John Carney’s lightning-in-a-bottle musical romance Once is the musical for people who don’t like traditional musicals. I’ve seen this film a dozen times – easily – and I’m always swept up by its numerous charms. An Oscar-winning critical darling and sleeper hit on the art-house box office circuit back in 2007, Once is the sort of film that has found a massive second-life on DVD/Blu-ray and it’s even spawned a successful Broadway show, which I had the fortunate chance to see, and totally love. The film is a super low-budget effort that sits alongside The Commitments as one of the best working-class musical dramas of all time. There is spoken dialogue throughout the film, but much of the story is told through song, but in an organic fashion so as to never feel forced. The actors, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, were friends for a long time before they shot the movie, and are musicians first and foremost. The story is simple: Boy meets girl, boy wants girl, girl sort-of wants boy, boy impresses girl, girl warms up to boy, and then….well…I’m not spoiling. What I will reveal is that each and every musical sequence is divine, especially when the two leads collaborate in the back of a music shop; pure bliss. The emotion, joy, and love that the characters develop for each other, and how it’s all born out of their mutual love for music, registers in every single scene of this deeply heartfelt film. And the ending of the story is just about perfect; I couldn’t have imagined a better way to cap this lovely and always believable story. By the end of the film’s swift 86 minute run-time, you’ll be wishing that there was one more song to be heard. Carney, who played in a band years ago with Hansard, takes a natural stylistic approach to his story, employing a grainy, digitally shot, hand-held aesthetic that adds to the realism of the story. Much of the film, which took 17 days to complete on a $150,000 budget, was shot by the cameramen from a distance, thus relaxing the actors and allowing them to be spontaneous with their performances. This is a true gem.
I’ve been a fan to some degree of all of the films from director Sam Mendes, but if there’s one film that nobody seems to bring up much from this classy and stylish filmmaker, it’s his underrated and extremely perceptive road movie Away We Go, which got a quiet release in the summer of 2009, and garnered very mixed reviews, with some people loving it and some really hating it. This is a film that holds up a mirror to a variety of American subcultures and essentially shows the viewer how messed up everyone is, and how we’re all just struggling to find our little nugget of gold, while we make countless bad decisions along the way and meet people who constantly fail and disappoint us. Feeling very much like a movie from the 70’s, this was Mendes’ most aesthetically loose piece of filmmaking, eschewing his formally precise compositions in favor of spontaneous hand-held cinematography, which complimented the episodic and freewheeling screenplay by husband and wife team Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph were perfectly cast as a mid-30’s couple on the brink of being parents who set out on the road to visit friends and family in a last ditch effort to plant roots before their baby arrives. A terrific supporting cast including Allison Janney, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey(!), Josh Charles, Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara are along for the ride, all getting a chance to create lasting and distinct portraits of diseased Americana which are sadly too believable, while Krasinski and Rudolph smartly underplay every scene, allowing the story to come to their characters without any forcing or over emoting. They also conveyed terrific sense of romantic chemistry between one another, which upped the empathy quotient in an otherwise biting piece of social satire. The upfront and awkwardly humorous sex scene that more or less opens the movie sets the quirky tone right away, and I loved how this felt like a total 180 from anything that Mendes had done before or has done since. This was his Flirting With Disaster (another wildly underappreciated gem from a distinct cinematic voice, David O. Russell), and it’s a film that more people should make the time for.
Matchstick Men is top five Ridley Scott. The cinematic sleight of hand on display is remarkable. So stylish in a very subtle way, never revealing its full hand until the very end. I love it when Ridley goes “small.” This tricky, funny, nasty film features a great Nicolas Cage performance in one of the ultimate conman performances to hit the big screen, with possibly career best work from the sensational Sam Rockwell as his affable partner. Alison Lohman’s young looks were perfectly used as a further layer to the tricky narrative, and Dody Dorn’s editing is razor sharp with not one wasted moment. John Mathieson shot in bold widescreen, ramping up the shutter speed during the numerous mental attacks that Cage suffers, emphasizing space and minutiae in an effort to convey anguish and uncontrollable behavior. Hans Zimmer’s jazzy, atypical score evoked an old-school feeling, and the way that Cage’s OCD ticks and mental sketch-outs were used to pepper this constantly morphing story added edge and unpredictability to one of the most overall surprising films of the last 15 years. I have watched this movie at least 10 times and I’ll continue to do so throughout the years – it’s absolutely terrific on every single level. Bruce Altman and Bruce McGill, two of my absolute favorite character actors, both provided extremely memorable support. This film should have done so much better at the box office, and despite mostly excellent reviews, it just doesn’t get talked about enough. This October will see the long awaited, at least by fans, Blu-ray, which will hopefully port over the marvelous making of documentary Tricks of the Trade, which was produced by friend of Podcasting them Softly Charles de Lauzirika. WARNING: NO SPOILERS IN THE COMMENTS!
John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano is a wonderful movie, the sort of project that defies description, and only comes along once in a great while. The fact that this movie was released in 1990 and that I can think of very little to compare it too must count for something. This was a film I watched repeatedly as a teen, but after a recent revisit, I’m struck by the film’s unique sense of heartfelt melancholy, as well as its confidence with balancing various tones and distinct performances. This movie took chances with its narrative, wasn’t afraid to be a bit “out there,” and Shanley still grounded the entire piece with a level of realism that made the plight of Tom Hanks’s character all the more resonant. Shanley is an immense talent, and when looking at his collective body of work as a writer in all mediums, Joe Versus the Volcano stands out even more; it’s truly a piece of entertainment that marches to the beat of its own drum. While critics were mixed at the time, I would like to hope that there’s a lot of people out there who hold this smart, surprising, and extremely funny little gem of a movie close to their hearts, as it’s the sort of work that rarely gets released these days. I can’t imagine how much of a challenge it might have been to market this quirky film back in an era before the internet and large scale media saturation, where you could really pinpoint a niche audience and attack hard. This was yet another charming, offbeat effort that would attract a huge following during the heyday of VHS, and would further cement the star power of rising stars Hanks and Meg Ryan, who would go on to reteam in Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Stephen Goldblatt handled the peppy cinematography; while Geroges Delerue’s playful score immediately set the mood. The insane supporting cast includes Carol Kane, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Abe Vigoda, Nathan Lane, Amanda Plummer, Ossie Davis, Dan Hedaya. An Amblin Entertainment release.
Joe Wright’s kinetic, artistic, sort-of-spy-thriller Hanna is so many things we’ve already seen but something totally and uniquely all its own, all at once. Take aspects of The Bourne Identity, Leon, Kick-Ass, Run Lola Run and then filter it through the prism of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale and you almost get an approximation of this strange, at times surreal, occasionally bewildering, entirely engrossing movie from Wright, who has consistently demonstrated a terrific ability to genre-hop (here doing an exceedingly stylish and physically impressive action film) after a classically confident start to his directing career (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and The Soloist came before; the obscenely underrated Anna Karenina followed, with Pan finding release this October). The plot is best not to be poured over too closely as there are definitely some holes and questions of logic (not to mention geography) but never mind — the film is a rush of motion, color, texture, violence, and pulsating sound (the restless, techno-themed score is by The Chemical Brothers and the fantastic cinematographer Alwin Kuchler handled the often stunning camerawork) which adds up to a blur of visceral excitement. The spectacular young actress Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Way Back) is positively stellar as the titular heroine, a 15 year old girl raised by her ex-CIA agent father (a customarily intense Eric Bana) to be a ruthless killer. Shielded all her life from the outside world, Hanna knows how to run, shoot, chop, and kill her way to safety. Enter the icy, dangerous Marissa (the always perfect Cate Blanchett), a government operative with a thing for silencers, razor-sharp red haircuts, and electronic toothbrushes (this movie has tons of quirks which always keeps it interesting). Marissa will stop at nothing to find Hanna — but why? Wright directs this visually expressive modern fairy tale with extreme panache, utilizing an attention grabbing blend of aesthetic tricks that spice up the picture, with Kuchler getting a chance to show off a few times during the set-pieces by shooting the action all in one take or in rough-and-tumble fashion. There’s an interesting mix of hand-held camerawork coupled with jagged editing patterns, that somehow fits perfectly with Wright’s traditionally fluid shooting style (a six or seven minute long steadicam fight sequence with Bana taking on a group of assassins is the movie’s obvious tour de force of technical virtuosity). Films like Hanna have been done before but never quite like this.
I can’t help but feel that big brother Ridley borrowed a lot from younger brother Tony on his 1989 film Black Rain, which feels more aesthetically and thematically inspired by stuff like The Hunger, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop 2, and the rushes he presumably saw while Tony was shooting Revenge, than Ridley’s own The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner, Legend, and Someone to Watch Over Me. The excessive smoke-effects and highly atmospheric production design definitely shared some similarities to Blade Runner, but for me, Black Rain feels like the sort of super-slick yet still gritty high concept actioner that Tony would become famous for, while Ridley spent the years chasing prestige and clout. Michael Douglas was all leather-jacket-fucking-awesome in this film, Andy Garcia was terrific support, and I loved how the film blended elements of classic cop noir with the modernized Yakuza picture. Jan de Bont’s rough yet elegant cinematography was sensational, and really pops on the Blu-ray format, while Hans Zimmer’s evocative score sets the mood immediately, lending menace and intrigue to the highly textured visuals courtesy of Scott and de Bont. Norris Spencer’s detailed production design lent believability to every location; this film feels exotic in a way that I can’t really put into words. Violent, sexy, and hard-charging all the way through to the finale, this is one of three Ridley efforts that feel very “Tony” for me as a viewer (G.I. Jane and Body of Lies are the other two that also feel rock-and-roll-Tony), and it underscores the fact that when not trying to please the Academy, Ridley can really nail genre-based entertainment.