that she was for real. She took home a Golden Globe for this part and I think it was a crime that she didn't get an Oscar nomination too. I guess Days of Thunder was just too fresh in people's minds back then. I think her work in this film is matched only by her roles in The Hours and Birth. It's definitely one of her best.

Here Kidman plays Suzanne Maretto - the world's all-time grand champion female narcissist. Suzanne's so self-absorbed and manipulative that she schedules her honeymoon with young hubby Larry (Matt Dillon) to coincide with a television convention where she hopes to find fame as a network news anchor. Suzanne's got the looks, the drive and cute little dog she needs to make her a star. Her only problem is that to be successful as a narcissist you have to have enough brains to pull off your lies. In this respect Suzanne's clearly lacking. She's bright enough to manipulate those less intelligent than her but not smart enough to realize that most people can see right through her schemes. The result is an arrogant, ruthless and yet clueless psychopath who's just capable enough to be destructive of everyone she touches. In the end she becomes so self-confident and preoccupied with her grandiose self image that she willingly participates in her own doom.

Kidman plays this part so perfectly that even psychiatrists would be fooled. She switches from cold-hearted puppeteer to carefree seductress in the blink of an eye. You really need to despise Suzanne for what she is and Kidman makes sure you do. At the same time she plays the part in a way that's so fascinating that you can't wait to see what Suzanne's cooking up next. It would be easy for you to just hate Suzanne and give up on the character half way through the film. Kidman keeps you coming back for more. Suzanne is as creepy, dangerous and irresistible as Hannibal Lecter. I think Kidman nails her as well as Hopkins did the good doctor.

Also excellent are the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Alison Folland as Suzanne's naive minions. Phoenix in particular stands out opposite Kidman as the not-too-bright teenage loser that Suzanne molds to her scheme through sex and psychology. They say it's hard to play a character that's not as smart as you are. If that's true then Phoenix should have taken home an award or two himself.

The rest of the movie is flushed out with strong performances from the likes of Illeana Douglas, Dan Hedaya and Kurtwood Smith. I thought Matt Dillon was somewhat miscast as Suzanne's tragically infatuated husband, but I honestly can't think of someone who would have been better. I guess some parts just can't be properly filled. The only disappointment for me was a short cameo from writer Buck Henry who pulled a Quentin Tarantino and seriously overreached in a minor part he wrote for himself.

The story is tight and Van Sant does wonders with a disjointed timeline that keeps jumping back and forth over several years. The editing keeps the story rooted and you never lose your place even as you hop from the beginning to end of the storyline in a single cut. Less interesting is the cinematography which I found a little plain-jane. There's some brilliant camera work in a few scenes but art film this is not. It's a lot slicker looking than Drug Store Cowboy and you can see that Van Sant came a long way between that film and this one. Even so, the characters stand out so much that you don't really notice the background until the third or fourth viewing anyway.

People talk about this movie as an indictment of America's cult of fame. I like it better as a character study of how one mildly disturbed individual can explode inside the lives of so many others. I think it's better as pure fiction than as social commentary. Your mileage may vary. Either way it's a keeper. Highly recommended for the DVD shelf.

Dan's Disc Rating: 8.5 outta 10