Tuesday, November 18, 2014

THE TEN GREATEST MOVIES OF 2008! Historic year, in general, and for movies!

Man, 2008 was a really good year. Yeah, the housing market crashed the country but it was inflated for years, it needed to. A historic year, Barack Obama got elected President of the United States, I still remember all the excitement and glee as seven o'clock came around and the polls closed on the west coast, confirming the news every sane person in America was hoping would happen, but wasn't still afraid it wouldn't. More importantly than that though, the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series, the first time in my lifetime any of the Philadelphia sports teams that I cheer for actually won. I didn't watch most of it, I was in class, really finally finding my voice and way in film school for many of the games, and more than that, every time I watched the Phillies that year they had lost, and after careful consideration, they decided that I shouldn't watch, but eventually, I had to tune in, and I did tune in for that legendary second part of Game 5 that had been rain delayed, when we beat Tampa Bay, and as the late Harry Kalas would say, we finally let the city celebrate. Well, the Phillies finished last place this year, and we're probably gonna start getting rid of many of the players that were the core of that team, and Obama- And, he's done a great job. Screw the critics on that one, no he wasn't perfect, but he's mostly been railroaded from the last grasps of a delusional conservative party, and besides, Obamacare means that I actually have health insurance now, so, he might be not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but slowly but surely, he's climbed over a few mountains that most weren't able to climb, and that's pretty damn good to me.

So, as to movies, in '08, there were a lot of really good ones. I can easily think of about 40 or so films that could've easily made this list. Not to sound like a pro wrestling cliche now, but for those of you wondering what we're talking about here, awhile back, I started a feature where I would go through each year of the naughts decade, and go over the ten greatest films from that year. I started with 2000, and we're almost finished. We're at 2008, and the next time I update this, it will be the last time, and I will, on top of doing a Top ten of '09, will also do a Top Ten of this decade as well. If you haven't caught up until now, here's the lists and links to the appropriate blogposts below with all the other years' lists. .

2007
1. Once
2. Juno
3. No Country for Old Men
4. There Will Be Blood
5. Grindhouse
6. Into the Wild
7. 12
8. Persepolis
9. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
10. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/09/the-ten-greatest-movies-of-2007-sorry.html

2006
1. INLAND EMPIRE
2. Children of Men
3. United 93
4. The Departed
5. The Lives of Others
6. The Puffy Chair
7. Babel
8. Sherrybaby
9. Hard Candy
10. An Inconvenient Truth
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-ten-greatest-movies-of-2006-funny.html

2005
1. Munich
2. Good Night, and Good Luck.
3. Brokeback Mountain
4. Mysterious Skin
5. Sin City
6. The Upside of Anger
7. The New World
8. Crash
9. Saraband
10. Capote
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/05/ten-greatest-movies-of-2005-halfway.html

2004
1. Sideways
2. The Incredibles
3. Before Sunset
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
5. The Aviator
6. Kill Bill: Vol. 2
7. The Five Obstructions
8. A Home at the End of the World
9. Million Dollar Baby
10. Hotel Rwanda
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-ten-greatest-movies-of-2004-man.html

2003
1. Lost in Translation
2. City of God
3. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
4. Love, Actually
5. Monster
6. The Fog of War
7. Dirty Pretty Things
8. The Twilight Samurai
9. The Barbarian Invasions
10. The Shape of Things
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-ten-greatest-movies-of-2003-year.html

2002
1. Adaptation.
2. Minority Report
3. 25th Hour
4. Spirited Away
5. Y Tu Mama Tambien
6. Bowling for Columbine
7. Frida
8. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
9. Lovely & Amazing
10. Far From Heaven
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-ten-greatest-movies-of-year-2002.html

2001
1. Mulholland Dr. 
2. Dinner Rush
3. Waking Life
4. The Royal Tenenbaums
5. Gosford Park
6. Monsters, Inc.
7. Amelie
8. Audition
9. Ghost World
10. Memento
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-ten-greatest-movies-of-year-2001.html

2000
1. Almost Famous
2. Amores Perros
3. Traffic
4. Requiem for a Dream
5. Chocolat
6. Best in Show
7. Wonder Boys
8. High Fidelity
9. 6ixtynin9
10. Cast Away
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-5-obstructions-blogathon-objective.html

BTW, since I'm not really in the mood to go back or anything, (and besides, these should be reflective of the moment I wrote these anyway) but I recently finally saw "Infernal Affairs", which I count as a 2004 release, that's when it finally hit U.S. theaters, and had I done that list today, I might be prone to finding a place for that film. But, that's the thing, as much as we love making these lists, we're limited by our knowledge, our time, when we can and have time to watch, and so on and so forth, so, oh well. For every top ten I make, (Including my long-delayed one for 2013, which may or may not be coming soon) I usually have twice as many films at number 11, that I wish could've made it anyway. So, 2008, let's jump right into it and start the countdown, here's the TEN GREATEST MOVIES, from 2008!

TEN GREATEST MOVIES OF 2008

10. THE BANK JOB



Based on the famed so-called, Walkie-Talkie Robbery, "The Bank Job" is a dizzying heist movie, filled with numerous double and triple-crosses, and constant scheming and re-scheming. Somebody called it more complicated than "The Sting", and it is, it's also one of those films you really can't stop watching; I'm not gonna pretend I even understand all that happens in the movie, but like "The Big Sleep", it makes sense while you're in the middle of it, but trying to reconstruct the moving parts is worthless, and besides the point anyway. This is a British gangster film, based around a 1971 robbery of a Baker Street Vault, yes, that Baker Street, in London. The movie claims that the actual information about the crime was hidden away under an obscure British law called a D-Notice, or a DA Notice, that keeps a crime out of the media, the crime and the continuing investigation, at least, after the initial publications of the report. That report's probably not true, especially since most of the film and the players involved are so out there, it doesn't really matter, you can barely tell which side anybody's on at any point anyway. Jason Statham gives his best performance as the head bank robber who falls into this perfect crime, that becomes anything but, but who's smart enough to maneuver around that and help out nearly everyone involved. He's more known as an action star than an actor, but he gives some really great work here. Saffron Burrows has a role as a femme fatale, a former that's at least a double agent, and probably much more. This is the rare kind of movie that's just one kinetic thriller after another, and the more you watch, the more intriguing the film gets, The film was directed by Roger Donaldson, who's a bit of an erratic, although he's done top quality work like "The World's Fastest Indian", "Thirteen Days", and "No Way Out". He's good at taking stories that, on the page, might not be as dramatic, and he knows how to tell them in a way that really builds tension, even as everything seems to be going on around the film. "The Bank Job", isn't reinventing too many wheels, but it takes some of that Guy Ritchie-esque energy and quirks in his gangster films, smartens up the gangsters, and places it in a world of mystery and intrigue that would've just as well in any classic film noir. There's a lot going on in "The Bank Job", you'll be damned if you can keep track of it all, but you're have a helluva fun time trying.


9. FROST/NIXON



Ron Howard finally won that long-delayed Oscar that he should've won for "Apollo 13" earlier in the decade for "A Beautiful Mind", which was a very good film, especially in a week Oscar year, (Until Affleck for "Argo", that was the last time the DGA winner didn't get a Best Director Oscar Nomination) but clearly the best film of his this decade was "Frost/Nixon", the story of one of the more memorable albeit at-the-time, more forgotten sidenotes in recent political and television history. That's the part that's kinda left out, that probably interested Howard as much as anything, that David Frost (Michael Sheen) basically put up most of his wealth to do his fame interviews with Richard Nixon (Oscar-nominee Frank Langella) to create this TV program of him interviewing Richard Nixon. Based on Peter Morgan's famed play, the movie takes an interesting off-kilter perspective at it's subjects, told through interviews of those who were there, all the details of the interviews, and how they came about, and the way they were when they were making the series, the places both Frost and Nixon were at, at the time. The quiet hidden pressures of Frost, needing to get that critical moment with Nixon, and Tricky Dick, trying to restore his reputation and essential defeat David Frost at his own game. I've often said that had Michael Sheen been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, I would've voted for him for this film, even over Heath Ledger's Joker, but really, this is, really a lead performance here and it is about both Nixon and Frost. Frost was talk show host, who produced movies occasionally, and had been on a downturn in his career, which for a Great Britain television star, they had to go down to Australia to reboot their career, and it was him that had to coarse Nixon somehow into hanging himself, while Nixon, had one last shot, to reclaim his integrity, and possibly a spot in the political world landscape. It was almost a contest, this game of chess, Nixon intimidating, knowledgeable, a great talker/debater trying to wear down Frost, (Which, in turn made some of the actual interviews, if you've ever seen them, boring beyond belief) while Frost, spending most of his money for the production and to Nixon for the sitdown, hoping and having to quickly learn how to go blow-for-blow with Nixon. Similar to "The Bank Job" oddly enough, Ron Howard and Peter Morgan's script, managed to do something here that's really difficult, building tension during something that's otherwise rather dull and boring, and has anything but tension in it. Two great performances in the leads, as well as a lot of good supporting work from Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon, Toby Jones and others, And we tend to forget how good a filmmaker Ron Howard can be, and he can be inconsistent at times, but with "Frost/Nixon" and recently "Rush" and of course "Apollo 13" among others; we see that he really does belong among those upper tier of Hollywood directors and here, he's take a part of recent history, that's really a footnote, a very forgettable one at that, and elevates it into great drama.


8. THE VISITOR



You know it's a good year, when the 8th best film of that year, is one I've already devoted a Canon of Film entry to. That link to the Canon of Film post is below:

http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2013/04/canon-of-film-visitor.html

So my appreciation of Tom McCarthy's "The Visitor" is clearly established already, and McCarthy's made three really spectacular films, and he's not a name, we even think much about, even when we think about American independent film too much, we don't think about him and yet, when you happen across his films, and I've rewatched "The Station Agent" once or twice too recently, you get so engrossed in his films, you can't turn away. He embraces these very unusual, almost banal characters, that seem to be rather aimless through their life, but the quiet ways that suddenly they find themselves, discovering more about themselves, and each other,- too many people think, great action, noise, special effects, that that stuff really amazing, when it's really much simpler than it looks, but what Tom McCarthy has done looks really simple, yet it is impossibly much more dfficult to achieve onscreen. Especially in "The Visitor", where there's a lot of major plot developments in a very short amount of time, when you consider the film, and yet it is the subtleness of the acting, and the emotional and moods that he hits, and it's not the actions, it's the relationships between the characters that entrance us the most, at his best he creates this real poetry with film that we just don't see enough of at all, and when we do, it's never done this well. Richard Jenkins, got a surprise Oscar-nomination for the film, and this is one of those movies, that will take people a few viewings to realize how special it is. They'll set it once, maybe twice, they'll like it, and then happen to come across it again and again a few more times, and then watch and appreciate it more and more as they go on. The more times this film gets rediscovered after a few years, the better it's gonna get. It gets richer and more perfect on each viewing.


7. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK



If you go back and check Roger Ebert's Top Ten lists, you'll notice a couple things about 2008. First, he refused to rank the films that year, and secondly he had a Top 20 instead of a Top Ten. (Frankly, I understand perfectly why he did that right now.) He then named "Synecdoche, New York" as the best film of the decade, which, frankly I understand, completely. On some levels, "Synecdoche, New York", seems to exist, outside of the typical realms we think of as film, and it's not bound by any conventional sense of realism or the laws of man, and yet, it's goal seems to be to completely and entirely convey the complexities, subtleties and nuances of life, or at the very minimum, the way our mind has chosen and insisted on approaching it. The title, is not simply a euphemistic homonym pun on Schenectady, if you know your English grammar, it means a term where you're referring the entirety of something, by only referring to a part of it, (The best examples of this, are when people refer to people, usually women, by using only parts of their body.) but the film's story is essentially an attempt by one man, to exceed at creating a piece of art that encompasses his whole life. The man is Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a playwright who's got a MacArthur Grant, and begins work on a play that involves constructing a lifesize mini-replica of New York City, inside a warehouse, where he will be retelling his life story, and actors are all hired to play the parts of characters from his life, often at different times and ages. The production, which is never-ending, is his representation of his life, or at least, how he may wish it were or want it to be. The movie seems to begin in a reality world, where his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) soon leaves him, along with their 4-year-old to Germany. He's haunted by her leaving, so haunted it still haunts him as he dives into his second marriage to an actress, Claire (Michelle Williams) who's in his play. Sometimes, the rehearsal and construction of the play are real life, sometimes we're in a memory of his, sometimes a fantasy, sometimes real life's separate from the play, sometimes he's changing real life in the play, sometimes memories, like the house that's forever burning down, still haunt his present that they might as well still be happening continuously like they never stopped, while other parts of his laugh, flow right by him, and he barely notices. Trying to explain much more or in any more elaborate detail is rather useless, but once again, Kaufman's journeying deep into the recesses of the mind, and the way it works, the differences between reality and how we channel that reality to help formulate something that makes sense for us, or how lost we get when it's impossible to do that. Kaufman throws almost everything he can think of into "Synecdoche, New York", and maybe that's the point. You can watch the film multiple times over and see something new, or something different and think about it differently on later viewings. It's a rich film that'll grow after each viewing. Kaufman


6. VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA 



Amazingly, this is the first Woody Allen film to make any of Top Ten of the decade lists, and don't confuse that with him not making good movies. He made some clunkers, that's true, but especially the second half of the decade, he really started returning to form, and in some ways giving us some new forms of Woody Allen that we weren't used to, quite frankly. He made a couple great films in '05, with "Match Point" and the underrated "Melinda and Melinda", the former being his first film in London, as he had trouble getting American financing and then for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", he shot in Spain for the first time, Barcelona, where the engaged Vicky, a Catalonia Studies major is visiting for the first time, along with Christina, her more adventurous friend, who has experiences long enough to know that she doesn't enjoy/want them for herself. On this vacation, they meet a handsome and romantic artist, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who asks them both out, for a menage-a-trois. Vicky is practically offended, but Cristina is intrigued. They both go on a trip to Oviedo, in northwest Spain (That's an inside joke, that's where a famous Woody Allen statue is, although Woody doesn't show it) What happens there, is hilarity, eroticism and romance, and it effects the three of them as Vicky struggles with her emotions, while her fiance Doug (Chris Messina) is waiting for her in New York, before he himself arrives, and Cristina begins a relationship with Juan Antonio, before his notorious ex-wife, Maria Elena (Oscar-Winner Penelope Cruz) suddenly shows up at their doorstep in the middle of the night, as treacherous and intoxicating as ever. After some initial reluctance, Cristina embraces a three-way relationship, much to the shock and chagrin of others, including Vicky, who's both appalled and jealous. Originally written with the city of San Francisco in mind, (Which Woody would eventually shoot at for last year's "Blue Jasmine") "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", is more fitting in Spain, and is almost like Allen's version of Luis Bunuel's "Belle de Jour", another film where an older director, would examine sexuality and desires late in life through the perspective of a 20-something woman;it's a lot of Allen's inner conflicts and neurotic and quirky stuck in situation they're not sure why they got into or how they got out of, but never has it practically abandoned the intellectual so much, and embraced our more arousing nature so much. It's intriguing actually, how these sudden changes of locations had suddenly opened up Allen to new possibilities with his characters, maybe never moreso with this romantic-comedy. This is really one of Allen's most fun films to watch.


5. MAN ON WIRE



One of the most thrilling documentaries in recent years, was James Marsh's Oscar-winning film "Man on Wire". And when I say thriller, this really was an intense thriller of a film, I was on the edge of my seat watching this, and I know a lot of people who don't like documentaries that have often said the same thing. In 1974, Magician and tightrope walker Philip Petit, and his amazing crime, of constructing an illegal tightrope across the Twin Towers and then walk across. Oh, he didn't just walk across it once, he went back and forth multiple times, even lying down on it. Using original video footage from Petit himself, interviews as well as reenacted footage, Marsh shows us, much of the preparation of the act itself, including many of the ins and outs of tightrope walking, but more importantly than that, was how to plan and then pull this off. Simulating the conditions on one end, trying to figure out how to sneak into both towers, to the top level and then be able to construct a tightrope, appropriately across a large street..., and these are just some of the initial problems, not to mention the dozens of things that could go wrong that they can't plan or prepare for. There's no mention of 9/11, or each really a mention that the towers aren't there anymore, in fact, the opening sequences beautifully shows old footage of the towers being constructed, and how it was then, that Petit thought this would be his latest challenge. (He was already famous for less daring feats including walking across the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and across Notre Dame Cathedral) This wasn't just the best documentary of the year, "Man on Wire" was one of the most entertaining films of the year, and really put James Marsh on the map as a director, who's gone back and forth between great documentaries like "Project Nim" and quality features like "Shadow Dancer", and co-directing the "Red Riding Trilogy". This is really one of the premiere docs of the decade, and just as a movie, it's enthralling.


4. THE DARK KNIGHT



Probably the least surprising piece of news you can find from me about 2008 in film is that, "The Dark Knight" was pretty damn great, and it was. I don't know who's idea it was to put Christopher Nolan in charge of rebooting Batman originally but after the failures of the original films, back in the '80s and '90s that I grew up with that stressed the more comical nature of the character, Nolan, who had at the time, only directed a few features and was most known for the critically-acclaimed indy, "Memento", he took this trend of returning comic book favorites to the big screen and gave them a serious darker edge, that truly captured the true essence of Batman. I didn't have "Batman Begins" on my Top Ten list for the year that came out, but it easily could've been on it, and I frankly would've been satisfied with just that, but he decided not to leave it just at that, and created the best superhero movie of all-time (And if some asshole comments about Batman not being a superhero, I swear to God- just shut up!) Starting where we left off from that film, "The Dark Knight"'s most famous success is Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning portrayal of The Joker, in some ways Batman's most cartoony villain, but such a true villain like that, would've cheapened this franchise, and instead Ledger created a shockingly realistic and menacing villain, one who's capable of the most dastardly and evil schemes and plans, often for little more than the joy of committing his heinous crimes, and using the unpredictable as a stronghold for creating menacing fear, all while holding that knifed-in smile, that even he tells two different stories about how he got them, and there's no way of telling which, if either is even remotely true. We have had some memorable depiction of pure evil in this decade, including two of the greatest the year before with Anton Chigurh in "No Country for Old Men", and Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood", but Ledger's Joker will not only exceeds in many ways compared to those two, but gives us added dimensions to an already familiar character that nobody really was there. That alone is worth the price of admission, but Nolan also brings us Two-Face, in Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent, Batman's most conflicted villain, who starts as a hero cop, hellbent on ending crime in the city, and then through the fates of both Bruce Wayne, (Christian Bale) and the Joker, he loses that trust in the city. In some ways Nolan's is giving Batman and Joker, two vigilantes one of pure good, one of pure evil, and then, stuck in the middle, Two-Face, who's evil and good is out of his control in both his creation and his actions. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaced Katie Holmes in this sequel, which was an upgrade from the original and the way he ends it, just like the first one, no cliffhanger, no extra information, the franchise could've ended right then and there and it would've been satisfying as a complete story. It's not only that he made these great films, he made these films, and they were so much better than they ever really needed to be; that's why they're so special. I mean, there's clearing the bar by an inch and clearing it by a foot, and he cleared it by a mile, and that's what really makes these films, especially "The Dark Knight" such great cinematic accomplishments.


3. THE WRESTLER



Probably the two films that most people were upset in 2008 that didn't get Best Picture nominations were "The Dark Knight" on the Hollywood blockbuster end, and on the Independent cinematic end, was Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler". Aronofsky didn't have that much clout at that time, after the mess that his previous film "The Fountain" had been, but it's still hard to call "The Wrestler" a return to form, this was unlike any film we'd previously seen from him. Bare, stripped down, a character profile of a man, we're literally often just following, as he beats down, overuses and destroys his broken down body, after years of professional wrestling. Mickey Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, who's twenty years past his prime, still working any local pro wrestling shows in whatever bingo hall or college gymnasium that some second-rate promoted can find and put his body through beatings, steroids, alcohol, self-inflicted and non-self-inflected cuts and bruises, all to retain that last piece of fame and glory he once had. All 'cause that's the only thing he knows how to do. This was Rourke's comeback performance, and few performances really just get to me like this one. Not just the physical transformation that Rourke's achieved, through many of the same methods as wrestlers (He once quite acting to pursue a failed boxing career, completely disfiguring his face from the '80s) and it's almost like he's trained for this part for a lifetime. A sudden heart attack causes him a forced retirement, and the films shows his desperate struggle to formulate himself into the real world. Trying to make up with his daughter, trying to have a relationship, with a stripper, Pamela (Oscar-nominee Marisa Tomei) who's also been doing her profession way too long, trying to hold down a regular job. The writing of the film, didn't get enough, Robert D. Seigel's script could be taught in screenplay classes. Aronofsky's best films are "Requiem for a Dream", "The Wrestler" and "Black Swan", and the thing all three have in common is a look as the obsessive nature of it's character, how that takes over them. "Requiem..." made my Ten Best of 2000, but I think "The Wrestler" it finally clicked with him that the key was to solely focus on one character, and one character only, let that person's fate be the thing we are most interested in, let us grow to care about what happens to a washed-up broken down man like Randy. I've been a pro wrestling fan, I've written on once in a while, I even briefly wrote for another website on it, so I have a familiarity with the subject matter, (I would not call myself an expert) but this film makes you care about the character, it doesn't need to show or teach us all the ins and outs about the "sport", it shows what we need, that doing this to yourself for a very long time, is a hazardous and life-threatening choice, but that some people, like Randy, can't help themselves but to keep doing it.


2. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE



You know, I won't discuss, how I happen to come about the scenario in which I happened to have seen "Slumdog Millionaire" before it hit America theaters after it's stunning debut at the Toronto Film Festival, but I did end up being able to see it before most people, and I came out of that viewing, telling everybody that "Slumdog..." was gonna win the Best Picture Oscar. Indeed, this is the highest ranking I've place a Best Picture winner on any of these lists, and it absolutely deserves it. This was one of the few where I truly found myself crying tears of joy at the end, this was modern Charles Dickens by way of Mumbai, and it tore through every critical blockade I could possibly mount up. It's contrived, it's a feel-good story, it's all that, but it legitimately earns it. Jamal (Dev Patel as a grown-up) is an orphan who goes through some incredible life experiences, like Oliver Twist before him, new eccentric characters come in and out and he schemes and manuevers his way through the world while still madly in love with his childhood crush Latika (Frieda Pinto) who as he's constantly struggling to relocate, is constantly drifting farther and farther away from him. I mentioned Dickens a lot, but this really is a British sensibility with Manchester-born Danny Boyle's incredible directing with the help of the handheld digital camerawork of the great Danish cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, there's such a vibrancy to this film, it's constantly going forward and pushing us in many different directions, from comedy to horrific nightmarish drama to romance, it's a "Rocky"-story for fuck's sake;  it is this sprawling epic of emotions, that we see in life and all in this one life. Boyle was always a good director, who was known for shooting in almost any genre, although was most famous for the overrated but god "Trainspotting" beforehand, but I think with this film, he finally found an appropriate subject for his directing style, one that's constantly on the move, and giving us something new to look at all the time; this was the first time I got Danny Boyle as a great modern director, and especially with this film, sentimentality is such a tightrope to walk for a filmmaker, 99/100 it falls flat on your face, the one time, you get it right it's a masterpiece. An in a year of masterpieces, really, looking over this year, 2008, this was one of those really great years in cinema, were there were too many great, great films to name, and it was still beyond clear, how good "Slumdog Millionaire" was compared to the others, it's really an accomplishment, just how powerful and great "Slumdog Millionaire". And the fact that I'm still only ranking it 2nd, it makes me shake my head in disbelief at how great this year was, and how great this film is.


1. WALL-E




From a filmmaking standpoint, when I think back on what film really blew me away, looked everything that was accomplished with the film, how much great work went into it, the most daring of films from this year, the most cinematic experience, in terms of combining the past and present of technique and storytelling in ways that we haven't seen done, and done so beautifully and funny and smart ways; the true best film of 2008, was Disney/Pixar's "WALL-E".  Famously the last film after "A Bug's Life", "Finding Nemo" and "Monsters, Inc." that was outlined from the infamous '94 lunch between John Lasseter, Pete Doctor and Joe Ranft, and directed by Andrew Stanton,  Wall-E is a robot. He's alone, very bored, with his job of cleaning up and compartmentalizing the trash on what's left of an abandoned Earth. We're informed eventually that he's been there, doing this for 700 years, enough time to create some assemblage of a personality. Then suddenly, another, more slicker robot, EVE, a slicker female robot, send down to search for signs of life. So many are involved in this film. For one thing, it's an incredible science-fiction film, one that has numerous references to other great sci-fi films and works of the past, while telling a fairly new story. From a storytelling side of filmmaking, "Wall-E", was a lot riskier and bolder than anything Pixar had done before. Using Ben Burtt to raid Disney's old sound effects literally out of storage, there's no dialogue for a good first half of the film. No art form of filmmaking is more visually inclined than animation, but this was a huge gamble. Hardly any human characters, most of the robot characters express themselves through beeps and other sounds and for much of that time, the only real character is WALL-E himself. They also found a way to use live action for the first, including a well-cast Fred Willard in old footage as an obviously conniving president of a United States that's been taken over buy a company called BuyNLarge, and "Hello, Dolly", another reference to film, is even used on an old dying, VHS tape that WALL-E covets. And then, the animation itself, this seems to be doing everything. From remnants of the past, to the Earth world of "WALL-E", compacting and compiling trash day in, day out for years, to the point where he's composed giant skyscrapers of them, to the Axiom ship in the sky that houses the world's humans, who've become monstrous flabby baby-like forms of their former selves, all this technical work, and oddly enough, one of the most beautiful sequences, is the dance in space with EVE and WALL-E with a fire hydrant, one of the most touching sequences of any movie I've ever seen. And every little detail in "WALL-E" was needed to create this film, there's a lot here, but it all tells the story, and it all really works. The most detail, the most filmmaking risk, probably the most technique used, a tribute to all forms of filmmaking and animation and from Pixar, who rarely does anything less than spectacular, "WALL-E" literally goes through the stratosphere. It was a great year for film, and in general, but the best movie goes to "WALL-E".

Thursday, November 13, 2014

MOVIE REVIEWS #98: "SAVING MR. BANKS", "ERNEST & CELESTINE", "THE INVISIBLE WOMAN", "THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2", "DIVERGENT", "MUPPETS MOST WANTED", "LOCKE", "NIGHT MOVES", "PALO ALTO", "THE GALAPAGOS AFFAIR: SATAN COMES TO EDEN" and MORE!

Ah! I was trying get one more movie in but- oh well. I got my Netflix back, and I'm finally able to watch a few more movies from last year that I couldn't before, but I now have to watch a lot more movies. Hopefully that'll be good. Lately, it's a busy season for me, and frankly, I'm often finding myself distracted. There won't be a TV Viewing 101 update this time around, as I gotta get around to some other blogs first, including, my very long-delayed, Top Ten List for Last Year! Ugh! Yeah, I wish it was earlier too, but I've only got a couple other films to go, and I'm almost ready to make an official one, or an official enough one that may of course change many times later in the future. I'm also gonna work on adding some extra keys to my blog, to make it easier to navigate in the near future; I've been meaning to do that anyway, but I'll be getting to that.

Also, since I have been busier than normal, I'm looking for people who may be interested in writing a new blogpost or two here, as a guest blogger. I've always meant, even from the earliest days to have more than just my voice here, but things haven't turned out that way, and I do want to work on possibly changing that every once in a while at least. You'll still get plenty of me, don't worry, but just a nice mix-it-up, once in a while, I don't think would be unusual.

Anyway, it's time for this week's edition of our RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS! Starting with the Oscar-nominated features "Saving Mr. Banks", "Ernest & Celestine" and "The Invisible Woman"!


SAVING MR. BANKS (2013) Director: John Lee Hancock

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It's been awhile since I last watched "Mary Poppins," but, I do distinctly remember this two-sided nature of Julie Andrews's character, and finding it out how she could one minute, brush aside the world and start singing and dancing, but then, the next scene, seem entirely too stern and abrupt towards the kids. I was actually always turned off to "Mary Poppins" as a kid because of it, but now, I wonder if it made more sense than I first thought. "Saving Mr. Banks", is about the struggle it took Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, as who else could really play him?) in order for him to get the rights to finally make "Mary Poppins". Actually, the film smartly focuses on P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) the authors of the Mary Poppins books, and even after twenty years, before she finally gave up the rights, she insisted on script approval, and that was just the beginning. Insisting that Dick Van Dyke not be cast, insisting on approval over the designs of the characters and the buildings, insisting on no animation at all, and don't make it a musical. Travers even insisted on all script meetings with her and the writer, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the Sherman Brothers, (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) be tape recorded in case anything she says doesn't get done, she wants the backup evidence just in case. Between these scenes of debate and discussion over whether it should be 17 in the address of the home, should read "Number 17" on the Scene Heading or not, and her insistence on no pears in the fruit basket (and she has problems with the fruit basket to begin with), we get constant flashbacks in P.L.'s past in Australia as a child (Annie Rose Buckley) , having to suffer through her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) drunkenness and illnesses that often lead him stumbling from job-to-job, until he's bedridden, and her mother Margaret (Ruth Wilson) starts to go insane, at one point attempting to drown herself. It's here we see those origins of "Mary Poppins", and the source for P.L.'s temperamental nature. Some people, who might be looking for a more over-arching portrayal of Disney will be disappointed, the most negative thing the film seems to say about him is that he smokes. Or worst, that he's a film producer. I don't think it would've helped anyway, Disney was such a complicated character that it would take many more than one movie to truly portray him. (One's in post-production now as a matter of fact, called "Walt Before Mickey", and I don't buy that it's because it's Disney holding up his image, everybody knows both sides of him now, and besides, they could've easily just put Touchstone on the film if they wanted to do.) What the movie is really about is that process of adaptation, and the struggles involved, especially as an original writer of how one has long coveted the importance of their creations, especially when they are much more personal than they may at first seem. There's some really great performances her by Thompson and Hanks, as there's some good casting in general, there's some key smaller roles, that they just slip in Paul Giamatti and Rachel Griffiths into those parts. It was directed by John Lee Hancock, who I was skeptical of after his last film, "The Blind Side", but this is a far superior effort, and it actually kinda made me want to revisit "Mary Poppins" actually, maybe appreciate it more. "Saving Mr. Banks", gives us many sides and dimensions to that film and the story, and the whole process of filmmaking. Very impressive film.


ERNEST & CELESTINE (2013) Director: Stephane Aubier & Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner

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There's a touching simplicity to "Ernest & Celestine". It's a fairytale world of mice underground below, and an overhead world of bears above. Based on the series of children's novels from Belgian author Gabriel Vincent, the Oscar-nominated animated film has a startling beauty, style-wise, somewhere between the harsh hand-drawings of Bill Plympton, with the touching soul of "Madeline". Celestine is a young orphaned mouse, who's precocious and daring enough to question the authority when the old woman or the old dentist tell stories of how vicious bears are, and to be afraid of them. There's a little "The Tale of Despereaux" here, but much more personal and enchanting. As orphans, in between drawing idealized pictures of friendly bears, unconvinced by the horror stories, her job like many mice, is to go up to the bear world each night, and find little cub's bear teeths from under their pillows for the dentists in the rat world, who, similar to much of the bear population, have rotted and ruined their teeth with sugar . It's after one faltered attempt do she soon get found by a homeless and hungry bear, Ernest, who's a failed street musician. After originally trying to eat Celestine, Ernest gets talked into instead, eating from the basement of a candy store, and then later, she helps out Celestine by having her acquire dozens of teeth from the bear dentist, across the street from the candy shop. (Location non-so-coincidental, the dentist and the shoppe owner are married) Eventually, both are ostracized and eventually they begin living and spending time with each other, trying to hide and survive from both the mice and the other bears. The animation is beautiful and the softly muted watercolors and hand drawings of "Ernest & Celestine" just place you in a feeling of timing and emotion of innocence. It's a little surprising considering two of the directors, Aubier & Patar had created "A Town Called Panic", one of the strangest and most surreally strange animated films in recent years; I loved that movie which was based around plastic toys and the strange misadventures they have. There was such an revelry of freedom in that film, that seemingly anything could happen and it was incredibly strange; this film almost feels like a complete 180 to "...Panic", which originated in Belgium as an animated television show; "Ernest & Celestine" is heartwarming in the best sense of the word. It's comforting like a warm fire on a cold winter night, like- like watching the log channel on Christmas and New Years really. The film is about the feeling that the movie evokes and it's that sense that really the film is about, and on that level, it way beyond succeeds. I watch the English-language version, which sadly marked this as the last performance from Lauren Bacall, as well numerous other great voice talents, led by Forest Whitaker and MacKenzie Foy, the French language version starred Lambert Wilson and Pauline Bruner, but it's worth watching no matter what language it's in.


THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (2013) Director: Ralph Fiennes

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For Ralph Fiennes's first feature, he tackled Shakespeare with "Coriolanus", and with his second, he tackles Dickens. Ironically, in both cases, they involve the theater world. It's a bit of a forgotten fact although not a terribly surprising one that arguably the world's greatest novelist, was intricately involved in the world of theater. In fact, acting was his backup profession, before he became famous as an author, and even afterwards he toured with his own theatrical troupe across England, producing and stage managing plays for others, performing as well. He also late-in-light performed readings of his novels to much acclaim. "The Invisible Woman" showcases this side of Dickens (Fiennes), but it's main story is about his longtime mistress Ellen "Nelly" Ternan (Felicity Jones). Told in flashback, years after Dickens's passing, Nelly was an actress with his troupe, minor one at first but she soon starts getting more higher profile roles, in and outside of the company as he quickly becomes friends with Nelly and her family. She's infatuated with his work, the kind who can't wait to discuss her thoughts on "Bleak House" or "Little Dorrit", and even after being with him, looks at his works even more closely. She's almost groupie-ish in her devotion, but things continue to get more complex as it becomes harder to hide their relationship. Dickens even publishes a public separation from his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), who she has her son Charley (Michael Marcus) read to her, as she was distraught. Of course, Dickens, never did get divorce, and although the movie does focus on some of the other more infamously noted incidents in their relationship, Catherine delivering a mis-delivered gift to Nelly, the train accident they were in, where Dickens left her in the crash to be saved later in order for him to seem as though he was traveling alone, but it's the way was shot and directing that's really the intriguing thing here. The movie takes some great pains, not to follow the typical path of a romance, or even those of an affair. It's actually, kinda hard to explain the directing style, it's almost distant to the romance. Actually it's more like it's in profile from it. Except for a couple scenes, Fiennes seems more fascinated by the effects from the romance, the ways the characters behave, than it is, the actual romance. (Although one scene, I found particularly sexy). We see and understand Dickens not being able to love his wife for instance, and how he's inundated with kids from her, causing him more and more fiscal hardships that he has to keep writing and making engagements and readings, which some claim contributed to his death. We see Nelly's struggles with her true love of Dickens, but the pain it forces upon her trying to not simply be the other woman, which inevitably she becomes. The Abi Morgan based on the Claire Tomalin novel doesn't have a traditional narrative, and that makes the performances much more key than it first seems. Felicity Jones gives an amazing performance, as well as Fiennes as Dickens. The more you watch the film, the more complex it gets, in some ways, it feels more like theater, where scenes can sometimes come in and out, and while they don't seem particularly seem to directly relate to each other at first, they soon directly relate to each other. Like, they're not necessarily linear and scenes immediately leads to scene B, it's more sprawled out, Scene A occurred, then some time later, scene b happens, then the next scene, sometime later, not necessarily connected separately but emotionally, it's powerful. The more you dive into "The Invisible Woman" actually the more impressive the film becomes. The film was a very late release last year, and was under the radar until it got a surprise Oscar nomination for Costume Design, but there's a lot more to this film. This is one of those films that could get better on every viewing; it's a very accomplishment for all involved, and I'm very curious what Ralph Fiennes does next as a director, and Felicity Jones, I hope her name gets placed for more high-profile work; this is the kind of great lead performance that gets overlooked and it really shouldn't. Far more subtle complexity than it seems.


THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014) Director: Marc Webb

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As I continue to try and dissect "The Amazing Spider-Man", the extreme juxtapositions of tones, moods and way too many disparate ideas coming together become more evident and clear. And I'm still half-tempted to recommend it; truth be told, of the five Spider-Man films between Raimi's original three and Webb's two, this one might be the one I would consider a favorite of them. Don't be alarmed though, I've never particularly recommended any incarnation of "Spider-Man". I've gone on that rant before about him though, and here, it seems like, the problem here, were clearly in execution as oppose to anything else. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) are always in this lovey-dovey honeymoon period, even when they've broken up with each other, they feel like Nick and Nora Charles, are having another argument as opposed to being stuck in the middle of a potentially life-threatening situation caused by some new Oscorp fuck-up, who's products seems to have as much success rate as ACME. Those scenes were more a remnant of Webb's "(500) Days of Summer", while scenes like the opening, make Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) the lowly blueprint electronics grid developer who Spider-Man saves one time, and becomes obsessed with him, he seems particularly over-the-top dweebish. Other characters and scenes would've been greatly improved upon by simply playing them more realistically. Does a scientist have to sound obnoxious and evil when studying Electro? Every once in a while, somebody will hear make talk about how great Nolan's Batman movies are because of how seriously they took the story, saying "It's just a comic book movie?" Well, it's a lot of money and time put into a movie, you can't simply, be unsure of just how the genre; you gotta treat the film seriously, no matter how you decide to go about making it, and the problem with "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" (Which interestingly enough, the original didn't have so much) is that, it doesn't know exactly what way to approach the material. Or worst yet, it wants to approach it in every way. Consider the cutaway scenes during Electro and Spider-Man's battle at the end, alright, the one with Aunt May (Sally Field) working in the hospital as she's completed nursing school, alright, maybe that's at the back of Peter Parker's mind, while he's trying to MacGyver his webs into something that can harness electricity, but other than the fact that Gwen Stacy was heading to the airport at one point, was there really a reason for the scenes at the air traffic controller? I mean, it doesn't really connect to anything else that's going on, and we don't focus on too much other collateral damage during the film, potential and otherwise? Plus there's the Harry Osborn (Dane Dahaan, looking like a young DiCaprio) character, who's close to dying, and will do anything, for Spider-Man's blood, hoping that it can somehow heal him. I will say that, I bought the explanation for why Peter Parker turned into Spider-Man, while everything else that comes of out Oscorp seems to turn into, well, I don't want to spoil everything, but you know. That's the other thing, pretty much all the "Spider-Man" stories, are the same, something bad happens at a lab, creates a unusally intentional supervillain to wreck havoc on New York, blah, blah blah. Also, does everybody in New York listen to call-in radio? I don't know, like none of it was bad, but nothing felt like it went together either. It looked and felt like a mess. There's no clear vision here. You want to know the real difference between Nolan's films and everything else? Nolan's had a vision. Okay, he was told to do Batman, he said, "Okay but I'm doing my Batman.", and he stuck to that version. I know, the original films, were basically a composite from a lot of people and ideas as well, and trying to push force them out in some way in which they constructed a feature, and it seems, like they did the same thing here and none of it really felt like it was supposed to be part of the same film. I can definitely appreciate the film, but there's no way I can really recommend it.


DIVERGENT (2014) Director: Neil Burger

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Before anybody asks, I don't have any immediate knowledge of the children's book series "Divergent" is based on; I've never heard of it until now. Honestly, mostly of the time, despite a few notable exceptions; I've never been that big a fan of adapting young adult children's lit stuff anyway honestly, and "Divergent" is no exception. It takes place in some strange future where based on their testing of some kind, people are separated into specific groups of society. I don't remember all of them, and I don't really want to sit through the prologue again, but apparently Tris (Shailene Woodley) comes from the Abnegation group, the more liberal and modest group, known for their altruism and selflessness, like feeding the factionless who don't fit in any group and are essentially ostracized from the rest of society. When everybody becomes 18 or whatever age it is, they get a test to determine which group they belong in, and Tris and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort). Much to their parents' Andrew and Natalie's (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd) chagrin, Caleb gets Erudite, the-, hold on I'm reading it somewhere, the conservative high-minded scholars, but Tris, gets told to just be with Abnegation, but her test said that she fit into multiple groups, which means that she's likely to be killed if she ever found out because of the immense amount of power they hold. Apparently. (Shrugs) And apparently, that's a problem that people, don't fit into, society neatly. Anyway, Tris, for some reason joins the Dauntless group, which are the police and soldiers group who are supposed to be the group that protects all the other factions from each other, so they go through, I don't know, something between extreme parkour and the things Ethan Hawke had to do to become as astronaut in "Gattaca", plus unnecessary risking of life, plus, these dream scenes where you're injected with a serum that shows your deepest fears and you need to overtake them, which is what gives away Tris's divergency to Four (Theo James) one of her Dauntless bosses. The leading political voice in Dauntless is Jeanine (Kate Winslet) is the bad guy, she's trying to eradicate Erudite, by using a serum to suggest things to them, turning Erudite Abnegation into an army, or something like that. It doesn't really make much sense when you think about it. "Divergent" is one of those movies that seems like it's got a more important message than it really has, but eventually it boils down to a rather simplistic message into not being caught up or whatever. I half expected Winslet to say "Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated", When you look at it on paper, the story is worst than the film; it's one of those stories, that's so perverted, it could almost be the kind of story that some idiot's gonna misinterpret as important the way Ayn Rand is perverted nowadays. It's that kind of bad, but the film is actually made well enough that it does overcome some of those problems in interesting enough ways, for awhile anyway, that you kinda want to see where this goes, but ultimately it doesn't go anywhere we haven't seen other pieces of literature go before, or do it better. I don't get all the "Hunger Games" and "Harry Potter" comparisons I keep hearing, but it does sorta feel like it's a copy of some other better work out there, just not done well. It felt like a copy of a copy really, a mishmash of a bunch of other ideas, without any real purpose for putting them together. "Divergent" is really this unremarkable mess of a film.


MUPPETS MOST WANTED (2014) Director: James Bobin

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I feel sorry for Kermit the Frog here; if this was a better movie, we could seriously be talking about him getting a Best Actor Oscar nomination; this is arguably, his most complete and complex work, but even the movie's wonderful opening song, about how sequels are never better than the original, which was quite a spectacular opening actually, the movie more or less lived up to that premise. And why do the Muppets keep going back to the crime movie for a sequel? That's a weird place to go to begin with; it's hard to believe that right after the Muppets reintroduce themselves to the national public and spotlight, and then suddenly, they're recruited for a world tour by Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) who's working for this Russian criminal frog mastermind, Constantine (Kermit the Frog, in a dual role) who just happens to look like Kermit, although he sounds very little like him, once Kermit is kidnapped and sent to the Gulag where he has to put on a show with the prisoners at the insistence of the guard Nadya (Tina Fey), while the tour stumbles leaderless through sold out shows through Europe, that coincidentally correlate with peculiar high profile robberies that happen to be at high-profile locations right next to the theater they're performing at. The locations and shows are a great excuse for Constantine and Badguy, to pull off the heists, but meanwhile, with Kermit's lack of producing behind the scenes, as an editing eye, the shows run long and go on forever. Salma Hayek, complaining to Gonzo that his indoor running of the bulls fiasco, was completely foreseeable. Those moments were quite fun, I love Cristoph Waltz dancing so eloquently with Sweetums, was so elegant, it reminded of Gilda Radner's wonderful bit with a 8 ft. carrot. The movie needed more of those moments, like Kermit having the prisoners audition for the show by having them perform "God, I Hope I Get It", from "A Chorus Line", and strangely, because you see Kermit outside of the Muppets, you realize just how critical his directing and producing eye is to the Muppets and how kinda leaderless they are without him. Only Animal (Animal) for some reason notice Kermit's different when Constantine comes, and eventually Walter (Walter) and Fozzy (Fozzy) pick up on it, and try to bust Kermit out of the Gulag, meanwhile Interpol and CIA agents, Jean-Pierre and Sam (Ty Burrell and Sam the Eagle, and Sam also btw, gave a surprising great performance as well, easily his very best) are on the case, as Kermit and Miss Piggy's (Miss Piggy) long-delayed wedding day, unbeknownst to her, to Constantine, is fast approaching. Overall, despite some really good, memorable moments, not only was a sequel not as good as the prequel, and I'm guessing they're not counting the first six movies in this series of Muppets films, (Hell, I don't like counting "Muppets from Space" either) but this movie kinda was an empty shell of what The Muppets at their very best can be.  That said though, Kermit was so good as Constantine; I didn't know he had that in him. I actually would like to see him, take on more roles like that, that are more complex and outside his normal range. We really haven't seen the full depth of his acting abilities, he's quite impressive her as a particularly disturbing character. He's a little over-the-top because of the role, but he could be a more subtle villain in a different movie; he could play quite vicious I found. The Muppets could do something quite darker next time, or maybe he'll take a role on his own in another's film, just to see what would happen. I really enjoyed seeing him extend his range quite severely. He could've been in like "Margin Call", as one of the higher-ups, there's something good here, a more character piece. He could be believable in a Stanley Tucci-type role, something more menacing, just as a change of pace, you know? We've seen The Muppets do more dramatic pieces, really well, like "A Muppet's Christmas Carol", it's not that far out of the ordinary, just a suggestion.


LOCKE
(2014) Director: Steven Knight

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"Locke" is essentially a filmed monologue. People like to think of a monologue being a collection of jokes or something, or a long speech in a play or something that an actor has memorized for auditions but there's more nuances to it actually. It's still technically a performances it's just that you're the only one physically onstage. You're still talking to other people, you're still reacting, there's still conflict and drama, it's just that, they're not physically there. Sometimes you don't even get the conceit of the other performances over the phone or off-stage, although you absolutely could if you want, but the performance is on the stage, or in this case, on the screen. It would be possible to shoot this on stage, but the visuals of the actual journey and the drive are much more adept to the screen; in this rare case regarding monologues, this was absolutely the more proper choice comparatively. The title character is Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy). He's an architect on a major project that's about to start pouring the next day, it's a major skyscraper. However, he's just heard that he's about to have a baby, that night. He can't oversee the whole project, and he's left the notes of things to do in the car he's driving, and left in charge is an unreliable assistant. While he's worried about doing that, he has to call his wife and tell him about the affair he had. His son was looking excited for the futbol game that was about to start, and the whole family was awaiting him; which he would normally be excited about, but today's he's got too many other things on his mind. By the time he arrives to the hospital, on the other side of the motorway in the middle of a difficult labor, he would have gotten fired from his job. He would be kicked out of his house, he'd confront his long-dead father, and the mistakes he's repeating, and somehow manage to get the last permits for the road closures for the pour; his life entire life, completely changing in every possible way, and yet, on this late night, as he his team would win, he'd hear from his confused son, and through this long string of phone calls, he has to also someone keep on driving, keep on driving, as that one-night stand, that only one-night stand, will make him a father. "Locke" is quite a skilled directing achievement. Hardy's performance of a study of subtle intensity in the best possible sense, but I think it might be a trickier directing job, finding different angles and perspectives to shoot inside a car, outside a car, creating that, how-long-can-he-keep-this-drive-going intensity, have it the real aching time pressure of having of having to juggle so many catastrophes happening at once, all the while, the only path is the road ahead, and there's nowhere to look but right down the road, making sure the metaphorical crash doesn't turn into a real one. The filmmaker was Steven Knight, is was only his second time directing a feature film, but he also wrote this monologue, and he's a bit of an overlooked writer. He got an Oscar nominations for writing "Dirty Pretty Things" years ago, which made my Top Ten list of that year, he also penned Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises", as well the British series "Peaky Blinders". He's worked for some good directors and it shows here, his more adventurous scripts match his directing approach; I really was enthralled with "Locke", it clicks a lot of my buttons to begin with but this was incredibly well-made and well-executed, one of the films I'm most excited for this year.


NIGHT MOVES (2014) Director: Kelly Reichardt

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Kelly Reichardt's film is not a remake of the underrated Arthur Penn feature, that I thought, would've actually been a pretty interesting challenge for her I thought, but instead, we get, what seems like the fifth or sixth movie recently I've seen about environmental terrorism, which as much as I admire the motives and reasoning behind their actions and escapades, honestly, I usually find that like all other forms of terrorism throughout history, inevitably, it's actions are unsuccessful. Unsuccessful in actually getting anything accomplished that they really intended, and at worst case scenario, they actually cause unnecessary harm. "Night Moves", shows, basically another version of that. A- A good version, I guess. Well- I don't know, actually, I'm back and forth on this one.The movie follows Josh and Dena (Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning) two eco-terrorists, who are in the midst of planning an act, which involves blocking and a dam, and causing a major flood, and they do this by acquiring loads of fertilizer. Why they're doing this, is never completely explained, although there's a local filmmaker at the beginning of the film, showing her latest environmental film. Dena asks the director (Clara Mamet, David and Rebecca Pidgeon's daughter) what to do, and she responds about how she's not focused on the big plans, but a lot of little small ones. She's right about that, but this group doesn't want to hear it. In order to get their plan completely executed, they work with an ex-con named Harmon (Peter Skarsgaard) who they keep seeming to find out more and more disturbing things about as the project continues, or stumbles, like how they have to acquire more fertilizer, a lot of fertilizer, the kind that requires not only ID, but also, probably a farm to get away with it. Somehow, they slow long process continues, but during the flooding, a homeless veteran is killed. They're suppose to go back to their normal lives and not reconnect with each other in the near future, but the unexpected death causes grave concern. Like all Reichart films, the best of which was "Meek's Cutoff", about life on the Oregon Trail, is bare of pretension, sparce in dialogue, and long on sprawling locations and landscapes, not necessarily like a vista, but it's very based in the realism of the world she's creating. If I had, map out the universe of this film, all the locations and places, I probably could. She has a supreme evocation of sense within her. And place as well, it's special her filmmaking, but she occasionally draws it out too much. I didn't like "Wendy and Lucy", 'cause I'm convinced the only reason that film would work is if you owned a dog. I won't stop anybody from seeing "Night Moves", but I'm just barely gonna recommend it, because the film doesn't add anything new to the discussion of eco-terrorism, not the way that like, Zal Batmanglij & Brit Marling's "The East" did for instance. The lack of the showcasing of these emotions that would cause people to attempt these actions; and this is a problem with her, she's insistent of these minimalism and only insinuating through the actions, and that's fine, but you really do, have to put a lot into the films, that might not technically be there, and why these 3 STARS reviews of her films keep happening. She can do so much more, but it feels like she's asking me to do a lot of the work, without really giving us enough of a reason why our perspective/reaction to her films, is as important to the films as the films themselves; that's the frustration with her, but she's too talented to ignore, and there's some incredible acting in this film, especially Eisenberg and Fanning, so, it's a cautious recommendation.


PALO ALTO (2014) Director: Gia Coppola

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This latest Coppola, is Gia Coppola, and if you're struggling with the family tree, she is third generation, director, fourth generation in movies; she's Sofia and Roman's niece, believe it or not. Her father was Gian-Carlo, who died at age 22, after a fatal boating accident before she was born. (She's named after him, her full name is Giancarla Coppola) The film itself, is also the latest James Franco project, who wrote the collection of short stories that "Palo Alto" is based on, and he has a significant role here as a soccer teacher, Mr. B., who's fallen for his babysitter and player, April (Emma Roberts). That's one of multiple narratives however, and it's tough to keep all of them straight, through this dreary, boozy, world of high school in this uber-rick neighborhood. One of the days, I'm gonna write something that showed high school from my perspective but it'll never make a full feature. That doesn't mean, I don't think there's truth to the characters but, the characters were just so aimless, and it frustrated me. I was frustrated for them. This is a notoriously rich suburb home of Stanford University, and in the midst of the Silicon Valley, and basically these amazing houses, buildings, and cars, were a backdrop to them for materialistic nothingness. What few parents we see, are usually drugged up and useless, the kids all smoke cigarettes, school is as much a wasteland as the after school parties, and everybody more-or-less fits into some cliche archetype, almost because they don't know what else to do.  Take Teddy (Jack Kilmer, Val's son, in his debut role), a rather nice kid, probably the most likable of the bunch, but he continues to get high and drunk, and do incredibly stupid shit with his friend Fred (Nat Wolff). Fred's one of those kids who's just fucked up, and it takes a bottle smashed against his skull before he even begins to realize that everybody else isn't having the kind of fun he has, chainsawing down trees or holding up drug dealers jokingly with weapons. Fred has an affair with Emily (Zoe Levin) the school's whore. She has sex with every guy who asks, and a few girls too, sometimes they don't even really seem to ask. I'd almost think she was the young girl in "The Young and the Damned" who most think grows up to be a prostitute, but, there isn't that kind of symbolic depth to her actions. Besides, she's too rich to be a prostitute; it's just that somebody has to, so she does. Teddy's meanwhile, struggling with his community service, 'caused mostly by Fred, and it's Fred who usually screws up even that for him. There's a few other girls talking talking about Mr. B. mostly, as though, that's basically what soccer is really about. It's hard to describe "Palo Alto", it's goal isn't to tell a new narrative or even be some kind of expose, or exploitation piece on high school, it's really just a very typical slice-of-life, just in a new location. Frankly, after thinking it over, I'm not quite sure what to make of "Palo Alto". Gia Coppola's clearly got some talent behind the camera; she's definitely influenced by her aunt, although I still think she doesn't quite know who she is as an artist yet. Still, I think it succeeds at what it's going for, so I'm gonna recommend it, but I'm not sure exactly what it aiming for, really leads to that much, maybe that was the point too though, but even if your goal is to show emptiness, the audience should still feel full about the emptiness afterwards, and I think that's a nuance that she'll work on, in the future, but it's an interesting and impressive first feature. Good acting all around too.


THE GALAPAGOS AFFAIR: SATAN COMES TO EDEN (2014) Directors: Daniel Gellar & Dayna Goldfine

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I've always had a personal fascination with the Galapagos Islands, but who hasn't though? It's not simply a mysterious place 'cause of the history and the unique specimens that are there, the ones that famously Charles Darwin would observe and famously come up with the Theory of Evolution. There's such an aura about them; this enchanting archipelago in the Atlantic, that's a modern paradise that's almost like it's been preserved in another time. It's therefore not surprising that some would consider this Eden-esque world as a perfect ideal spot for a spiritual rebirth to forego society and civilization and start anew. A few people would actually start doing that in the late 20s & early '30s, and unfortunately, ultimately, it ended in a tragedy as mysterious as the place itself. "The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden" follows a few outcasts who went to live on the more reclusive Galapagos Islands, the ones without people and that weren't strategic outposts full of people, leaving everything from their world behind to live there. Most did not make it back, and their ultimate fate remains a mystery. We see interviews with many surviving relatives and experts go over the accounts of the people, like Friedrich & Dore, Nietzsche nihilists who were the first to leave Germany, after Dore's Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis, Friedrich is a doctor who uses unconventional methods to treat her.We also get some voiceover from famous celebrities like Cate Blanchett reading their letters home and others account. Probably the most amazing parts of the film, are the rare films they took of themselves and of the islands, they even, for fun, shot a movie on the island. We don't know exactly what happened, but eventually, most of them ended up confirmed dead, or presumed dead after being missing. The movie, does tend to drift a bit from the mystery more then it probably should,  but then again, their is such mystery, that there's only, at most speculation about what happen, after looking at profiles of the people themselves, as well as the few documented accounts that they have, with a few of the rare visitors around. This is probably the best account  of the mystery that we'll ever really get today, so for that I'm recommending it, despite some of the film's issues, but it's still the best telling we could probably of this little-known mystery that at one time, captured the world's attention, but has since, been left forgotten in the history books. 80 years ago or so now, and one image that they do keep coming up with, along with the numerous other shots of the nature and naturalistic animals, are those amazing Galapagos Turtles, those magnificent creatures that live famously, hundreds of years, older than any other species on Earth by a mile. Whatever happened to those recluses who vowed to find Eden, they're probably the only witnesses left, who may know.


A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1967) Director: Sergio Leone

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I have seen "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" a few different times; I've even written on it once or twice, but only now have I finally gotten around to finishing, the "Man With No Name Trilogy", which is what I was always told it was called, until, suddenly, for some reason it started being called "The Dollars Trilogy"; I get that it's easier to say, but it's also completely missing the legacy and inspiration of the film. In a way, I've already written on "A Fistful of Dollars", when I added Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" into the Canon of Film earlier. (Go to the Canon of Film key, to see a quick link to that film.) It was essentially a remake, in fact, it's a pretty literal remake, but the iconic loner image of Eastwood's mysterious stranger, called in this film, "Joe", is what's most key to the film's legacy. Eastwood had been a western star on television with "Rawhide," but his career had been in a slump when he flew to Spain to shoot this unique western. Leone's daring new technique of making a western was quite startling at the time. This wasn't the Monument Valley of John Ford or the Red Rock Canyon deserts of Nevada that we were used to, the world looked foreign, the characters seemed foreign, it was foreign. Leone being an Italian director, was used to never really recording sound and everything was dubbed in afterwards later. So Eastwood's dialogue is his natural dialogue, but everyone else is town is dubbed in, which is perfect for this bizarre film town where there's only two gangs, who's currency is essentially killing the other gang, so much so that the casket maker makes more money than the canteen owner. The rest of the movie, is him, scheming and manipulating the two gangs, as they both try and hire him as a hired gun, multiple times over, until he destroys both, and then calmly, leaves the town, realizing that there's no more money to make there now that the gangs are eviscerated. The classic final sequence, with the surprise bulletproof vest sequence is incredibly enthralling; Leone always uses every trick in the book to make a shot more compelling, great framing of images, amazing use of sound and score, there's always something interesting on the screen, even if the story itself, is a bit on autopilot. "A Fistful of Dollars" is iconic, although, overall, I think it's the weakest of the three, it's still an essential watch.


FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1967) Director: Sergio Leone

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"For a Few Dollars More", is somewhat considered a sequel to "A Fistful of Dollars", it was originated as one, after the success of the first film,  although it's really an original story in it's own right. In this version, Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, (Although not the same character as "A Fistful of Dollars, which was called Joe, while this character is called Monco) is a bounty hunter, who makes his money collecting bounties for the most vicious of gangs and villains. But, we don't meet him first, instead we meet Col. Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) who's also one of the most successful and frightening of bounty hunters around. Inevitably, as we follow each bounty hunter as they seek out and collect their bounties, until inevitably, their paths cross. Like "A Fistful of Dollars", the actual story isn't nearly as relevant as the excitement in the scene themselves, they're long on gunfire and melodrama building up to them, and then, they move onto the next one. It's almost like a bunch of unconnected western sequences sorta shoved together more or less. Every introduction begins with a gunfire, and every gunfight or street fight, or saloon stalemate or anything else is done, big and large, bigger-than-life. Leone's spaghetti westerns are really in essence a study of storytelling through the use of iconic imagery. Almost Warholesque really. Gian Maria Volonte plays the main bad guy, El Indio which just means The Indian, and eventually both Monce and the Colonel, decide to pool resources in order to capture and kill this more crafty and bloodthirsty killer leading to a memorable shootout at the end. "Fora Few Dollars More" for me was more fun than the first, also a different more elaborate story, that was somewhat more complex than "A Fistful of Dollars", which is really, just a remake of "Yojimbo", although the real reason to watch the films is the great way that through these stories we get the instantly recognizable filmmaking of Leone, and the image of Eastwood, scruffy-bearded, cigar chewing, poncho-wearing lone hunter able to outsmart and outshoot anybody with barely a word of dialogue said.


INFERNAL AFFAIRS (2004) Directors: Andrew Lau and Andy Mak

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For reasons that are not nearly as interesting as they would originally sound, I actually watched "Infernal Affairs II" years ago, long before now, finally getting around to Andrew Lau & Andy Mak's original film that inspired William Monahan to write the script for Scorsese's Oscar-winning remake "The Departed". I want to get around to rewatching "Infernal Affairs II" and then watch the third in the trilogy at some point, although honestly having seen "The Departed" I really didn't need to see that much out of this original one, as I basically knew and remembered enough from "The Departed" to keep up well enough. If I had to say what the real difference is, other than clearly, the two filmmakers styles, it's that "Infernal Affairs" introduces a foreboding and ironic sense of destiny into the story. It's still littered with careful and contrived strategizing and game-planning and cell phone manipulation that's constantly going on, between those sequences, which was the predominant focus in "The Departed," but the two characters, Lau (Andy Lau) the cop who's gone gone undercover and infiltrated the Hong Kong mafia, and Chen (Tony Leung) the lifelong gangster who's job becomes to work undercover as cop struggles with their switching of lives, is far more the focus of intrigue here. The movie starts with them being young cadets, who barely spot or know each other, but then the film jumps up ten years, Lau desperate to get out of UC work, while Chen, thriving as a cop, but both men constantly under duress, with the profession of having to essentially pretend to be someone else for what piling up to being the majority of their lives. This is always a fascinating subject in film to begin with, the living the life of somebody one isn't. And in a sense, each other's lives here. The irony is not lost on either or them, especially when they both get assigned the task of trying to find each other. Essentially, you're not missing much, storywise, but it's basically we are getting two different approaches and ways to tell the same story. Auteur theory at it's highest really, two great filmmakers making two great films, and this is a great film on it's own, although I have a feel, this works better within the much beloved trilogy. The second feature had a more pressing sense of time being passed, especially considering Hong Kong's recent history at that time, as it's power was being transferred from the United Kingdom to China. In some ways that film might be more powerful actually, but this film is definitely a must-watch as well, whether you appreciated Scorsese's remake as much as I did or not.


ARTHUR (2011) Director: Jason Winer

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I don't know how or why we got overloaded with remakes this week, but of all the ones I watched this week, I was worried the most about this one. The original "Arthur" is not only a masterpiece, it's one of my personal favorites but to my surprise, as a modern-day interpretation and homage toSteve Gordon's only feature, it worked for me. The film's smart enough to know that it'll never be able to fully replace the original, so it's smart to know not to try. Arthur Brand as the uber-uber rich heir to the Bach family trust is nothing like Dudley Moore's iconic drunk, but he is an overgrown kid, who parties and drinks too much, capable of going out and wreaking havoc with his Batmobile before bailing himself, his driver Bitterman (Luis Guzman), and the rest of the jail out, before learning about how preposterous his spending seems during a recession. That's when he decides to just give his money away to everyone in the bar. In another smart casting choice, his unamused foulmouth butler Hobson for which John Gielgud won an Oscar has been replaced by his longtime nanny, Hobson, played by Helen Mirren. In fact, a strange theme below the surface of the film is how Arthur is surrounded by domineering women. His mother, which he calls Vivienne (Geraldine James) is the proprietor of the family's multi-generational fortune and is the one, not his father, who orders him to be cut off from the money, unless he marries the daughter of a self-made millionaire, Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner) who only wants to marry Arthur so she can be in control of the Bach trust, and be more respected among the polo-playing community. That is, if she can be demagnetized from the bottom of Arthur's bed, long story, a bad attempt from her at spontaneity. The Susan role is actually much more elaborate in general in the film, much more crass, she's not the more WASP-like doormat that Jill Eikenberry played in the original. It's then that Arthur begins falling in love with Naomi (Greta Gerwig) a free-spirit of sorts, who's also rebellious to society, often getting arrested for giving illegal unlicensed tours of Grand Central Station to unsuspecting tourists, between writing a children's book about the friendship of New York City buildings. Actually, this is about as perfectly as I would've cast an "Arthur" remake. Arthur makes more of an attempt at a job, and even sobriety for awhile, that's where the movie strayed most from the original in my mind, but it had more than enough to show that the film cared about how good and special the original was, even writing in a nice little homage to Gordon, as a way of explaining the lack of Bach's father being a character. (Which acutally might be an improvement from the original to some degree.) To my surprised, I thoroughly enjoy this remake of a beloved classic. It knew when to modernize and where to go for it's own identity, and to do it without going overboard and straying too far away from the original, Director Jason Winer, like Gordon before, made his mark primarily in television until now, and him and screenwriter Peer Baynham, also from television, primarily in the UK, knew when to change something, and when not to quite well. As a film, it's not a masterpiece, but I doubt it was really aiming that high; it more-than-achieved it's goal of making an honorable and respetctable remake of a beloved classic though, so I'm gonna recommend it; especially if you've seen the original, I'm not sure someone being introduced to this material through this film is gonna fully grasp the richness to it that others have coming into the film with the original in their memory banks, but other than that, it's just a good film. Better than I think most would've predicted.


THE SEA WOLVES (1980) Director: Andrew J. McLaglen

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"The Sea Wolves" is a grand ole, old-style manly fun war movie, in the spirit of a Gunga Din, or something of that sort. It's technically based on a true story, about how an old regiment, the Calcutta Light Brigade, leftover from the Boer War, were brought in, 40 years later, in the middle of World War II, Col. Pugh (Gregory Peck) and Capt. Gavin Stewart (Roger Moore) concoct a plan to bring in the brigade, for one final mission. The mission is to steal a boat, to disguise itself in the Indian Ocean around India, and then to be able to board, capture and/or destroy one or more Nazi ships in a neutral port of Goa. It's the top secret mission, and all the old ex-soldiers are told to tell their loved they're going on a two-week exercise retreat with their old army buddies and whatnot. Creating distractions on the shore, like buying all the hookers in the red light district for the night, or putting up a carnival suddenly, some real outside-the-box thinking; it kinda reminded me or "Argo" in that respect. Capt. Stewart has time to have a little romance with Mrs. Agnes Cromwell (Barbara Kellerman) for no reason, other than she turns out to be a spy, if you're paying attention, but no matter, it's typical for this kind of classical filmmaking. This is one of those movies that looks and feels like it should've been made twenty or thirty years earlier than it was, sorta like "Tora! Tora! Tora!" or something like that, like it was pulled from another era. It's director was Andrew J. McLagen, a decent competent director, most well-known for the John Wayne film "McClintock!", and a few other notable films, although he split time between film and television most of his career, mostly even there, dealing in westerns. "The Sea Wolves" isn't anything special, but it's a nice film if you happen to run into it. Nice action-war-comedy for a rainy day.


Sunday, November 9, 2014

CANON OF FILM: "ARTHUR"

ARTHUR (1981)

Director/Screenplay: Steve Gordon



I got to meet Anne De Salvo once, she was a guest speaker in one of classes, beautiful woman, btw, still, and she's a director/producer/writer as well, but she's one of those actresses who's name you wouldn't know, but you've seen a hundred times. She worked for Woody Allen, she's been in a lot of TV shows and movies and- normally, I suck at this sort of thing 'cause I never know what to ask anybody, anyway whenever I meet them, anyway. I've met a few people over the years, and I've conducted an interview here-and-there too, but this was no exception, 'cause I wish I could have asked her something more insightful about the business or about acting or directing or something, and the only question I could even pretend formulate into words was, "What was it like working with Dudley Moore?". (She played the prostitute, Gloria, in the film and to this day I wish I asked it, instead I kept my hand down and my mouth shut, stupid me.)  

There's been a lot of legendary portrayals of drunks in cinema, but if I had to pick one favorite, I'd have to conclude nobody plays the happy drunk millionaire better than Dudley Moore in “Arthur.” Moore was a British TV star, who started in a legendary comedy duo with Peter Cook, before they separated and Moore would slowly make his way into feature films. He was also a classically-trained pianist, considered one of the best in the world by some, but his incredible comedic mind and quick-wit were his most amazing attribute, and was never used better than in "Arthur".  The film earned two Oscars one for the legendary John Gielgud a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for being Arthur’s lovable but pompous butler Hobson, and for Best Song for Christopher Cross's "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" but what everybody really remembers is Dudley Moore’s performance stands out as one of the greatest comedic performances ever. Just to say the lines he says in the film, most would be funny, but this is where true acting comes in.

Susan: A real woman could stop you from drinking.
Arthur: It’d have to be a real big woman!
Susan: Arthur, take my hand
Arthur: But that would only leave you with one.

And that’s just the beginning. The most memorable moment from his performance is when he doesn’t have dialogue. While drunk, which Arthur as you’ve probably guessed by now usually is, drives over to Linda’s (Liza Minelli) house stumbles out of the car, and then carefully puts his drink of the hood of the car. Then checks the glass again to make sure the glass won’t fall off. I used to live in a bar when I was younger, and I can vouch that I have seen that before. The story isn’t too difficult or grand. Arthur is informed by his father, Stanford (Thomas Barbour) that he will lose all his money if he doesn’t marry a girl named Susan Johnson (Jill Eikenberry), who’s of another rich family,one of those other boring and typically WASPY type families. It's more business arranged marriage to make sure the Bach family name stays in the business news and not in the tabloids, but Arthur's stumbles his way through the engagement, as he's not simply obscenely rich (750million in this movie, which was ten times as obscene back then as it is now) but he isn't skillful enough to do much else, and knows it. Of course, he ends up falling in love with another girl, usually through a meet cute, in this case he sees a waitress/wannabe actress Linda steal a tie from a department store and is intrigued. Liza Minnelli plays Linda as street-wise and seemingly aware of both relationship customs as well as typical romantic-comedy movie customs. In one scene where Arthur informs her that he’s engaged, we expect to see a shot of her crying for her bad luck, but instead, we get a shot of her comforting her father who’s crying his eyes out thinking he lost his shot at her daughter marrying a millionaire. 

The movie now does look a little dated for a comedy, which is probably part of the reason why it was recently remade, that and with so few talents out there like a Russel Brand, who actually can be considered a Dudley Moore type, it's probably the only real chance at a semi-decent remake. Dudley Moore's other most notable picture was "10" with Bo Derek, and directed by Blake Edwards; you'll find a few supporters of that one, but I have a hard time imagining anybody who isn't enchanted with "Arthur". The film's Writer/Director was Steve Gordon, and unfortunately, it was the only film he ever made. He had a very successful career as a sitcom writer, before diving into feature films, and like Moore earned his only Oscar nomination for this film, but two years later, he dropped dead suddenly of a heart attack, at age 44. (There's a moment in the remake where they had Arthur's father in the film have a similar fate as an homage/reference.) Well never know what other creative comedic ideas Gordon had, but it's hard to create a legacy with just one film. Still, without Moore creating this indelible character, who doesn't get sober, but he does get the love he's been so frustratingly searching for, and that he couldn't from either his fortune, or his family.If falling in love in New York City is the best you can do, I guess this proves that anybody can fall in love, even the filthy rich drunk millionaires. Wait, that’s not much of a message it is? Well, nobody goes to a comedy to be lectured to, you go to laugh, and you can almost always count on Dudley Moore for that, but here's a better more profound quote from one of Arthur's drunken stupers:

Arthur: Everyone who drinks is not a poet. Maybe some of us drink because we're not poets.