for updated lists of all years go music and movies.
Best studio albums by one artist/group (no compilations or live albums)
of a Down - Mezmerize -- the follow-up album (hypnotize) kinda
sucks, but this one has some of the most contagious hooks of the year.
they're less political on this album than on their previous albums, which
is too bad, but there's still some commentary here. i've never been a fan
of system of a down, and this album doesn't change that, but i have to
admit that this was one of the most infectious albums of the year.
recommended tracks: byob, sad statue, lost in hollywood.
Apple - Extraordinary Machine -- this was the surprise of the
year. i've never listened to much of apple's work in the past because i've
mostly thought of her as only a mildly gifted dark-pop vocalist; not exactly
my cup of tea (then again tea isn't either). the production, while not
done by jon brion, sounds an awful lot like some of brion's work - and
that's a good thing. it's sparse, but full at the same time. it's layered
and punchy with plenty of hooks to complement apple's above average voice.
her lyrics are heartfelt and avoid the cliché. a good, solid album
with only a couple less than good tracks.
recommended tracks: extraordinary machine, window, o'sailor.
Of Canada - Campfire Headphase -- typical boards of canada here,
and that's typically good. their sound is as distinctive here as it always
is, but it hasn't grown stale. they twist and warp their melodies, add
some beats and ambience and it just works. not as good as geogaddi or music
has the right to children, but a solid effort.
recommended tracks: chromakey dreamcoat, slow this bird down.
Of The Stone Age - Lullabies To Paralyze -- i listened to this
album as much as any other except for #3 and #1 and, naturally, it began
to grow on me. it's not an amazing album and they're not an amazing group,
but they are consistently good and this album provides good hard rock in
an age when it's tough to come by. they craft good melodies, good, driving
beats, and some surprising vocal harmonies. their lyrics are thoughtful
and sometimes dreamy, but hardly cliché.
recommended tracks: you got a killer scene there man..., burn the witch, tangled up in plaid.
Rock - Fast Cars, Danger, Fire And Knives -- more an ep than
an album, but i'll count it here anyway. aesop rock's voice is worth placement
on the list alone. add to that the great, crafty, creative production and
you've got a maxi-album that leaves you wanting more. if you get the proper
edition it comes with extensive liner notes, a bonus.
recommended tracks: zodiaccupuncture, food clothes medicine.
- Craft -- blackalicious always bring it, so even a bad album from
them is likely going to be a great album. this album proves that. in a
lot of ways this album a contradiction. they seem to have advanced spiritually,
but regressed a bit musically. the other day i finally got "melodica" (1995)
- their first ep, released a full four years before a2g (1999) which is
their earliest in-print release - and listening to this early release gave
me some interesting perspective. gift of gab raps about more typical hip-hop
subjects like partying, drugs, etc. a2g doesn't have much of that. nia
(2000) gets more into the positive and spiritual vibe the blackalicious
are known for. blazing arrow (2002) is, thus far, the pinnacle of their
career and it has a good balance of positivity (see: passion and purest
love) and wonderful nonsense (see: chemical calisthenics). the craft (2005)
finds them preaching more and showing off their skills less. tracks like
chemical calisthenics, a2g and alphabet aerobics were great vehicles for
both chief excel and (especially) gift of gab to flex their muscles on
the decks and mic, respectively. my major complaint about jay-z is that
he brags too much, and keeps it too gangsta - in a way this album is on
the opposite end of the spectrum. that said, it's a welcome respite from
much of the mainstream hip-hop which is still wrapped in the rap battle
and bling culture. while this album isn't strong all the way through, there's
enough wordplay, positivity and bumping tracks to bring it in at #5.
recommended tracks: supreme people, craft, egosonic war drums, lotus flower, world of vibrations.
4. Ali Farka Toure - Red & Green (Reissue, but first time on CD) -- mali is where it's at, once again. i loved this one from the first time i played it. i've actually heard this 2-disc album fewer times than anything else on this list other than the boards of canada, but i feel perfectly secure in putting in at #4. toure's playing is great, as are the rhythms that support it and his singing, which is earthy with a more asian, than african, feel. this album is more about a continuous mood than it is about the creation of singular songs; as a result some of the songs sound similar - they're all sort of on the same wavelength, like variations on a theme. as a result it's not the kind of album that you put on your i-pod shuffle, it's more an album that you put on your record player and relax to. great playing, but probably won't sell as many records in a year as black eyed peas sell in an hour. criminal.
recommended tracks: sidy gouro, ali aoudy, petenere.
Jones - Who Is Mike Jones? -- speaking of selling records...who
is mike jones? it took a while to catch on over here on the west coast,
but mike jones and the swishahouse crew are officially pretty damn big
nationally. paul wall debuted at number one, knocking kanye west off the
charts. mike jones has sold consistently and i don't have much of a problem
with that. when i first heard this album the thing that struck me were
the beats - they're infectious, they sound different/similar enough to
be, at once, interesting and instantly likable. the whole album sounds
like a screwed and chopped album - the beats are slow, sluggish and echo
the drug-induced haze under which they were likely created. jones' voice
struck me next, he's got an urban texan drawl, but he's still intelligible.
the last thing that i actually noticed was what he's become known for:
his referencing himself. skip through the tracks and just about every song
begins with either "mike jones!" or "who?!" or a combination thereof: "who?
mike jones!" then, of course, there's his penchant for giving out his phone
number, which we all probably have memorized by now: 281-330-8004 (pronounced
"foe"). it's an amazingly funny and effective schtick. but great albums
aren't made on schtick alone. the production is deceptively crafty and
layered (truthfully). add to that the fact that he helped usher in a better
sect (relative to lil jon) of southern rap and introduced all sorts of
new colloquialisms into our vernacular and you've got a good, fun, creative,
and influential album.
recommended tracks: got it sewed up, cuttin', turning lane, screw dat, know what i'm sayin'.
- s.o.n.o.g.r.a.m. -- it's a good thing this album came out and
i discovered it - as good and enjoyable an album as "Who Is Mike Jones?"
is i'd be a bit disappointed if the best hip-hop album on my list was an
album that's devoid of political and social commentary; it's just not my
style. one.be.lo is new to me this year, but i've caught on quick. this
guy brings it in a balanced way that represents hip-hop the way it deserves.
s.o.n.o.g.r.a.m. has plenty of battle-type raps to quench your thirst for
braggadocio, but his intelligence wouldn't allow the album to be devoid
of commentary. he ponders the passing of those close to him, the condition
of his people and hip-hop, and the inequity of class in our society. i
got this album in july and i've listened to it consistently ever since.
but just the other day i discovered a new play on words that i hadn't noticed
"Now as the world turns, when will us black people learn?
Before we had a perm, we came from Adam's sperm
You see with plain vision, we live in the same system
Cocaine victims, once was able, can't even raise children"
the last line has an interesting bit of word play because he emphasizes the "caine" in cocaine and then drops "able" four words letter - a reference to cain and abel which echoes a major theme of the song: brothers fighting each other, as evidenced later in the lyrics:
"Now how many Africans slain for one platinum chain on yo' dresser?
I'm no better just because I think I know better
Tell me who you trust when you're in your new trucks
Some of us dyin over a few bucks, killers old enough to ride a school bus
With brothers like these tell me, who needs the Ku Klux?"
that's just the tip of this iceberg. that is the kind of lyricism and depth of thought (socially and politically) that makes hip-hop such a vibrant art form. it's also why i have to laugh when people reduce rap to a stereotype.
recommended tracks: underground, axis, propaganda, sleepwalking, follow my lead, oggie, questions, the whole damn album!
& Mariam - Dimanche A Bamako -- i hadn't heard any amadou
et mariam prior to this album, but i was pretty certain (from looking at
the album's cover and knowing their country of origin [Mali]) that i'd
like it. i got an advance of this and one.be.lo's album within a week of
each other and it was those two albums that got me thinking about the year's
top ten. i think that the albums are pretty damn near neck and neck with
the musical edge probably going to s.o.n.o.g.r.a.m., but i gave the overall
edge to this one for two reasons: 1) seeing them live was absolutely great
- it was one of the best shows i've ever been to. they got the crowd jumping
and put out such a positive energy it was hard not to have fun. 2) this
is the album i'll always associate with the death of my grandfather. that
morning when i got the news i put this album on and wrote on my webpage.
i remember that meryl was there and i was sad, but that the music was great
and uplifting. her presence and the music made me feel better than i should
have. it's nearly impossible to be in a bad mood while this album is playing.
the interplay between the vocals and the music is great, the hooks are
tough to beat, and the hybridization of western and african rhythms, instruments,
production, and sensibilities is sublime. it's yet to be seen whether this
album will age as well as s.o.n.o.g.r.a.m., but here and now i'm giving
it album of the year.
recommended tracks: la realite, m'bife, m'bife balafon, beaux dimanches.
Best of albums that couldn't make the list:
10. Assault On Precinct 13 --
original review: pretty well done action thriller. it's interesting that in the original the plot involves a gang infiltrating a police station, but in the remake it's corrupt cops doing the raiding. at any rate, the direction was surprisingly artistic, fresh and balanced. i think that much of the film's success is also due to the writing (not sure how much of this is due to john carpenter's original script) which doesn't pull punches and knows the importance of comic relief. the beginning of the film embodied very well and, as such, provided a good hook for the rest of the film. it had a gritty look, some funny moments, yet maintained an edgy feeling. there's one pretty cool shot where hawke has his back to the camera and is walking towards a mirror. he ducks down over the sink to splash some water on his face and then comes back up to look at himself in the mirror. the interesting thing is that you don't see the camera in the mirror and when hawke comes back up from being over the sink we see him as he would see himself - straight ahead without any edit between the time when he starts walking towards the mirror and when the scene ends. B.
9. Hostage --
original review: a film that certainly was made for bruce willis. there are so many elements that reference his career, especially the die hard films - from set pieces like the fountain amongst a fiery shit storm to the estranged family life. but the film is plenty more than just a willis vehicle. the opening sequence reminded me of the first sequence in Assault on Precinct 13 in its ability to set a strong tone for the rest of the film. and, really, it's a pretty apt comparison because there are more similar elements between the two films. both are directed by frenchmen directing their first american picture. both films feature characters who have to deal with an early mistake throughout the rest of the film. and both films were surprisingly refreshing compared to the usual hollywood fare (xxx, bruckheimer, etc.).
i'm going to write about the opening sequence because that's all i really needed to see to know how i was going to feel about the film. it begins with a close-up of a perp who is holding two people hostage in a locked up house and the camera pulls out to reveal the police presence and the los angeles skyline. then we see willis - scruffy, bearded, sweaty, lying down with a cellphone in one hand and a comb at his beard in his other. it's a comic moment that relieves a bit of the tension already created by the few earlier shots. willis' lightly comic, lackadaisical demeanor in this sequence is just perfect - he exudes confidence and feeds off the success of his previous film characters (john mcclaine, butch, etc.) here while adding a new, over-the-hill, wrinkle to it. but the situation quickly grows out of control and the hostage taker spirals out of control and resolves to kill his hostages. willis runs from the rooftop where he was perched and tries to intervene, but by the time he makes it to the house it's too late - the deed is done. it's not just what happens or willis' performance, it's the way siri captures and presents it all. he cuts to the hostages briefly to make sure we know what is at stake, he's willing to show the brutality of the kidnapper (who hits a young boy with a telephone), he employs comic relief in a tasteful way, and the slo-motion sequence wherein willis makes a dash to save the hostages is well-filmed. he uses a few different camera angles including one where the camera is attached to willis' chest and is pointed towards his face. it's one of my favorite types of shots, but it must be used in the right situation and in a measured way (think of how aronofsky uses it in pi).
i'm not going to say the film is perfect, but it restores your confidence in hollywood's ability to entertain in an artful and intelligent manner. worth checking out. B.
8. This Divided State --
original review: documentary focusing on the growing divide between the left and right in this country. the film looks specifically at the case of michael moore being hired to speak at a public college (utah valley state college) in utah. one side says he's an extremist and anti-american and the other says he represents an alternate point of view and should be allowed to speak. his fee ($40K) is an issue at one point, but the truth is that people of all beliefs have been paid just as much, and more, in the past. sean hannity also comes to town, just a week prior to moore, and waives his fee, but demands a private jet and the like which total to $50K. really, though, the money isn't an issue since so much of it is recouped by the ticket sales.
it's amazing to see what moore's visit does to the small utah town. the president and vice president are urged to resign, one local resident sues them at one point, he offers the college $25K to NOT bring moore into the town, etc. it's even more amazing to see the vitriolic intolerance exhibited by the crowd which goes to see sean hannity speak. he really riles them up into a froth. a funny moment comes when two nader supporters crash the moore speech and call him a sellout, etc. fucking crazy extremists. overall the film paints a portrait of a pretty fucked up culture. B.
7. Weather Man --
original review: nicholas cage plays a "blue ribbon fuck up" weather man with two kids, an ex-wife and a pulitzer prize winning father. he's one more in a long line of cinematic/literary characters (from citizen kane and the gatsbys to benjamin braddock and tyler durden) who is economically full, but otherwise empty.
by the film's end you realize that it's just as much as a film about cage as it is a film about america. throughout his voice-over narration he discusses the fast food that people throw at him on the street. he wonders why people do this - why fast food? why him? fast food is disposable and replaceable. and he represents an aspect of american culture which they despise - he doesn't have real talent, yet he's very well paid.
the stark imagery, cage's performance and the writing are highlights. this is a rare instance where i'm tempted to watch the film in the theater a second time. B.
6. War Of The Worlds --
original review: i'm not a big spielberg or cruise fan, but i have to hand it to them here. it's a well-paced adventure flick with enough balance to keep it afloat throughout. cruise and fanning anchor a cast that's mostly solid. the sfx are good, but don't get in the way, as they do with some other blockbusters. spielberg proves here that he knows how to make a blockbuster as well as anyone. now, whether or not that's a good thing is a matter of debate. spielberg's blockbusters are smarter than some of the more typical hollywood fare, and that's a good thing. unfortunately, the success of his films pave the way for all sorts of crappy imitators.
early in the film cruise and his son are playing baseball and it becomes a microcosm of their relationship - cruise dominates with his power and the son acts out in response. this leads to cruise throwing the ball back to his son with increasing velocity. eventually the son steps aside and the ball flies through cruise's kitchen window. not only is it a telling scene, but it's funny. spielberg places the camera in the kitchen looking through the hole out to cruise, who is still in the yard starring at the hole in disbelief. what makes this scene even better is when the shot is echoed later in the film. this time the shot takes on a different meaning in a new context. watch for it and you'll see what i mean. these are the kind of touches that help separate the run-of-the-mill blockbusters from the genuinely well-made ones.
for me, films like die hard and the matrix are the films by which all blockbusters should be measured. war of the worlds isn't anywhere near this caliber, but it kept me interested the entire time and spielberg won back my confidence after the abysmal A.I. my only real complaint with the film is the soft ending, but, relative to the ending in A.I., the ending in war of the worlds is just fine. B.
5. Jarhead --
original review: next to film noir i think that war and prison films are the most consistently compelling for me; and jarhead is no exception. sam mendes (american beauty) directs and roger deakins (fargo, shawshank redemption lends his (considerable) talent behind the camera. in fact, this film is almost more deakins's than it is mendes's. deakins is about as perfect a choice as you can get for this sort of film - his cinematography suffocates the viewer as the desert and oil fires suffocate the subjects within the film. his other credits are full of similarly themed films: 1984, fargo, shawshank redemption, dead man walking, siege, hurricane, village, and the house of sand and fog top the list. all of these films have themes of isolation and confinement.
jarhead isn't just a film about isolation, it's a film about growth and complexity; namely the growth and complexity of the protagonist, played by jake gyllenhaal. jarhead refers, essentially, to the idea that each new marine is an empty vessel waiting to be filled by (presumably) the indoctrination of the marine core. one aspect of the film that fell a bit short is related to this filling... in full metal jacket, the ultimate film about the marine core, there is a clear dialectic between the recruits and the sergeant. in this film, this binary opposition is less prevalent. foxx, who plays the staff sergeant, is more "one of the guys" than a hard nosed leader. the conflict, therefore, is more an internal one. sometimes this manifests itself with intersquad squabbling and other times it's a man vs. himself situation. and even when the former is the case, it usually informs the latter. for example, when one of the other marines discovers one of his video tapes contains pornographic footage of his wife cheating on him, there is a minor squabble between sarsgaard and gyllenhaal (who wants to view the tape again). the real issue here isn't their disagreement on whether to view the tape again or not, rather it is gyllenhaal's own growing obsession with the possibility that his girlfriend is cheating on him. the first gulf war is the perfect setting for meting out this theme. because the only real significant american casualties came from "friendly fire" and the gulf war syndrome afterwards, it is a war that perfectly embodies the "man vs. himself" theme.
gyllenhaal does a very good job and will probably earn a golden globe or oscar nomination for his performance. sarsgaard is also dialed in very well. black (sling blade, friday night lights) is another up and comer. foxx does a good job, but i wasn't really sure how to read his character. was that his acting, my interpretation or the writing? perhaps the best thing about the characterization was its complexity. gyllenhaal isn't particularly easy to like. he's capable and occasionally sensitive, but he can also be stupid, callous, abrasive, and irresponsible. in the end, we like him because he perseveres through it all. sarsgaard and gyllenhaal clap and applaud the beach storming sequence in apocalypse now, which is chilling, sad and pathetic. but they also have empathy when they see actual death later in the film. conversely, evan jones' character (fowler) carries that same bravado throughout real and fictional war situations. as evan jones is one end of the spectrum and gyllenhaal and sarsgaard are the middle, brian geraghty (fergus) makes up the other end of the spectrum - he is the most sensitive of the group.
there were some stunning scenes in the film - the sequence with "something" by nirvana was a standout; the oil fires in the desert were great; gyllenhaal breaking, and then apologizing, was great; and the post-airstrike scenes were also memorable. all in all, it's a very good film that's a strange combination of the lyricism of "a walk in the sun" and the brutality of "full metal jacket," though it's not as good as either. i felt that sarsgaard's death at the end was more obligatory than it was symbolic or poetic. not as good as north country, better than the island, but not as enjoyable. the tight, efficient storytelling made it feel more epic than the run time would indicate. B+.
4. Guns, Germs, And Steel --
original review: great three hour documentary brought to by the folks at national geographic in conjunction with jared diamond, author of the book of the same name. diamond's work here essentially makes a case for geographic determinism. that is, a culture's fate is largely contingent upon the geographical location of said culture. why, for example, are the people of papua new guinea so much poorer than europeans? he posits that it boils down to the right/wrong combination of arable land, climate, and livestock. because of these larger causes, secondary causes - guns, germs and steel - are able to shape the fate of societies. by the end of the documentary he summarizes his work in a less deterministic way, saying that geography is essential in understanding how we've gotten to be where we are and how we should go about changing the fate of the less fortunate.
as a teaching tool this film is indispensable and absolutely essential. like anything else, it is important to remember that the work is just one potential truth, not the be all, end all. but diamond's work is so well-researched (especially if you read the book) that it's hard not to give great weight to his theory of cultural evolution. one problem i have with the documentary's presentation of his work is that it didn't address the potential role of humans in their own fate. what of the hitlers, the julius caesars, the eli whitneys, the buddhas of the world? politics and religion went essentially unaddressed. his new book, why civilizations fall, addresses some of the political reasons for a culture's failure - abuse of natural resources being one of those reasons.
diamond's work, i think rightly, assumes that humans, in the aggregate, always push forward with technology. europeans not only did better because of their geography, but also because they constantly wanted larger civilizations, harder steel, faster machines, better technology. i think it's an accurate representation of humanity, overall, but it's also a bit depressing because it seems to necessitate a constant pushing of the technological boundaries in order to avoid foreign conquerors.
the experts that diamond speaks with are uniformly great. they're all very knowledgeable and passionate about their field. interesting tidbit: malaria is now the #1 killer of africans under five years old because they live so close to each other. in the past tribes were spread out and away from water to avoid contact with the disease as much as possible. cities have changed that. B+.
3. North Country --
original review: powerful oscar contender that delivers. generally i'm turned off by pictures like this because they come off as entirely constructed to please the academy. it's a story of the underdog with several oscar winners/nominees and an up and coming director. judging by the producers, though, this seems more like a case of a group of people believing in the story.
essentially the film is a cross between norma rae and erin brokovich, and i think it's as good as both. as is usual, it all starts with the screenplay which is excellent from top to bottom. the dialogue, the settings, the storytelling, the characterization - all are just where they need to be. the settings echo and amplify the feelings of the characters. the characters are realistically drawn in that they have both positive and negative attributes. the storytelling is efficient and well-paced. caro's direction enhances the mood well. shots of the mine are either claustrophobic and dungy (when indoors) or agoraphobic and snow white (when outdoors). caro uses the exteriors in a similar way to the coens in fargo - to show the isolation and hopelessness of the characters. the court room sequences are shot with saturated sepia tones reminiscent more of documentary footage than a hollywood film. though the acting was quite good i think that the cinch here is in the screenplay which should get nominated for best adapted screenplay.
theron is very good, but mcdormand almost steals the show with one chilling stare that comes while she's in the courtroom. spacek, bean, harrelson and the rest are also solid. richard jenkins, who plays a lot of humorous roles, does a great job with a difficult role as theron's father. like many of the men at the mine jenkins is an enabler because he doesn't speak out against the abuse and harassment that takes place. spacek (jenkin's wife) is an enabler of another kind - by being the supportive wife she allows jenkins' views on women in (and out of) the mill to go unquestioned. it's only when she takes action that he steps up to support his daughter's fight. all these dynamics reinforce the theme that we're all in this together; a theme that was so powerfully represented in norma rae.
the film is definitely better than caro's other major picture - whale rider. while i like the island more in certain ways i think it's safe to say that this is the best film released this year that i've seen. B+.
2. 40 Year Old Virgin --
original review: funniest movie released in quite some time. i had a pain in my jaw for much of the film and that's always a good sign. the thing that makes it that funny is that it has a round cast - it doesn't rely completely on steve carell for the humor. paul rudd, seth rogen and romany malco all do their fair share to buttress the comedy. beyond that there are even tertiary characters who provide laughs during the lulls or in between the bigger laughs. judd apatow (who co-wrote, produced and directed this picture) is on a bit of a roll nowadays. he has a new nascar-based film coming out with will ferrell, john c. reilly, ali g and it's directed by the same guy who did anchorman (adam mccay). now, this picture isn't for everyone - it's got toilet humor, some t&a, and plenty of sex-based comedy, but if you're a friend of mine then you're probably not averse to that so long as it's well done. there's even a bit of office space humor, but it's subtle and usually used as a background, or secondary, source of humor. i liked that about it. it wasn't being derivative, but it was still mining the (abundant) workplace humor. B+.
1. Island --
original review: spoilers... this film embodies some of the definitive characteristics of a worthwhile hollywood film. many deride hollywood cinema as sweets for the masses - empty films without character, artistic merit or thoughtful plots. though i acknowledge the great deal of truth in this assessment, i think it's a bit simplistic and elitist. first, what's so wrong with film as pure entertainment? i enjoy decasia, koyaanisqatsi and un chien andalou as much as the next guy, but i also feel the need for a balance in my cinema; that's where hollywood films find their worth. secondly, there are some fine examples (die hard, kill bill, matrix, terminator, etc.) of hollywood pictures that rise above the stereotype and actually combine "low" entertainment with "high" art. the island is one of those pictures. i don't mean to group it in the same category as the aforementioned, but it's a solid film with plenty of fodder for those in the audience who choose to reflect. i'm also not saying that the message, or questions raised, are as refined, cohesive or synthesized as something like foucault's "discipline and punish," but we are talking about a multi-million dollar film, so i think the standards should be adjusted accordingly.
the island takes place 15 years in the future (a bit too soon, if you ask me) where cloning has been perfected and turned into big business. johansson and mcgregor play clones secluded from our world in a compound that ensures the clones are in good health in case the original humans need a donor organ or the like. clones are spawned at the same age as the original human and are mentally unsophisticated as a result. essentially the clones are treated as products and the compound acts as a farm. in order to keep the clones under control a metanarrative is constructed. the details are murky, but essentially it involves an apocalyptic contamination which prevents the clones from wanting to leave the compound. sex and love aren't taught to the clones, close personal contact is prohibited, and everyone is monitored at all times. when one of the clones leaves to provide their counterparts with an organ transplant the rest of the people in the compound are told that that person has won the lottery. when someone wins the lottery they supposedly go to an island free of contamination - it explains the person's disappearance and gives the clones something to hope for. think thx-1138 and you'll have an excellent idea of the atmosphere, both visually and psychologically. indeed, the entire film plays like a hybrid of thx-1138, the matrix, a clockwork orange and blade runner. one advantage is has over blade runner and thx-1138, though, is the presence of comic relief; that, and it's not directed by george lucas, which is generally a good thing. i digress...
let me use that slight of lucas as a segue to my opinion of bay. i haven't seen the bad boys films, but i have to admit that i enjoy the rock and armageddon for what they are. pearl harbor was syrupy and contrived. so, going into this picture, i wasn't too sure what to expect. i know he can make a good picture and i know he can make a bad picture. also, i generally i don't like johansson. she's a decent enough actress and has the ability to be good looking, but her "best roles" have either left me uninspired (lost in translation) or uninterested (girl with a pearl earring, horse whisperer, love song for bobby long). in other words, i didn't go into the picture with strong expectations in either direction.
philosophically it's not as ripe as the matrix, but it certainly is ready to be intellectually harvested. right to life issues, the existence of a soul, nature vs. nurture, the issue of identity, politically implications of cloning technology, the nature of memory, etc. it's the kind of film that you really should watch with someone. i liked that the island is initially portrayed as a desired location, like heaven. but as the film progresses the compound where the clones live turns out to be the true island; and in this sense it is an inversion of heaven and hell. the clones' compound is like the garden of eden with the head scientist as god. but it's inverted because god is evil and the clones are pure (remember, though they appear to be older, they're only 2-3 years old in most cases). what makes it even better is the message that curiosity (traditionally seen as sinful - pandora, "curiosity killed the cat," the garden of eden story, etc.) is something to be embraced - it ends up setting mcgregor and johansson free.
late in the film ewan mcgregor confronts his outside version and there's a standoff between the two of them and the person hired (played by Djimon Hounsou) to contain the mcgregor/johansson escape. ewan vs. ewan had me thinking about the nature of identity. each version competes to convince hounsou that he is the real version of mcgregor's character. we live in a world where the original has essentially lost its worth. every cd is equally important. with paintings we still value the original, but more and more we value the copy as much as the original because there isn't any practical difference between the two. will this trend continue to the point where a human clone has the same value as the original? if so, what's wrong with that? equal, but different? questions for the ages, but the interesting thing is that the film lends itself to these questions and interpretations - something many blockbusters don't do.
the minor stuff: the set design was quite good and the special effects were transparent. i didn't like the large number of product placements (from beer to cars to video game platforms to credit cards), but i guess that's what i meant when i said that this film embodies the definitive characteristics of a hollywood film.
when i watch a film i ask to be entertained, educated or otherwise moved on some level. when i watch a hollywood film i expect to be only entertained. occasionally a film like this comes along which has characters i can sympathize with (hounsou, mcgregor and johansson), an engaging plot, a message, the potential for intellectual readings, some comic relief (not completely reliant upon buscemi, by the way), and solid technical attributes. sure it's derivative at times and a little too long, but, from what i've seen, this is the best film of the year. B+.
1. XXX: State Of The Union --
original review: there are only a few films that are as truly awful as this one. gigli (obviously) kangaroo jack, glitter, battlefield earth, and from justin to kelly are the company this film keeps. director lee tamahori directed another massive piece of shit film in 2001's along came a spider. unlike that film, though, this film has no redeeming qualities. that said, though the grade is the same, this film wasn't as bad as gigli. that is because gigli made me uncomfortable more often than this film. yes, this film did make me physically and mentally uncomfortable. it was hard to sit still while i watched samuel jackson flush his career down the toilet. it was hard to see the conventions of a genre be used with such little fervor or interest. generally when a film uses genre conventions it is to buttress a weak script, but the use of those conventions generally provides a decent enough template that even the unimaginative can copy a style or plot with some success; that is, after all, the point of such conventions - they are methods/elements within a film that are proven to entertain or excite. while die hard defines and maximizes action genre conventions this film does the opposite. it uses those tried and true conventions and applies them in the worst way possible; this film is the exact opposite of die hard. at this point you might think that the film is intended to be tongue in cheek and that, maybe, i just didn't get it. i'll say that this is remotely possible, but rather unlikely. nothing in the acting, direction or writing indicated a willful camp style.
i'm generally able to find good things to say about a movie, but i really can't think of anything here. the lead actress had nice juggs, i guess that's a good thing. the special effects were amazingly opaque and ineffective. the acting was uniformly bad. the "comic relief" (a nerdy white guy, who would have guessed that?) fell flat at every turn. the action sequences were poorly directed (usually to cover the bad choreography and sfx), unimaginative and unexciting. the ending leaves us wondering if there will be a XXX part 3, and that's about as scary a moment as i can remember in recent cinema. F-.
2. Monster-in-Law --
original review: another painful film. the romance portion of the film is done so traditionally and quickly that it comes off as a joke, but there is no self-awareness or sense of humor built into the film so i wasn't able to give it the benefit of the doubt in this regard. when jane fonda is introduced she comes off as a mildly likable celebrity (she plays a kathy lee type of character). after she finds out that her show is being canceled she has a britney spears type of pop icon on her show for a performance and interview. during the interview fonda laments the fact that the pop princess doesn't read the newspaper and thinks that roe v. wade was a boxing match. she has a nervous breakdown presumably because of the injustice of being replaced by a bimbo and the fact that young barbie doll types are able to sell 5 million records and are looked at as role models. sadly fonda's character never again shows this level of awareness or care for humanity.
the film quickly devolves into a poorly written string of clichés topped off with uniformly poor acting. fonda is unable to elevate the material, lopez is constantly stretching and straining and the lead guy is dense and nothing more than a pretty face. that said, there was some girl a few seats over who loved the film and couldn't stop laughing so maybe i just didn't "get" it. seriously though the film is targeted for idiots who know nothing about good storytelling, character development or any of the other elements that make for a reasonably well-drawn picture. D-.
3. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith --
original review: what an enormous waste. i'll get the good stuff out of the way first: hearing the opening theme always gives me goose bumps. hearing darth vader breathe for the first time also gave me goose bumps. the special effects were some of the best and most transparent that i've ever seen. everything else was a varying degree of awful. lucas's directing, especially during the many action sequences, was just plain bad. he doesn't understand subtlety, he doesn't know how to direct actors, he doesn't know how to edit or film a good action sequence, he doesn't know how to choreograph a good fight scene, he...just sucks.
the acting, from top to bottom, was bad. the script (with the exception of the line (roughly) "so this is how liberty dies - with tremendous applause") was flat, simple and, frankly, piss poor. obviously the story was known beforehand so nothing really held my interest in that respect. that said, for a 140 minute long movie there was a remarkable lack of plot. character or theme development usually take the place of plot in good films which are thin on plot, but that wasn't the case here. anakin becomes darth vader and that's about it. thematically it's pretty much the same old mumbo jumbo - balance, avoid being selfish, the dark side is tempting, etc. all of it was better done in episodes 4 and 5.
the most remarkable thing about the film is that it actually detracts from episodes 4 and 5. watching this film i couldn't help but feel that the emperor and darth vader lost some of their mysterious, dark allure. they're both much bigger badasses in the original films. similarly, obi-wan comes off as a whiny, sorta average jedi in episodes 2 and 3. this movie is a great example of exactly why prequels shouldn't be made. of course, i bought a ticket so i just contributed to the problem, hopefully this review will deter you from doing the same.
oh, and there were more corny and uncomfortably bad moments in this movie than there were in the fast and the furious so...D-.
4. Boogeyman --
original review: subtlety is important in film and this one demonstrates that about as well as anything i've seen recently. boogeyman bludgeons the viewer with quick, abrupt spurts of action followed by ebbs of anticipation. what results is a trite, style-over-substance film that contributes nothing to the genre and doesn't even entertain along the way. its plot is thin to non-existent, its characters are underdrawn, flat and uninteresting and it has one half laugh. D-.
Philip Seymore Hoffman - Capote
Charlize Theron - North Country
Best Supporting Actor
Michael Caine - Weather Man
Best Supporting Actress
Frances McDormand - North Country
Best Screenplay (Original/Adapted)
Squid And The Whale/Munich
Wal-mart: The High Cost Of Low Prices
Good Night, And Good Luck
Two For The Money
Waiting. . .
History Of Violence
Diary Of A Mad Black Woman
This Divided State
Guns, Germs, And Steel
Charlie And The Chocolate Factory
War Of The Worlds
Land Of The Dead
Mr. And Mrs. Smith
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith
Kicking & Screaming
Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy
Kingdom Of Heaven
Left Of The Dial
A Lot Like Love
Hide And Seek
Assault On Precinct 13