Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Movie Review: Open Water (2003)

For the majority of its run time, Open Water exploits one of the most base human fears: the loss of control.
Daniel Kintner (Daniel Travis) and Susan Watkins (Blanchard Ryan) are a busy married couple who take a much-needed vacation. During their tropical excursion they decide to go scuba diving. As they board the boat a head count of 20 is taken by the crew. Once the vessel has headed several miles out from shore, it stops over a large coral reef. The ten sets of partners then begin to descend into the water when one of the passengers realizes he's forgotten his mask and is forced to stay on board. Meanwhile, Daniel and Susan spot an eel and begin to drift below away from the rest of the group. Back on the surface another diver has begun to have problems with his equipment, freeing up a mask for the forgetful tourist on the boat. The absentminded vacationer seizes the opportunity and takes to the water before the crew can take notice. This causes the original head count to become distorted as Daniel and Susan are now not counted at all. Satisfied that everyone has returned to the craft, the crew speeds away without Daniel or Susan. When they resurface they find themselves alone, that is except for the ever-circling sharks and jellyfish.
The log line contained in Netflix's description for Open Water reads: "The Blair Witch Project meets Jaws" which really just means: "another low-budget horror movie movie about a small group of people being attacked by an unseen predator, in this case sharks and, to a lesser degree, jellyfish." I don't think this is a completely unfair comparison, but it does leave our some of the most compelling reasons why Open Water is so terrifying. In both Jaws and Blair Witch the protagonists head out on their doomed excursions explicitly looking for the danger that eventually finds them. Open Water is the story of a couple that simply wanted a watery vacation where they'd get to pet some fish. In Jaws the crew of the Orca had guns and air tanks to fight off the great white they were after. The documentary film crew of Blair Witch not only had their camera equipment to comfort them, they had also packed supplies for a, albiet shorter, multi-day hike in the New England wilderness. Here Daniel has only a small diving knife and Susan a handful of breath mints.
And that's why I was legitimately scared by this movie: Floating in the ocean with no hope of rescue, predators closing in from every angle with no means of defense: my nightmares are made of these.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Top 15 Movies

[Editor's Note: This challenge was posed by my friend and former coworker Monica on Facebook a few days ago with the following instructions: "Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen movies you've seen that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes." This was possibly the hardest thing I've ever had to do and (without meaning to) took a bit longer than 15 minutes to whittle down to the list below.]

15. Election (1999)
I love this movie for a lot of reasons. It's hilarious. It's perfectly cast. More than anything, though, it allows the audience to feel empathy for what would otherwise be a totally unlikeable character. If you heard the details of the plot condensed into a couple of sentences you'd hate Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) and pity his put-upon student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon.) Election is the 102-minute explanation I'm sure the subject of every quirky national news story wish they had a chance to deliver.

14. Pulp Fiction (1994)
It almost seems like a waste of a choice to include Pulp Fiction on this list. Somehow it just seems too easy. But there's no getting around it: it's a great movie.

13. High Fidelity (2000)
My love of High Fidelity confirms my belief that to truly connect with a piece of art it has to hit you at exact right moment. When I first absorbed this movie I was a tender-hearted sophomore in college who had just painfully ended his first relationship. I felt that somehow this movie was made just for me and no one else, like my name should have somehow appeared in the credits. I'm a happily married newlywed now, but High Fidelity still holds up.
Also, the main character's name is Rob. So you do the math.

12. Clerks. (1994)
Years before director Kevin Smith made Cop Out or insulted me via social networking Clerks. was one of my favorite movies. I loved it so much that when Ash and I drove to New Jersey during our trip to New York City the most exciting part of the journey for me was our stop at the actual Quick Stop where it had been filmed:

When I first saw it I hadn't seen anything else like it before. It influenced my sense of humor for years to come. If nothing else, Clerks. taught me that being witty didn't necessarily mean steering away from less genteel topics.

11. Starship Troopers (1997)
I agonized over whether or not to include The Thin Red Line on this list because it's my favorite war movie. My reasoning was that I should include at least one entry from this genre. Then I realized that Starship Troopers was already on the list, covering that base and several others. Not only is Starship Troopers the basic archetype for any gung-ho war movie (I mean, they literally dehumanize the enemy) there's also hilarious one liners in pretty much every scene.
"Hey, all I know is you shoot a nuke down a bug hole, you got a lot of dead bugs!"

10. Swingers (1996)
Another formative movie in my life. As I write these out I'm starting to get the impression that I think cinema sure was at its best in the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s. But that's also when I first defined my taste in popular culture. Perhaps there's a connection there somewhere...

9. Donnie Darko (2001)
Like fellow downers Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, Donnie Darko is a great movie that I can't bear to watch all that often. It's so gritty and depressing that I almost feel as if I've already seen it as many times as I ever want to. It's not because I don't love everything about it, it's just hit me so hard the first few times that viewing it again might be too much to bear.

8. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Zombies are a favorite subject of mine and there's at least three or four other such films I wish I could include on this list. Shaun of the Dead is gets the honor because not only is it hilarious, its not actually about zombies. It's actually a touching coming-of-age story about relationships of every kind. Really!

7. The Rules of Attraction (2002)
I used to place The Rules of Attraction much higher on this list. When I was in college I felt this movie basically defined me as a person. Since I've graduated, though, being this nihilistic and cynical looks less and less appealing. I still love it though and would argue that it's among the most underrated films ever.

6. Boogie Nights (1997)
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my favorite directors and while this may not be his technical masterpiece (that would be There Will Be Blood) Boogie Nights is by far the most fun to watch. I love everything about it from the music to the clothes to the acting (Don Cheadle! Mark Wahlberg! John C. Reilly!) The only problem is that its hard to express that to people without them thinking that you only showed up for the nudity.

5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
This is a case where you have so many good elements you can't really go wrong. Hunter S. Thompson is one of my favorite authors. Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro are among my favorite actors. Director Terry Gilliam was the perfect choice to bring this fantastical tale to the screen. I just can't get enough.

4. Casino (1995)
Goodfellas is by far more beloved as far as Martin Scorsese mob movies go, but I saw Casino first. Added to that, Casino is longer by about a half an hour so there's more of it to go around. Between the salmon-colored suits Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) wears and the suave dating techniques of Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) it's also one of the funniest movies ever.

3. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
One of the most compulsively re-watchable movies in my collection. It never fails to make me smile.

2. Waking Life (2001)
I've watched this movie probably a dozen times and I always get something new out of it. The rotoscopic style is so hypnotic it's easy to forget there's only a very thin plot. I always end up thinking about Waking Life long after the credits have rolled.

1. The Big Lebowski (1998)
I was married by a Dudeist priest after walking down the aisle to Bob Dylan's "The Man in Me." When I get my first tattoo it will be over the word "ABIDE" on my right forearm. When the Lebowski Fest first came to San Francisco Ash and I and our friends Sean and Ryan jumped the line and got our picture taken with the real Dude (or at least the back of his head since he agreed to the picture and then completely forgot about it the next second and started walking away):
Is that enough evidence that this is my favorite movie of all time?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Movie Review: The Joneses (2009)

If writer/director Derrick Borte's cinematic debut The Joneses gets by at all it's certainly not because the plot was particularly gripping or well played out. But when it does succeed it's because the telescopic nature of the details of the universe starts at an extreme close up which then slowly retracts until the entire picture is revealed.
Well, that and I'll pretty much watch anything starring David Duchovny.
The Joneses chronicles the arrival of the titular family in a upper crust neighborhood. In short order, parents Steve (Duchovney) and Kate (Demi Moore) along with their children Kate (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) have infiltrated every strata of their new surroundings. It's not long before the entire community is playing out a live action version of the ancient platitude as they attempt to keep up with novel family. The Joneses wear designer everything and every part of their life can be had for a price, which is usually a lot.
The reason for their arrival becomes apparent when walking power suit KC (Lauren Hutton) shows up for a family meeting. KC sits the Joneses down and explains how much of a bump in sales each member of the family has driven for their particular demographic. You see, the Joneses have been placed here strategically for one purpose and one purpose only: to sell high end products and start trends in their upper class community. (We're led to believe that this is only one of thousands of such four-person units stationed all over the globe.) The members of the "family" aren't a family at all and have only been assigned their current roles. Trouble begins to brew when Mick can't hide the fact any longer that he's actually gay and not particularly well suited to the straight American teenager role he's been assigned. Also, Steve is new to the "family" and not yet adjusted to the current "family" he's been placed in. Added to that, Larry Symonds (Gary Cole) has begun to suspect something is off about his new neighbors.
The premise is genius and works because it feels so plausible. (I've always wondered who sits down and decides what will and won't be popular this year. It makes no sense.) This idea is the engine that drives the movie along until it runs out of gas and coasts slowly downhill towards the finish line somewhere around the middle of the second act. This means that there's really no compelling reason why its even the 96 minutes long it takes to play out.
It's easy to see how in another reality this would have made an amazing short story.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Movie Review: Born Rich (2003)

Born Rich, Johnson & Johnson heir Jamie Johnson's incisive look at the secret lives of the progeny of the upper upper class, isn't quite as shocking as you'd believe based on the controversy surrounding it. In the first 15 minutes of the film the family's legal counsel advises Johnson to tread lightly or not at all while gathering interviews for the documentary. Johnson's father, James Loring Johnson, encourages his son to drop the project altogether and instead start a "career" in collecting antique maps. Sure enough, by the end of the scant 75 minute run time we find out that one of the subjects featured in the film, Luke Weil, heir to the Autotote gaming empire, has sued Johnson for defamation of character before the final product is even released.
Born Rich is, however, a fascinating look into the ways those who don't have to work for a living spend their days and nights. Some of the insanely wealthy children, Ivanka Trump in particular, seem remarkably well-adjusted to their station in life. Others, like S.I. Newhouse IV, heir to the Condé Nast Publications fortune and grandson of Samuel Irving Newhouse, Jr., and Josiah Hornblower, of the Vanderbilt and Whitney families, face wildly conflicted feelings about their good fortune.
The most interesting dilemma these people seem to face is the gaping void between how their ancestors amassed their wealth and how their descendants maintain it. Before each subject is interviewed they are asked to explain the circumstances of their family's rise to power. During this recounting, black and white photos are often shown on screen picturing men with handlebar mustaches leaning against modest storefronts as horse-drawn carriages traverse the avenue a few feet away. These were obviously hard-working people, many of which traveled oceans and uprooted their families to unfamiliar continents to make a better life.
Flash forward to the present and the biggest problem for that same family revolves around deciding which after-hours function in the Hamptons would be most suitable for that evening's festivities.
It sounds exhausting.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Review: The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World by Lawrence Osborne (2004)

"It then occurred to me that perhaps what I was searching for in my own quest for taste was some sort of adulthood. It was a startling idea. The quest for taste might be nothing more than a voyage out of childhood. In the case of wine, it was surely a pilgrimage away from the sweetness of mother's milk and toward the 'unnatural' tastes of perverted (but sublime) old age! From sweetness to dryness; from simplicity to complexity; from certainty to ambiguity."
- Lawrence Osborne, p. 197

Wine by its very nature is a purposefully exclusive culture. The words used to describe every part of its creation alone constitute a sort of second language, one that isn't meant to be understood by the unwashed masses. The need for this kind of esoteric aura is clear from a financial standpoint if nothing else: It's just fermented grape juice after all. Anyone who would ask a consumer to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars per bottle with a straight face needs this to be true.
Osborne's book, The Accidental Connoisseur, is meant to be a counterpoint towards this notion. He's not a wine writer by trade. As a wine lover though, he does possess a canny understanding of how the industry has developed over the last few decades. His travels take him from Italy to California to France and back to Italy again. His only destination, as outlined in the excerpt quoted above, is the refinement of his own taste. This mythical idea is what the wine world lives and dies by. For example, noted wine critic Robert Parker, who created the 100-point scale which revolutionized wine industry, has insured his sense of smell for $1 million. A winemaker can spend months and years toiling over the varietals, the terroir and every other aspect of their product, only to be laid to waste in a matter of 30 seconds by Parker's nose.
Readers who aren't familiar with wine culture, Romance languages and European geography are at a disadvantage with this book. Osborne assumes a prerequisite knowledge of at least a little of all three subjects and breezes past obscure references without a second thought. More than once I found myself scanning entire blocks of text with my eyes, only to find that when it came time to turn the page that I had little to no idea what I had just read.
Still, Osborne is frequently a funny and adroit author who has the ability to draw vivid portraits of the personalities he encounters including the aforementioned Parker and California wine baron Robert Mondavi. (Here's some free advice: never mention Mondavi to a European winemaker. You may not make it out alive.) His worldwide travels offer a global perspective on what was once the hallmark of local culture.
"As I see it, the great power of the Americans comes from their having no relation to their own land," French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard is quoted as saying. "No relation to anything. They float in a void. Globalization, so called, is just an irrational spurning of history."
Indeed Americans (and especially Californians) receive much of the blame for the mechanization and commercialization of wine by the Europeans interviewed by Osborne. However, this does not stop them from attempting to cater to our tastes as 75,000 different wines make up what is now a $50 billion per year industry.
If nothing else, The Accidental Connoisseur proves that if taste, refinement and history can't be bought, someone forgot to tell the scientists at the UC Davis School of Viticulture and Enology.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Movie Review: "Stranger Than Paradise" (1984)

Watching Jim Jarmusch's sophomore film Stranger Than Paradise I was reminded of the first time I ever viewed Akira Kurosawa's classic Rashomon. Both films broke barriers and definitions of what cinema was and what it could be and are required viewing for anyone serious about film history. Released in 1950, Rashomon took storytelling to new heights with its distorted flashbacks. When I was watching it I knew that I should be amazed. I should have been overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance of genius on display. And while I thought it was quite good and an important movie I wasn't exactly blown away. I had seen an episode of Saved by the Bell a few weeks prior that mimicked pretty much every convention Rashomon laid down (different remembrances of the same event, non-linear storytelling, etc.) The problem was I had already seen this particular episode of Saved by the Bell (and countless other pop culture trash bins) before I saw Rashomon, which meant that I had already absorbed the derivation before experiencing the original. Through no fault of mine other than being born too late, the element of surprise was gone.
When it was released in 1984, Stranger Than Paradise must have felt avant-garde set against the backdrop of what was then contemporary cinema. The concept of independent film as we know it today was virtually non-existent during Reagan's first term. The same could be said for the bleak visual style and use non-actors in this stark character study. Now that Slacker, Clerks, El Mariachi and hundreds of other so-called "indie" films have traveled the path blazed by Stranger Than Fiction it doesn't seem so amazing that a movie where dialogue moves the plot along instead of action could find a place in the cannon.
Stranger Than Fiction is presented in a very orderly fashion. The movie is split into three acts complete with a title card announcing each (Act 1 is called "New World," Act 2 is titled "One Year Later" and Act 3 is named "Paradise.") Each scene is shot in one take and the camera hardly moves during any of them. The experience is something akin to watching a slide show as the screen goes black and the soundtrack goes quiet for several seconds between each scene.
The plot, as much as there is one, centers around three main characters: Willie (John Lurie of Fishing with John fame) is a Hungarian-born New York City gambler who bets on horse racing. Eddie (Richard Edson,  the original drummer for the band Sonic Youth whom you might remember from Ferris Bueller's Day Off as one of the devious parking lot attendants) is Willie's friend and fellow gambler, also lives in New York City, but instead wagers on dog races and is slightly less bright. Eva (Eszter Balint) is Willie's cousin who has just arrived in America from Budapest. The film starts when Eva arrives in NYC where she stays with her cousin for a few days before heading off to her mother's house in Cleveland. Eva quickly becomes bored when Willie and his friend Eddie head off to the racetrack without inviting her. As she doesn't know anyone else in town and she no means of transportation all sees of the city is contained within the confines of her cousin's dingy apartment. A year later, Eddie and Willie leave New York and head to Cleveland in a borrowed car after cheating at a card game. There they quickly become bored after they find Eva working at a hot dog stand. After a few days they head out, but not before doubling back for Eva and heading for Florida.
Jarmusch is a very quiet director and the arc of his films are quite gentle. Almost every scene shows some spare moment from the character's lives that would have been quickly glossed over in a more mainstream movie (especially in 1984.) There's Willie playing Solitare. There's Eva asking where the vacuum cleaner is hidden. There's Eddie losing at cards to Willie's Hungarian aunt.
These are not the common elements of stirring movie moments, but do take up the majority of real life. And that's why highlighting the mundane can seem so revolutionary.

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