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Dec 21, 2010

Top Albums of 2010

After a particularly weak offering in 2009, 2010 has been an exceptional year for new music. I had a very difficult time cutting the list down to 10 with the likes of Titus Andronicus, Delta Spirit, Miike Snow, Minus the Bear, Ra Ra Riot, and Tokyo Police Club just barely missing the cut. Also not on the list are Gorillaz, Yeasayer, BRMC, and LCD Soundsystem. All of those albums would have likely made last year’s Top 10. One final word about 2009’s list: Although it was released in 2009 and therefore disqualified here, I probably listened to K’naan’s Troubador as much as any other album this year and it deserves a mention.

10. Lissie – Catching a Tiger With super catchy cuts like When I’m Alone and In Sleep, I found myself playing Lissie’s awesome debut album over and over again.

9. Menomena – Mines Portland band Menomena’s follow up to 2007’s Friend & Foe was even more impressive and goes down as yet another strong album released by Barsuk.

8. Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks Scottish rockers and NPR faves Frightened Rabbit dropped this very solid album that too many people missed.

7. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More It seems Mumford & Sons have found a home in steady rotation on commercial radio and therefore are disqualified from most people’s top 10 lists. I love this album – but hey, I’m the same idiot who gave The Killers my top spot two years ago.

6. Nas & Damian Marley – Distant Relatives Sick beats, illmatic flows, the reggae vibe, and a real message make this a must have album.

5. Hot Chip – One Life Stand While Hot Chip has been on my radar for a while, I’ve never dug one of their albums the way I totally dig One Life Stand. You can’t help but tap your foot to this one. Hell, just get up and dance.

4. Arcade Fire – Suburbs A week after this album came out I was sure it would be in the number one spot come late December. Unfortunately, it just didn’t stand up quite as well as I’d hoped after repeat listening. That being said, it is one hell of an incredible album and well worth its number four spot.

3. The Black Keys – Brothers The best straight up rock and roll album in years, this one was pretty tough for me to bump down to third. We’ll see if Jack White lets them keep that crown for long.

2. Local Natives – Gorilla Manor This indie-tastic album straight outta my hood held top spot in my rotation from about February to July. I can’t wait to hear what they offer up next.

1. Broken Bells It is too easy to joke about how many artists Danger Mouse has worked with, but he continues to crank out hits. This time teamed with The Shins’ James Mercer, Broken Bells is one of those albums that perfectly defines the year 2010 – yet will have a spot in my heavy rotation for years and years to come.

What a terrific year for music! I’m sure there will be some disagreements with these picks. What do YOU think?

Posted by enderzero at 12:40am on Dec. 21, 2010    
Dec 14, 2010

Black Swan – Review

I’ve avoided writing my review of Darren Aronofsky’s “psycho-sexual thriller” until I had a bit of time to get over the intense euphoria I experienced while watching the film. It has now been over a week – but I still get trembles of excitement when I think back on watching it. Simply put, this is the best film of the year – and quite possibly one of my favorite films of all time. It is sexy, scary, inspiring, beautiful, thrilling, insanely intense, and more than anything, brilliant. I’ve never before wanted so badly to turn right back around and watch the movie again. Even writing this now is getting me excited. This movie is like a drug and I want more now!

Natalie Portman is a lock for a nom and should be the front runner for her role as the beautiful ballerina Nina Sayers. She studied dance for more than a year for the role and although I’m certainly no ballet expert, she seems to have gotten it down. But what is so truly incredible about her performance is the vulnerability she projects. At the beginning of the film, Nina is so timid she barely whispers her words. The quite literal transformation she undergoes is only that much more rewarding because of where she starts. Kudos to both Portman and Aronofsky for so successfully bringing us along on Nina’s ride.

Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey turn in career performances and Vincent Cassel nails the dynamic aspects of the villain/hero in his director character maybe better than anyone. I had previously lauded Roger Deakin’s cinematography in True Grit as good enough to finally win him the Oscar. In comparison, that movie’s western plains are a softball. Here Matthew Libatique’s camera becomes a character pirouetting on stage alongside the dancers. It is rhythmic and hypnotic and I’ve never seen anything like it. The decision to shoot handheld so close to the characters adds both an intimacy and suspense that is simply brilliant. Up close with Nina, whatever is right over her shoulder is right over yours as well – a terrifying effect manipulated here to perfection.

It is a very good year for cinema and the best picture category has some strong offerings. I still have little doubt that The Social Network will win top honors (and early signs are only making that look more likely). That doesn’t bother me at all. Black Swan is my year’s best picture and no lack of recognition can detract from my extraordinary experience of watching it for the first time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go watch it for my second.

Posted by enderzero at 7:41pm on Dec. 14, 2010    

Another Year – Review

Mike Leigh’s films do not have scripts. He works with his actors to build characters and then puts those characters in situations and watches what happens. When working with extremely talented actors such as the stars of Another Year, this can lead to brutally honest and often hilarious results. But it also explains the unpolished and sometimes even incomplete feeling you walk out of a Mike Leigh film with.

Though not necessarily the story’s protagonist, the star of the show is Lesley Manville and the tragically neurotic character she inhabits, Mary. Her performance should surely garner an Oscar nom (although she was snubbed by the Globes) – however I am a bit surprised that there seems to be no consideration that her role might be better classified as a supporting actress. There is no way that Manville has more screen time than True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld – yet Steinfeld is considered supporting. Color me perplexed.

Regardless of classification, Manville’s performance is stunning – even if the movie does drift a bit into melodrama at times. I’m not talking about melodrama in the telenovela sense, but at times the movie reminded me of a play set on location. Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Oliver Maltman, and the brilliantly funny Peter Wight all deserve praise for their performances as well in a film that should be on the top of every best ensemble short list. This is a character study in the truest sense of the term. Fortunately, most all of the characters turn out interesting enough to spend the time studying.

Posted by enderzero at 6:36pm on Dec. 14, 2010    
Dec 7, 2010

Somewhere – Review

It is pretty much my policy to give Sofia Coppola a free pass. Her films all overflow with style and I know that even if I’m not blown away by the story, I’m going to enjoy the 90 or so minutes I spend in her world. This is very much the case with her latest, Somewhere – an exploration of Hollywood stardom. Stephen Dorff stars as the rather bored leading man Johnny Marco. He has the Ferrari and the girls (at least a night at a time), but is beginning to wonder what else the world has to offer him. He finds most of his pleasure in the time he spends with his daughter Cleo – played with impressive maturity by Elle Fanning. Johnny may not be the typical father, but his love for his daughter is unquestionable.

The more I reflect on this film, the more I appreciate it. Like all of Sofia Coppola’s movies, Somewhere doesn’t offer a lot of conclusions. When judged as a contained story, it can seem inconsequential – even frustrating. But the beauty is in the moments. Scenes such as Johnny explaining the banality of his entrance into the industry to a young and hungry actor are downright hilarious (and who will ever forget the pole dancing twins). There is a subtle and powerful realism to Johnny and Cleo’s relationship – Johnny watching Cleo swim in their en suite pool and later her reaction to his Italian date both come to mind. It’s addictive. You want to know if they make it work – which is probably where that niggling feeling of dissatisfaction you’re left with comes from. But hey, dissatisfaction is a big part of what this film is about. Somewhere may not be her best movie – but if you enjoy Sofia Coppola’s work and can appreciate the little moments, there is a lot here to savor.

Posted by enderzero at 5:58pm on Dec. 7, 2010    
Dec 4, 2010

True Grit – Review

You could be forgiven for believing that this year’s Coen Brothers offering is the spiritual sequel to No Country for Old Men. With a marketing campaign focused on top billed names Bridges, Damon, and Brolin, I was quite surprised to learn the protagonist is actually a 14 year old girl – played superbly by Hailee Steinfeld. In fact, the movie has far more John Ford than Clint Eastwood. This is the Coens’ version of the classic western and the result is a terrific trip to the picture show. While it stops short of being wholesome, this is the kind of popcorn flick that a whole family can, and should enjoy together.

It is one of those baffling things about Hollywood when someone like Josh Brolin gets top billing with only some 15 minutes of screen time – while Steinfeld, who turns in an Oscar worthy performance and is in every scene of the movie, gets relegated to the small print. Actor contracts aside, Jeff Bridges deserves his name as big as it can go. If he had been overlooked by the academy last year for his performance in Crazy Heart, there would be no doubt about him receiving his award this time around. Even so, you’d be no fool to place a tidy wager on him going back to back (John Wayne won the award for the same role in the 1969 version). Look for another likely statue for DP Roger Deakins who has been nom’d 8 times without an Oscar win. His beautiful cinematography is at least partially to thank for the film’s brilliantly formal feel. The Coen Brothers have delivered a very enjoyable classic western and a must-see for the holiday season.

Posted by enderzero at 1:34pm on Dec. 4, 2010    
Nov 5, 2010

127 Hours – Review

Danny Boyle’s latest is the very true to life retelling of the Aron Ralston story. The vast majority of the film takes place with Ralston, played by James Franco, trapped in a narrow stone canyon. I’m sure I won’t be the only one to compare this film to Rodrigo Cortes’ Sundance prem-ing Buried – but apart from the similar predicament of the protagonist, the two are really quite different. Buried is all about the gimmick – “How can we make an interesting movie that only takes place in a confined space?” But 127 Hours starts from a different place – “What is the best way to tell the story of someone stuck in a confined space?” While the difference is subtle, it allows the filmmakers a greater amount of leeway to experiment with the idea of confinement and its effect on the character.

The greatest flaw in the film is that we all know from the beginning how it is going to end. This creates a bit of an anticlimax once we get past the gruesomeness of the final decision. However in this case, the journey becomes the destination. Boyle’s vision let’s us peer into the mind of Aron Ralston and Franco does an incredible job of bringing us along as he goes through the different stages of hope, grief, remorse, and desperation. What starts as an incredibly compelling if not very cinematic story becomes a very interesting exploration of a character in an extraordinary situation. Look for Franco to be rewarded at Oscar nom time with possibly more noms to come along for the ride.

Posted by enderzero at 6:26pm on Nov. 5, 2010    

Fair Game – Review

Doug Liman (Swingers, Go, and… Jumper) had a whole lot of options on how to approach making the film adaptation of the Valerie Plame & Joe Wilson story. His decision to focus on the intensely personal side of the relationship between the husband and wife seems to have been a good one – if for no other reason than to showcase the superb acting talents of Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. That being said, the story is serious international thriller territory and the high tension suspense scenes are great. But if that was all the film had to go on, it would be pretty unfulfilling – mostly because of the incredibly frustrating trajectory of the story.

Everyone knows that Plame and Wilson got fucked by the Bush White House (specifically Cheney via Libby via Novak) but it is genuinely interesting to see how their story played out behind the news reports. There is a-whole-nother movie just in what happens when a field operative like Plame gets yanked from her cases. The Butterworth brothers’ screenplay is based on Plame’s autobiography of the same name and Liman also worked very closely with both Plame and Wilson to make sure the details were correct. Not only that – Liman actually traveled to Baghdad to shoot some of the scenes. Liman is a camera on his shoulder kind of director (he’s his own DP) and the end result is both a visceral and personal telling of a very interesting story.

Posted by enderzero at 6:03pm on Nov. 5, 2010    
Oct 21, 2010

A Culinary Day Out in Vancouver

Mi Madre and I headed to Vancouver earlier this month for a very fun 24 hours tromping around the town, checking out restaurants, bars, parks, and art. Here is a short account of the trip. Please check out the links to read my considerably more detailed Yelp reviews of each of the spots we visited. I’ll also link to photos from my Vancouver photoset on flickr.

After checking into our West End hotel the Blue Horizon (the same hotel where my grandfather stayed for a few months when he first moved to Vancouver in the 1970s), we hit Robson heading east. Our first stop was Japa Dog (4* on Yelp) (photo) – a little lunch time amalgamation of a hot dog stand and Japanese street food. That provided us with some fuel for the long walk down seedy Hastings street. But before we got there, we passed the big construction project that is Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium (photo). When the retractable roof is completed next year it will be the home of Vancouver’s new MLS franchise, the Whitecaps.

Hastings Street is starting to show some signs of gentrification. I only saw two people smoking crack openly on the street. There was still some pretty cool street art to be found (photos 1 | 2 | 3). Once past all that, we came to our destination, Commercial Drive. I had read that The Drive, as it’s known, is one of the more happening parts of Van and the reports seem to be true. It isn’t quite Los Feliz or Abbott Kinney, but it did remind me of The Ave in Seattle’s University District.

We stopped for coffee on the north end of The Drive at Pane Vero (4* on Yelp) before heading down through the heart of The Drive’s shopping district. Amongst other spots, we ducked into the memorable 10,000 Villages (5* on Yelp) where we bought a very cool trivet made of folded newspaper from the Philippines. After that we headed down The Drive past a number of Italian groceries and soccer bars where we spotted a very cool Italian soccer mural (photo). We went on to explore the Portland-esque neighborhood behind The Drive and then stopped for happy hour at an enjoyable spot called Timbre Restaurant (4* on Yelp).

From there we jumped on the skytrain and got out at the east end of False Creek where the sun finally peeked out for a bit (photo). The south east corner of False Creek is where Vancouver’s Olympic Village was built last winter. They’ve turned the media center into a very nice recreation center and all the athlete’s housing is now condos for sale (though most seemed empty). The weird part is that it seemed like they have done as much as possible to wipe away the signs that this is where the Olympics took place. No rings, no flame – the only hint was a street sign that ready Athlete’s Drive. Really it was kind of strange.

Just west of the condos is a very cool park (photo) with some great sculptures and some big kid toys. We had a great time checking this place out and the nice view across the creek (photo) before walking back downtown over the Cambie Street Bridge. Looking down from the bridge there was a very cool view of a huge pile of concrete street barriers (photo).

We walked back through downtown and up to Gastown where we walked past photogenic alleyways (photo) and shops (photo). We had a before dinner drink at my new favorite bar the Alibi Room (5* on Yelp) before heading to the dinner spot we decided on, the disappointing Pourhouse (3* on Yelp).

After dinner we walked back west past a cool interactive wooden art installation (photos 1 | 2). Our destination was a bar (pictured above) near our hotel called O’Douls (3* on Yelp). Unfortunately the advertised live music was a glorified hotel lobby band. But we did have a great time ending the evening sipping whiskey (photo). Stay tuned for news on my momma’s upcoming blog Sketching Scotches (working title).

We awoke to a rainy morning and after coffee took a nice drive around Vancouver’s Stanley Park. We then headed south to trendy Kitsilano where we stopped for brunch and the funky and delicious Sophie’s Cosmic Cafe (5* on Yelp) (photo). After eating we were off to the extremely enjoyable Museum of Anthropology on the UBC campus. I’m going to post a whole photoset of all the cool masks inside the museum soon, but for now here, is a photo of Arthur Erickson’s beautiful building.

After the museum it was time to drive back south to the US of A where we met John and friends for a delicious dinner in BHam at Bayou on Bay (5* on Yelp). All in all it was a fantastic trip. Vancouver is just as fun a city as I remember from those 19 year old drunken escapades – only this time with much better food. I look forward to the next trip. Thanks Momma!

Posted by enderzero at 1:07pm on Oct. 21, 2010    
Sep 22, 2010

The Social Network – Review

Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network

The town has been buzzing about the Aaron Sorkin penned, David Fincher helmed The Social Network since the script topped the best scripts list last year. The finished product more than lives up to the hype. How great is it when after watching a movie you feel compelled to spend another hour poring through the Wikipedia entries for the characters you’ve just seen? I wanted to know more – and see more – and we will all definitely be hearing more about the filmmakers and actors as they march towards the Oscar podium.

Fincher’s expertise shines through when you walk out of the theater and realize you were completely engrossed in the details of the fascinating story and forgot to even think about it as a movie. Aaron Sorkin’s script is simply as good as they come. There is no way it doesn’t win the Best Adapted Oscar. These two are utter pros. Count me in to lobby they team up on a TV series. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score is dense, moody, and perfect. The young actors shine across the board. Justin Timberlake and Andrew Garfield both kill it as rivals fighting to influence Zuckerberg’s tiller. Eisenberg may have played the awkward character before, but it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing Zuckerberg so well. He brings a sympathetic aspect to the unlikely bajillionaire that one can’t help but imagine might not be the real Zuckerberg’s strong suit. But it is necessary here. It brings the audience in, keeps us intently interested, and leaves us wanting more. One big advantage of telling a story this topical: the sequel is literally yet to be written.

The Social Network hits theaters Fri., Oct. 1.

Posted by enderzero at 12:55pm on Sep. 22, 2010    
Sep 20, 2010

The King’s Speech – Review

Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The King’s Speech has been the hit of the early Fall Fests – winning the Audience Prize at Toronto and a slew of positive reviews at Telluride. These fests are often launching pads for a big awards push and The Weinstein Co. seems poised to do exactly that. While a Best Picture nom might be within reach, it seems all but decided that both Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush will receive acting noms (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively) and screenwriting, costume, and production design noms could hitch along as well.

If the film emerges as a front runner for Best Pic then count Director Tom Hooper in for a Best Director nom – quite a boon for a filmmaker better known for his TV work (HBO’s John Adams and Elizabeth I). Hooper’s previous feature attempt was last year’s The Damned United. While that film never quite connected with audiences, its real strength was in the relationship between the two main characters: a soccer coach and his assistant. Replace The Damned United‘s Michael Sheen and Timothy Spall with The King’s Speech‘s Firth and Rush and you find a very similar dynamic. Firth is excellent as the stammering King George VI, but it is Geoffrey Rush as the King’s speech therapist and confidant that steals the show. Helena Bonham Carter turns in an admirable performance as well as the King’s perfectly witty Queen. My only complaint is the film drifts a bit too far into the melodramatic at points. Thankfully, the strong performances and touching relationships are enough to right the ship. While it might not quite make my top 10 list, The King’s Speech should at least make everyone’s must-see list.

Posted by enderzero at 12:33pm on Sep. 20, 2010    
Sep 10, 2010

Never Let Me Go – Review

Mark Romanek made his name as one of the most interesting directors with music videos such as NIN’s Closer, The Perfect Drug, Fiona Apple’s Criminal, and The Eels’ Novocaine for the Soul. It is therefore not surprising that his sophomore feature effort (after 2002’s One Hour Photo) is more of an atmospheric success than a captivating story. The film stars Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield (the next Peter Parker) as clones genetically engineered for organ donation. The story begins with the three as small children in their clone-filled boarding school and follows them through the revelation and eventual acceptance of their fates. An unrealized childhood romance between Mulligan’s Kathy and Garfield’s Tommy flares up when the pair are young adults and leads them towards a long rumored hope that those who fall in true love will be spared.

Romanek makes some very mature decisions and his muted style is quite striking. Adam Kimmel does gorgeous things with dreary English photography creating a memorable earthy palette. This is refelected brilliantly in the costume design which serves as a window into the repressed emotions of the characters. All three leads give stunning performances – nothing new for Knightley but very encouraging to see from Mulligan’s as a follow-up to her Oscar nom’d performance in An Education. Given that all of these elements hit, it is particularly dissapointing that the story is a bit of a miss. I couldn’t help thinking over and over that this must be a much better book. Critical moments in the plot seem to happen at the wrong time or are never shown at all. It seems odd that the characters never really question their roles in this world. But the most grievous fault is that the romance between Kathy and Tommy is tragically underdeveloped. I needed to fall in love with Kathy if I was going to truly mourn for her plight and it simply never happened. Romanek’s film is admirable in its competent style – but unfortunately just doesn’t deliver as a love story.

Posted by enderzero at 4:06pm on Sep. 10, 2010    
Feb 18, 2010

Banksy’s Gift Shop hits Berlin

One of my faves from this year’s Sundance was the street art docu Exit Through the Gift Shop. I pondered in my Twitch review the validity of some of the factual aspects of the film. The film’s premier this week at the Berlin Film Fest finds both IndieWire’s Eugene Hernandez and the NY Times’ Manohla Dargis also pondering the same thing. While I think Dargis is off the mark in suggesting that Banksy and Thierry Guetta (aka Mr. Brainwash) might be one and the same – there is no doubt that some elements comprise more than meets the narrative eye.

…Or maybe not. Maybe every piece of the story is exactly how it is portrayed in the doc. Is it really so hard to believe that Banksy took over the editing duties from the schizotron Guetta and was able to put together this fascinating piece of documentation? Maybe it is simply hard for us to believe that someone as subversive as Banksy would do anything that straight forward. How can we trust a man who won’t even show his face?

Regardless, the real story here is how successful the film is at documenting the movement. Just imagine if cameras were rolling when Cézanne and Pissarro were first experimenting together with impressionist landscapes – or when Duchamp and Man Ray were questioning art’s very definitions. Exit Through the Gift Shop gives us exactly this look at the rise of street art – even if Guetta’s/Banksy’s lens is a bit greased up.

Posted by enderzero at 12:11pm on Feb. 18, 2010    
Feb 12, 2010

Top 10 Films of 2009

I know what you are thinking… February? For the record, it is up before the Oscars, so I’m feeling okay about it. I had hoped to watch the last few 2009 films before posting, but there were a couple I just couldn’t squeeze in. If I catch Crazy Heart or The Last Station and they are good enough to make the list, then I guess I’ll just have to edit. I have yet to see A Prophet but that one will be legit if it shows up on next year’s list.

I really struggled with putting these into some kind of order, so I just decided to forget it. The posters above are a sampling of some of the alternate and international flavors. You gotta love the UK landscape format. Click the image above (or here) to see them all and a few others really, really big. Now on to my top 10 list in alphabetical order.

An Education – Carey Mulligan’s performance as the young girl coming of age before her due in 1960s London is certainly good enough to overlook a few story conveniences taken by Hornby towards the film’s conclusion. I was completely along for the ride and loved where it took me.

Avatar – Not much can be said about this one that hasn’t been pretty well covered. Expectations were so high that people would have been disappointed if it didn’t cure cancer. Last I checked, there weren’t too many disappointed.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans – Cage’s gung-ho performance and Herzog’s whacked out film making nab this riot of a movie an easy top 10 spot. mini-review

Broken Embraces – Oh darling Penelope. How you shine in front of Almodovar’s glass gaze. This was like the best parts of Bad Education and Volver combined into one. mini-review

Burma VJ – This exciting documentary takes you onto the streets of the 2007 monk uprising. It is emotional, informative, and motivational.

The Cove – Another docu that fits those three qualities, this film about Japanese dolphin slaughter is already having positive effects around the world. To those too afraid of the emotions the film may raise, it is really more about the ability to make a difference. It leaves you feeling far more empowered than depressed.

The Girlfriend Experience – While it would have been the biggest surprise of the year if Sasha Grey had shown up in any awards contention, her more than adequate portrayal of an upscale call girl helped this film really succeed. But without a doubt, the real credit goes to Soderbergh who hit it out of the park with his ultra-real film making and stylized narrative devices. This one is worth checking out. mini-review

Inglourious Basterds – How can you not watch Tarantino’s latest without a huge grin across your face? From the outrageous script to Waltz’s please-be-winning performance, this is one of the best of the decade.

Sherlock Holmes – Yeah it’s popcorn, but the Downey-Law duo couldn’t be better and Guy Ritchie’s clever stylizations made this one too much fun not to rave about.

Sin Nombre – I lament that I never got to see this beautiful Mexican love story on the big screen. Unfortunately, very few did. Still it is well worth tracking down for a great take on some classic themes. mini-review

What didn’t quite make the cut… I liked A Single Man quite a bit. I need to rewatch Where the Wild Things Are, but suspect it might have crept up into into the list with a second viewing. Any year with a Miyazaki film finds it in contention, but Ponyo was just a little too weird. The Hangover was certainly a lot of fun – but just not quite enough to crack the top 10. What do you think?

Posted by enderzero at 12:41am on Feb. 12, 2010    
Feb 2, 2010

Sundance’10 in Review

Sundance’10 is all wrapped up and I’m back home in balmy Los Angeles. What a blast! A lot of great flicks, a bit of powder, and an overwhelmingly friendly and fun atmosphere. I’ve collected a few words about each of the 21 films I saw, including links to my 10 Twitch reviews. After the film write-ups, I’ve said a few words about the flicks I wasn’t able to catch. I’m looking forward to seeing many more as they trickle out into theaters and other fests throughout the year. On to the movies – in order of viewing:

7 DAYS – Park City at Midnight – Rating: 4 out of 10

As one friend told me, “It’s not torture porn, it’s torture erotica.” That may be true but more than anything, this suspense-thriller is torture. I was more turned off by the protagonist than by the visuals and wished the filmmaker had focused his attention on the detective. Unfortunately I just couldn’t get into this one.
Read my full review of 7 Days on Twitch

THE SHOCK DOCTRINE – Premieres – Rating: 5 out of 10

Michael Winterbottom’s econ-doc is basically the film version of Naomi Klein’s thesis about the ability to create radical change in a nation when the people are too focused on emergency (shocked) to notice. It focuses a lot on Milton Friedman and the Chicago School’s theory of free markets and the US and Britain’s exploitation (and creation) of crises to implement these theories. The film systematically recounts atrocities from Chile to Iraq on the road to the creation of the “disaster capitalism complex.” While this is some pretty interesting (and often depressing) stuff, the film is, unfortunately, a pretty bland and academic presentation of the material. I was left wondering what happened to the style of Winterbottom’s great Road to Guantanamo. While you might learn something, you won’t have much fun doing it and the vague conclusion won’t give you much in the way of paths of action either.

FOUR LIONS – World Dramatic Competition – Rating: 6 of 10

This terrorist version of The Office really shines when its hilarious actors are engaging in physical humor. These guys are real idiots and their ideas about blowing up the internet and shaking their heads when they go outside to elude surveillance are pretty damn funny. The film had a fair bit of buzz around Park City, although in the end it went home empty handed.
Read my full review of Four Lions on Twitch

LAST TRAIN HOME – World Documentary Competition – Rating: 7 out of 10

Lixin Fan’s tale of the largest human migration on Earth (130 million Chinese who return home from cities across the country every New Years Holiday) is a touching and interesting look at the “Chinese dream.” Its vivid cinematography and sparse dialog made me forget at times that this Canadian co-production was a documentary. This is a very powerful story of family and society and Fan executes it stunningly.

HOLY ROLLERS – US Dramatic Competition – Rating: 7 out of 10

I seem to be in the minority of people who enjoyed Kevin Asch’s debut feature about drug smuggling Hasidic Jews. I thought Eisenberg did a fine job but was most impressed by Justin Bartha (the guy they lost in The Hangover). With its great cast and subject matter, I think this one has just as much, if not more, commercial prospects as anything at the fest.
Read my full review of Holy Rollers at Twitch

BURIED – Park City at Midnight – Rating: 6 out of 10

Buzz was pretty positive about the Rodrigo Cortes’s Ryan Reynolds stuck in a box movie. The movie literally has nothing other than Reynolds in the box (nothing before, no flashbacks, etc). There were some pretty cool shots but there were also a few pretty lame developments. Reynolds is certainly a good actor. Overall I was impressed – this is probably the best movie you can make about someone stuck in a box. But when it comes down to it, this is still a movie about someone stuck in a box.

THE KILLER INSIDE ME – Premieres – Rating: 7 out of 10

Winterbottom’s dramatic inclusion at this year’s fest stirred up a whole lot of controversy because of its extreme depiction of violence against women. “How dare you Sundance?” one woman is reported to have asked at a Q&A. But I was okay with Winterbottom’s explanation that this is a fiction film – and particularly a fiction film from the viewpoint of a deranged killer. I was won over by the cinematography and performances – especially the strong supporting cast that includes Bill Pullman, Elias Koteas, and Tom Bower. This is a tough movie, but a stylish one and I enjoyed it.
Read my full review of The Killer Inside Me at Twitch

CYRUS – Premieres – Rating: 6 out of 10

Sundance sweethearts the Duplass bros. are back with their first real studio film (to be released by Fox Searchlight). The film stars John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei as a new couple whose relationship runs into a stumbling block when Reilly meets Tomei’s adult son Cyrus (played by Jonah Hill). The cast is good (Catherine Keener also puts in a predictably excellent performance as Reilly’s ex), but I found it a bit hard to believe a babe like Tomei would swoon over a herb like Reilly. Whatever. The movie is funny but nothing incredible. I kept hoping the Duplai would push it to the next raunchy level (thanks Judd). Instead they play it safe and we’re left with a nice but not extremely memorable comedy.

FROZEN – Park City at Midnight – Rating: 3 of 10

My expectations were low and my suspension of disbelief was set to high for this horror about what happens when you get caught on a ski lift after everyone leaves. It didn’t matter, the movie sucked. All the comments I heard were along the lines of, that would never happen because… I say who cares to those. The movie sucked because most of it is these idiots just yackin’ it up – and the dialog is amateur and boring (to be fair, what else are they gonna do when they are caught on a chair lift?). I liked the hilarious gore and wanted more ridiculously hungry wolves. There wasn’t enough of the fun stuff. As I said before, this would make a great short – but there just isn’t enough to sustain the feature.
Read my full review of Frozen at Twitch

BLUE VALENTINE – US Dramatic Competition – Rating: 9 out of 10

Derek Cianfrance’s relationship drama was probably my favorite film at Sundance. This is in large part due to the performances by Ryan Gossling and Michelle Williams – but the writing is also excellent (Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne also share the screenwriting credit). The film intercuts the beginning of the couple’s relationship with its end in a method that I found intriguing and successful. This combination of heartache and heart-melt paints an emotionally realistic portrait that really worked for me. The film was picked up at the fest by The Weinstein Co. and should find an early fall release with Oscar hopes for both the leads.

TUCKER & DALE VS. EVIL – Park City at Midnight – Rating: 8 out of 10

I loved this script by Eli Craig and his execution did not disappoint! This movie turns the hillbilly horror on its head – and then it grinds that head up in a wood chipper. I was cracking up from the very beginning – even though I knew what was about to happen. The casting was great and I have always wanted to see the cutie from 30 Rock get more than a couple minutes a week of screen time. This film is a blast and I’m pretty confident that if people see it, they will like it.
Read my full review of Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil at Twitch

THE VIOLENT KIND – Park City at Midnight – Rating: 7 out of 10

It seems this Sons of Anarchy meets The Outer Limit tripped out horror movie has been pretty much panned across the board. Bah! I liked it. Yes it is way, wayyy out there. No it doesn’t have much of a cohesive narrative. Yes the sound work is truly atrocious. But overall it is sexy, bloody, kooky and pretty damn fun. All good qualities for a midnight movie and I would be surprised if this one doesn’t win some fans on its trip through the horror fest circuit.
Read my full review of The Violent Kind at Twitch

HIGH SCHOOL – Park City at Midnight – Rating: 6 out of 10

HIGH school was the only midnight movie I managed to actually catch at midnight (at the Egyptian of course). It is really, really funny right out of the gate. Matt Bush (Frigo from Adventureland) plays a smart kid who gets talked into smoking weed for the first time right before the school institutes a mandatory drug testing policy. So his buddy and he decide to ruin the testing by stealing some super weed from a cracked out Adrian Brody (who is awesome) and bake it up into super brownies. Everyone in the school eats the brownies and gets super high. Hilarious. However at this point the film takes a nose dive into plot problemsville. Why are they only in class when it is convenient? Why does he steal the truck instead of just pushing the cart? Why didn’t Mr. Smartest-kid-in-school think of using his own invention? I thought of it 30 seconds after the problem was presented. No doubt there is some really hilarious stuff here and Brody deserves an Oscar, hands down. But the script simply needed another pass or two to take it from problematic stoner movie with some pretty funny scenes to stoner classic glory.

LUCKY – US Documentary Competition – Rating: 6 out of 10

Jeffrey Blitz had a base hit with his documentary Spellbound and then knocked it out of the park with his comedy Rocket Science. His latest docu about lottery winners is more like a sac fly. It tells some interesting stories and we learn winning the lottery isn’t always what its cracked up to be. But it feels a bit long and there isn’t much in the way of excitement. The best line of the film is when one of the lottery winners friends calls winning the lottery, “like sprinkling miracle grow on your character defects.” The animation by Walter Robot is also quite cool. Look for this one to find a TV audience sometime soon.

EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP – Spotlight Surprise – Rating: 8 out of 10

My favorite docu of the fest was this street art character piece, directed by Banksy. I have A LOT to say about this one so check out my Twitch review – but suffice to say it is a really interesting exploration of art, the artist, commercialization, and the authenticity of documentary. I had the pleasure of being at both of the exhibitions spotlighted in the film (Banksy’s 2006 Barely Legal and Mr. Brainwash’s 2008 Life is Beautiful), so it was particularly interesting for me to learn the fascinating back story behind the characters. There’s way more going on here.
Read my full review of Exit Through The Gift Shop at Twitch

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT – Premieres – Rating: 6 of 10

Lisa Cholodenko’s family dramedy has been pretty heavily praised for its spin on the family dramedy genre (they’re lesbians). I found it pretty mediocre. It is pretty sweet and pretty safe and the kids aren’t really that good. Ruffalo is okay and Julianne Moore is okay and Annette Bening is a butch bitch – but overall I just didn’t really care that much. Maybe I am not the target audience but I just couldn’t help but feel like I was watching an ABC family drama.

ANIMAL KINGDOM – World Dramatic Competition – Rating: 7 out of 10

David Michôd’s Australian family crime drama is a taut and atmospheric thriller. The performances are great across the board. This film is really dark and at times maybe a bit too cerebral – but the final act when the grandma shows her true colors is cinematic gold.
Read my full review of Animal Kingdom at Twitch

TEENAGE PAPARAZZO – Spotlight – Rating: 7 out of 10

Adrian Grenier’s documentary about young Austin Visschedyk, a 14 year old celeb photographer, starts out as an interesting insider look at the world of the paparazzi. Grenier’s celebrity status allows us the fun of getting the scoop not just from the guys behind the lenses, but also from the celebs themselves. But the docu really gets going when Visschedyk himself starts attracting celebrity and Grenier has to deal with the fact that he is partly to blame. Grenier shows surprising maturity in his directing. Those who are interested in the subject matter should really enjoy this.

CATFISH – Spotlight – Rating: 8 out of 10

This internet love story documentary had by far the most buzz at the fest. It isn’t some amazing feat of film making, but it is a fantastically interesting story. It hits a bit of a slow patch towards the end, but the film had me sitting on my hands with excitement for its majority.
Read my full review of Catfish at Twitch

ENTER THE VOID – Spotlight – Rating: 7 out of 10

Whoa! As one colleague put it, “Enter the Void will rape your brain!” It is worth the price of admission just for the epilepsy inducing opening credits – but those who get a bit squeamish might want to high tail it after that. The film is a spirit’s slow drug addled trip into the afterlife that takes place after a drug deal heads south in a seedy Tokyo night club. There is a surprising amount of narrative cohesion but the film is more about emotion and visuals than story. It is really tripped out and really interesting and, at a few points, the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen on screen. I could say more, but this one really has to be experienced.

BOY – World Dramatic Competition – Rating: 9 out of 10

Taika Waititi’s follow up to Eagle Vs. Shark (after his multiple directed eps of Flight of the Conchords) is loosely based on his Oscar nom’d short Two Girls, One Cup… wait no wrong short. It is loosely based on his Oscar nom’d short Two Cars, One Night. Boy is the coming-of-age story of a young Maori boy named Boy who dreams about his father coming home and taking him away to life filled with father-son excitement. When his pops does show up (played wonderfully by Waititi), he proves to be even more of a little kid than boy. Like Eagle Vs. Shark, Taika infuses every shot with a visual whimsy that makes the film just as much fun to watch. All the characters are likable and the film just exudes charm. There are some wonderful fantasy sequences and the credits dance number is almost as much fun as Slumdog’s. All in all, this is a very special film. Do what you have to do to catch it.

Those were the 21 films I caught but there were another 80-something I didn’t see. The most notable of those is a movie called Winter’s Bone that won both the screenwriting prize and the big daddy US Dramatic Grand Jury prize (won last year by Precious). Everyone was talking about this Debra Granik deep Ozark woods family drama – but I just couldn’t make it fit. The other film that was buzzing was the war docu The Tillman Story about the friendly fire killed ex-NFL star. Another war docu, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo picked up the US Documentary Grand Jury prize. Other docus I would have liked to squeeze in were Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, Space Tourists, and Alex Gibney’s Casino Jack. I didn’t hear much about any of the three.

My early prediction was that Jake (son of Ridley) Scott’s James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart starring Welcome to the Rileys would be the biggest buzzing film at the fest. I was wrong – but Kristen Stewart did stir up some buzz with co-star Dakota Fanning in Floria Sigismondi’s punk rock biopic The Runaways (though not all of it good). I saw neither. I was pretty damned excited for my chance to see (Oscar nom’d) Cannes holdover A Prophet – but I guess I’ll have to wait until it comes out in theaters on Feb 12. Both Hesher and Howl had critics in meh mode but both are likely to find their way to limited releases in the next awards cycle. The scientific horror Splice looked like it had some cool visuals but the word in the tent was that things got pretty corny when the love story started up. I also would have liked to have seen Nuumioq. Unfortunately my first chance to see a movie from Greenland was a miss. Finally, the only movie in the Next section that raised any eyebrows was Katie Aselton’s Duplass produced The Freebie. Like many of the films in Park City, I’m sure I’ll have another chance to catch this one as it makes its way across the festival circuit.

Thanks to Todd and Dan for making it all possible. Thanks to Alex for the big hosing assist. Thanks to Carly for the editorial notes. And thanks to all of you for reading. I look forward to your comments.

Posted by enderzero at 10:28pm on Feb. 2, 2010    
Jan 24, 2010

See you on Twitch!

I’m very happy to announce that I’ll be reviewing films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, currently underway in Park City, for the film site Twitch.

My first review of the film Four Lions is up now.

Stop by to see more from me through the week and to anyone finding their way here from Twitch – welcome!

Thx Todd and Dan.

Posted by enderzero at 1:05am on Jan. 24, 2010    
Jan 22, 2010

Review: A Single Man

Fashion designer Tom Ford’s debut feature is an audacious and (not surprisingly) stylish piece of cinema. Although he throws a wide array of cinematic tricks at the audience, most work well, adding to the experience instead of detracting from the narrative. At its heart, A Single Man is an intensely personal character piece that succeeds on the strength of its two incredible leads. While some of Ford’s decisions point to a penchant for style over substance, his restraint in allowing the actors to do what they do best shows surprising maturity.

Colin Firth plays George, the film’s namesake due to the recent death of his long time partner Jim (played in flashback by Matthew Goode). We meet George on the day he has decided his life is no longer worth living. George’s depression is compounded by reminders of Jim at every turn: as he dresses for work, as children play across the street, as he walks across the college campus where he lectures. While George has decided he has nothing left to live for, it seems those around him – most notably his best friend Charley (Julianne Moore) and pupil Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) – want nothing more than a taste of his elusive affection. As the day progresses towards his decided suicide, George is forced to reconsider the extent of his debilitating loneliness.

No review of this film can overlook the strength of Colin Firth’s performance. He commands the audience’s attention with his confident desolation and cutting English wit. Like those in George’s life, we quickly find ourselves hoping for something to make just a pleasant smirk cross his face. This seems to be a feat that only Charley can achieve – and the performance by Julianne Moore couldn’t be more pleasing. In her meatiest scene, she expertly transitions from stoic and sardonic to vulnerable and remorseful – and then back to place of contented realism. A great character to be sure, but this is the Julianne Moore that we’ve only been allowed to glimpse when Haynes is at the helm.

I’d be interested to know how large of a roll Ford played in the film’s look. It is easy to see that he lent his expertise to the costume department as every single person looks cut from a catalog. The production design is stunning, with each set and prop offering up a visual feast (how about that beautiful vintage Mercedes coupe?). But the real surprise is the cinematography. This is DP Eduard Grau’s first feature (he also shot Sundance headline maker Buried) and the visual trickery is abundant. The subtle shift of color saturation really worked for me, but a few of the effects (most likely done in post) felt a bit heavy handed. Still, no one will argue that this film is not stylish.

As much as I enjoyed it, this gem is not without its blemishes. The end is predictable and not entirely satisfying and Hoult’s performance leaves something to be desired. But these are minor complaints in a film that is both moving and a pleasure to watch. It is an impressive debut from Tom Ford, who as Variety says, is certainly a director to watch.

Posted by enderzero at 5:19pm on Jan. 22, 2010    
Jan 20, 2010

Mini-Review: The White Ribbon

What is it about Cannes juries and their love for realism? Is it too much to ask that a Palme d’Or winner tells a compelling story? While I found last year’s winning The Class at least interesting, it clung a bit heavily to the realism kick. And 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was so boring it would put Gus Van Sant to sleep (he won in 2003 for the sloth-like Elephant). I am sorry to say I enjoyed Michael Haneke’s addition to the list even less than any of those films. And I have a feeling Haneke wanted it that way. While I never saw either of his reportedly quite distrubing versions of Funny Games, I did find myself pretty creeped out by Cache. Haneke loves to make the audience feel uncomfortable – and The White Ribbon is one long uncomfortable ride. But unlike Cache, I had no interest in any of the many despicable characters and didn’t think any of the performances were all that special. There were too many diverging plot lines and I was still trying to figure out who some of the characters were by the end. So what are people raving about? The black and white cinematography? Okay sure it was kind of nice and added to the Bergman or Kurosawa-esque feel, but I still require some kind of satisfying story in order to enjoy the experience. Without that, you are just left with a movie that reminds you of better movies.

Posted by enderzero at 9:11pm on Jan. 20, 2010    

Dig, the Irreverent Filmic Comedy of the Spielblog

I’ve been enjoying my buddy Greg’s blog Steven Spielblog since he started it a few months back. Why have I waited until now to link to it? I wanted to make sure the comedy wasn’t just a fluke… beginner’s luck or something like that. It’s not. He’s genuinely funny, a far better reviewer than I, and he’s got pretty okay taste. Starting this month you can also catch his review over at Twitch (although with fewer irreverent captions). Keep it up bud.


Posted by enderzero at 4:32pm on Jan. 20, 2010    
Jan 19, 2010

Top Albums of 2009

My top 10 albums of 2009 was pretty close to being a top 5 after what was, by all accounts, a very quiet second half of the year. I was already listening to just about each one of these discs by the time the summer came around and only a few of them ever made it into heavy rotation. Maybe that means we’ll have a glut of good music heading our way this year.

10. Wilco Wilco’s self-titled seventh full length is far from their best, but it is consistently good and worth a spot on the list.

9. Jay-Z – The Blueprint 3 Jay-Z earns the only rap spot on the list due to a few extremely catchy tracks. I liked the Raekwon and Q-Tip albums – but just haven’t found the desire to go back to them.

8. The Mars Volta – Octahedron The Volta went in a different direction with this year’s release and I am pretty impressed.

7. Metric – Fantasies Gimme Sympathy was just too good of a summer anthem and the album has some other gems as well.

6. Passion Pit – Manner Passion Pit reminds me a bit of Ghostland Observatory except I like them.

5. Sigur Ros – We Play Endlessly This was the Sigur Ros album that finally got me to go back and listen to all those other Sigur Ros albums I have never gotten into.

4. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love The Decemberists have always excelled at the “full album” album – but The Hazards of Love, complete with some great guest vocals, really must be listened to in one sitting.

3. Silversun Pickups – Swoon While it may tread too dangerously into radio rock territory for some locals, these boys from the neighborhood are building themselves a nice career on this extremely solid album.

2. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion Now I get it. And now I want more. By the way – have you ever looked (I mean really looked) at this albums cover?

1. Phoenix – Amadeus Wolfgang Phoenix I’ve listened to it more than any of the others on the list and it still hasn’t gotten old. This is the only album from 2009 that I would say could end up as a classic.

What do you think? Agree? What’d I miss? For what it’s worth, this is still my favorite track of the year. Bring on the SoS full length!

Posted by enderzero at 6:12pm on Jan. 19, 2010    

Mini-Review: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

There is a fair bit of lore surrounding the title of Werner Herzog’s entry into this year’s awards soup. Rumor has it that Werner didn’t bother to watch Abel Ferrara’s original 1993 Harvey Keitel starrer – and neither did I – so let’s not dwell on that. Regardless of remake (or sequel) status, Werner’s version is unlike any movie you’ve probably ever seen. This film blasts you into the realm of the absurd and then just as you are starting to lose touch with reality, hits you right in the teeth with the cold steel barrel of a .44 magnum. Werner has managed to make it both extremely uncomfortable yet utterly satisfying. He does this by masterfully drawing the audience’s puppet strings – knowing exactly what we expect, what we want, and when to give us either. It is easy to forget Nicolas Cage is a serious actor – but his Terence McDonagh is one of most dynamic portrayals on screen this year and he should seriously be considered for awards. With superb performances by the supporting cast which includes Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Xzibit, and Jennifer Coolidge, BL:PoCNO is easily one of my favorite films of the year. Maybe we can talk Werner into directing the next Ghost Rider.

Posted by enderzero at 4:12pm on Jan. 19, 2010