Saturday, December 30, 2006
2006 was a solid year for movies. I saw a surprising amount of movies released this year (over 30) considering that I began graduate school. It was tough to find one stand-out among many great films, unlike last year where 2046 was an easy top choice. As it turns out, the last movie I have seen for 2006 is also my number one this year. All of the top five could probably be interchanged "as befits my mood or general countenance." I'll be interested to revisit this list next year and see how I feel about my rankings.
The comic book movies I usually enjoy were all disappointments (V For Vendetta, X-Men: Last Stand, and Superman Returns.) I also thought I saw more documentaries than I did (An Inconvenient Truth and American Hardcore), but that must have been 2005 where I was doc heavy. Time blurs all. And there are many well reviewed movies that I have yet to see (Letters from Iwo Jima, United 93, Little Children among others.)
Below is my Top 10 list followed by five honorable mentions. I've also added what I consider to be, by far, the two worst movies I have seen this year.
2006 TOP 10 (order of preference)
A young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), is brought along to a military outpost in 1944 Spain to be near her pregnant mother's new husband, who is a Captain in Franco's army. With civil war raging around her, Ofelia enters a fantasy world to escape this new reality. A deeply moving film, perfectly paced and layered. It says so much about childhood and adulthood and the coping mechanisms used to safely travel through both. Director Guillermo del Toro expertly and seamlessly mixes the fantasy world with the real world resulting in the best movie of 2006.
As an unabashed fan of Darren Aronofsky I may admire The Fountain more than I should. Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman are two lovers who through the ages – in Year 1500, 2000, and 2500 – search for eternal life. The film easily intertwines all three time periods, each individual story arc concluding and adding to that quest. It will keep you thinking about it long after you see it. I don’t have it completely figured out yet. But that’s why I like it so much.
Children of Men
A dystopian world twenty years in the future is the setting for Alfonso Cuaron's excellent new film Children of Men. Women have become infertile, a police state rules by fear, and the youngest person on Earth, just over eighteen years old was just murdered. A government worker (Clive Owen) is thrown into the middle of an "uprising" against this world. Spectacular camera work, a where-is-this-headed story, and wonderful performances makes this one f the best of the year.
This film disappointed me directly after viewing. It was the first film I have seen by acclaimed filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien. I had heady expectations going in, knowing only the premise of three separate stories told in three different time periods with the main characters of each story played by the same actor and actress (Chang Chen and Shu Qi). Each story deals with love and observes the circumstances and obligations that make love either possible or non-existent. The first story “A Time for Love” set in the 1960’s, is perhaps the most perfect love story I have ever seen put on film. Everything about it is enchanting. Following this opening story, the next two, “A Time for Freedom” and “A Time for Youth”, while above average, felt like a letdown. It is only in subsequently dwelling upon the film as whole that I have come to appreciate all the stories. The film looks beautiful and the leads make each of their three characters their own. Even if the other two stories were a mess (which they are not) I would recommend this film on the strength of “A Time for Love” alone.
Two rival magicians face off in a great film filled with wonderful performances. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman excel in the leads. Magic and intrigue drive the film forward. A story of showmanship and human drive that continues to surprise all the way to the final scene.
A taut thriller about an Eastern European immigrant who, while looking to make some extra (and easy) money, gets in over his head. A gripping well-done film. I was aware of a huge spoiler before seeing this movie and it was no less gripping but it is best to see it knowing as little as possible.
L’Enfant (The Child)
A two-bit crook sells his and his girlfriend’s newborn child to make some extra cash and thus begins a searing drama of bad choices and their consequences. Unlike most Hollywood movies that attempt to manipulate and moralize to the viewer this film from Belgium focuses an objective lens on all its subjects. It is a different sort of experience and at times seemed disconcerting to this American filmgoer. This straightforwardness in storytelling is rewarding in and of itself and not because of the machinations of the filmmakers.
Another tale of intertwining stories and fateful coincidences, Babel has much more to offer than the simple resolutions and treacle platitudes of Crash, last year’s winner of the Best Picture Oscar, to which it has been compared. Babel has a large international scope and the story divides time between the U.S., Mexico, Morocco, and Japan. Babel doesn’t try to hit you over the head with its message, if there is even a larger message than the human one told in each segment. All the stories have their positives and it is telling that the most interesting story, occurring in Japan, is the least related to all the others.
It’s turn of the century Vienna and an Illusionist (Edward Norton) enters the city to ply his trade entertaining the masses and gaining notice from the Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell), the Prince’s finance (Jessica Biel), and the local Chief Inspector (Paul Giamatti). Filmed is dashing sepia tones, this film overcomes the tired tropes of class war love triangles and provides a satisfying intelligent story.
Little Miss Sunshine
The only movie that can be described as a comedy on this list, Little Miss Sunshine, is a delightful, if familiar, story of a dysfunctional family on a road trip. As things usually go in these movies, momentous events occur and the family gets to know each other and themselves a tad bit better. While not as predictable as you may expect from that description it doesn’t hold huge surprises either. It’s a movie that knows what it is and ends up doing that well.
2006 WORTH A MENTION (alphabetical order)
You can be forgiven if you think of Bugsy Malone upon hearing that Brick is a film noir set in high school. But Brick is no farce and takes it’s characters seriously and cleverly twists the conventions of film noir to fit teenagers’ angst. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lukas Haas stand out in this fine film.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
As in L’Enfant, the camera in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is almost documentary like in its followings of its subjects’ story. Mr. Lazarescu, an old drunk living by himself in Bucharest grows ill and needs medical attention. Apparently, this movie is a bitter indictment of the Romanian health care system. Be thast as it may, when focused on the smaller issues we are left with a sad story of a life forgotten or ignored by the strangers a man meets in his last few hours and by those who should have been close to him for the rest of it.
Adapted from the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, Martin Scorsese places this police thriller in Boston. An undercover agent (Leonardo DiCaprio) infilitrates the mob as a policeman (Matt Damon) loyal to the mob boss (Jack Nicholson) rises through the ranks of law enforcement. Although the movie seems to lose steam around three-quarters in and then ends abruptly just as the steam seemed to be coming back there are fine performances all around.
A densely packed film concerning an age-old battle between the forces of Light and Dark. Light has formed the Night Watch to protect against the Dark. All this takes place in modern day Russia. A hyper frenetic movie highly stylized yet still intelligent.
The Science of Sleep
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry was my #1 movie for 2004. The Science of Sleep, written and directed by Michel Gondry has the similar themes of a quirky love story where most of the main action occurs inside one the character’s head. It is decidedly offbeat and Gael Garcia Bernal fulfills all the potential he showed in Y Tu Mama Tambien. This film is well above average but lacks the cohesion to be truly great.
WORST MOVIES 2006
A terrible mish-mash of a movie. Too long, too uneven and despite its promotion as a “star vehicle” for Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston, these “stars” are mediocre in their performances. Like any bad relationship, you’ll be glad when this movie ends.
A young girl turns the tables on a would-be internet child molester and possible murderer. She’s a modern day Little Red Riding Hood (even wearing an oversized red sweatshirt) who doesn’t need the woodsman to come save her. At turns this movie is ugly, clichéd, and utterly ridiculous.
Friday, December 29, 2006
It is appropriate that the opening scene of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer frames a figure in silhouette and as he leans into the light only his nose is illuminated. Based on a novel by Patrick Suskind, here is a story of olfactory senses leading a man to...well, take a look at the title of this film for a hint.
Directd by Tom Tykwer, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, has some good ideas and execution but the overall story falls flat. Ever since the frenetic Run Lola Run, Tykwer has slowed his movies down while encompassing a longer run time all in an attempt to make "meaningful movies". He succeeded splendidly in The Princess and The Warrior, worked the concept to respectable results in Heaven but now has failed with Perfume. Perhaps Tykwer needs to collabarate again with Franka Potente, the star of Run Lola Run and The Princess and The Warrior. to return him to his old form.
The opening scenes of a baby, with a preternatural sense of smell, born in an 18th century Parisian fish market, with the camera flashing around to everything and anything that may emit an odor shows promise. I enjoyed the leisurely pace showing this child, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Wishaw) grow to appreciate his ungodly sense of smell through the orphanage and into an apprenticeship at a tannery. It is when Grenouille is taken under the wing of a perfumer, Baldini, played by a wildly out-of-place Dustin Hoffman, does the movie begin to flag. It is also here where we see where this is all going. As Grenouille explains to Baldini after an unfortunate meeting with a girl in an alley, he needs to "capture scent". This quest becomes the essence of the movie and you are either along for the ride or not. I anticipated the ride and eagerly followed along to the perfume capital of France, the city of Grasse, and Grenouille's obsession with Grasse's female's scents. But then the ride ended.
The ending, in its ridiculousness, betrays the seriousness the movie takes pains to otherwise portray. Unless the whole thing is to be taken as farce. But then the "meaning" of the ending is rendered meaningless. So its a no-win situation regardless of what viewpoint one holds. Upon reflection there is also much unfulfilled promise throughout. No explanation for the unfortunate circumstances people find themselves in after Grenouille leaves them. No investigation of what its like to be overwhelmed by all the smells in the world. It's as if Grenouille can control, at will, what odors enters his nostrils.
While the movie does not go to any lengths to have us empathize with a murderer, empathy does hover around the edges. We know the quest and have witnessed all that has led up to it. I even found myself secretly rooting for a murder that would result in the quest's completion. It is only with seeing what is done with the results that a quest can be considered successful. It's seeing these results on the screen where the disappointment sets in.
Set in 2027 Britain, the world of Children of Men is an exaggerated version of the worst of what is witnessed today. A police state governed by fear, a war on illegal aliens, and propaganda disseminated 24 hours a day may seem distant but not at all unlikely. All this is precipitated by the inexplicable infertility of women almost twenty years prior. That we are never told why women stopped having babies or how that resulted in such a dystopia is one of this film's primary strengths. The people inhabiting this future don't understand it either; we are with them in solidarity, viewing their desperation as our own.
We begin watching Theo (Clive Owen) go through the motions of his day. Purchasing coffee, pouring liquor into the cup. Not even the death of the youngest person on Earth, at just over eighteen years old, or the bombing of the cafe he just left seem to touch him. Theo is presented as a disaffected, uncaring man able to see the world around him for what it is but eerily detached from it all the same. Even after we learn about his political activism past, the reasons for his detachment, and he is placed in a position to help usher in a possible new future, Theo still presents a knowing resignation.
Theo is kidnapped by the Fishes, a rebel group readying for an uprising against the government. Theo’s ex-wife (Julianne Moore) is their leader and brings Theo aboard because she “trusts him”. The Fishes have in their ranks Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), the first pregnant women in almost twenty years, and hope Theo can help bring her across borders to the Human Project, supposedly a group of scientists building a better tomorrow. At this point an already interesting premise takes a new life. The film is not predictable but never delivers unbelievable twists. Everything about it seems just so.
All the performances in this film are top notch. Clive Owen, in particular, stands out and solidifies himself as one of the best actors out there today. Alfonso Cuaron does the best directing job of the year. Using tracking shots and a hand-held camera, the viewer is immersed into the story along with the characters. The violence and action is sudden and jarring, the actors on the screen reacting as we do in our seats. The climax is relentless in its focus and the brief intermission of quiet that occurs is made that much more potent due to the subsequent explosions of fury.
Yet I would not describe it as an action movie. Nor would I pigeonhole it as a science fiction movie. Plain and simply, it is an intelligent movie. It makes you question the world you see around you everyday and forces you to answer uneasily, "Can that really happen?" It is a realistic movie set in the future with easily recognizable characters. There are no simple solutions or cures. Theo is thrust down a road of doubt but keeps moving. Theo never picks up a gun, never decides to fight the "bad guys". Circumstances control him. He is in a situation where the opportunity to do good, to do something right presents itself. And he tries. That's just the type of hero his and our world needs.
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
I once knew a girl with whom I often spoke to about stories. We discussed film, books, and short stories mainly but eventually delved into everything. Comic books, television, or plays: nothing was out of reach for conversation and opinion. We shared our likes and dislikes and made recommendations to each other. After recommending a favorite author never read or a film unseen, we both waited anxiously for the other to finish reading or viewing so we could talk about it. I’m sure our conversations had the naiveté of an undergrad literature class or, worse, the pretension of an MFA thesis paper. But we didn’t care.
One day, I was in this girl’s apartment looking over her book collection, which was contained within a medium sized bookcase in an otherwise spartan bedroom. I was sitting on the floor with my legs crossed Indian-style poking around the shelves and yelling comments and questions into the other room where she was occupied. Eventually she came in and sat on the floor leaving me between her and the bookcase. While discussing what she enjoyed and asking if I could borrow this or that I began talking about some recent books I had read. I just went through a phase where I was reading classics such as The Count of Monte Cristo and Ivanhoe and I was prone to bore people with how great they are. Sensing I wasn’t going to stop prattling on about the superior storytelling prowess of Dumas and Scott any time soon, she hurriedly pointed out a classic she had on the bottom shelf.
I don’t know how I hadn’t noticed this oversized book. It was an all-together impressive, splendid tome. She explained that it was Don Quixote by Cervantes. It really was a piece of work. For all I knew monks in Spain hand-printed this copy. Not since my days as an altar boy have I held something so ornate.
As I lifted it out of its shelf I sensed from her a reluctant excitement in sharing this book with me. While I was busy admiring the handiwork of the binding and gold edged pages she quietly explained how she had always wanted a book like this and mentioned painted illustrations on the pages. I took some time exploring the outside of the book, turning it over in my hands. I felt the aged brown leather, which covered it in entirety, the exquisitely raised gold bands along the spine and gold old-style lettering indicating title and author on the front. It was compellingly beautiful. I could only wonder what the actual pages and illustrations must look like. Just as I was about to crack it open I looked up at her and caught her eyes.
She had the most expressive chestnut brown eyes. They sparkled like stars, lighting up her surroundings, especially when she smiled. And she often smiled. There was no smile or sparkle then. Her downturned mouth elongated her face disconsolately and her eyes reflected a distant sadness. I paused. She told me not to open the book. I looked back at her puzzled. She provided a defense of her “don’t open the book” policy of which the particulars escape me. I do remember it involved a childhood fondness of a Don Quixote cartoon, some family troubles, receiving this book as a surprise gift from her mother and not having read it yet. By the time she was finished it was no longer an explanation but a plea. I looked again in her eyes and was reminded of a grainy photograph of a seldom-used dirt road after a rainstorm.
I suppressed any further comment on the matter. I thought of asking a question or two about this mandate when I realized I would never understand the meaning of this to her. I let the weight of the book sink into my lap. I wondered how much this book weighed to her. I glided my fingers over the spine readying to fill the empty space it had left behind on the shelf. Even though I was seated closer to the bookshelf, as I lifted the book, I found myself handing it over to her. It was her burden, after all.
Saturday, December 23, 2006
DC Comics’ Elseworlds line is described as thus: “In Elseworlds, heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places – some that have existed and others that can’t, couldn’t, or shouldn’t exist. The result is stories that make characters who are as familiar as yesterday seem as fresh as tomorrow.” Just as in Marvel Comics’ What If…? series, this premise allows writers to weave stories that may not fit the hero as we know them and not to worry about the regular continuity of the respective comics universes. This premise can provide hits or misses. Superman: Red Son is most definitely a hit.
Originally published as a three issue mini-series in 2003, and now available as a trade paperback, writer Mark Millar, pencillers Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett, and inkers Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong do a more than admirable job of re-imagining the Superman myth. Superman, that iconic symbol of truth, justice, and the American way is now a Communist. In the mid-twentieth century, a rocket ship from an alien planet crashes onto a collective farm in the Ukraine rather than the Kent’s farm in Kansas. Interestingly enough, the values he learned on that collective farm do not seem that far removed from the values he learned from Ma and Pa Kent.
The story begins with Superman making his presence known in Moscow as an adult. Stalin sends a communiqué to the rest of the world: “Let Our Enemies Beware: There Is Only One Superpower Now.” As true as this appears readers familiar with the Superman saga know that Lex Luthor is still an American. Nonetheless, President Eisenhower still laments about how if that rocket only crashed into Earth twelve hours earlier Superman might be an American.
Along with Lex Luthor the rest of Superman’s friends, enemies, and fellow heroes make appearances. There’s Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White. Superman’s rogues’ gallery is still Lex, Braniac and Bizarro. Working from the concept that Superman was the lynchpin for all other DC Superheroes, the story introduces us to other well-known faces in unexpected ways. Batman is around, in a post-Dark Knight Returns incarnation, that plays foil to Superman’s new socialist values, and we learn what kind of heroes Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, The Flash, and Green Lantern have become now that Superman is a Soviet hero.
An insider’s knowledge of the DC Universe can add to the overall cleverness of this set-up but even knowing the Superman myth in only broad strokes will not endanger enjoyment of the story. From the hammer and sickle replacing the S on Superman’s chest to President Kennedy, now married to Norma Jean, and dealing with civil strife and a triumphant USSR, to a play on Superman’s disguise of wearing glasses, there is much to be found different yet familiar. There’s even a reference concerning exactly these types of re-imagined stories. The greatest strengths of Superman: Red Son is that it changes the Superman myth without changing Superman himself and it has an ending that sheds new light on that myth.
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Late in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain the entire scope of the film accomplishes some amazing things: it successfully maps together the 3 overlaying stories of the film – a conquistador’s quest for the Tree of Life at the request of Queen Isabel; a doctor’s quest to save his wife from brain cancer in the contemporary United States; and a lone space traveler’s quest to reach a faraway star – while at the same time transcending – and confusing - any concept of a linear connection between those three arcs. (I would go into more depth about my theories of the linear connection, but that would betray Colbinski Chronicles’ unwritten “no spoiler” policy that all reviews strictly adhere to.)
This scene, and the subsequent scenes intermixing back and forth from the past and modern day and futuristic stories, introduces many more questions than it answers, but at the same time brings coherence to all the storylines. It is precisely because of this coherence that the underlying mystery – that of love and death and hope and loss- resonates so acutely. In the end, there’s clarity in what hasn’t been told. There’s no moment that safely packs all the themes into a neat box, but if there had been, I’m sure I would have felt slighted. I’m glad to leave the theater with head-scratching questions about what it all means than to be treated to treacle full of hoary clichés.
And it is in this that the beauty of The Fountain is found. (Well, that’s not true, the real beauty is found in the palette of Aronofsky’s direction and film photography. The Fountain is visually stunning – from Rachel Weisz’s illuminating Queen Isabel shrouded in white by candles to Hugh Jackman’s bald and Zen-like spaceman floating through a kaleidoscope of vibrant oranges and yellows traveling in a bubble accompanied by a tree lush with green life. Not to mention the hauntingly exquisite score by Clint Mansell and Mogwai. But I digress.)
The way The Fountain eschews many norms of storytelling is telling. Essentially, the movie is about a man who will do anything to save his wife from dying. Add to it a pseudo time-travel angle, and a Conquistador in Central America plot, and one may get the idea that the film is either science fiction claptrap or inane action flick or indulgent melodrama. The Fountain avoids the trappings of all those limitations by not involving them in the framework. That is, the possible time-travel, if that’s really what’s going on, is never explained (I have a theory on this too - but that brings us back to the “no spoiler” policy) and this in-effect cancels out any melodrama. By not knowing the linear connection from the past to the present to the future, but by giving such full attention and detail to the specific capsule of time we spend with the Conquistador, the doctor and his wife, and the man in the bubble, Aronofsky delivers a thought provoking and triumphant film that tells its story in a real and true way that is only aided by a quest for the Tree of Life or space travel.
Something I noticed about Aronofsky’s films – this includes Pi and Requiem for a Dream, as well as for The Fountain – is the absence of humor. That’s not to say that his movies are humorless because they are not. Instead, he doesn’t use laugh lines as a crutch. His characters are real – they cope, they smile, they anguish, they love, they live, they die. There’s a truth to The Fountain that overrides the snobbish dismissals I’ve read. Sure I haven’t wrapped my head around all that transpires in the movie, but I know damn well that what is up on the screen is true.
Monday, December 11, 2006
There are times while listening to various modern metal and hardcore bands that one can tell right from the opening notes where the band’s history of music begins. In the first seconds of the opening songs on Chainsaw Safety Records’s latest releases, Cobra Noir’s “Barricades” and Pulling Teeth’s “Vicious Skin,” one gets the feeling that these bands spent their teen years dulling their record player needle listening to the likes of Celtic Frost and Slayer and Motorhead. That is not to say that either of these bands sounds likes the aforementioned bands. They don’t. Simply put, Cobra Noir and Pulling Teeth are informed by these (and many other) bands. They know what they are doing in the heavy genre. And they do it well.
Montreal’s Cobra Noir play a more 80’s metal sound – a mid-paced metal. The songs possess dazzling tempo changes and not a few classic slow downs. The gruff vocals consist of the right mix of anger and urgency. The songs are complex without sounding too showy or, worse yet, like they have too many ideas poorly executed. These tracks are executed with precision and power.
Baltimore’s Pulling Teeth rely on a more modern influence for their heaviness. The sonic power and the morass of guitar sounds has some paternity to “Humanity is the Devil” era Integrity. The songs are also shorter than is usually found in the crowded field of current metal-core, and so never get boring or run out of steam. They charge forward like warriors on a battlefield, sweating and bleeding, assured of victory in some ancient rite.
All of the of bands that Chainsaw Safety has been releasing recently also fall into the category of being informed by music that isn’t necessarily reflected in the band’s sound. I also know that the proprietor of Chainsaw Safety Records is one of those people whose early musical experience was influenced by the same list above. Also, for full disclosure, I used to be the co-owner of Chainsaw Safety. My final involvement with the label was The Horror 10”. Scanning the impressive assortment of bands he’s put out since – Celebrity Murders, End of the Universe, Deathcycle, Sick of Talk, and now Cobra Noir and Pulling Teeth, well, it makes me feel like I was holding good old Will Tarrant back.
But I’m still waiting for him to release a Baby Harp Seal discography.