Raisedonvideo's Blog

Review: August Rush

Posted in Uncategorized by raisedonvideo on January 26, 2013

August Rush, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways…
First of all, let’s start with the plot. The story of a boy trying to reunite with his parents reeks of the conceit of someone who might’ve once skimmed their Cliff’s Notes about Dickens. I know that sometimes romances are tripped up by family meddling, that children are often produced in such relationships, and that families get separated. However, the setup here is horribly contrived. It requires too much suspension of disbelief too early.
Second, the main character is supposed to be a genius–a musical virtuoso. No problem there, except for the fact that the makers show little or no understanding about geniuses and the gifted. (For more on that topic, there’s a section in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers that I highly recommend.) Do musical prodigies exist? Most definitely. Can they learn to play instruments and read and write music at a much more advanced rate than the average person? Without a doubt. Can they play a guitar like Michael Hedges the first time they pick one up? No way. It doesn’t happen. Can they compose symphonies right after they learn to read music? Highly unlikely. The makers treat genius as a mystical power. This aspect of the film seems like the work of someone who watched Amadeus and got all the wrong ideas from it (even Mozart learned music gradually and practiced.)
Third, I couldn’t figure out which bothered me more: Robin Williams’s performance or the character that he plays. Either way, he’s hard to take seriously. He barely disguises his bad intentions or manipulative nature from the get-go. He exploits a group of children who make money as street performers. He threatens them with a knife one moment and dances around jubilantly the next. He might as well have cartoonish dollar signs in his eyes when he decides to take August Rush under his wing after hearing him play. (He even prompts him to choose his nickname, which he gets from the side of a truck.)
After August has the good sense to get away from him, he soon ends up at Juilliard. Fair enough. Given his unbelievable (and I mean that literally) talent, it’s only right that that’s where he’d end up. However, the makers don’t miss the opportunity to fudge one last time. They would have us believe that the staff of Juilliard would believe an obvious trickster like Williams’s character at his word without proper documentation when he says he’s the boy’s guardian.
Nothing about this hopeless dud has been thought out all that much or executed all that convincingly. It’s a cacophonous collection of false notes wrapped up in greeting card sentimentality that pushes viewers to open their hearts and switch off their brains. Forgive me if I don’t applaud.

Verdict: F

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The 15-Minute Rule

Posted in Feature by raisedonvideo on December 13, 2010

There’s a wicked, insidious, little-known phenomenon that affects many moviegoers. I can’t say for sure how many people suffer from this syndrome, but I can definitely count myself among those who feel its impact. I like to call it “The 15-Minute Rule.”

The 15-Minute Rule compels viewers to keep watching a movie once they’ve started. It’s especially true of movies one has not seen before, but it can also apply to movies that one has already watched. It usually takes about fifteen minutes before a movie really gets its hooks in you and you can’t stop watching it, regardless of how good or bad it is. The mental processes that causes people to keep watching vary depending on circumstances, but the point is—for whatever reason—they do keep watching and they can’t seem to stop.

The 15-Minute Rule is easier shown than told, so here are some real-life examples of it in effect:

It’s after midnight and I have to work the next day. Being the night owl that I am, I can’t sleep and I’m channel-surfing to pass the time. Not much of interest is on. I keep passing by The Postman, starring and directed by Kevin Costner on pay cable. Slowly but surely, the more I come back to it, the more I linger. Finally, drawn in by the absence of commercial breaks, as well as a lack of anything better to watch, I give it a chance. I think to myself that I’ll just watch for a little while until I’m able to go to sleep. Critics were not kind to the movie when it came out and it flopped at the box office. Still, I am somewhat of a fan of Kevin Costner and so I want to judge the movie for myself.
Time passes. I keep watching. Past the fifteen-minute mark, I can’t stop watching. Nor can I turn it off. The movie isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but it isn’t as bad as it’s been made out to be, either. Going in with lowered expectations, I find myself pleasantly surprised by it. Sure, there are cheesy moments, like Costner snatching the letter out of a kid’s hand (played by his son) while he rides by on horseback. I’m guessing it was supposed to be iconic. This is confirmed by the way they make a statue of the scene at the end of the movie. In spite of the involuntary chuckling at both scenes and a few other overly serious moments, I watch all of it. I finally go to bed after 3:00 a.m. I’m very tired the next day. I don’t mention why.

My brother-in-law is as aware of my taste in movies as he is of the 15-Minute Rule. To amuse himself, he intentionally puts on movies when I’m visiting him and my sister at their house that he knows I don’t really want to watch. Examples include Daredevil and Van Helsing. I try to walk away, but the layout of the house is such that I’m never far away from the big-screen TV. My sister encourages me to hang out and watch. Goading me, my brother-in-law echoes the sentiment with a knowing smile. I sigh. I’m helpless. I have to watch.
Fifteen minutes pass. My sister decides she’s seen enough. I no longer have a choice. Now I just have to know how these stink bombs end. I watch with morbid curiosity. Could they really be this bad? Will they get better or worse? I get my answer about an hour and a half later. The credits roll and I regret the time I’ll never get back again.

The third and final example I’ll give is the most shameful. When I lived in South Korea from 2005-2007, I watched a lot of TV. On days when I didn’t have a lot of money (and there were quite a few of those), or the weather outside was disagreeable, or I just didn’t feel like going out, I’d just camp in front of the tube to pass the time. My choice of English programming was limited to a few channels and my Korean wasn’t strong enough to follow Korean movies or shows (frankly, even when I have English subtitles, I don’t really like either very much, either.)
One day, while I was going back and forth among the six or seven channels I watched, I came across Son of the Mask. Knowing the 15-Minute Rule, I frantically looked for an alternative. None was to be found. What could I do? I wasn’t in the mood to read or go on the internet; I wasn’t tired enough to sleep; I wasn’t motivated to go out. You can probably guess what happened. I saw every dreadful minute.

Breaking the 15-Minute Rule results in feelings of doubt and regret that overwhelm one’s sense of self-respect that comes from having avoided wasting one’s time. Nagging questions, such as “What happened next?”, or “Did I miss the good part?” ensue.
Perhaps you or someone you know experience the same things I’ve described here. Take comfort in knowing that you are not alone. There are others out there just like you who simply can’t help themselves: We simply have to know how the movie ends.

Review: (500) Days of Summer

Posted in Movie Review by raisedonvideo on December 3, 2010

There’s a memorable scene in (500) Days of Summer when the movie briefly becomes a musical. The morning after spending his first night with the girl of his dreams, one of the characters sings and dances joyfully down the street on his way to work. A crowd of strangers he passes by join his every choreographed step. It’s a truly buoyant moment when the audience is placed squarely inside the character’s imagination and allowed to experience his feelings. It brims with cleverness and creativity.
The song he sings is “You Make My Dreams Come True” by Hall and Oates. Although it captures the mood of that moment perfectly, another song by the same artists, “So Close”, sums up the whole movie more completely, especially in one of its couplets: “He fell like a rock/She kinda liked him.” This is shown in the very next scene–which has been expertly juxtaposed for the sake of contrast–when we see the character arrive at work in agony over the same woman.
The “he” in this case is Tom Hansen, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The girl he falls for is Summer (hence the title), played by Zooey Deschanel. They first meet when they work for the same company that makes greeting cards. She compliments him on his choice of music. Flattered, he becomes quickly smitten with her and eager for another chance to talk to her and get to know her better. Gradually, a romance between them develops. However, she explains early on that she doesn’t believe in love. He does, and he sees it as a challenge to make her believe, too.
If that seems like a recipe for disaster, that’s just what it is. A lesser movie would try to fumble around and look for a way to give these two a happy ending. The makers of (500) Days of Summer know better. They show an understanding that people have a lot more failed relationships than successful ones, and the life lessons and discoveries about oneself that come from them are hard to take. The film goes for emotional honesty over artificial sentimentality (in fact, it effectively satirizes the latter in the scenes that take place in the greeting card company) and it is better for it.
The movie covers the 500 days of the relationship between Tom and Summer, moving backwards and forwards in time, showing what went right and what went wrong between them. Traditionalists might chafe about the fractured, nonlinear structure of the narrative, but it does serve a purpose: It imitates the way memory actually works. It also has a comic effect in how it shows joy and pain side by side, separated by time and circumstances.
It’s nice to see Gordon-Levitt, an amicable character actor since childhood, in an adult role (he would also go on to further impress with his work in Inception). Although the film focuses squarely on him, showing his perspective a lot more than Summer’s, this fits both characters well: he wears his heart on his sleeve, while she is mysterious and guarded. Deschanel’s the perfect casting choice for this role: her understated wit and natural beauty are well used here. She knows the effect she has on men, and she parries with them if they try to break through her armor.
The movie’s one glaring flaw is the character of Tom’s little sister, Rachel (Chloe Moretz, who would later star in Let Me In.) She’s wise beyond her years (way beyond) and she always shows up at the right time to sound off on his love life. While I do believe children can be precocious and wise, I highly doubt that any of them can dispense sage wisdom like a syndicated advice columnist the way she does. As another critic observed, she’s the kind of character that exists only in movies.
Beyond that, however, (500) Days of Summer works in just about every other way. It’s spot-on in its depiction of how people–especially men–chase after emotionally unavailable lovers. Just about everyone who’s ever been in a situation where their feelings were not matched by the ones they were with (in other words, pretty much everybody) can relate to the range of emotions Tom goes through. On the flipside, it also shows the dilemma of those who don’t love as much as they are loved. The film comes by its laughs honestly because it rings so true, and it also comes by its heartache for the very same reason.

Verdict: A-

Review: I Love You Phillip Morris

Posted in Movie Review by raisedonvideo on December 2, 2010

If there were ever going to be a gay version of Catch Me if You Can (and I mean really gay), it might look something like I Love You Phillip Morris. Jim Carrey plays Steven Russell, a married man who works as a police officer. At the start of the movie, he’s living a double life, sneaking away for the occasional homosexual tryst. After a serious car accident, he’s compelled to come out of the closet and start a new life.
To support his extravagant lifestyle, he resorts to stealing and scamming. This lands him in jail, where he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor.) The two of them quickly hit it off and fall in love. They arrange to share a cell. After they are released, Phillip wants to live a simple, quiet life, and he encourages Steven to make an honest living. Steven attempts this for a while working at a big company, but boredom starts to set in and he tries to manipulate the system to earn a few extra bucks for himself. This gets him incarcerated again. Phillip also ends up behind bars again, too, simply through his association with Steven.
Writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa keep the tone light and playful throughout most of the film until the end. In spite of that, neither they, nor Carrey, nor McGregor hold back when it comes to depicting the main characters’ alternative lifestyle. One of the movie’s strengths is that it isn’t trying to make a political statement, doesn’t reduce its characters to silly caricatures, or include them as token characters for the sake of diversity. You get the sense that all of them understand that this is simply who these men are and they are all interested in showing that.
If only the same could be said for the rest of the characters. In particular, Steven’s colleagues at work are white collar cartoon characters who never take shape. It’s hard to feel anything for them when Steven finally rips them off, and this seems by design. The viewer can tell that this is the part of the role that Carrey relishes: showing the lengths he’ll go to to con someone. For once, he shows remarkable restraint. He may be a con artist, but he isn’t obvious about it, which is why he’s able to win over someone as earnest as Phillip.
Unfortunately, the formula doesn’t enable the movie to win the viewer over because it’s difficult to fully sympathize with a character as deceitful as Steven. It’s equally challenging to view him with detached fascination because there are a few times when the film tries to be sentimental. Ficarra and Requa have style, and the story here is worth telling, but in the end, the viewer might just feel conned at having had any emotional response to it at all.

Verdict: C+

News and Notes: 12/2/10

Posted in News by raisedonvideo on December 2, 2010

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. Sorry for the long hiatus, but a lot’s been going on and other things had to take precedence.

Here are some items that have come to my attention lately and my reaction to them:

News: Ron Howard has been tapped to develop Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series for TV and the big screen.
Verdict: Hung jury.
The Lowdown: Honestly, I have to admit being put off by this announcement initially. Then I had to ask myself, “Which Ron Howard will show up?” Will it be the great director who gave us Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, and Frost/Nixon; or will it be the hack who bungled adaptations of How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Dan Brown’s bestsellers The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons?
I’m a big fan of the series of books (I think they’re among King’s best works), and I’m quite curious to see how they’ll turn out. King himself is optimistic. I’d like to share his sentiment, but I can only do so tempered with caution.

News: Sacha Baron Cohen has been chosen to play Queen front man Freddie Mercury in an upcoming biopic.
Verdict: Very Positive
The Lowdown: Two things about this seem perfect to me. One, Cohen’s choice to play flamboyant characters. Two, the way he completely immerses himself in those roles. Having had to retire his famous alter egos Ali G, Borat, and Bruno after bringing all three to the silver screen, it’s a good time for him to transition in a new direction and apply his considerable talents in more serious fare. I’m not sure how he and the makers will handle the singing (nobody could sing like Mercury), but he looks an awful lot like him physically. This appears to be the marriage of the right performer in the right role. I look forward to seeing it.

News: Baz Lurhmann will remake The Great Gatsby
Verdict: Very Negative
The Lowdown: Say it isn’t so! I’ve never been a fan of Luhrmann’s. At most, I found his adaptation of Romeo + Juliet tolerable. Moulin Rouge! was overblown and overrated. Now, fresh off the bomb Australia, he’s going to tackle one of the greatest American novels of all time? Color me skeptical, but I don’t think this will turn out well, to say the least.

News: Next James Bond film delayed indefinitely
Verdict: Negative
The Lowdown: MGM’s financial woes have compelled the production company that owns the rights to the franchise to halt any plans for a new entry into the series until it all gets straightened out. While understandable, this is disappointing on many levels. Casino Royale was a successful reboot that gave fans renewed hope and faith, but it was followed by Quantum of Solace, which fell flat by comparison. It’s a sour note to end on. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) had been attached to helm the next film, but that, too, could be in jeopardy with the status of the production in doubt.
The studio and the production company need to get this sorted out so that the fans can get what they want.

The Top 10 Directors of 2000-2009

Posted in Movie List, Movie Review by raisedonvideo on August 15, 2010

After creating my list of the top films of the past decade, something compelled me to look more deeply and discern who the top filmmakers were. Lots of people make “Best of” lists for movies, but seldom for their creators. Although I’m still pleased with my list of top movies, I took my time more creating this one to make sure I didn’t overlook anyone (which is why the “Honorable Mention” section is so lengthy.) To whittle it down to ten, I had one rule: They had to have directed at least three good to great films to be considered. There were other factors I took into consideration, such as Oscar nods and wins, their films’ rating on the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com), critics’ reviews, and their films’ influence and impact on the film industry at large.

1. Christopher Nolan – He directed five films released in the 00’s. It says something that the least of them, Insomnia, was still quite good (I included it among my top ten of 2002.) The other four of them are ranked in the IMDb Top 250. No other director handles overlapping narratives or plays with time as well as he does (as he did brilliantly in his breakthrough Memento.) He successfully rebooted the Batman franchise with Batman Begins and kept the momentum and artistic integrity going for the highly acclaimed sequel, The Dark Knight. Although none of his films have been nominated for Best Picture, nor has he been nominated for Best Director, I’m confident that the Academy will notice him sooner rather than later (Inception might finally do the trick) if he keeps it up because he has become one of the best filmmakers of his generation.

2. Clint Eastwood – Nobody lives up to the moniker “living legend” quite as much as Clint Eastwood. His recent golden age started with Unforgiven in 1992 and it has continued until now. During the last decade, he garnered three Best Director nods for three films that were also nominated for Best Picture: Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Letters from Iwo Jima. (Million Dollar Baby took home both awards, as did Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman for their work in the film.) Other praiseworthy films he did during the decade were Space Cowboys, Blood Work, Gran Torino, and Invictus. Respected for his on-set efficiency, he works quickly and produces works at a pace that puts filmmakers half his age to shame (he directed nine films in the decade, four of which he also starred in.) As long as he’s churning them out, we should cherish his movies for the masterworks that they are.

3. Joel and Ethan Coen – Known for being quirky and clever, these two kindred souls alternate from funny, offbeat, and light-hearted to gritty and uncompromising. Cases in point: one year they produce the goofy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and the next they put out the delightfully noirish The Man Who Wasn’t There; they go from the brutal No Country for Old Men (which took home four well-deserved Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director) to the hilarious Burn After Reading and then right back to serious territory with A Serious Man (also nominated for Best Picture.) Their scope is broad, but their approach is distinctive and unmistakable. Wherever they focus their unique perspective, they bring life to what they see in ways no other filmmakers do.

4. Peter Jackson – After coming into his own in the mid-nineties with Heavenly Creatures, he had the wherewithal to adapt the beloved The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And wouldn’t you know it? From them, he made what is arguably the greatest film trilogy of all time (yes, there ought to be somewhat of an argument about it—it’s not a foregone conclusion, but that’s a topic for another article.) It became one of only two trilogies in history to have all three chapters nominated for Best Picture (the other one is The Godfather, and that’s pretty good company to be in), and his work on the first and last earned him nods for Best Director. He had to wait until the third installment, The Return of the King, to get his due from the Academy, but his achievement was so remarkable and undeniable that he finally did. From there, he worked his mojo to transform King Kong into a richly-imagined epic. These accomplishments proved that he has become a major filmmaker.

5. Martin Scorsese – Three movies (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed), three Best Director nods, three Best Picture nods. One win for Best Picture and Best Director (for The Departed, his best film in years.) That’s more than enough for him to defend his title as our greatest living director. For the beloved creator of such screen classics as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, as well as many other great films, it wasn’t enough to live off of his legendary reputation by lazily resting on his laurels; he respects the art of filmmaking far too much to do that. Instead, he advanced it by continuing to produce outstanding work.

6. Jason Reitman – He got his start midway through the decade with the archly funny Thank You for Smoking. With that film, he showed a rare gift for exploring challenging subject matter without being exploitative. His next project? A little movie about teen pregnancy called Juno, which earned four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. So far, so good. Another touchy subject handled with wit, style, and grace. To finish out the decade—during a time when there was a very serious economic crisis—what does he do? He directs Up in the Air, a movie about a guy who earns his living as a contractor companies hire to lay people off. Amazingly enough, he pulled it off again: the movie was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. His films are a refreshing combination of social conscience and a wry, but humane sense of humor.

7. Ang Lee – No director captures the drama and the heartbreak of forbidden love quite like he does. Although Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was lauded for its gravity-defying action sequences (and rightly so), the two romances it highlights—one fleeting and the other unrequited—are what make it connect with the audience. Hence, the film was nominated for ten Oscars—including nods for Best Picture and Best Director—and took home four. A few years later came Brokeback Mountain, the movie diminutively known as “the gay cowboy movie.” Despite the mainstream backlash, it was also nominated for Best Picture and several other Oscars. It took home three, including one for Lee for Best Director. His final film of the decade was the erotically-charged historical thriller Lust, Caution. In hindsight, it looks like the greatest accomplishment of that film was how sharply he was able to contrast repression and reckless physical abandon. Although thematically linked, his films span several genres, revealing a master who seeks to capture the full range of human expression. More often than not, he succeeds.

8. Darren Aronofsky – You’d be hard-pressed to find a harder-hitting film than his tour de force Requiem for a Dream, the tragic story of four people whose lives are torn apart in different ways by drug addiction. Next, he gave us the high-concept mind-bender The Fountain. The amazing feat of that sci-fi/drama was how much of an emotional connection it made with viewers. Finally, he single-handedly revived Mickey Rourke’s career by giving him the lead role in The Wrestler (for which the actor received a well-deserved Oscar nomination), the wrenching drama of a worn-down man who barely ekes out a living doing what once made him famous. The intensity of his films is matched by the craftsmanship behind them.

9. Ridley Scott – Gladiator was compared to great epics such as Spartacus and Ben-Hur. It went on to win five Oscars, including Best Picture (he was nominated for Best Director, but lost out to Steven Soderbergh.) He went on to direct Black Hawk Down, a movie that takes the audience right into the heart of battle and thunders away at them mercilessly (and I mean that in a good way.) He followed this with many solid films such as Matchstick Men, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster, and Body of Lies. Now entering his fifth decade working as a director in the film industry, he doesn’t show signs of letting up anytime soon. That’s cause for celebration.

10. Steven Soderbergh – He is one of only two directors in history to be nominated for Best Director for two films in the same year: Erin Brockovich and Traffic (he won for the latter.) Both of those were also nominated for Best Picture. The next year, he went on from such serious fare to the far more light-hearted Ocean’s Eleven, the first of three wildly popular heist flicks to follow the exploits of some very smooth criminals. He finished out the decade with the quirky, offbeat The Informant!, starring Matt Damon. The films in between mark the work of a boundless experimenter who seems unafraid to fail in the pursuit of excellence. This makes his artistic missteps forgivable because his work is almost always interesting and quite often something special.

HONORABLE MENTION

Alfonso Cuaron – Y Tu Mama Tambien was a well-made coming of age road movie. He brought style to the Harry Potter series when he helmed the third installment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. His most remarkable achievement is Children of Men; it’s one of the most remarkable science fiction movies ever made. While watching it, the viewer forgets that he or she is watching science fiction because the future it predicts seems so close to reality.

James Mangold – Identity was a solid and clever thriller. Walk the Line was a memorable portrait of the life of Johnny Cash (Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix) and his romance with June Carter Cash (Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon). 3:10 to Yuma was one of the best westerns of the decade.

David Fincher – Panic Room was an underrated, claustrophobia-inducing thriller. Zodiac was one of the best and least seen crime dramas of the decade. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was a beautiful curiosity indeed. It was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director) and took home three.

Danny Boyle – Purist readers rebelled against his adaptation of The Beach for the liberties it took with the source material, but it was still an enjoyable film. 28 Days Later ranks up there among the best and creepiest zombie movies of all time. Millions and Sunshine were well received by critics and audiences. He saved the best for last with Slumdog Millionaire, the sensational film that went on to win eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Steven Spielberg – A. I., his collaboration with the late Stanley Kubrick, failed to connect with audiences, but it has more than its fair share of flashes of brilliance. Minority Report was another interesting leap into the future. Catch Me if You Can, based on the true story of con man Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), was his best film of the decade. Many critics praised Munich, and it was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. And although everyone’s entitled to the occasional dud and misfire, why, oh why, did you have to make War of the Worlds and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?

Stephen Daldry – He is the first director in history to be nominated for Best Director for his first three films (Billy Elliot, The Hours,and The Reader.) His last two films were also nominated for Best Picture.

Marc Forster – Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, Stranger than Fiction, and The Kite Runner were all to his credit. Quantum of Solace wasn’t.

Richard Linklater – He pioneered a new style of animation in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Before Sunset was a sublime sequel to Before Sunrise (some would say it was even superior to its predecessor.) School of Rock was irresistible fun.

Quentin Tarantino – He’s armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of movies that he frequently draws from, as well an infectious love for them that compels him to always keep his core audience in mind. He has undeniable talent (especially for creating memorable dialogue), and his recent body of work (which included the two Kill Bill movies, Death Proof, and Inglourious Basterds), was good. It’s an encouraging sign that the best of these, Inglourious Basterds (which was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director), came at the end of the decade. One can only hope that he keeps the momentum going into the next one.

Robert Rodriguez – The Spy Kids series showed that he knows how to connect with family audiences. Sin City showed that he hadn’t forgotten how to entertain adults. Like Sam Raimi before him—whose Evil Dead movies got better with bigger budgets and production values—Once Upon a Time in Mexico capped off the series he began in the nineties with El Mariachi and Desperado by telling the best story of the three with wit and flair to spare. Planet Terror, his half of Grindhouse, was the more entertaining half of the two.

Sam Raimi – Speaking of Sam Raimi, he warrants mention for directing two awfully good Spider-Man movies (the first two, of course.) He showed his strength—which came from his filmmaking roots as a horror director—by bookending the decade with two nifty supernatural thrillers: The Gift and Drag Me to Hell.

Paul Greengrass – His style of shaky-cam verisimilitude (which is often seen in documentaries) gives his films an air of naturalism and authenticity, and he gets performances from his actors to match. He applied this style to the Bourne series when he took over directing duties from Doug Liman. He accomplished a rare feat: the films got better and richer with each new chapter. He also earned raves (and a Best Director nod) for his work on United 93.

Ron Howard – He’s the quintessential hit-or-miss director. Because of this, people sometimes forget that as often as he gave us duds like his unnecessarily padded version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and lackluster adaptations of Dan Brown’s bestsellers The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons, he also delivered good films such as A Beautiful Mind (which won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director), Cinderella Man, and Frost/Nixon (which was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.)

Edward Zwick – No one captures the big life changes of his characters or sends them on more believable emotional journeys more consistently than he does. The films he directed in the last decade (The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, and Defiance) continued this trend. He doesn’t hide the fact that he’s going for viewers’ hearts, but he often succeeds anyway because he’s a good cinematic storyteller who doesn’t take cheap, obvious, or contrived shortcuts to get there.

David Cronenberg – He’s a cult favorite who’s largely made a name for himself until now by making respected, but low-profile films such as Naked Lunch, Existenz, and Spider. He seemed to hit his stride, however, when he started working with his new favorite leading man, Viggo Mortensen. Critics took notice of their collaborations A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Recognition from Oscar is probably not far behind.

Michael Mann – He tripped over his own lofty ambitions when he made the bloated biopic Ali (although it did feature some good performances, including Oscar nominees Will Smith and Jon Voight.) After that, he went back to the genre he does best—the crime drama—in the superb Collateral. Then, because he stripped Miami Vice—the show he produced in the mid- to late-eighties—of its flashy, MTV aesthetic and revealed the substance and the noirish soul underneath when he brought it to the big screen, the film was released to lukewarm reception and didn’t receive the recognition it deserved. Public Enemies, his version of the life of legendary bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), played like a historical version of his epic Heat, but it fared better with critics and audiences. Although his movies are often too serious and grim to a fault, his attention to detail shows how focused he is on getting them right.

Hayao Miyazaki – Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Film and Howl’s Moving Castle was nominated. Both are considered two of the best hand-drawn animated films of the decade (if not all time.) Ponyo also connected with audiences. Simply put, he is one of the great innovators and creators of animated film today.

Chan-wook Park – They say that revenge is a dish that is best served cold, and he served it colder than any other director did during the last decade (although Quentin Tarantino definitely comes in second.) Cases in point: Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and Lady Vengeance. He also earned raves for his vampire film Thirst and the thriller J. S. A.: Joint Security Area about tensions between North and South Korea.

Judd Apatow – He changed the way comedies are made during the past decade more than any other filmmaker. The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up were two of the best and most influential of the genre in the past ten years. If Funny People had been any good, he’d warrant serious consideration for a spot in the top ten.

WHY ONLY TWO?

Alexander Payne – Sideways (nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director) was one of the best movies of the decade. About Schmidt—which put Jack Nicholson in one of his best roles ever—was also great. More please, Mr. Payne, more!

P. T. Anderson – Few directors at the end of the last decade showed as much promise as he did with films such as Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia. His first offering of the last decade was Punch-Drunk Love, which was as tightly focused as Magnolia was broadly scattered. Although it was far from perfect, Anderson deserves credit for trusting Adam Sandler in a serious role and making the project work. There Will Be Blood (nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director) is the ambitious masterpiece that he was born to direct. It’s hard to fault him for only directing two films during the decade when he was tapped in between projects to be the stand-by director for the legendary Robert Altman (an honor in and of itself) when he was making his last film, A Prairie Home Companion. However, one can only hope that his output will be greater in the next one.

Todd Field – In the Bedroom (nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture) was a beautifully made drama about the intertwining intricacies of tragedy, loss, family life, injustice, and retribution. Little Children (nominated for three Oscars) depicted an entire neighborhood and all the people who live in it vivid, true-to-life detail. Also an accomplished actor in his own right, he seems to take his time between projects and direct when the urge strikes him. One can hope it starts to strike more often.

Todd Haynes – He recreated the 1950’s in Far From Heaven, only to show us another side of it. Instead of shying away from the melodrama of the era, he embraced it and used it to show how people often act as products of their media age. I’m Not There was a creatively fractured mosaic about the life and different personas of Bob Dylan. Given that his next project will be made for TV (the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce), it looks like viewers might have to be satisfied with only two films in the next decade, as well.

Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, and Pete Docter – Each of these talented filmmakers deserves to be judged based on his own merits, but all three of are products of the same system (which, admittedly, works very well.) Stanton directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E; Bird helmed The Incredibles and Ratatouille; and Docter gave us Monsters, Inc. and Up. Like many of their cohorts, they frequently collaborate on each other’s projects by writing or producing. Also, according to reports, Pixar movies take a long time to make (around four years each.) Given the studio’s heretofore flawless track record, it’s hard to complain about getting only two films per director per decade because they’re so good. As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

ONE FROM THE TUBE…

Tom Hooper – Sussing out the best of TV directors is an even more laborious task than sorting though film directors. Many directors did noteworthy work on television (which, overall, seems to be getting better with each passing year), but he stands head and shoulders above all for directing all seven parts of the sensational HBO miniseries John Adams, which was nominated for twenty-three Emmys and won thirteen. If the episodes had been released theatrically as three or four feature films instead of seven TV episodes, they would rank among the best films of the decade and he would be recognized as one of the best directors.

Review: Inception

Posted in Movie Review by raisedonvideo on July 26, 2010

Going into a movie with high expectations can set the viewer up for disappointment (I know because I’ve been let down many times.) Christopher Nolan—the master responsible for such greats as Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight—has been the most reliably excellent filmmaker of the past decade; he has never failed to deliver. He continues his winning streak with the remarkable Inception.
The movie is so packed with detail and has so many layers that upon the audience’s first viewing, they just go along for the ride and try to keep up with it. The story follows Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), an extractor who tries to steal information from other people’s dreams. There to assist him in his escapades is Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt.) They are hired by an influential businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) to infiltrate a rival’s (Cillian Murphy) dreams not to steal an idea, but rather to plant one. This is called inception.
Stealing information from dreams is difficult; planting an idea is even more so. Cobb and Arthur are hesitant to accept the job. However, Cobb wants to do it so that he can quit the business for good and get back home and see his kids, whom he hasn’t seen for a long time. He assembles a team to help him. They include an architect (Ellen Page), who creates the dreamscapes; a forger (Tom Hardy), who can imitate other people within the dreams; and a chemist (Dileep Rao), who concocts the complex chemical cocktails used to induce the necessary states of dreaming.
To fool the dreamer, sometimes Cobb and his team construct dreams within dreams. To accomplish inception, they need to create a dream within a dream within a dream. If that sounds complicated, there is one more layer still: limbo. This is a dangerous world of raw subconsciousness from which it is very difficult to return.
There are other difficulties to overcome besides navigating dreamers’ minds. If projections of the dreamer’s subconscious start to detect an intrusion, they attack like white blood cells. The probability of this goes up if the dreamer has been trained to guard themselves by an extractor. In addition, Dom’s efforts are sometimes foiled by projections of his wife (Marion Cotillard.) He and his team also have to use “kicks,” which are prompts to wake them up at just the right moment. In the waking world, he and his team are on the run from both the law and former marks and clients.
As expected, much of the movie takes place in dreams. Inception’s visual style matches its lofty creative ambitions. The marriage of art direction and special effects is seamless; it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. This sometimes makes it difficult to discern dreams from reality, and this is almost certainly done by design. In the dream sequences, there are some extraordinary images, such as entire cities folding over on themselves, zero-gravity scenes in a hotel hallway, and paradoxical shapes, like infinite staircases.
In a season of light-hearted popcorn flicks that are forgotten shortly after one has left the theater, Inception is a rare treat indeed—a brain-teaser that demands the audience rise to its level, rather than insulting the viewer’s intelligence by stooping too low. The dreams Christopher Nolan creates and puts up on screen are worlds of pure imagination where anything seems possible, yet they have their own sense of order; they have limits and laws of existence. This film sets viewers’ minds in motion like spinning tops, sending them out of the theater reeling and ready to come back again for a repeat viewing.

Verdict: A

Review: Funny People

Posted in Movie Review by raisedonvideo on July 20, 2010

This review was first posted online on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A180HEMSDXBHMX?ie=UTF8&display=public&sort_by=MostRecentReview&page=1) on February 2, 2010.

No filmmaker has changed the way American comedies have been made more in the past five years than Judd Apatow. Previously known for such TV series as Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, both of which were well reviewed but failed to attract wide audiences, Apatow burst onto the scene with the surprise hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin and kept rolling with Knocked Up. He has also produced many films that have enjoyed critical and box office success, such as Anchorman, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Superbad, and Pineapple Express. He and his troupe have enjoyed unprecedented success. It’s easy to see why: His films are original, well-made (they usually have good acting and dialogue), and they seem somewhat rooted in reality–the humor that stems from his stories flows naturally from the characters and the situations they find themselves in. His movies have all been great so far.

Until now, that is. Funny People shows that Apatow’s departures from convention don’t always work and that his formulas have limits. This time around they feel like weaknesses and inadequacies.

It’s a shame, really, because Adam Sandler shows continuing growth as a performer in the lead role of George, a comedic actor who has made a name for himself making movies that appeal to the lowest common denominator. After he finds out he has a life-threatening disease, he starts to reexamine his life. He goes back to his roots to do stand-up comedy.

He meets Ira (Seth Rogen, looking svelte) at a comedy club, and soon takes him under his wing. He hires Ira as his assistant. Ira begins writing jokes for him, as well as handling many of his personal affairs. He’s one of the few people who’s privy to George’s illness. Although he clearly relishes the opportunity to work and learn from someone successful, the weight of bearing that secret is too much for him to bear. George has mercy on him and starts telling some of his famous friends. This part of the film uses real celebrities in cameo roles to give the proceedings an air of authenticity.

Another person who knows before everyone else is Laura, played by Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann. She’s basically the one who got away. George wrestles with the guilt of having let her go, and the two of them play the “what if” game about their relationship over a series of phone conversations as long as George is sick. This plotline plays well for a while, but when George chases after her in the film’s third act, the whole movie falls apart. It drags on and on needlessly, making the viewer feel like the ending can’t come fast enough.

The film’s dark tone and its blend of comedy and drama aren’t problematic. That works just fine. However, aside from the slack third act, the stand-up sequences are monotonously vulgar. Virgin and Knocked Up found the right middle ground between raunch and sentimentality. Funny People misses the mark. There are some successful component parts, but the film is too long, and the parts that do work don’t hold the movie together because the film lacks flow.

One can only hope that this is a rare misstep for Apatow instead of a sign of things to come.

Verdict: C+

Review: Up

Posted in Movie Review by raisedonvideo on July 20, 2010

This review was first posted online on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A180HEMSDXBHMX?ie=UTF8&display=public&sort_by=MostRecentReview&page=1) on February 1, 2010.

To call Pixar Animation Studios the best animation studio out there isn’t enough. They’ve gone far beyond that distinction: Now, I would say that they are the best overall film studio out there. No one turns out great films with greater consistency than they do.

The studio’s latest offering, Up, is a film that is alive with human emotion. The first fifteen minutes of the film are the most beautiful of any film released in 2009. In it, we see the life of an shy, adventure-lover named Carl unfold over several decades. His relationship with a more outgoing kindred spirit–his beloved wife, Ellie, whom he meets as a boy–is covered in that interlude. All the compromises and sacrifices they make that end up costing them their dreams are touched upon in one poignant clip after another.

The rest of the film can’t match that section’s emotional intensity, and it isn’t meant to. The first part gets the viewer inside Carl’s head and shows the forces that have shaped him into the man he is. He has reached a point in his life where just living independently in his own house is an act of defiance against an outside world that keeps encroaching. When it finally catches up to him and he is forced to go into a nursing home, he decides to do things on his terms instead. Since it was in the advertisements, it doesn’t give anything away to say that how he does it: he makes his house float away using helium balloons, and he sets sail for a grand adventure.

To give away the details of that adventure, however, would be a serious disservice to the viewer. Let’s just say that he has company for the trip: an eager young boy named Russell, who’s in a progam similar to the Boy Scouts called the Wilderness Explorers. Russell’s unflappable, upbeat determination offsets Carl’s misanthropy and reluctance to connect to another human being. Let’s also say that the two end up in South America, and that the story unfolds unexpectedly and satisfyingly from there.

Up is a true family film that doesn’t condescend to either kids or their parents, nor does it handcuff itself by trying to make too many clever pop culture references. It’s an original, visionary film about both how the romanticism of adventure contrasts the reality of it. It certainly belongs on the shelves alongside the best that Pixar has delivered thus far.

Verdict: A

Review: Michael Clayton

Posted in Movie Review by raisedonvideo on July 20, 2010

This review was first posted online on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A180HEMSDXBHMX?ie=UTF8&display=public&sort_by=MostRecentReview&page=1) on October 26, 2009.

While making the occasional blockbuster on the side – such as Ocean’s Thirteen – to prove that he’s still a bankable matinee idol, George Clooney is also becoming one of the most compelling leading men in the business today by following his own star. As a title character of this film, who’s a fixer for a major law firm who mops up messes for his bosses’ wealthy clients, he carries himself with the kind of character and grace that glues the viewer’s eyes to the screen every time he appears. Both he and his colleague (played by the always brilliant Tom Wilkinson) tap into their basic human decency before they clean up a corporate mess that they decide needs to be discovered instead of covered up. They rediscover the true meaning of justice in the process. As the nerve-racked, ladder-climbing adversary they square off against, Tilda Swinton gives a remarkable performance that illustrates the compromises of every step she climbs. Tony Gilroy (the scribe behind all three Bourne films), who also makes his directorial debut here, is quickly becoming one of my favorite screenwriters. In other hands, his premise could have turned into a klutzy, obvious, and sentimental muckraker. In his, there isn’t a single false moment.

Verdict: A