Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I’ve Been Watching a Lot of DVDs Lately …

… what with the writers’ strike and all. I’m surprised to realize I haven’t missed TV at all, but then again it’s only January. We don’t typically get a lot of new material until February, anyway, so thus far the hiatus feels rather normal. A few more months of this could get really old, especially if we only get eight episodes of “Lost” instead of the originally scheduled 16.

The strike has allowed me to catch up on some movies, at least, so here’s a roundup of what’s been in my DVD player recently:

“The Game Plan”
I absolutely loved Dwayne Johnson when he was layin’ the smack down in the WWE as The Rock—he’s my favorite (and best) professional wrestler of all time. All that goodwill and Johnson’s natural charisma are the only things that got me through this clunker. There are a few funny scenes, but overall it’s as painful as a quarterback sack. I cannot believe it took three people to write this. It’s like “Three Men and a Baby” with about 3 percent of the laughs.
Grade: C-
(If you want a movie from the same genre that gets everything right, I recommend “Enchanted,” especially for a glowing performance from Amy Adams that will leave you smiling long after the credits roll.)

Finally got around to seeing what has been called one of the best comic book adaptations of all time. I certainly wouldn’t agree with that assessment, but it’s an enjoyable ride for the most part. Ron Perlman is amazing as the big red title character, but writer/director Guillermo del Toro loses his way in the oversized final act; “Hellboy” gets away from the wit and sarcasm it does best while trying to wrap up the nearly incomprehensible plot.
Grade: B

“Knocked Up”
The rare movie that lives up to the hype. Basically a pitch-perfect comedy, but too many raunchy elements to recommend to any and all. Still, Katherine Heigl made a fan out of me, and writer/director Judd Apatow manages to deliver a heartfelt message (and even somewhat wholesome, from a certain point of view) without succumbing to cliché.
Grade: A-

“Pan’s Labyrinth”
Once again, Guillermo del Toro doesn’t quite live up to the hype. One of the best reviewed movies of 2006 didn’t bowl me over the way I was expecting (I remember hearing phrases bandied about like “a reimagining of the fairy tale” or some such thing). “Labyrinth” is really good, but it didn’t leave me pinned to my seat or even that emotionally engaged. A nice story, to be sure, and well done, just not the monumental experience I was hoping for. Perhaps that’s not del Toro’s fault, but such are the times.
Grade: B+

“Reign Over Me”
An interesting premise makes for a better trailer than an actual movie in this case. Don Cheadle and especially Adam Sandler make much more out of their roles than what’s on the page in a wandering and over-sentimental script. Sandler gives his best performance since “Punch-Drunk Love,” but his good work goes to waste by the time we enter one of the worst courtroom scenes you’re likely to see. Throw in some pat personal revelations for Cheadle’s character and a failed attempt at import via a forced impassioned soundtrack, and “Reign Over Me” comes up feeling more scattershot than Sandler’s character.
Grade: C+

Knockdown hysterical for the first half-hour or so, but this one wore out its welcome pretty fast. Jonah Hill maintains only the same squealing pitch throughout, and he begins to grate soon after the convenience store gets robbed. And it just so happens that scene ushers in Seth Rogen and Bill Hader as two bumbling police officers who also have way too much screen time. Thank goodness for Michael Cera.
Grade: B-

Quirky, funny, and generally heartwarming, with great performances all around, especially from Andy Griffith in an Oscar-worthy turn as a curmudgeon with a soft heart. The only thing that kept me from loving this movie is the fact that it centers around two otherwise lovable characters engaging in an extra-marital affair; it’s hard to root for adultery. Overall, though, “Waitress” was the first in a trilogy of excellent I’m-keeping-the-baby movies in 2007.
Grade: A-

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

My 11 Most Memorable Films of 2007

So the Academy Award nominations are out and … oh, sorry, must have nodded off there for a second. It’s the same story Oscar’s been telling us for the past several years: Four movies of dark, depressing material with one light-hearted affair thrown in for color. I find it all very boring, and have for quite some time. It wasn’t always like this, so I’m working on a theory that the past few years are a reaction to “Return of the King” winning it all in 2004, or somehow this is about the Bush administration, as most everything else in Hollywood seems to be.

Either way, I won’t be watching the show next month (in whatever form it takes), even though I do actually have a horse in this race for a change. But more on that film in a moment. Here are, in order, the 11 films that made the biggest impact on me in 2007:

1. 300
This was without a doubt the most surprising and memorable movie experience of the year for me. I wasn’t expecting much when I sat down in the theater—I thought the trailers looked kinda dumb—but I walked out two hours later with a feeling I hadn’t had since “The Matrix” back in 1999: Like I had just watched something truly original, something destined to change the face of filmmaking for years to come (for better or worse).

With “300,” director Zack Snyder finally achieved what so many before have tried but couldn’t get quite right: Translating a graphic novel into a film in as literal a way as possible (no, I wasn’t a huge fan of “Sin City”). Of course, it helps that Gerard Butler anchored the whole thing with his star-is-born turn as Spartan King Leonidas; Butler (and the rest of the cast, for that matter) took the material so seriously and treated it with such respect, it turned what could have been simply ridiculous amounts of blood and bravado into a work of art. Snyder, Butler & Co. gave “300” the heart and soul it needed to become more than just a flick for teenage boys, with its themes of love, honor, loyalty, bravery, conviction, betrayal, and corruption.

Like “The Matrix,” “300” is a watershed film that will be remembered, celebrated, maligned, and, unfortunately, imitated for years to come. Truly remarkable stuff.

2. Juno
What a joyous movie. I love it so much, I feel like I should just make a list of my top 25 favorite things about it—but that would get tedious, so I’ll settle for just a few. I loved how we get to know every character just like if we’d met them in real life: We’re presented with a superficial first impression, then discover the real person behind that façade as time goes on. I loved how a baby’s life was treasured in this film, not glossed over, dismissed, or discarded. And I absolutely adored Jennifer Garner’s performance as a mother-in-waiting; it would have been so easy for her to slip into cheesiness, but instead she embodied heartfelt sincerity, reminding me of why so many of us fell in love with her way back at the beginning of “Alias.”

“Juno” will make you laugh and make you cry. It will destroy your faith in humanity, then redeem it. It is the movie you love all the more every time you reflect on it. It is the best movie of 2007.

3. Immagine in Cornice
Pearl Jam’s latest video release offers an all-access vantage point never before seen in the group’s previous live DVDs. As someone who has obsessively followed the band’s setlists for a decade, the glimpses of Eddie Vedder & Co. crafting each night’s show as they toured Italy gave me goosebumps (as did many, many other moments). “Immagine” is certainly the best looking of PJ’s five video documents, and it does a perfect job of demonstrating the commitment to each and every concert that makes Pearl Jam the standard-bearers for live rock and roll, even after 15 years together. If anyone were to ask me why I continue to love this band, I give you “Immagine in Cornice” as an answer.

4. The Bourne Ultimatum
If ever an action film and its star should have been nominated for an Academy Award, this is the, er, ultimate example. Matt Damon has redefined the genre with his down-to-earth portrayal of Jason Bourne, leaving 007 to follow meekly in his wake.

5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The Potter films tend to get short shrift because a) the books are so good, and b) critics frown on franchises in general. But the past three entries in this film franchise have been downright excellent, with “Phoenix” the best of the bunch. This movie is veritably overflowing with wonderful performances from the likes of Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, and a should-have-been-Oscar-worthy tour de force by Imelda Staunton. And let’s not forget Daniel Radcliffe, who really came into his own this time around as The Boy Who Lived is growing up into a man. With millions upon millions of fans literally critiquing his every move, he holds his own remarkably well, as does this fifth installment in the series.

6. Rescue Dawn
Christian Bale takes method acting to the brink in this gripping and, ultimately, uplifting tale of a Vietnam-era P.O.W. Providing two of the most intense hours I spent all year, Bale disappears into his role in a way few Hollywood actors can; his performance is so genuine and outstanding, and yet not showy in a way that would have overwhelmed the film. Writer/director Werner Herzog delivers a throwback gem that has the guts to celebrate the true spirit of America and its military with a deft hand that avoids any fake patriotic jingoism.

7. Ratatouille
Brad Bird delivered another winner with this delicious film for adults packaged as a kids’ movie. Pixar continues to astound.

8. American Gangster
Call it “Departed” fatigue. That’s my theory on why this spectacular—and superior—mob flick didn’t get more critical praise this fall (same phenomenon happened with “Ray” and “Walk the Line,” if you recall). A cross between “Heat” and “Scarface,” Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe both deliver Oscar-worthy performances as director Ridley Scott gives them room to breathe deeply and fully explore their characters.

9. 3:10 to Yuma
Christian Bale and Russell Crowe light up the screen with both their guns and their grit in this excellent Western remake.

10. Once
For lovers of music and star-crossed romances alike, “Once” was also painfully overlooked by the Academy. It’s not on an “Almost Famous” level, but it’s not trying to be, either. I didn’t hear much about it when it was released among the summer blockbuster titans, but it’s an absolute gem that provides a beautiful demonstration of the power of music to help people connect.

11. Zodiac
A poorly marketed crime drama that proves director David Fincher hasn’t lost a step, despite an unusual five-year span between films. Even at over 2.5 hours, time seems to fly as we follow the trail of the Zodiac killer along with a gaggle of investigators led by a brilliantly dour Mark Ruffalo. Though it doesn’t come to a resolution, Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt nevertheless draw the film to a satisfying close—too bad the Coens didn’t follow suit.

One Final Note …
I just thought I’d mention how great 2007 was for movies. In the past few years I’ve had trouble coming up with even 10 films to list as “best” or “favorites,” and this year I included 11 and could have picked a couple more (“The Simpsons Movie” was excellent, and certainly one of the biggest Oscar snubs of recent memory for its lack of a nod in the animation category). I had an especially enjoyable summer at the movies, which hadn’t occurred in a while, either. Here’s hoping 2008 brings more of the same.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Standing in the Footprints of Giants: An Afternoon at Sun Studio

The photo above is from the inside cover of U2's "Rattle and Hum" CD, a project that saw the Irish quartet tour the United States in search of the roots of rock and roll. This photo was taken as the band recorded in the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, considered the birthplace of rock. Sam Phillips' one-room studio gave rise to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, B.B. King, and so, so many more.

So take one more look at the U2 photo, and then check out the one below:

Look familiar? It should, because I took it yesterday standing inside Sun from about the same perspective. Yes, that is the very same drum kit played by one Larry Mullen Jr. on "When Love Comes to Town," "Angel of Harlem," and "Love Rescue Me." (I apologize for the quality—I took all the photos you'll see in this post via my cellphone.)

Technically, I was in Memphis this weekend working on a story about Elvis' Graceland. Thankfully I wrapped up early enough Monday to swing over to Sun Studio and take the tour. It was, without doubt, one of the best experiences of my pop-cultural life.

This is the exterior of Sun. It's on the corner of a rather rundown section of Memphis, several blocks from Beale Street and the heart of the city. This shot may look familiar if you've seen the Cash biopic "Walk the Line." Unfortunately, the exterior featured in the movie was a replica; no scenes were shot at the actual recording studio.

The guy who gave the tour is a local musician who's served as an engineer at Sun for the past six years. The studio is still active and busy most nights (sessions start at 6:30 p.m.) A room above the studio that used to serve as a boarding house (Cash, Lewis, etc., all would stay there some nights during sessions) has been transformed into a mini-museum, allowing the guide to tell the story of Sun. It's OK, but the real stuff starts when you walk back downstairs into the studio itself.

Here's another shot of the studio, standing right in front of the drums I showed earlier. That's the tour guide on the left. And if you look carefully, there's an "X" on the floor straight ahead. That is the exact spot where Elvis stood when recording one of his songs; the guide said people kiss that piece of floor all the time, including Bob Dylan.

The absolute best part about Sun is that it's still a working studio, and so it gets used all the time. Unlike most historical sites—like Graceland, for instance—there are no velvet ropes separating visitors from the good stuff. They just let you wander around the room, poking at whatever you want (yes, I tapped on the drums). It makes the entire experience feel so real, so genuine. Here's another example:

I'm pretty sure the guide said the microphone in the foreground of this shot is the same one in the picture behind it. Regardless, the mic was definitely used by the King during sessions at Sun, and they just leave it hanging around in the studio for anyone who wants to touch it, lick it, fondle it … "You don't want to know what's been done to that thing," the guide told me, "and we don't clean it."

It was only me and one other guy taking the tour Monday afternoon, so our guide just let us hang out in there for about a half-hour, much longer than we would have been able to otherwise. He told us story after story, some he'd seen personally others he knew by legend. He said he's worked with more "famous" bands than he can remember, people who, like U2, want to record at Sun just for the inspiration. He said it's not uncommon for people to get nervous, queasy, and even vomit as they start their sessions; imagine sidling up to a mic and then glancing over at the photo of Elvis doing the same thing, or looking down at the floor and seeing that "X"—no pressure.

One of the best parts for me occurred when the guide played Cash's "Walk the Line" and U2's "Angel of Harlem," and knowing those cuts were recorded right where I was standing—I'll never listen to those tracks the same way again. I'll certainly never watch "Rattle and Hum" the same way, either. Cue up "Angel of Harlem" on the DVD if you want a better look at the inside of the studio; I came home and watched that scene again tonight, and it gave me another thrill. Yep, there's Larry, pounding away on that very same kit, and there's Bono, standing right on top of Elvis' "X."

There are several other photos donning the walls of Sun Studio, never to be touched. Here's one of Cash exactly where it was some two decades ago when "Rattle and Hum" was filmed; you can see it over The Edge's shoulder during "Angel of Harlem" on the DVD:

And here's one of Bono taken during the Sun session, now hanging over in the corner near the drums:

The whole experience at Sun Studio was just so anti- every other historical tour I've experienced. So refreshing. So unpretentious. So laid back. So … rock and roll.