The Big 2-9

Aside from the fact that this day sealed my fate as the “Never Gets a ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Teacher or Your Classmates Because School’s Out for Summer Kid,” June 28 never seemed like a terribly interesting day to be born.

Until I realized that’s also the day sublimely talented actors Kathy Bates, John Cusack, the late Gilda Radner and the late Pat “Wax On, Wax Off” Morita headed toward the light of the birth canal. June 28 also gave King Henry VIII to England (bet that’s one pregnant lady the Great Holy Aardvark wishes he could have uninseminated). And June 28 happens to be the only day every year where the month and the day are different perfect numbers*.

But really, the only reason I ever get all jacked up is because the 28th of June is when the World’s Greatest Director — the reason I love movies and the reason I have such a warped, wacko sense of humor — Mel “Lepetomane” Brooks classed up Planet Earth’s population.

This year, though, looks be far more exciting because Andy at Fandango Groovers hatched a brilliant idea: Write a post listing favorite films for every year I’ve been breathing. Later in 2010 Andy’s planning a blog event on this theme, so start thinking about your choices, readers. Without further adieu, here are my favorites from 1981-2010:

Ash will saw off your nose.

1981: “The Evil Dead” — Maybe directors did horror-comedy before Sam Raimi’s cult classic, but those movies did not feature the unstoppable Bruce Campbell as erstwhile hero Ash, who would later go on to coin the phrases “boomstick” and “hail to the king, baby.”

1982: “First Blood” — The first in the Rambo franchise, Sly Stallone’s “First Blood” combines jaw-dropping action, buckets of bloodshed and a surprisingly poignant message about the treatment of Vietnam vets in America.

1983: “The Big Chill” — College pals Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum reunite to mourn a friend’s suicide. This much acting talent on one set is a recipe for goodness.

1984: “Blood Simple” (full review) — The fact that this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film is almost as astounding as the film itself. Almost.

1985: “The Breakfast Club” — The late John Hughes showed us, in this poignant ode to real teen issues, that lurking inside everyone there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a basket case and a criminal in search of connection. And a little doobage.

1986: “Aliens” (full review) — Twenty-four years later and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains a female action hero with smarts, guts and muscles. What a novel idea.

1987: “The Untouchables” — Most gangster movies offer plenty of bloody shoot-em-ups, slick double-crosses, dark double-breasted suits and bank accounts stuffed like you wouldn’t believe. Brian De Palma’s “Untouchables” also has something else: a conscience.

Velcome to vaxwork...

1988: “Waxwork” (full review) — There are crappy films, and then there are films that revel and delight in their own crappiness. Guess which kind “Waxwork” is.

1989: “Heathers” (full review) — No matter how cruel the queen bees in your school were, they don’t hold a candle to Idi Amin wannabe Heather Chandler.

1990: “GoodFellas” (full review) — Powered by the performances of Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, “GoodFellas” set the bar for gangster movies impossibly high.

1991: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” — The follow-up to Cameron’s impressive “Terminator,” the sequel blasted the volume up to 11, boasted some thrilling chase scenes (the semi rundown is iconic) and reached the level of Whoa, I’ve Never Seen That Before! with its ice-cool villain T-1000 (Robert Patrick). 

1992: “Reservoir Dogs” (full review) — Quentin Tarantino gives the Cuisinart treatment to the traditional caper-gone-wrong and ends up making one of the most inventive films of the ’90s.

1993: “Schindler’s List” — Steven Spielberg’s sweeping, horrifying and heartbreaking retelling of the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) mission to rescue Jews during the Holocaust is emotionally punishing, but it’s a film that must be seen. It can change your life if you let it.

1994: “Pulp Fiction” (full review) — It’s got John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, a booty-shaking soundtrack and scene about Christopher Walken wearing a watch up his ass two years. That’s all you need to know. 

Will the real Keyser Soze please stand up?

1995: “The Usual Suspects” (full review) — Not only does Bryan Singer’s noirish, twisty thriller feature a killer-good ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey AND Gabriel Byrne AND Benicio del Toro AND Chazz Palminteri), “The Usual Suspects” also has the best twist ending. Ever written.

1996: “Fargo” (full review) — Dear Coen brothers: Thank you for showing me that it’s never impossible to take an old formula (best-laid plans gone to hell) and put a devious, violent spin on them. Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies

1997: “Chasing Amy” — Too few directors of romantic comedies have no interest in showing relationships as they actually are. Kevin Smith is not one of these directors. His “Chasing Amy” is raw, frank to the point of crudeness and deeply heartfelt, and it examines the problems all lovers — gay and straight — face.

1998: “The Opposite of Sex” — “The Opposite of Sex” is the best black comedy you’ve never seen. Don Roos puts the screws to the traditional narrated film formula with Dee Dee (Christina Ricci), a heroine who may be plucky but isn’t the least bit lovable. She’ll ransom your dead gay lover’s ashes and not think twice about it. 

Move Milton's (Stephen Root) desk to Storage Room B and see where that gets you.

1999: “Office Space” (full review) — Mike Judge takes a maze of cubicles and turns it into a feature-length film that’s the personification of Dante’s limbo, then sets it to a fantastic rap soundtrack. It’s good to be a gangsta.

2000: “Quills” (full review) — No other actors slips so effortlessly into the part of the villain as Geoffrey Rush can, and that mirthful, slightly evil glint in his eyes makes him the perfect (and only acceptable) choice to play the infamous Marquis de Sade.

2001: “The Believer” — Based on the true story of Dan Burros, a Jew who became a Neo-Nazi, Henry Bean’s “The Believer” looks unflinchingly at all aspects of faith and features what may be Ryan Gosling’s most gripping performance. Ever. 

2002: “City of God” — Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama plays out like an elegaic marriage of the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”  and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” capturing the bloody, grim realities of a life lived in Brazil’s rough Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela.

2003: “Mystic River” — Author Dennis Lehane understands, deep down in his soul, the rhythms of Boston’s shady, bleak underworld. Director Clint Eastwood understands the people who have fallen through the cracks. Together, “Mystic River,” about three childhood friends dealing with a murder, they make an unbeatable team.

Javier Bardem's performance is anything but bleak.

2004: “Mar adentro” (full review) — Is it possible to make a film about a quadriplegic (Javier Bardem) who wants nothing more than to die and have that film turn out to be an affirmation of life? Look to “Mar adentro” for the answer.

2005: “The Constant Gardener” — Taut political/medical conspiracy thrillers ordinarily don’t offer emotions as complex as the plotlines. But director Fernando Meirelles etches characters (Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes) who matter to each other, and so they matter to us.

2006: “The Lives of Others” (full review) — Movies about Big Brother rarely take the time to humanize the enemy, but director Henckel von Donnersmarck finds humanity even in the most ardent supporter (Ulrich Mühe) of suppressing free will.

2007: “No Country for Old Men” (full review) — Call it the Coens’ Law: Every time you think they’ve made their best movie ever, they top themselves. How they’ll top this gritty, violent and blackly funny caper is something this reviewer has gotta see.

2008: “The Dark Knight” — With “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan single-handedly revived a years-ailing franchise; in the inspired sequel — part Greek tragedy, part action flick, part sweeping character drama — he let Heath Ledger reinvent the iconic Joker in the spirit of creation.

Get in my bell-ay, Jew Hunter!

2009: “Inglourious Basterds” (full review) — In terms of sheer imagination and cojones, almost no director working today can match Quentin Tarantino, who in this misspelled epic rewrites the ending to WWII and gives cinema one of its greatest villains (Christoph Waltz).

2010: So far? “Shutter Island.” The predicted winner? “True Grit.”

*It’s my birthday and I’m giving you a math lesson. Can you say “nerd”?

One to Watch: “You Again”

Call me a marshmallow, but I develop an automatic soft spot for a movie about a late bloomer (Kristen Bell) who gets the chance to square off against the girl (Odette Yustman) who made her high school years hell on Earth. Especially if that movie also pits Jamie Lee Curtis against Sigourney Weaver. And invites Betty White and Kristen Chenoweth to the party. So many funny ladies in one movie can’t be that bad.

I’m just a little sorry they didn’t ask me to write it. Actually, Jessica Bryant is probably happy about that. Jessica Foster too.

Not that I hold grudges.

 

No. 25: “Aliens” (1986)

“Get away from her, you bitch!”
~~Ripley

Struggling to name a female action hero for the ages? Well, look no further than “Aliens,” James Cameron’s full-throttle follow-up to 1979’s “Alien.” Though Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) isn’t the first woman to kick ass and take names, she’s certainly one of the memorable, and maybe one of the best. Cameron wrote Ripley that way, no doubt, but Weaver takes her to another level. She’s not afraid to show the strength alongside the weakness, and she reveals the very real emotional toll of so much violence and stress. In Ripley Sigourney Weaver does more than create a first-rate action hero; she provides “Aliens” with an emotional center potent enough to push this tense sci-fi/action juggernaut from “very good” into “exceptional.” 

Cameron illustrates early on the tremendous faith he’s placed in Weaver’s talent, as “Aliens” opens and closes with Ripley’s image. She is the only survivor of an expedition 57 years before (the plot of Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” more a horror film than “Aliens” is), where the crew members of space freighter Nostromo battled hostile aliens on a mystery planet. Ripley awakens from hypersleep inside a salvage ship headed to the same planet, LV-426, to find out why contact’s been lost with the terracolony there. Knowing what she knows, Ripley’s violently opposed to the mission, but agrees on one condition: Burke (a very scummy Paul Reiser), who works for the company that finances the colony, assures her they’ll every last alien. Seeing as he’s a corporate type well schooled in the art of spin, what he really means is he’s positive he can turn those creatures into some mighty effective weapons. The crew, composed of Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn), Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton, functioning as the comic relief), trigger-happy Pvt. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Bishop (Lance Henriksen), an android, don’t like Burke any more than Ripley does, but a mission is a mission.

When the ship docks on LV-426, “Aliens” kicks into action overdrive. Every last colonist has vanished, seemingly dead, but one child, a girl called Newt (Carrie Henn), has survived. She and Ripley bond out of emotional necessity, and their relationship becomes crucial to Ripley’s character and to the film’s plot. The silence and emptiness is creepy, but not half as creepy as the sense that the aliens are there, hiding in ceilings or lurking in corners. It isn’t long before the crew discovers what Ripley knew all along: that the aliens have taken over, snatching the colonists and using them as hosts for alien eggs. That realization ushers in a veritable explosion of nonstop action, a series of crew/alien battles so unrelentingly tense and savage and frightening that “Aliens” actually becomes difficult to watch. The final half hour is a testament to Cameron’s technical skill as a director. These scenes are all build-up and no release; “Aliens” sucks us in, then slams us, squirming and struggling, to the floor, pins us down and refuses to let up. The alien queen’s final attack on Ripley — an impressive melding of fight choreography and effects — merits recognition as one of the most thrilling action sequences ever filmed.

From a technical standpoint, “Aliens” merits high marks across the board. James Horner’s dynamic musical score moves in unpredictable ways, heightening our unease and providing an excellent backdrop for the action. Visual effects supervisors Robert and Dennis Skotak ascend to new heights in costuming with their conception of the alien suits worn by stunt artists, gymnasts and dancers. The alien queen, a combination of puppetry, hydraulics and more, is a work of art. Never before has an alien creature appeared so terrifyingly real; never before has what we see on screen surpassed what our imaginations could dream up. In the simplest terms, “Aliens” achieves what we viewers never thought possible.

And somehow, in all the explosions and the machine gun fire and the flames and draining violence, Sigourney Weaver stands out. She’s in the frey and manages to rise above it. Weaver’s Ripley is a testament to something most action films hide: She isn’t a hero because she’s invincible, but because she isn’t.

Cameron blazes dramatic new trail in “Avatar”

One life ends and another begins when paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) agrees to infiltrate Na'vi culture in "Avatar."

Horatio: “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”

Hamlet: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
~~”Hamlet” (Act 1, Scene 5)

Before James Cameron’s gorgeous, vividly imagined “Avatar” absorbed me into it completely, Horatio and Hamlet’s exchange ran on loop throughout my mind. Though it’s doubtful Cameron based four years of hard work around a few lines in “Hamlet,” he nonetheless gives dazzling life to these words in “Avatar.” The director has implored us, just as Hamlet implored Horatio, to open our minds to the infinite possibilities of the universe, things our brains tells us are illogical or improbable. He wants us to believe big and dream bigger, and by the time “Avatar” comes to a close — 160 minutes never seemed to so quick — he’s made starry-eyed believers out of the lot of us, skeptics, optimists and everyone in-between. This is a film that will change the way you see your world, and one that redefines “possibility.”

“Avatar” begins, however, with a very human and somewhat familiar story. The year is 2145, and humankind has set up camp on the planet Pandora intent on harvesting unobtanium, an invaluable mineral, initially through bartering and other peaceful measures. Corporate tycoon Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and the rough-edged Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) — both unfortunately written as one-note, stereotypical villains — would prefer to blast their way through the native inhabitants, a race of lean, tall, blue-skinned humanoids called the Na’vi who refuse to relocate or give up their land. For awhile, though, Dr. Grace Augustine (a cheerfully mouthy Sigourney Weaver) has convinced Selfridge and the colonel to let her interact with the Na’vi using avatars controlled by humans. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine called to Pandora when his twin brother, trained for years to inhabit an avatar created specifically for him, suddenly dies. Initially indifferent to the task, he finds with each trip into the Na’vi world more to love about the culture, such as their intense, respectful connection to the land and to Eywa, their maternal deity manifested in all living organisms. He also takes to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, who gets better with every part), the daughter of Na’vi’s leader who acts as his wary cultural attaché. She inherently mistrusts him. “Sky People cannot learn; you do not see,” she observes.

Though Neytiri is wrong about Sully, who finds his avatar life more fulfilling than his actual life, she is not wrong about many of Pandora’s human colonizers. Col. Quaritch, played with unkillable, Rambo-esque menace by Lang, views the Na’vi not as native inhabitants but as hostile enemies in need of extermination. To Selfridge (gripe alert: Ribisi deserves a deeper part than this), they are a nuisance in need of removal and the “how” doesn’t matter. And so “Avatar” becomes a film about the battle between humans consumed by Manifest Destiny-styled entitlement and the land’s native inhabitants. Cameron has an agenda and sways our sympathies accordingly, with our internal conflict manifested in the person and avatar of Jake Sully. And while Cameron pushes his agenda hard, he softens the message somewhat with the love story of Jake and Neytiri. Neither story is especially revolutionary; the same is true of a few characters, ill-written and flat, and the ending, a little disappointing in its predictability. Still, the interwoven stories ground this awe-inspiring, fluorescent world of make-believe — in a good way.

Besides, Cameron’s smart enough to know that visuals excuse a multitude of plot/writing sins. So much has been said about the visuals in Cameron’s multi-year, multi-billion-dollar labor of love that to say more seems unnecessary. However, “Avatar” is above all else a visual experience, and one engineered painstakingly to retain traces of our human world and expand it simultaneously. What Cameron achieves in the film is the successful marriage of computer-generated imagery (awe-inspiring to say the least) and real people. Never before have reality and fantasy meshed so beautifully, and never before has such a union seemed so astonishingly real. One scene stands out in a handful of others: a moment between Neytiri and Sully, visible to her in human form for the first time. There is tenderness in her face, the likes of which we’ve never seen in a CGI character, and there is fascination in Sully’s. He sees for the first time what he believed to be impossible, and he is changed. So are we.

Grade: A-

Review: “Snow Cake” (2006)

Snow_CakeLonely people tend to recognize their own kind — in life and especially in independent films. Perhaps there’s a certain scent they give off, the musk of desperation cooled by a trace of sad resignation, or the look in their eyes, a mix of unyielding wariness and palpable longing. Maybe there’s an inner pull, a kind of magnetic attraction. Whatever the reason, the lonely, they know each other.

This is how the lives of three solitary people — Alex (Alan Rickman), Linda (Sigourney Weaver) and Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss) — end up intersecting in icy, small-town Canada. Dynamic Vivienne (Emily Hampshire), an expert on lost-cause types, takes a liking to the tight-lipped Alex, newly released from prison. She interrupts his coffee at a diner, disarms him with her wit (her take on self-help books is hysterical) and begs a ride home to visit her mother Linda (Sigourney Weaver). But their friendship is not long for the world; there’s a car accident, and Vivienne’s death sends Alex in search of Linda. Alex, who’s cold but not heartless, feels guilty and wants to do the right thing … until he realizes Linda is a high-functioning autistic. Suddenly, being decent doesn’t seem quite so shiny.

Herein lies the emotional weight of “Snow Cake” lies, in the uncomfortable interactions between Alex and Linda, who aren’t all that different from one another. Linda is intelligent and functional but unable to process emotions like grief or anger; Alex, for reasons we discover later, tends to repress his feelings for fear if he lets one out they’ll all overwhelm him. Both Linda and Alex exist in their own isolated worlds, and it’s become comfortable not to need anyone else. So to call their acquaintanceship “odd” is a whopping understatement. There is no emotional bond; Linda informs this interloper she prefers “useful” people. Alex sees this as an opportunity: He can plan Vivienne’s funeral, take care of a few chores and move along. No messy emotions to sift through. No forced attempts to “connect” and “bond.” and share “quality time.” This becomes a workable and refreshingly unsappy relationship.  

It’s fair to say the same of “Snow Cake” itself, for this is a film that lacks sap. Angela Pell’s script deftly avoids melodrama at points where we expect it most; instead, Pell favors humor and fumbling awkwardness and flashes of real poignancy (Linda’s funeral dance is one of the best scenes). Linda and Alex are two of a kind, living in a kind of emotional quarantine, and Linda’s sexually confident neighbor Maggie seems like an outsider to them. For Maggie, though, sex is a way to avoid real intimacy, to experience physical closeness without emotions. She is the most mysterious character, and the one who seems the most unaffected by Alex’s arrival.

Notice how that word “seems” keeps popping up? There’s good reason for that — “Snow Cake” is the kind of minimalist indie character drama where not much at all happens and what does happen is very, very subtle. The film is a bit like “Come Early Morning” in that way, with the characters undergoing changes so gradual they threaten to slip past unnoticed. Rickman, in particular, is genius at playing men who are thoroughly damaged but not unredeemable. With his guarded eyes, he doesn’t give us much to explain why Alex is the way he is. But there are small moments — feeding Vivienne’s dog for Linda, opening up to Maggie — where Rickman shows us the man behind the wall. Moss and Weaver’s performances offer up no such explanation. We know nothing about Maggie and Moss is unwilling to let down her guard. But watch the change in her expressions; hard as she is, she’s learned to trust someone other than herself. As Linda, Weaver has the toughest part; she must be a woman living in her own head, but one we develop affection for. It’s a thankless part, but Weaver gives it a certain kind of grace. 

Come to think of it, that’s exactly what “Snow Cake” is all about: grace. These three lonely people find it in each other, and it gives them strength to keep going. That’s not much, maybe, but it feels like everything.

Grade: B