Thursday, June 30, 2011

Best and worst of 2011 (Halfway Point)

It's been a rough 6 months with uninteresting superhero crap served to us at the theater weekly. Is there really anywhere to go after the Scott Pilgrim deconstruction? I imagine Christopher Nolan has one more miracle up his sleeve before the genre is put on ice. The Oscars were a beating for me, but lots of people seem to love The King's Speech. 2 sporting events ended spectacularly and as usual, music seems to get stronger when there's a recession on and people get some perspective and understanding. TV continues to outpace film on average. So, let's give out some mid-year awards.

Best Song: Rolling in the Deep, Adele - an instant classic. An astonishing voice for such a young Brit.

Best New Band: Mumford and Sons

Best TV moment: A corn-rowed Ron Swanson in a kimono.

Best Sports Moment: The Dallas Mavericks beating the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.

2nd Best Sports Moment: The Green Bay Packers beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.

Best TV movie: Too Big to Fail (HBO)
A behind the scenes look at the financial meltdown in the fall of 2008, directed by Curtis Hanson and featuring great performances by William Hurt, Paul Giamatti, Billy Crudup, and Topher Grace. People talk and talk in scene after scene, but it remains a fascinating, stimulating exercise throughout. Somehow, Hanson makes sense of it all. B+

Best Movie Movie: I will defer to Lawyer, who's more up to date. He's got Hall Pass at the top with a B+ and Bridesmaids, Midnight in Paris, and Buck receiving B's. Tree of Life is presumably in the mix.

Worst Oscar Nominated Film: Rabbit Hole - an unwatchable couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) deal with the tragic loss of their 4 year old son differently. The lack of new insights or observations make this melodrama tedious very early on. C-

Worst DVD/Blu-ray Release: I Love You Philip Morris - Jim Carrey has lots of gay sex, calls all Texans stupid, and overacts worse than both Ace Venturas combined. The film itself is repetitive and unnecessarily confrontational with its audience. An unmitigated disaster. D

Best DVD/Blu-ray Release (new film): The Social Network - all the special features you could hope for, including a director's commentary filled with humility and knowledge.

Best Blu-ray Release (classic film): Taxi Driver - like taking a time machine to mid 70s New York. The film looks perfect and the extras (some old, some new) are plenty for even the most rabid fan (like myself). Never knew Albert Brooks's birth name was Albert Einstein!

Best Movie Poster: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (see below)
Best Movie Trailer: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (see here) - Fincher + Zeppelin = Intellectual and spiritual ecstasy for Doctor.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Buck - B

In theaters. Rated PG, 88 minutes. Trailer.

Buck is a documentary about Buck Brannaman, a horse trainer commonly known as "The Horse Whisperer". His technique is novel in its gentleness and surprising because of his past as an abused child. The film explores his world and does a decent job of paralleling treatment of the horses and humans treatment of each other. Brannaman's backstory and world weary Daniel Craig gaze make him a compelling character. This one starts strong but then peters out save for a couple of moving stories told by Buck's friends. This is a good film, and might be a higher grade for someone that loves animals.

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Song of the Day - Break Even, The Script

Again with the goofy pop songs. I've liked this one for a while.

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Midnight in Paris - B

In theaters. Rated PG-13, 88 minutes. Trailer.

75 year old Woody Allen needs to stay in Europe. His recent films that have been set in America have been unworthy of his cinematic legacy while the European Match Point (London), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Spain), and now Midnight in Paris have all been enjoyable. Midnight tells the pleasant story of Gil, a nostalgic writer (Owen Wilson), his fiancee Inez(Rachel McAdams) and his bizarre and revealing experiences at Midnight in Paris. Click below for more on MIP (Priest, you'll love this one):

Gil and Inez's relationship is a mismatch as they head toward marriage. They have ended up in Paris tagging along with her parents, who clearly dislike Gil. Inez's friends Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol are also in Paris, and Gil ends up getting dragged around listening to Paul's expert and pedantic opinions on everything. After Paul calls out Gil's nostalgia as a way of coping with an unsatisfactory present, Gil ends up on a walk back in time. Literally. He gets picked up in a cab and ends up at a dinner party with Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald in the Paris of the 20's. Through the night he befriends Ernest Hemingway and Cole Porter and has a chance encounter with Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso. This repeats over several nights and he finds himself falling for an intriguing flapper (Marion Cotillard) as he slowly realizes his relationship with Inez isn't working.

This film is very light, but isn't funny enough to be among Woody's best. Every scene with Sheen is a delight; I only wish Woody would've written about 20 more minutes of these scenes for our enjoyment. Owen is really good in this film. He plays a less hokey version of his usual self and carries off the time-travel bit with a hitch. McAdams and Cotillard are typically excellent as the present and past love interests. Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali is hilarious. The sequences in the past are reference heavy and funny - it is intriguing to think what it would've been like to encounter these artistic hall of famers in such an interesting period.

If you've been to'll love this film just for the scenery. Woody is constantly framing famous landmarks and beautiful boulevards into each shot, most notably a kiss at the pond where Monet painted Waterlillies.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Song of the Day - Good Life, One Republic

This is a goofy pop song, but I like it. Very catchy and decent lyrics.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Way Back - A-

On DVD and Blu-ray
PG-13, 133 minutes

In 1939 Poland, Janusz (Jim Sturgess) gets a brisk trial when he's accused by the invading Russians of espionage. His wife is the main witness against him but it's clearly a forced testimony under threat. Janusz is sent to a Siberian gulag where he meets up with a ragtag group of other convicts, including an American (Ed Harris) and a murderer (Colin Farrell). Several decide to escape from the brutal conditions and trek South. Peter Weir's first film since 2003's Master and Commander was the most overlooked and underrated film of 2010 - a stunningly beautiful film filled with the high drama of survival, companionship, loyalty, and trust . . .

Weir channels none other David Lean with his camera brilliantly documenting the landscapes and the toll nature takes on the characters. Each actor gives a naturalistic performance and Weir shows the harsh conditions without dwelling on them. Many viewers complained about the unpleasantness of the experience and while modern audiences are accustomed to a sugar rush every 5-7 seconds, the old-school Weir builds the story classically - which allows for a huge emotional payoff at the end.

Sturgess gives his best performance to date, easily carrying the weight of the film on his shoulders. Farrell struggles a bit with the Russian accent but remains a terrific, charismatic presence. Not surprisingly, Weir-alum Harris (The Truman Show) fares best - with a grizzled, go-for-broke intensity. But it's Weir's show all the way, with perfect transitions and sharp editing. The film (like most "road" movies) is a rather obvious metaphor for every life's journey and how one can continue to move forward despite all obstacles and unforeseen curveballs. Let's hope Weir's journey brings us more films more frequently. They literally don't make them like this anymore. A-

Final 2010 Top Films
1. The Social Network
2. Inception
3. Black Swan
4. The Ghost Writer
5. The Fighter
6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
7. The Way Back
8. Toy Story 3
9. Let Me In
10. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
11. The Secret in Their Eyes
12. True Grit
13. Shutter Island
14. 127 Hours

Honorable mention: The first 3/4 of The American which completely falls apart at the end.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Concert Review: Mumford & Sons - June 3, 2011

At City Market, Kansas City. June 3, 2011.

It has been a while since I saw a band on the upward side of their career arc, let alone on the first night of superstardom. Such was the case on June 3, the first night of the first big city Mumford tour since they exploded this Spring following their performance on the Grammys. Their excitement at playing for 10,000 people (they were in KC last June and played to 200) was palpable and it made for a neat experience. All of their songs were played exceptionally well. The complexity of the songs and the 9-10 instruments all worked in a live venue, and the band was able to deliver sincerity in the many quiet, reflective moments of their catalogue. Don't miss their Unplugged this Friday on Palladia. This isn't a clear video, but it captures what it was like at the concert, especially at the 4:00 mark.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Tree of Life - No Grade (yet)

In theaters. Rated PG-13, 138 minutes. Trailer.

Seeing a Terrence Malick film for the first time is always an interesting proposition. The glaring lack of narrative and whispered scripture-ish prose can be initially daunting and/or frustrating. I find that my enjoyment and appreciation for his films grows exponentially with repeat viewings. That being said, Tree of Life is like a film bookended with long spiritual prayers. The film tackles THE big questions of grace/nature, eternity, creation and loss of innocence. As always, Malick juxtaposes the frivolity of individual human circumstances against the infinity and expanse of nature and the cosmos to remind us of our relative insignificance. Click below for more on TOL:

The film opens with some whispered sprituality and then gets into a 30ish minute rendering of the origins of the universe, earth and life. This sequence is without dialogue and features typically amazing visuals and a haunting soundtrack. Malick is said to have been developing this sequence for 30+ years and it shows in this stunning 2001-esque presentation. Then we join a 50's era family in central Texas, with 3 boys, a loving mom and a hard-nosed and critical father. This storyline is essentially exploring loss of innocence, but also human nature.

Throughout the film there are juxtapositions of trees vs. buildings, industry vs. nature and recurring visits to a peaceful river scene. The family portion of the film feels a little under-developed, so its not surprising that Malick is planning a 6 hour version of the film.

The final scenes of the film are over-the-top French art film crazy, with souls walking on a beach and lots of confusing visuals - maybe it will make more sense with repeat viewings, but for now I was trying to figure out what was going on.

Can't wait for additional viewings. More on this one after I see it again.

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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Hangover 2 - C-

In theaters. Rated R, 102 minutes. Trailer.

Hangover 2 is a profoundly boring, uninteresting and unfunny follow-up to the the insta-classic original (reviewed here, B+ then, A- now). Sequels are always struggle to replicate the magic of the original, but this is almost like Writer/Director Todd Phillips was trying to make a bad film, or just got very lazy. The plot is exactly the same as the first film, but set in Thailand/Bangkok for Stu's (Ed Helms) wedding. After going to great lengths to avoid getting drugged again, the usual trio (Alan, Stu, Phil) wake up in squalor in a seedy Bangkok hotel with a very familiar "spider nest". Click below for more on H2:

This time they have lost Stu's future brother in law, and they set out on a mirthless journey to find him. The film features lots of lazy shock-value bits that are predictable and unfunny. Whereas the last film had our gang interacting with lots of different characters (doctor, cops, Heather Graham), this group never gets to riff the way they did in the first one and the film suffers accordingly.

Skip it.

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Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - B

On DVD (2010). Rated R, 147 minutes. Trailer.

The film version of the last of Stieg Larsson's compelling Millenium trilogy is a workable extension of its captivating predecessors The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (B+) and The Girl Who Played With Fire (B). Noomi Rapace is back as the defiant and Lisbeth Salander, battered and bloodied from the intense battle at the end of Fire. The tense pacing and victimization themes are back along with the exquisitely understated film score. This film (and series) is an entertaining and tense "popcorn" film, with just enough substance and character development to keep a discriminating viewer interested. Click below for more on TGWKTHN:

Spoilers below:

The film picks up right where Fire left off, with Lisbeth and her father being airlifted to a Stockholm hospital for treatment. The aftermath of their bloody battle has left the authorities no choice but to put them both on trial for attempted murder of eachother. The prospect of a trial and related testimony is not acceptable to the shadowy group that has abused Lisbeth and protected Zalachenko, and they take predictably drastic measures to avoid the trial. Once we get to trial, there are lots of cathartic moments and Rapace's Salander continues to dazzle with very little dialogue.

The Millenium magazine crew is all excellent as before, and the new characters (especially the protective Dr. Anders and Prosecutro Ekstrom) are interesting and meaningful. The film wraps up most of the trilogy and leaves a little to be desired - I was hoping for an ambiguous or meaningful ending rather than a wimper, but it was not to be.

These films are great diversions and have been a squirmy pleasure to watch - I can't wait for David Fincher's version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, out this Christmas.

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Adele - Someone Like You (Unplugged)

Yikes. Adele's climbing up my chart quickly. Don't miss her unplugged on Palladia, which features several greats (including the already mentioned "Rolling in the Deep"), but please click on this for chills: Someone Like You.

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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Best Songs Over 8 minutes - Part 2

The greatest longest songs of all time. Well, at least in my CD/iTunes collection.

10. I Heard it Through the Grapevine, Creedence Clearwater Revival (11:06)
Another crazy-good hook that's relaxing and exciting at once.

9. Won't Get Fooled Again, The Who (8:33)
David Caruso et al. have tarnished it, but at a loud volume, the energy is undeniable.

8. I am the Resurrection, The Stone Roses (8:12)
The Stairway to Heaven of the alternative genre.

7. Stairway to Heaven, Led Zeppelin (8:00)
The Stairway to Heaven of the classic rock genre. It's overplayed and relatively straightforward and tame compared to their very best.

6. In My Time of Dying, Led Zeppelin (11:04)
No rock n roller has ever topped 3:47-7:12 - and no one ever will.

5. Silverf@ck, Smashing Pumpkins (8:43)
It's raw power is expertly accentuated by the well-written slow parts.

4. Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, Bob Dylan (11:23)
Used at the end of I'm Not There, a beautiful and touching poem about those we only get to know briefly and wish we knew better. A harmonica never sounded as good. A link is unavailable.

3. Desolation Row, Bob Dylan (11:21)
Perhaps he drops too many references but it brilliantly shows a young man reaching at everything to overcome heartbreak. And it universalizes loss and sadness. Here's a good version, but the original is unavailable online.

2. Kashmir, Led Zeppelin (8:32)
It'd be #1 were it not for the Godzilla-P. Diddy-cash grab. Transporting and mesmerizing every time.

1. Porcelina of the Vast Oceans, Smashing Pumpkins (9:21)
You can't really explain art. Not really. But the peak (at 7:29) is killer and Billy's voice is sublime when it comes in shortly thereafter. Ranks this high for personal reasons - a lost friend.

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Monday, June 6, 2011

Best Songs Over 8 minutes - Part 1

I left off live versions of songs, instead using the actual album releases. There's a unanimous rock and roll bias - 'cause that's the type of guy I am.

Honorable Mention:

Only in Dreams, Weezer (7:59)
An admittedly arbitrary single second too short for this list. Love this closer to their best album.

And now, on with the list . . .

21. Fools Gold, The Stone Roses (9:54)
Used (too abruptly) toward the end of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, it (like so many below) has an amazing hook and some tremendous guitar work.

20. Prick, Tripping Daisy (9:19)
The unusual (Eastern?) chords give this a uniqueness on the list. The sillier, slower part nearly drops it off completely.

19. November Rain, Guns N' Roses (8:57)
The accusations that the group was trying too hard to go epic are not unfounded. Still doesn't take away from the quality or the fact that they are actual musicians (unlike all of their hard rock contemporaries).

18. Free Bird, Lynyrd Skynyrd (9:10)
A classic rock staple; it feels more honest than the rest of their songs combined (except maybe Tuesday's Gone).

17. In A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Iron Butterfly (17:05)
Obviously too long, but a great groove and its inclusion during the climactic scene in Manhunter makes it immortal.

16. Achilles Last Stand, Led Zeppelin (10:25)
The opening track from Presence, an unusual but essential disc.

15. American Pie, Don McLean (8:27)
Overplayed but still refreshingly sincere in our age of irony.

14. The End, The Doors (11:41)
Used in the opening of Apocalypse Now, and still hypnotic after all these years.

13. In the Light, Led Zeppelin (8:46)
An underrated gem from Physical Graffiti with the four at their tempo-changing multi-style best.

12. Voodoo Chile, Jimi Hendrix (15:00)
Not the version used near the beginning of In the Name of the Father (which is "Slight Return"), the long one is the epic bluesy version.

11. Echoes, Pink Floyd (23:29)
More like 3-4 songs in one, but they return to the beginning at the end to make it circular and referential. It encompasses many emotions - alienation, hope, fear, motivation. The section beginning at 7:01 is terrific, but the slow-burn from 14:45-18:15 is flawless.

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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Tree of Life Homework

Writer/Director Terrence Malick's 5th film in 38 years, Tree of Life, is being released this week and next week. In preparation, I have been watching excellent film critic Matt Zoller Seitz's video essays on each his film. Each is worth your time, especially before you go see Tree of Life. The Days of Heaven and Thin Red Line ones are musts no matter what.

Days of Heaven
Thin Red Line
New WorldAnd here is the rest of it.

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