Tuesday, April 15, 2014

FRESH FROM THE GRAVE: IT SEES "NOAH"!


It's not every film that can, at various moments, convince you that you are witnessing both the best and worst film of the year.  But Darren Aronofsky's Noah is not every film.  Indeed, it's like no other film in its genre, taking the Old Testament tale of a man charged with rescuing a small pocket of human and animal life from the flood-borne wrath of a disappointed God and transforming it into a wild, impassioned, sci-fi-flecked apocalypse narrative.  It's charged with furious speeches and confrontations at once purple-prosed and surprisingly powerful, and it's chockablock with as many spectacular FX beats as the superhero-of-the-week actioner rattling the walls of the auditorium next door.  It also parades a swaggering set of narrative cojones as grand as any of Aronofsky's previous works; this is a film with the bold brilliance to obey the spirit rather than the letter of the Biblical narrative, presenting a protagonist who means to follow the no-half-measures judgmental fury of his lord to their savage pedocidal extremes.  Anyone who bemoans Noah's inaccuracies because of the presence of "rock monsters" (and we'll get to those beings…oh, we'll get to them indeed) is missing the larger fidelity of Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel's vision.  The result is a film that, like Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, is gutsy enough to tackle and attempt to dramatize the real-world implications of biblical thinking.  Like Temptation, it has inspired its own share of distrust and contempt amongst the religious bodies of the world, many of whom had not seen the picture before heaping their excoriations upon it.  And like Temptation, it is in many ways a more spiritually probing and inquisitive film than the classic Bible epic content to portray the great men and women of the Good Book as mere waxwork icons mouthing sanctified homilies.  

Aronofsky isn't screwing around here, and he's not hedging his bets either.  Despite the unconventional visualization of the subject matter, this is doubtlessly a dramatization of the flood narrative taken straight from the pages of the Book of Genesis.  Adam and Eve are evoked by name, their fall from grace in the Garden of Eden depicted onscreen, complete with a glowing perfection-avatar First Couple and a forbidden apple pulsating with a disturbing heartbeat rhythm.  This fall leads to the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, an event that here has torn the world into contentious tribes whose "civilizing" ways have raped the planet, leaving the byways of the earth rocky, bitter and bereft of flora, fauna and hope.  The only beacon of true civilization is embodied by the descendants of Lamech, the third, peace-loving son of Adam and Eve, whose stalwart chief descendant is Noah (Russell Crowe), a man who teaches his own sons the virtues of simple farming, love and kindness towards all creatures, and respecting the charge man has been given by "The Creator" to protect his planet.  (The film's insistence on referring to its deity only as "The Creator", never as "God," has been one of the chief sticking points of the anti-Noah contingent, regardless of the fact that true historical accuracy would have demanded the term "Jehovah" instead.)  Despite the best efforts of Noah, his saintly wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly, reunited with her Beautiful Mind co-star and Requiem for a Dream director), and their children, including their young charge Ila (Emma Watson), The Creator is displeased with the despoiling of the planet he has so carefully nursed into being.  In a wild dream, The Creator tells Noah that he will flood the earth, washing it clean of wickedness and saving only Noah, his family, and a male-and-female pair of each animal of the earth, innocents all.  Noah is commanded to build an ark to survive the storm, and he fights and kills to protect his craft from the marauding swells of humanity who demand a salvation they have explicitly been denied by the will of The Creator.  But once aboard the ark with his family and their zoological cargo, Noah cannot quell the screams of the drowning that echo in his soul.  So much death and destruction cannot be for naught, and The Creator's work must not be in vain.  Neemah and the children thus find themselves in a pitched emotional battle against a patriarch who has become an avenging angel who means to wipe clean the earth of the very last remnants of sinful humanity…even if he has to slaughter Ila's newborns straight from the womb to see it done.  

For centuries now, the tale of Noah has been told from pulpits and in synagogues around the world.  It is customarily framed as a narrative of renewal and salvation, of God smiling on a sinning but still striving humanity.  But the quick-and-clean approach of the original Genesis narrative does not truly convey the horror of what the all-powerful Creator unleashes upon his backsliding people.  No, you need $135 million and the best special effects Industrial Light and Magic can muster to get the job done these days.  While I am as skeptical as the rest of the moviegoing world about the ongoing prevalence of "we can do it, so we will do it" CGI epics (Noah was preceded by a trailer for Transformers:  Age of Extinction, an action blowout with "impressive" CGI that, to my eye, doesn't even look finished), I am all for harnessing the power of computer-generated imagery to bring to life historical occurrences that eluded special effects technology in the pre-CGI era.  Not to suggest that the Noah tale is indeed based on historical fact, though virtually every major religion of the pre-modern era contains a flood narrative within its mythology.  But if you're going to bring a well-worn tale of raging waters and celestial destruction to the screen, I have no problem with the deployment of special effects, and Noah's are truly remarkable, rendering pummeling rushes of water that scatter and shatter the multitudes like so much hellish confetti.  In one image that I'll never forget, a rocky outcropping teeming with terrified humans clinging for life is smashed by a wave that washes them away as if they'd never drawn breath at all.  Noah's literally apocalyptic images remind us of what kids' storybook tellings of the tale make it easy to forget:  This is a story about a being so furious and disappointed that he wants to kill everyone on the planet, and who has the power to do just that.  This has always been a story about the death of thousands, and Noah allows us, for the first time ever, to feel the full-brunt gut punch of that vengeance.

Aronofsky and Handel also do not shy away from depicting Noah as a perfect instrument of potential  divine vengeance, damn the implications of where his fidelity to his Creator's whims may take him.  Russell Crowe is a once boundlessly acclaimed actor who has fallen under considerable critical scorn in recent years; he was singled out for some of the nastiest brickbats leveled at 2012's Les Miserables (as something of a Crowe apologist, I found his work in the admittedly deeply flawed film intriguing, his rock-style approach to the songs cleanly setting him apart as the film's antagonist), and his recent resume has been flecked with high-profile under-performers like Ridley Scott's DOA 2010 take on Robin Hood and this February's Winter's Tale, which rated a scathing How Did This Get Made? podcast a mere two weeks after its theatrical release.  But Noah is a thrilling reminder that when Crowe finds material he sparks to emotionally, he can tear into a character with a ferocious commitment unmatched by few other actors today.  His Noah takes the actor and the audience on quite a journey, starting as a sweet-souled farmer nevertheless scarred by the tough vicissitudes of a God-abandoned world (as a boy, Noah witnesses the murder of his father at the hands of Tubal-cain, a warrior king who plagues the adult Noah in the person of Ray Winstone, who blusters and shouts and does what Ray Winstone does, but does so impressively enough).  He's warmhearted enough to take in Ila when her family is slaughtered by Tubal-cain's marauders, and he struggles to be the best possible father to his eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth), who becomes Ila's husband; conflicted middle child Ham (Logan Lerman), who strains to break free of the paternal umbrella and taste all humanity has to offer; and youngster Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), who in the manner of many such youths, knows that father knows best…doesn't he?  But when The Creator levies his command to build the ark, and Noah witnesses the true depths of desperate human depravity on the eve of the flood, his heart hardens into a resolve that no man, not himself, not his family, not his soon-to-be grandchildren, must survive, so he cements a compact with his Creator to see the human line end with his brood.  And he's got a knife handy should Ila's coming children be female; no better way to snuff out life than to literally slash the throat of its only human source.  Many religious people, who seemed to have no problem with the bloodbath that was Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, seem to be taking umbrage at this savage treatment of the white-bearded nautical zookeeper so beloved of them as children.  But we're talking about a man who is told that a flood will kill virtually everyone on the planet for sins real and imagined, and that this just might mean the death of himself and everyone he loves as well, and his response is essentially, "Thy will be done."  Many individuals of faith find this unquestioning acceptance of God's will a stirring inspiration, but when you see it dramatized onscreen as Russell Crowe with a knife in a mewling baby's face, one has to question, at least for an instant, the costs of blind adherence to intangible command.  Countless millions throughout history have died through such convictions, and Crowe's performance bravely embraces that life-be-damned fervor; it's one of the finest pieces of acting this fine actor has ever committed to celluloid.  

The rest of the performances run the typical gamut of a film of this type, the actors swinging for the fences, sometimes connecting hard and true, sometimes just shouting a lot with tears in their eyes.  Connelly is an always-reliable presence when trafficking in emotional extremes, and her tear-streaked hysterical plea to her seemingly lost-to-her husband is heart-rending.  Watson shares the honors with Crowe for the film's best performance, her subtly shifting face and voice laying bare the burden and responsibility that have fallen into this young, untested girl's care.  Just as Winstone does what Winstone does, Anthony Hopkins does what Anthony Hopkins does as Methusaleh, Noah's grandfather and the world's oldest man portrayed as a dotty soothsayer with a love of drug-spiked tea and a ravenous craving for fresh berries.  Sadly, none of the actors portraying Noah's sons makes much of an impression.  Booth is a pretty-eyed blank, Carroll a fresh-faced kid and nothing more engaging than that, and while Lerman has some heavy emotional lifting to carry off (including bearing the brunt of a fatal decision by Crowe that many in the audience, I suspect, will not forgive the character for), he doesn't quite nail the confusion and struggle of Ham with maximum emotional force.  Considering the centrality to this narrative of Noah's essential sacrifice of the familial bond to the greater good, this lack of impact from the three young men's performances is a notable problem, and keeps Noah from ultimately achieving true greatness.

But Aronofsky and Handel score in numerous other respects, taking wild cinematic gambles with the material that largely pay off.  The creation of the universe is dramatized in a whitter-quick stop-motion rush of images, cells splitting into fish and birds and monkeys with an exhilarating visual ease that by itself conveys the wonder of The Creator's power.  Clint Mansell's thunderous score strains the boundaries of restraint while still stirring the emotions, and longtime Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique lenses the proceedings with his usual paradoxical sense of painterly grit.  The production design of Mark Friedberg remarkably renders an alien biblical landscape and the mammoth yet crudely constructed ark that represents humankind's last hope; likewise, Michael Wilkinson's costumes evoke science fiction as much as they do sword-and-sandal epic ("A long time ago" indeed…).  Some viewers will be disappointed by the limited role that the animal passengers of the ark play in this story; once Noah and his family load them aboard two by two, they are put to sleep with a special magical all-purpose substance called "zohar," and are out like a light for the duration, so if you're hoping for wild ark-borne stampedes, animal fights, or narrative developments that treat these creatures as anything other than cargo, you had best look elsewhere.  And then there are the Watchers, Aronofksy and Handel's most audacious conceit.  These craggy, stone-encrusted beings, animated in a bizarre stutter-step manner that recalls nothing less disturbing than the shutter-walking ghosts of classic J-horror, have been used as a stalking horse for biblical purists wishing to tar Noah as biblically unfaithful.  But the Bible, its surrounding apocrypha, and centuries of Christian teaching (not to mention Milton's Paradise Lost) are rife with tales of fallen angels, cast out by The Creator and made to suffer the tortures of the damned simply by being denied the presence of their god.  And that's what these "rock monsters" really are, angels cast out of heaven and tarred with the cracked-mud cage of their shame for the crime of sympathizing with the likewise expelled Adam and Eve.  Aronofsky boldly places the Watchers front and center throughout the film's first hour; they help Noah and his family build the ark and boldly defend it from Tubal-cain's marauding masses, their sacrifice on behalf of God's will earning them back to the Creator's side.  They're Noah's biggest love-it-or-hate-it creative gamble, and I frankly applaud the brass and conviction with which Aronofsky and Handel dramatize an oft-discussed but seldom seen theological concept.  (It helps that the Watchers are voiced by a coterie of fine actors, including Nick Nolte, Frank Langella, and Aronofsky regular Mark Margolis, and are animated by ILM with skill and truly innovative invention.)  

Noah is not a film I expect to see on televisions every Easter from now until the end of time.  It is not interested in spoon-feeding its audience a Sunday school vision of events, fresh-scrubbed and with all the craggy implications of the biblical record sanded away.  It's a thorny, rough-hewn blockbuster that dives neck deep into the morass of biblical fundamentalism and grapples with the implications of that literalist drive with more probity and curiosity than virtually any other big-budget Hollywood motion picture has even attempted.  The results are loud, violent, spittle-flecked, occasionally ridiculously overblown (seriously, we already knew Winstone was evil; he could have at least killed that lizard before he bit into it).  It's also thoughtful, fierce in its convictions, and made with a damn-the-torpedoes power that is, at frequent moments, great and undeniable.  Noah is one of those films that, once it is seen, cannot be unseen.  And it should be seen, and it should be dealt with, by any person of faith, by anyone who's ever questioned their own beliefs, and by anyone interested in the ever-expanding, singularly risk-taking filmography of Darren Aronofsky.      

Thursday, March 27, 2014

THE ZOMBIE'S 101 FAVORITE SCREENPLAYS: #58



MANHATTAN (1979)

The Writers

Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman

Why It's Here

Regular Movie Zombie readers might recall my recent year-end roundup blog, in which I refused to discuss the recent accusations of parental sexual impropriety leveled at Woody Allen in the wake of his Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for my no. 4 film of 2013, Blue Jasmine.  At that time, I didn't think a discussion of the charges raised by Mia Farrow, her now-grown daughter Dylan (a young child during the period in which the alleged misconduct took place) and son Ronan were relevant to my praise of the film, the subject matter of which did not in any way touch on the issues dredged up by the accusations.  But now, a mention of the scandal is impossible to avoid, as I've come here today not to bury Allen, but to praise Manhattan, the humorous 1979 romantic drama in which Isaac Davis, a quintessentially neurotic New York writer played by Allen, is involved in an affair with Tracy (Mariel Hemingway, an Oscar nominee for this performance), who is beautiful, bright, mature…and all of seventeen years old.  Allen was found not guilty of the charges recently re-raised by the Farrows, as he was when similar accusations were made in 1992 after it was exposed that he had embarked on a sexual relationship with Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, who soon thereafter married Allen and is still today his wife.  But one has to imagine that such unsavory accusations would not still be plausible in the eyes of many had Allen not made a film, one of his most prominent and celebrated, no less, in which he is involved in an illegal dalliance with a girl who is, despite her poise and intelligence, still a child in the eyes of the law.  Allen would not be the first world-class filmmaker whose improprieties with women stretched the boundaries of the United States's age of consent laws.  Charlie Chaplin was sexually involved with, married to, and the father of several children by underage women (one of his wives was only sixteen when she became pregnant by him), and Roman Polanski cannot return to the U.S., lest he be arrested for fleeing charges of drugging and violating a 13-year-old girl in 1977.  But Chaplin and Polanski have never made a film in which the main character's relationship with an underage girl was a major plot element.  Given the fact that Allen shares writing credit on Manhattan with Marshall Brickman, with whom he won a 1977 Oscar for writing the groundbreaking romantic comedy Annie Hall, it is impossible to say whether this statutory relationship was originally introduced to the narrative by Allen or Brickman.  But this relationship is almost certainly the single element of Allen's art most responsible for the persistence of his perceived potential guilt in the eyes of many doubters.  Why, they think, would you make a movie about this unless it's something you had more than a passing interest in?  

Isaac's relationship with Tracy in Manhattan is about much more, however, than an older man's lust for nubile young flesh.  In a sequence near the end of the film, Isaac, dictating notes into a tape recorder, discusses plans for a short story about neurotic New Yorkers who create their own fraught, tangled romantic problems, partly as a means of distracting themselves from the very real issues of mortality and social chaos facing them as they stand on the precipice of what would go down in history as the Greed Decade.  Manhattan is not specifically a social document, and it's certainly not any kind of political screed; usually, when the characters get into discussions of real issues, it ends up merely demonstrating their pseudo-intellectual ignorance about those very issues (as Isaac does when he suggests baseball bats and bricks as the best solution to the problem of a proposed neo-Nazi march in New Jersey).  But it's no accident that, in Isaac's opening narration, he twice refers to the city as "a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture."  Manhattan exemplifies precisely this social breakdown through the brilliant metaphorical utilization of the stormy romantic entanglements of a group of smart, well-to-do members of the cultured classes, people who can get tables at all the right restaurants, have read all the right books and seen all the right films and can throw around all the right names with the appropriate levels of engagement or contempt, but who, when it comes to the vicissitudes of their own hearts, are as confused and prone to disastrous decisions as any impetuous teenager.  Except for maybe Tracy, who, in a deftly satirical narrative positioning that defuses any potential accusations of exploitation by the filmmakers, turns out to be arguably the most mature, together person in the entire film.  

Mature and together are definitely not words that spring to mind when contemplating Isaac, the central figure of this romantic roundelay.  An ostensibly high-class man in early middle age, Isaac has under his belt two failed marriages, a young son he loves but nonetheless does not live with, and a lucrative but unfulfilling job writing for an apparently terrible TV comedy series (Isaac accuses the show's staff of only finding the program funny due to the copious amounts of drugs they consume in the control room:  "You should get out of TV and open a pharmaceutical house!").  He can throw around references to Strindberg and Zelda Fitzgerald with the grace of the true intellectual, but he is in many ways an overgrown adolescent.  He is given to foolish displays of childish bravado, like insisting on smoking cigarettes because of how cool he believes it makes him look, and he has a rebellious teen's impetuousness and lack of impulse control; he bluntly quits his job with no thought to the financial consequences (he eventually has to downsize to an apartment with horribly noisy neighbors and persistently brown tap water), and we hear several times about his attempt, upon finding out that his second wife Jill (Meryl Streep) had fallen in love with a woman, to run Jill's lover over with his car.  It's no wonder that Isaac's most relaxed, carefree moments onscreen are with his son Willy (Damion Scheller), with whom he gets to enjoy some street hoops and a Central Park football game with the other members of the "Divorced Fathers & Sons All Stars."  One would think, given his lack of authentic maturity, that his relationship with Tracy would be an ideal fit for him.  All the hunger of a buddingly sexual girl, none of the true commitment…what could be better?  But Isaac doesn't count on Tracy truly falling in love with him.  Throughout their relationship, he insists that she take things as non-seriously as he seems to; he refuses to let her stay at his apartment too often, and he constantly refers to himself in terms that suggest that their relationship is not meant to last, telling her she should view him as nothing but "a detour on the highway of life" and their romance as something she'll one day regard as just "a fond memory".  He reinforces this perceived lack of seriousness with frequent digs at her youth and inexperience; he even teases her for sounding, he says, like the mouse in the Tom and Jerry cartoons.  (To her credit, she gives as good as she gets, blasting back at his "whiny" voice and accusing him of thinking she's "unaware of any event pre-Paul McCartney.")  But no matter how much he insists that their relationship is destined to end, she won't give an inch in her faith in its durability.  Even her romantic notions are not the girlish whims of a child, but those of a more thoughtful, classically minded woman:  When Isaac tells Tracy they can do whatever she wants on one of their nights together, she proposes a moonlit carriage ride through Central Park.  She is exactly the partner Isaac doesn't realize he really needs.  Supportive, steadfast, loving, generous, and blessed with a spiritual and emotional serenity, even at seventeen, that no one else in the film even comes close to possessing. 

It's perhaps no surprise, then, that Isaac finds himself drawn to a woman who is Tracy's polar opposite in almost every respect.  Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton) is a Philadelphia native, a fact she brandishes in casual conversation like a sign that reads "Cultural Integrity."  Where Tracy is quietly, sincerely engaged in learning and absorbing the vast array of art, culture and life that New York has to offer, Mary instead seems to have learned about the wider world primarily in order to heap contempt upon it.  She and Isaac's similarly supercilious writer friend Yale (Michael Murphy) discuss a fictional institution of their own creation, "The Academy of the Overrated," in which they have enshrined true legends like Mahler, Jung, Van Gogh (Mary sarcastically pronounces this "Van Gock"), and Allen's beloved Ingmar Bergman (Isaac later says that if she'd cracked on Bergman one more time, "I would have knocked her other contact lens out.")  Isaac excoriates Mary from one end of Manhattan Island to the other after their first meeting, but upon encountering her later at a museum fundraiser, they strike up a deeper conversation that leads to a romantically fraught afternoon at the Hayden Planetarium (the film's finest showcase for Gordon Willis's sumptuous widescreen black-and-white photography), which eventually becomes a full-blown romantic affair that leads him to dump Tracy.  His admitted honesty about the reasons he ends the relationship provokes a reaction from Tracy that is as pure and truthful as we would expect; "Now I don't feel so good," she whimpers, her eyes filling with tears.  True to his perception of his fellow Manhattanites as self-inflicted victims of romantic neurosis, Isaac turns his back on a relationship which, despite the age problem, is practically perfect to take up with a woman about whom his original unflattering perceptions were more or less right on the money.  Some people, Allen and Brickman seem to suggest, just aren't happy without some kind of problem with which to grapple, and apparently Isaac's (also self-inflicted) unemployment, not to mention Jill's forthcoming tell-all book about their marriage, isn't enough for him.  He needs to bring his self-perpetuated unhappiness right into his bed.

As if it wasn't bad enough, Mary and Isaac originally meet due to the former's adulterous affair with Yale, who steps out on his wife Emily (Anne Byrne, as the only other truly mature person in the film, albeit a doting mother-wife unable to control yet another overgrown teenager) and still insists that "I'm not one to have affairs" while simultaneously sloughing off his earlier "very minor" dalliances with other women.  Yale is another New Yorker who seems to suggest through his actions that his appreciation of "the finer things" somehow exempts him from attending to the better angels of his nature.  He cheats on his wife, continually blows off work on a proposed Eugene O'Neill biography, and impulsively buys himself a Porsche convertible despite Isaac's counter-suggestion that they get rid of all cars on the island entirely. He is in every way as id-driven and emotionally reckless as Isaac, but without the smattering of self-awareness that at least allows Isaac to realize that his actions, uncontrollable as they may be, are detrimental to his happiness.  Mary, naturally, is no better than any of them.  She is more than willing to prostitute her talent for a quick payoff, setting aside her own writing to pound out a novelization of a film because "it's easy and it pays well," and insisting to continue to see the married Yale even though she knows that "I'm bright and I'm beautiful and I deserve better!"  Awareness of one's good qualities is no sure guard against making terrible, self-destructive decisions, as Mary ultimately proves when she confesses to Isaac that she's still in love with Yale in spite of their romantic bond, and then splits up Yale's marriage to Emily to be with him.  

This all plays out against a subtle, richly observed portrait of high-class Manhattan living in the late '70s, as definitive a portrait of its cultural era as Saturday Night Fever was of the Brooklyn disco scene of two years earlier.  Allen is a man accustomed to the finest that the Big Apple has to offer, and he and Brickman play out their romantic entanglements against a panoply of stellar city backdrops.  Isaac and his coterie dine at Elaine's, attend the symphony, take boat rides on the lake in Central Park (Isaac trails his hand languidly in the water, and hilariously comes up with a fistful of pond muck), weekend in the Hamptons.  It's all so terribly classy and cultured and aesthetically refined, while the people in front of it are all so terribly immature and impulsive and insensitive and neurotic and self-defeating.  It's telling that when Isaac, having broken Tracy's heart for the "privilege" of getting his likewise broken by Mary,  is making a list of the things that make life worth living, he largely names not people or experiences, but merely cultural objects that are detached from his actual existence (among them:  Flaubert's novel Sentimental Education, "those wonderful apples and pears by Cezanne," and the early Louis Armstrong side "Potato Head Blues").  Manhattan is one of the definitive cultural dispatches from the Me Decade, a wonderful portrait of a time and place in which the right taste, the properly dropped names and the hot dinner reservation were all one needed to mask a complete and utter lack of substance.  In an odd way, this film would almost make a perfectly perverse companion piece to American Pyscho, Mary Harron's 2000 horror satire (adapted from Bret Easton Ellis's 1991 novel) in which a similarly superficial New Yorker uses his cultured tastes and impeccable social status to mask his sideline in butchering anyone who strikes his fancy.  What perhaps saves Isaac from a similarly murderous path is his devastatingly self-critical vision.  Some see him as just as screwed up and neurotic as the crowd with which he runs, no better than the sexist filmmaker he meets at the museum (played by Saturday Night Live's original mad genius, Michael O'Donoghue) who is unaware that his film about a man who "screws so great" that it kills his partners is misogynistic.  Jill, in her book, dismisses Isaac with a rainbow of excoriating insults ("He longed to be an artist but balked at the necessary sacrifices"), while insisting that his fear of death, which hinted as awareness of a greater scheme of things, was nothing but "mere narcissism."  But Isaac's awareness of his own emptiness and that of his world comes to a dramatic head when he confronts college instructor Yale in an unused science classroom, blasting him for his lack of maturity and willingness to sell out his better self for the quick buzz.  Yale of course refuses to take responsibility for his actions:  "We're just human beings, you know?  You think you're God!"  Isaac shoots back:  "I gotta model myself on someone."  Okay, that's a little narcissistic, sure.  But as with all of Allen and Brickman's best lines throughout Manhattan, and indeed with the best dialogue throughout much of Allen's filmography, what makes us laugh also rings a note of truth, a constant throughout what is, despite its laughs, a fairly serious film about genuinely meaningful subject matter.  Questions can be raised about whether or not Manhattan should really even be regarded as a comedy.  It does feature some obvious gags, such as Mary and Isaac's encounter with Jeremiah, the ex-husband Mary had previously described as a "devastating" lover who thoroughly opened her up sexually, who we discover is a stumpy, balding nebbish played by Wallace Shawn, one of cinema's great stumpy balding nebbishes.  But by and large, Isaac is the only character given most of the laugh lines, and we can chalk that up to Isaac, a TV comedy writer, just being one of those naturally funny guys.

Funny, yes.  Neurotic, no question about it.  But if he had only paid a little more attention during his afternoon with Mary in the planetarium, he would have realized that he knew the secret to happiness all along.  As Mary laments the "million facts at her fingertips" that don't truly benefit her at all, Isaac gives her a bit of philosophy:  "Nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind.  Everything really valuable has to enter you through a different opening.  If you'll forgive the disgusting imagery."  Isaac realizes that some things about life can't be explained or contextualized or turned into a magazine article or a devastating think piece in the Times.  You just have to see them, feel them, and let them into your heart.  In one of the film's most beautiful moments, Isaac comes to realize that he must practice what he preaches when he finally hits on something real for his list of what makes life worth living:  "Tracy's face."  Allen and Brickman thus bring this most romantically presented of Allen's films (the black and white, the score of lushly orchestrated Gershwin classics) to a climax so rich in its emotion and sweet simplicity that Nora Ephron borrowed it for her own 1989 New York romcom When Harry Met Sally:  Isaac runs across town to tell Tracy what he finally knows, only to find her preparing to leave for London to study acting, a trip that he had previously encouraged her to take as a means of getting her out of his life.  Now he wants nothing more than for her to stay, for her to be with him, and now it's okay, at least in the eyes of the courts; Tracy's eighteenth birthday has passed, meaning "I'm legal, but I'm still a kid."  But Tracy was never a kid.  She was the only one with the self-possession and spirit to rise above the neurotic morass that surrounds her, and when Isaac hems and haws and frets about how their time apart will destroy "that thing about you that I like," she shuts down his worries with the certainty of one truly in love.  "Not everyone gets corrupted," she assures him.  "You have to have a little faith in people."  Sure, she may just be a kid, one who had embarked on a perhaps ill-advised relationship with a much older man.  She may be naive.  She may have learned nothing from the romantic fallout of the basket cases with whom Isaac has surrounded her.  But in that moment, with Allen and Brickman's perfectly judged dialogue, Allen's impeccable staging, and the soaring strains of "Rhapsody in Blue," it's hard to imagine a more simply stirring romantic finale.  And one that is all the more powerful because we've had a front-row seat for the people, the problems, the city that had put Isaac's faith so direly under threat to begin with.  

AWARD NOMINATIONS (BOLDFACE INDICATES A WIN):  Academy Award, Best Original Screenplay; BAFTA Award, Best Screenplay; National Society of Film Critics Award, Best Screenplay; New York Film Critics Circle Award, Best Screenplay; Writers Guild of America Award, Best Original Comedy Screenplay 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

ZOMBIE ON DEMAND: IT SEES "VERONICA MARS"!



Welcome to the first-ever installment of Zombie on Demand, where the Movie Zombie presents reviews by request of his readers!  Regular reader and friend of the blog Aletheia Atzinger of Pittsburgh, PA, in addition to her interest in movies, is also a devoted "marshmallow," a designation used to identify fans of the cult-favorite UPN-CW series Veronica Mars, which originally aired from 2004 to 2007 to a hardcore but too-small-for-the-network base of fans.  The cancellation of the series, which chronicled the adventures of a high-school-age private eye in a SoCal beach town, has caused no diminishment in the fans' dedication and passion, a fact proven last year when series creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising $2 million to put towards the funding of a feature-film revival of the character.  The fans came out in force, eventually bringing in a total Kickstarter take of $5.7 million.  The film is now enjoying a limited theatrical run (I saw it on the big screen at an AMC multiplex in Burbank) in addition to regular availability on VOD platforms; some contributors to the campaign received a digital download of the film concurrent with its screen-and-on-demand release.

Truth be told, I initially rejected Aletheia's request that I review this film, on the not-unreasonable grounds that I have never viewed even one episode of the original series.  This fact is nothing new for me.  For reasons largely financial in nature, I have not had cable TV for almost seven years now.  I only intermittently utilize Amazon Instant Video for the purposes of watching television, and the TV set I do have access to is used exclusively as a monitor for a Blu-ray player.  You would be shocked into silence at the number of acclaimed, successful series of which I have never seen more than a handful of clips; Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Girls are all part of this illustrious pantheon, as are the collected exploits of Ms. Mars.  My first thought, then, was that I would have absolutely nothing to add to a conversation about a Veronica Mars film.  But then, I remembered some of Roger Ebert's reviews of television-derived cinema, particularly his largely favorable comments on The Simpsons Movie, and how interesting it was to see what he had to say about films spun off from programs with which he obviously had no more than a nodding familiarity (I guess seeing every movie made over a forty-five-year stretch kind of cuts into your boob tube time).  Plus, I recalled some of the interesting experiences I've gotten out of tackling pop-culture material for which I am obviously not the target demographics, like the week I spent reading Stephenie Meyer's Twilight a few years ago (my verdict:  500 pages for a book that ends at the friggin' prom?  Man, did I feel had…).  What tipped me into accepting this request was the realization that in many ways, my lack of familiarity with Veronica Mars made me its purest possible critic.  With a minimum of baggage, I would be able to truly evaluate the film's worth as a film, not merely as a fan-service delivery device.  I could definitively answer the question:  If you're not already a marshmallow, is Veronica Mars worth your time, and more importantly, your ticket-buying dollar?

That answer:  No, not really.

The obstacle, contrary to what one might expect, is not a lack of familiarity with the series.  Thomas, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with longtime series scribe Diane Ruggiero, does a smooth job of acclimating newbies to the Veronica Mars universe.  An opening montage narrated by Bell sets up the backstory:  The teenage daughter of the chief of police of the fictional Neptune, CA, Veronica gets into crime-solving as a way of coping with the murder of her best friend, and along the way mixes it up with a bevy of characters both sweet and savory, along with some who are both, most notably Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), the bad-boy love of the dead friend who is increasingly drawn to Veronica.  The series picks up Veronica ten years down the road from her high school days.  She's now living in New York, shacking up with radio jock "Piz" Piznarski (Chris Lowell), and interviewing for a gig at a high-powered Big Apple law firm.  But she is inexorably drawn back to Neptune by the murder of Bonnie Deville (Andrea Estella of the band Twin Sister) a Lana Del Rey-ish pop singer who was a classmate of Veronica's and the current lover of prime suspect Logan Echolls.  Veronica's return to the wild streets of her hometown, where her disgraced ex-chief father (Enrico Colantoni) is now a small-time private dick, brings her back into the orbit of old friends and foes, rekindles her push-pull attraction to the alluring-but-dangerous Logan, embroils her in a dark conspiracy amongst a cool-kid clique from back in the day…and reminds Veronica that while you can take the girl out of the crime scene, you can't take the crime buster out of the girl.

My guess is that longtime Veronica Mars acolytes will eat this film up, and not just because Bell herself name-checks "marshmallows" barely a minute into the picture.  The film brings back a boatload of familiar faces from the series, everyone from richie bad girl Gia Goodman (Krysten Ritter) to d-bag surfer boy Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen).  Veronica of course brings her bestie Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III) and kicky computer geek Mac (Tina Majorino) into the fold of the growing mystery, and a subplot foregrounds former biker-gang member and Veronica informant "Weevil" Navarro (Francis Capra).  The film also does its part to expand Veronica's circle of intimates and enemies by incorporating fresh faces like Ruby Jetson (Gaby Hoffmann), a weird former classmate obsessed, for very different reasons, with Bonnie and Logan, and Stu "Cobb" Cobbler (Martin Starr), a former wallflower who now holds mysterious power over the school's former elite.  Colantoni is the anchor, giving Bell a strong, mature presence to play off of and rooting the film's crimefighting in a recognizable world of real-world law enforcement.  Jerry O'Connell has a good moment or two as the prick police chief who has usurped Colantoni's job, and Ken Marino reprises his series role as lowlife rival P.I. Vinnie Van Lowe, who now has a lucrative sideline selling sleazy viral celeb videos online.  The picture even manages to fit in cameos by This American Life host Ira Glass (Piz now works for his show), real-life Bell spouse Dax Shepard (effortlessly amusing in a wordless bit as a creep hitting on Veronica in a bar), and a mystery celebrity, also playing themselves, whose identity I will leave the unspoiled to discover.

All of this works, I suppose, well enough.  The film's central mystery, while not as explosive as this revival could have warranted, is interesting enough to hold one's attention during viewing, and it all ties up with a minimum of red herrings and loose ends.  As such things go, it's tightly constructed and pays off cleanly.  So why was I not more entertained by the Veronica Mars movie?  Mainly because, as far as I'm concerned, this isn't really a movie, despite its theatrical play and PG-13 MPAA rating (be warned about that, by the way; some of the sexual talk is a bit more frank than I was expecting, and Veronica does let fly with one admittedly well-placed F-bomb).  I'm sure that Veronica Mars fans were willing to get more of their favorite sleuth however they could have her, and if a new weekly series is not in the offing, a movie would have to do.  But since just seeing more Veronica Mars was more the endgame than a legit Mars movie, what we get is a long, commercial-free television episode.  Thomas directs in a very network-TV style, with long, deliberately paced scenes of dialogue and a flat, unadorned visual style; the cinematography, by Ben Kutchins, adds 2:35 widescreen imagery and utterly nothing else cinematic to the equation.  The film is also missing movie-scaled set pieces, though one wonders if that's something a true Mars fan would even really want; Mars was not an action series, and one assumes that car chases and exploding helicopters would seem out of place in this world.  (Besides, $5.7 million is a healthy budget for TV, but small for a studio-released film; such action might have simply been outside the scope of what the film could produce.)  Two missing ingredients, however, would have gone a long way towards making this feel more like a legitimate motion picture.  Rather than directing himself, Thomas should have been wise enough to hire a helmsman more accustomed to the scale and style of a feature film; one of today's DTV action maestros like John Hyams (Universal Soldier:  Regeneration) or William Kaufman (Sinners & Saints, one of 2010's best action films) could have given the picture the requisite feature gloss while being affordable for this low-budget production.  Also, spoilery cameo aside, this picture needed the presence of an honest-to-goodness movie star; Starr's role, new as it is to the Mars universe, would have been the most likely candidate for some star-powered sprucing up.  Most folks I have mentioned this to have argued that Bell fits the bill, but starring in some movies does not necessarily make you a movie star.  Do you know anyone who headed out for Frozen declaring, "We're going to see the new Kristen Bell film"?  I saw Veronica Mars largely through the auspices of a Fandango gift card.  My guess is that if I had paid full-price for a ticket, I would have walked out feeling somewhat cheated.  I doubt fans will feel that way, of course…but haven't they already sort of paid for their tickets already by funding the thing in the first place?*  

The film does boast some problems besides its lack of big-time movie scope.  Bell is an enjoyable presence, tart and appealing as she usually is, but the other performances run a gamut of diminishing returns.  Colantoni brings easy charisma and likability to his role, and Starr is intriguingly creepy and insinuating.  Marino scores some smiles if not outright laughs; Hansen, on the other hand, made me chuckle almost every time he opens his mouth, his complete douchebaggery leavened by his utter awareness of his role in life as precisely that sort of douchebag.  Hoffmann also stands out as a weirdo precisely on the right side of the line between endearing and just skin-crawly.  Other performances are much more problematic.  Dohring simply doesn't have the star wattage to stand at the center of a mystery like this, and maybe he popped with Bell on the small screen, but their scenes here just fizzle uninspiringly in front of us.  A few performers, Ritter in particular, are still pitching their performances for TV, and Daggs and Majorino both seem to be here more for the sake of fan service than to have anything actually interesting or plot-essential to do (this is especially sad in the case of Majorino, who I find to be an intriguing and oddly sexy presence).  Capra's appearance is the most blatantly fan-servicy among the returning-fave characters, given a potentially explosive but utterly perfunctory subplot with only the function of making sure Weevil shows up in the movie.  For a picture that otherwise soft-pedals the fan service to a pretty admirable degree, this is a sad mis-usage of a well-liked character.  The plot in general suffers from too many half-resolved, go-nowhere subplots; I am not familiar with the particulars of the Kickstarter campaign, but I had to wonder if one of the incentives was getting to give "notes" that ended up in the finished film.  How else to explain a subplot involving the scandal of Veronica's sex tape with Piz?  And notice how I haven't really mentioned Piz again up until now?  That's because he contributes nothing to the plot, and Lowell's performance is nothing that couldn't have been accomplished by a cardboard cut-out of the same actor.  Another complaint, though it's really more of a quibble:  The film's soundtrack, laden with alt-pop bands major and deservedly minor, intrudes on a number of scenes and after a while, quite frankly, it just got on my nerves.  Aletheia tells me the Dandy Warhols' music has been a "fan peeve" since the show's very first season.  It doesn't matter to me who's playing it; just don't let it drown out the dialogue next time.

Veronica Mars ends with a clear set-up for a follow-up film, or maybe a reboot of the series.  Honestly, if this is what Thomas, Bell, et al. have to offer in the way of cinema, their best bet, and really their fairest service to their fans, would be to find a sympathetic cable network and revive the series proper.  I didn't hate Veronica Mars, but I don't even like it when they show commercials at the movies now.  What makes you think I want to watch a whole TV episode instead?

*  I don't have proof of this, but I am fairly certain that a few folks appearing in this film were big funders who got into the picture as a Kickstarter incentive.  My fan-funder suspects:  the Canadian kids at the karaoke bar, the nervous girl Veronica makes for-no-reason eye contact with at an outdoor dining patio near the end of the film, and a heavyset, hirsute gentleman disembarking from a plane ahead of Veronica as she arrives back in Neptune.  All of these folks are too unusual and specific to have come from Central Casting; my guess is they got on screen by giving, and giving big.  Props to them, though.  I noticed and remember them, so they made the most of their moment.  I'd call that getting your money's worth, wouldn't you?

Friday, March 14, 2014

THE ZOMBIE'S 101 FAVORITE SCREENPLAYS: #59



*  SPOILERS AHEAD! *

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997)

The Writers

Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland; based on the novel by James Ellroy

Why It's Here

I have commented in a number of reviews for this countdown that certain films, were we measuring quality purely in terms of plot construction, would not earn a place on this list (our last entry, for all its other strengths as a piece of writing, is a perfect case in point).  1997's L.A. Confidential, on the other hand, could earn a strong spot here on the strength of its plotting alone.  James Ellroy's 1990 noir novel, on which Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson based their Oscar-winning screenplay, is a sprawling, panoramic vision of a postwar Los Angeles steeped in elegance, refracted Hollywood glamour, sleaze and bone-rotting corruption, a book that takes in all of the city's disparate cultures, classes and desires and whips them into a roiling brew of passion, hatred, betrayal and sudden, brutal violence.  The book, with its intricately interwoven plot strands and deep-stacked deck of complex and richly rendered characters, runs nearly 500 pages in length in its original edition and would be a daunting source text for a multi-part mini-series, let alone a 138-minute feature film.  What Helgeland and Hanson (who also co-produced the film; Hanson directed) have pulled off here is one of contemporary cinema's signal feats of adaptational alchemy, a screenplay that distills the book's sometimes chaotically effusive narrative explosions down to their bare essence while losing none of Ellroy's bite, wit and complex, contradictory emotions about his hometown.  Ellroy's characters are drawn as elegantly here as in the source material, and the screenwriters are willing to take narrative gambles and liberties with the original material that sometimes, wonder of wonders, actually improve the impact of particular character and narrative beats.  Any cinephile who grouses about a cinematic adaptation of a beloved work for no reason other than that "in the book they did this, in the book they did that" should realize that an adaptation's only necessary loyalty is to the spirit of the material in question.  Alterations of a source text are only detrimental if they dilute or reverse the author's original intention; Michael Cristofer's screenplay adaptation of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities is a textbook example of a retcon with a message essentially diametrically opposed to that of the novel's.  Hanson and Helgeland have lost pages of backstory and mountains of prose, but Ellroy's diamond-hard perspective on the City of Angels, his deeply flawed but sympathetic cast of characters, and even, more or less, his intricately worked-out mystery narrative, make it to the screen essentially intact and undiminished in either structure or emotional impact.  

It's 1953 in Los Angeles, and the LAPD is a powder keg ready to explode (what else is new, right?).  The city's cops are under pressure to keep organized crime at bay in the wake of the power vacuum left by the jailing of top-dog mafioso Mickey Cohen, and the force is reeling from the PR nightmare that is "Bloody Christmas," an Xmas-Eve holding-cell riot that saw a brace of Mexican prisoners battered and beaten by drunken on-duty detectives.  One of the cops who gets scapegoated right out of his pension in a face-saving gesture, slovenly police lifer Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel), is later found shotgunned to death in a mass shooting in a downtown coffee shop; the presence of a former badge among the dead puts the heat on the cops to bring the killers, any killers to justice.  But when solving the case proves to be too easy, the loose threads lead to a miasma of high-level and institutional corruption involving a clutch of stolen Mickey Cohen heroin, a porn kingpin (David Strathairn) who runs call girls "cut" to look like movie stars, and Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), a stalwart old man of the force who never lets his ostensible loyalty to the men in his charge get in the way of lining his own pockets…even if that means putting a bullet in one of his own men to do it.  

Helgeland and Hanson's screenplay is deft and wicked in the way it at first seems to be driven by nothing much in the way of narrative.  The disparate threads of the story provide a zesty and incisive portrait of a time when L.A. was, in many ways, still a Wild West boomtown, but for the first hour or so, it seems to be more of a slice-of-life panoramic portrait than anything as old-school as a story.  The movie-star prostitutes, the cops on the take, the aftermath of "Bloody Christmas," the coffee-shop shooting all too easily traced to a trio of black youths with all-too-easily found shotguns in their back seat…colorful and exciting, but is there a point?  None of it seems to be really going anywhere; none of it seems to truly fit together into anything cohesive.  But as the film powers into its second hour, Helgeland and Hanson begin to tighten their narrative nooses, and the sleek elegance of their plot construction, streamlined from Ellroy's equally grabby but somewhat more unwieldy novel, is revealed in full.  We realize that all those seemingly go-nowhere scenes in the first hour were barreling towards the same confrontation, that this is a film in which nothing is unimportant, nothing is there simply to provide color and interest.  That B-movie pretty boy (The Mentalist's Simon Baker, here billed as "Simon Baker Denny") who gets busted on a pot rap early on?  He later gets set up as bait for the closeted city D.A. (Ron Rifkin), a scheme that results in the poor innocent kid getting his throat slit in a sleazy motel.  The grieving old mother of one of the coffee shop victims?  Her dead daughter is one of the porn kingpin's whores; the old lady is unknowingly sitting on top of the corpse of a ex-cop whose name is all over a batch of suspect arrests made by the corrupt Captain Smith back in the day.  Whenever I show L.A. Confidential to someone who's never seen it before, I always assure them that they need to pay attention carefully.  I can usually sense their engagement flagging about a half-hour in, but then, as the various loose ends begin revealing themselves to be tighter than a Central Avenue drum solo, I see them start to creep forward in their seats.  Helgeland and Hanson have got them, a textbook illustration of the power of careful plotting in action.  When studio executives and screenwriting gurus talk about how no script should have scenes that add nothing to the plot, L.A. Confidential is the Platonic ideal of what they're alluding to, a screenplay that, even when it seems to be going nowhere, is traveling a disparate and exciting series of roads to the same thrilling, powerhouse showdown.  

But there's plenty of films with plots as skillfully woven as L.A. Confidential that have nothing approaching the cumulative power of this film.  This, of course, comes down to another signal tenet of screenwriting instruction.  "Character is drama," they say, and this film is blessed with a cast of characters whose flaws, desires and relationships make them fascinating and richly, recognizably human.  Helgeland and Hanson were gifted by their source material with not one, not two, but three heroes, each with his own demons and spiritual dragons to slay.  Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe, in the role that broke him stateside after several early misses), on the surface, seems like a bleeding-heart liberal's worst nightmare of the policeman as muscle-headed, just-following-orders neo-fascist; valued by his superiors on the force far more for his heavy fists than his deductive mind, he moonlights beating up new-in-town thugs at an abandoned motel, a message from Captain Smith that pretenders to Cohen's throne will not be tolerated.  But this is a beast with a beautiful heart; his personal sideline is in assaulting and arresting wife-beaters, every creep he takes down a stand-in for the father who literally beat his mother to death in front of him as a child.  This drive to rescue fallen women likewise leads him into the arms of Lynn Bracken (Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Kim Basinger), the porn king's "Veronica Lake," who's really just another failed actress who wants to go back home to Arizona and open a dress shop.

White's opposite number on the force, the type of clean-cut by-the-book cop who ends up in the recruitment brochures, is Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce, also making his major U.S. debut), whose father was a legendary officer gunned down years before in the line of duty.  Exley's position as a golden-boy legacy makes the meat-and-potatoes officers like White suspect him immediately, a belief that crystallizes when Exley willingly tosses several of his fellow officers under the bus in the wake of "Bloody Christmas," which occurred on a night when he was serving as station watch commander.  As Exley coolly explains to his superiors which of his "brother" officers should swing for the beating, we see him as a creature of pure politics who views law enforcement as a game to be played ruthlessly and without mercy.  But we also realize that his inflexible morality and unflagging sense of justice are a cover for the insecurity he feels as the son of a legend; if he can project the persona of the perfect cop, there's no way anyone will figure out that he might not be the equal of his old man.  As the story progresses, he proves himself to be nowhere near as infallible as his image would suggest; he fully goes along with the persecution of the black "gunmen" even though he smells something fishy from the jump, and he makes the colossal mistake of sleeping with Lynn, a blunder both personally (it sends White howling for his blood) and tactically (the sex is secretly photographed, blackmail bait for Smith to use against him should he need it).  These characters are further complicated by their motivations for joining the force, delineated in beautifully written scenes that are textbook pieces of spare, economical expositional writing.  White's recounting of his mother's death is heartbreaking (he emphasizes his father's weapon of choice, a tire iron, to drive home his working-class background), and Exley reveals his own passion for justice by proxy through his creation of "Rollo Tomassi," a name he has fabricated for the otherwise anonymous and never-caught purse snatcher who killed his father in the line of duty, a name that stands in for "the guy who gets away with it" that Exley will always be chasing and will never truly bring down (an interesting foreshadowing of "John G.", the destined-to-never-be-caught boogeyman who killed the wife of Pearce's character in Memento).  

Even more devastating, however, is the reason that Jack Vincennes became a cop.  Vincennes (Kevin Spacey, between Oscars and at the peak of his powers) is a swaggering narcotics bull who moonlights as both the consultant on a Dragnet-style cop TV show and as the hero-of-choice for Sid Hudgens (Danny Devito, in arguably his definitive onscreen anatomization of pure sleaze), the publisher of tawdry tabloid Hush-Hush, who uses Jack to set up starlets and politicos for busts that pepper his pages and boost his circulation.  Hudgens, of course, is also in the hip pocket of Captain Smith, doing his own dirty work for the powers that be; it's Hudgens who sets up the doomed young day player with the D.A., and he also photographs Exley and Lynn in flagrante delicto.  Like Exley, Vincennes seems on the surface to be untouchable.  He is pure smooth style, sharp suits, perfect haircut, and a carefree strut that broadcasts to all and sundry that this, not Exley, is really what every cop should aspire to be.  (When trying to find the style for his character, Spacey says Hanson gave him a crucial two-word piece of direction:  "Dean Martin.")  But Vincennes, the oldest of the three heroes with the most years on the force, is a man who has gone too far and seen too much, and the stink of the institutionalized corruption and social rot that is his daily bread and butter has started to eat away at his insides.  The death of the young actor is what finally tips Vincennes over to the true side of the angels, and he swallows his pride and teams up with Exley in an attempt to connect his dead actor to the fishy coffee-shop shooting, all of which seem somehow intertwined.  In Ellroy's novel, Vincennes's guilt over the murdered actor leads him to drink heavily, estranges him from his wife (a character who doesn't exist in the film), and drives him to slit his own throat, dying like the actor did.  Helgeland and Hanson went a different way with Vincennes's fate; he's the victim of the film's biggest twist, when he comes to Dudley Smith's house for late-night advice and is offered a cup of tea and a bullet through the heart, courtesy of his corrupt and murderous captain.  This tarnished angel has finally decided to try to straighten up and fly right, and his reward, as it was for the eager-to-please young actor, as it is for many in Los Angeles, was his destruction.  In the film, the unattached, seemingly feckless Vincennes is asked by Exley why he became a cop.  He answers, with tears in his eyes:  "I don't remember."  It's a powerful moment, and a reminder that Helgeland and Hanson know that your plot can do all the tricks and turns it can muster, but if these things are happening to people your audience hasn't invested in, these cops might as well spend the whole film sitting by the dispatch desk waiting for a call to come in.  

Helgeland and Hanson wisely calibrate the relationships of the three leads so they're never too chummy all at once.  White is coldly adversarial towards Exley throughout most of the picture.  He resents Exley's instrumental role in getting his partner, Stensland, shitcanned, he bristles at the younger detective's suggestions of corruption on his part in the arrest of the coffee-shop suspects; and then, when he discovers that Exley has slept with Lynn, he's like a tiger unleashed, brutalizing him all over a police station records room before being calmed down by Exley's simple explanation of the truth of the horrific mystery bearing down on both of them.  While White may still be too quick to forgive Exley's seduction of the woman he loves (an event which, to be fair, does seem to come a bit out of the blue, the one moment in the film in which Helgeland and Hanson sacrifice character consistency for the sake of narrative expediency), when he's confronted with the true facts about the mystery he's been taking on, the men slide easily into the role of partners, joining forces to brace the DA and the porn king before standing side by side, guns blazing, in a climactic shoot-out at the abandoned motel.  (The characters demonstrate their new synchronicity by casually tossing car keys and shotgun shells across rooms to one another, throwing and catching in a swiftly synced series of motions.)  Vincennes spends more of the movie marching to his own drummer; he finds Exley's actions at the "Bloody Christmas" hearings distasteful, but he gets why the kid does it, and he often seems to find White, a brute who enforces the law with battered knuckles, to be scarcely worthy of his consideration.  But he, like White and Exley, is finally united to them by the one thing he is ultimately willing to put above his ego, his reputation, and the good name of the force itself:  the truth, as he temporarily teams up with Exley in a concerted (though for him doomed) effort to get to the bottom of the duplicity that ultimately traces all the way back to a man they all look up to.  It's a beautiful foes-to-friends evolution that Helgeland and Hanson smoothly render throughout the course of the screenplay.

In its own way, L.A. Confidential is as impressive a piece of period-piece world building as Gangs of New York, but while that film frequently stops the narrative thrust to create compelling vignettes of mid-19th-century New York life that provide energy and excitement while doing little to move the plot forward, Helgeland and Hanson paint a comprehensive portrait of post-World War II L.A. that allows none of its colorful imagery and vivid, culturally specific characters to exist for their own sake.  L.A. is a city in which the very rich rub elbows with the lowest of the low, where white cops victimize downtown-dwelling lower-class blacks who subsequently vent their frustrations on innocent Latinas from the city's east side.  It's a culture where the sleaze trade provides a vivid mirror image of the "mainstream" Hollywood glamour that so many of those who toil within it came to the city to pursue  (it's notable that the high-class call girl ring includes whores who emulate any actress from the era that you could think of…including Shirley Temple).  It's a town where bruisers from the wrong side of the tracks can pin on a badge alongside schoolboys with the right connections.  Helgeland and Hanson sweep the city's tension-fraught cultural diversity and peerless mixture of virtue and vice together with skill and taste; the film never shies from the truly sordid nature of many of its characters' actions while never grinding our noses in it to a degree that it becomes distasteful (the same cannot always be said of Ellroy's novel; indeed, a tour through the author's collected works makes it clear that he never met a degrading S&M scenario he didn't like).  Also, like Gangs of New York, this is a film that derives much of its character and style from its dialogue.  Helgeland and Hanson craft hard-boiled tough-guy poetry that ranks with the best lines Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart ever hissed through clenched teeth at an adversary; they get a strong assist here from Ellroy, whose own savagely baroque noir patter was sometimes lifted word for word by the screenwriters (such as the declaration that the dead actor's stomach contents indicate a last meal of "frankfurter, French fries, alcohol and sperm").  The film bristles with great, hard-nosed insults and threats, as when Smith tells a Cohen goon, "Go back to Jersey, sonny.  This is the City of Angels, and you haven't got any wings."  The characters boast in style as well; Vincennes tells a potential groupie from his TV work that the cop he schools is "the television version.  America isn't ready for the real me."  But these tough guys are also capable of moments of offhand poetry, as when White, in a moment of poignant clarity, tells Lynn that he can't solve the case because he's not smart enough:  "I'm just the guy they bring in to scare the other guy shitless."  And of course, there's Smith's sublime final words to Exley as uniformed cops arrive on the scene of the massacre at the motel:  "Hold your badge up, son.  That way they'll know you're a police officer."  This right before he gets a bullet in the back from Exley, who had earlier been confronted by Smith about his lack of true cop grit, about his unwillingness to do what a real cop will do to see justice done, things like planting evidence, beating confessions out of suspects…and shooting an unarmed but guilty-as-hell man in the back.  With this one gunshot, Helgeland and Hanson bring this tale of corruption and redemption, city and soul beautifully full-circle, as elegant an example of planting-and-payoff as exists in contemporary cinema.  

L.A. Confidential was, in many ways, a case of lightning striking once.  Helgeland and Hanson have both gone on to careers that have been perfectly respectable.  The former has segued into directing as well as writing, helming the Mel Gibson noir Payback and last year's baseball biopic 42, both of which he also scripted.  (Interestingly, the night he won his Oscar for L.A. Confidential, Helgeland became the first man in history to win both a Best Screenplay Oscar and a Worst Screenplay Razzie in the same year; he had "won" the latter prize the previous night for his work on Kevin Costner's megaflop epic The Postman.)  Hanson has also gone on to a solid career as a director, most notably with the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile, which reunited him with his L.A. Confidential leading lady Basinger.  But in terms of quality or acclaim, nothing either men has done since has even come close to equalling L.A. Confidential in its ambition, its skill and verve and cinematic daring.  But hey, getting it gloriously right just once is better than never getting it right at all, and with this film, Helgeland and Hanson crafted a film noir to stand side-by-side with the best films that John Huston, Howard Hawks, and Samuel Fuller ever committed to celluloid.  That's off the record, on the Q.T., and very hush-hush…

AWARD NOMINATIONS (BOLDFACE INDICATES A WIN):  Academy Award, Best Adapted Screenplay; Golden Globe, Best Screenplay - Motion Picture; BAFTA Award, Best Adapted Screenplay; Boston Society of Film Critics Award, Best Screenplay; Broadcast Film Critics Association Award, Best Adapted Screenplay; Chicago Film Critics Association Award, Best Screenplay; Chlotrudis Award, Best Screenplay; Edgar Allan Poe Award, Best Motion Picture; Florida Film Critics Circle Award, Best Screenplay; Las Vegas Film Critics Society Award, Best Screenplay; London Film Critics Circle Award, Screenwriter of the Year; Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award, Best Screenplay; National Society of Film Critics Award, Best Screenplay; New York Film Critics Circle Award, Best Screenplay; Online Film Critics Society Award, Best Screenplay; San Diego Film Critics Society Award, Best Adapted Screenplay; Satellite Award, Best Adapted Screenplay; Society of Texas Film Critics Award, Best Adapted Screenplay; Southeastern Film Critics Association Award, Best Adapted Screenplay; USC Scripter Award (shared with novelist James Ellroy); Writers Guild of America Award, Best Adapted Screenplay 



Tuesday, February 18, 2014

IT'S THE FOURTH ANNUAL ZOMBOSCARS!

For the fourth year in a row, The Movie Zombie declares his picks for the best in cinema...it's the fourth annual Zomboscars!

Basically, what you see here is what the Oscar ballots would look like if only one person got to vote on nominees.  You will notice a few categories missing from my list, which basically means that I didn't see any films or enough films in that category to qualify for nominations (that's why there is no Best Animated Feature category this year, and nothing for documentary or animated shorts).  I didn't do a very good job making my viewing diverse this year, which also explains the dearth of nominees for foreign-language and documentary features.  I made a new year's resolution to see more independent, foreign and documentary cinema this year, and so far I'm off to a decent start.

So, without further delay, the nominees (Zominees?), please.  Winners, as usual, are in boldface...

BEST PICTURE

All Is Lost
August: Osage County
Before Midnight
Blue Jasmine
Gravity
Inside Llewyn Davis
Philomena
This Is The End
The Wolf of Wall Street
The World's End

BEST ACTOR

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Simon Pegg, The World's End
Joaquin Phoenix, Her
Robert Redford, All Is Lost

BEST ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Judi Dench, Philomena
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Danny McBride, This Is The End
David Oyelowo, Lee Daniels' The Butler

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Scarlett Johansson, Her
Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis
Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

BEST DIRECTOR

Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
J.C. Chandor, All Is Lost
Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron, Gravity
Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, This Is The End
Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, The World's End

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Tracy Letts, August: Osage County
Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, The Great Gatsby
Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, Philomena
Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Steven Price, Gravity
Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett, Her
Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapanese (performed by M83), Oblivion
Ramin Djawadi, Pacific Rim
Alexandre Desplat, Philomena

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

“Amen”, All is Lost
“Last Mile Home”, August:  Osage County
“Young and Beautiful”, The Great Gatsby

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity
Simon Duggan, The Great Gatsby
Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis
Bojan Bazelli, The Lone Ranger
Claudio Miranda, Oblivion

BEST FILM EDITING

Gravity
The Great Gatsby
Inside Llewyn Davis
Pacific Rim
The Wolf of Wall Street

BEST ART DIRECTION

The Great Gatsby
Her
Inside Llewyn Davis
Pacific Rim
The World's End

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

American Hustle
Gangster Squad
The Great Gatsby
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Lone Ranger

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIR DESIGN

American Hustle
The Great Gatsby
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lee Daniels' The Butler
The Lone Ranger

BEST SOUND MIXING

Gravity
The Great Gatsby
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Lone Ranger
Pacific Rim

BEST SOUND EDITING

G.I. Joe: Retaliation
Gravity
Iron Man Three
Oblivion
Pacific Rim

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Gravity
Iron Man Three
Oblivion
Pacific Rim
The Wolverine

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Renoir

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Koch
The Unknown Known


IT'S THE ANNUAL INCREDIBLY OVERDUE ZOMBIE YEAR IN REVIEW!!!



"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."  I wish I had a better excuse than that for why this year-end wrap-up blog never seems to arrive around the actual end of the year.  But given all the promotional appearances and podcast recordings that continue for Dan O'Bannon's Guide to Screenplay Structure, plus a looming deadline for a book proposal I'm currently preparing, and you have what will surely be the latest "best of 2013" list that you're likely to find.  My usual goal is to be sure to have this in no later than the Oscars, and with less than two weeks to go, I figured I'd finally free up some time to take care of it.  (Most of the book proposal details are in the hands of my co-author now...looking forward to seeing what she comes up with...)

So, before we get to the best that the previous year had to offer, let's scrape 2013's dog muck off of our shoes with the five worst films of the year...

5.  BULLET TO THE HEAD

I feel as if I should make it clear that this rating is in no way motivated by the bad blood that existed between Dan O'Bannon and Bullet director Walter Hill after their checkered-to-say-the-least relationship during the production of Alien.  In fact, I have long been something of a Hill fan, greatly appreciating his existentialist approach to the action genre and commitment to the better-than-it-needs-to-be B movie; I'm happy to expound on the virtues of Trespass, Undisputed, and 48 Hrs. (still the Platonic ideal of the buddy cop action comedy) to anyone who will listen.  And given my predilection for mid-budget action thrillers and my sometimes-wrongheaded but undeniable affection for Sylvester Stallone, I'm the perfect audience for Bullet to the Head if you pull it off right.  And man, did they pull it off wrong.  Over-the-hill assassin Stallone joins forces with a D.C. cop (charisma vacuum Sung Kang of the Fast & Furious series) to take on a criminal conspiracy involving a welter of details I can't be bothered to remember, plus Game of Thrones star Jason Momoa, who at least acquits himself admirably in the action scenes.  I like guns and fistfights in my movies as much as the next red-meat-craving groundling, but this one just put me to sleep.  It plays more like a remnant from Stallone's brief sojourn into the realm of direct-to-video than like anything that has any business getting a theatrical release...and that statement is actually terribly unfair to the quality work being put out in the DTV realm by Dolph Lundgren, William Kaufman, and other filmmakers.  Bullet boasts a great, roughneck blues-rock score by Steve Mazzaro and absolutely nothing else really worthy of commendation.

4.  R.I.P.D.

If you liked the Men in Black films, but thought that they needed less aliens and more ghosts, or rather just ghosts instead of aliens, your prayers have been answered.  Based, like Bullet to the Head, on a cult comic book series (and fair warning...this isn't the last comics-based film in the bottom five), R.I.P.D. proves just how much color, noise and movement you can pack into a motion picture and still wind up with an utterly coma-inducing result.  Ryan Reynolds, again making us question his presence in an ostensibly A-list project, plays a recently slain cop who joins forces with the spirit of an Old West lawman (Jeff Bridges in a half-hearted pastiche / parody of his terrific take on Rooster Cogburn from True Grit) to battle "deados" intent on taking over modern-day Boston, again proving itself to be America's least visually distinctive oft-used film location.  Everything in the picture is material we've already seen in Men in Black, just not as good:  The creature designs are uninspired, the weapons are not particularly eye-catching or powerful, and Mary-Louise Parker may be prettier than Rip Torn, but she's certainly not funnier.  The film pushes some quirky attempts at world-building that fall flat (apparently, ghosts can't bear to be in the presence of spicy Indian food...don't ask me, I didn't make it up), and by the time we hit the swirly, cacophonous climax, we've honestly forgotten what the villains' plot is and why we should really care.  This was one of the last films I saw in 2013; I skipped it in theaters after being talked out of seeing it by my ex-Zombette, who objected to the "abysmal" trailer.  But at least watching it at home on a Redboxed Blu-ray, I could stretch out on the floor if I wanted to nod off during it.  And I wanted to.  And I did.

3.  HARRY DEAN STANTON:  PARTLY FICTION

This one just breaks my heart, as for the first time, my annual Human Centipede Award for least rewarding cinematic experience of the year goes to a documentary.  Filmmaker Sophie Huber has hit on a strong idea:  A feature-length doc exploring the life and career of Harry Dean Stanton, that genius of a character actor with the face of an undertaker and the soul of a poet (his credits, of course, include Alien, in which he is terrific).  But Huber, working with the gifted cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers), turns in a 77-minute illustration of one of my cardinal rules of cinema:  You can't fake depth.  The moody lighting and somnambulant editing attempt to present every nugget out of Stanton's mouth as purest profundity.  But mostly, the film just lulls us into a stupor, only occasionally perked up by the rare pithy insight (Stanton at one point opines, with a wry smile, "I think I've managed to avoid success artfully") and a nice scene at the end in which Stanton, who often seems like he'd rather be discussing his music than his cinema career, performs a duet with the ever-craggy Kris Kristofferson.  I rank this lower than R.I.P.D. only because unlike that film, I actually went into this expecting to love it.  Imagine my disappointment.  Oh well.  We'll always have Brett.

2.  MAN OF STEEL

On his year-end round-up show, F This Movie! host Patrick Bromley declared that "anyone who calls Man of Steel one of the worst films of the year is talking out of their ass".  Well, then, call me Ace Ventura, because Zack Snyder's take on Superman is the utter pits, one of the most depressing and dismal objects to pass itself off as a superhero film in quite some time.  Going for the dark gravity of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy (Nolan is credited as co-producer and shares story "honors" with David S. Goyer, also partly responsible for the worst film of 2012), Snyder never once stops to think whether such an approach is a good fit for the material.  Superman has always been the bright, optimistic yin to Batman's grim, brooding yang.  Recalibrating his legend on the same emotional valence as Batman's was destined to fail, and it does, loudly and spectacularly.  Henry Cavill's take on Superman is smug and unlikable, Amy Adams brings little to remember to the role of Lois Lane, and Russell Crowe does his best with the absolute silliest material in the script.  Combine that with murky, jittery handheld camerawork by Amir Mokri and a final-hour action set piece that is basically the audiovisual equivalent of a blackjack to the back of the skull, and you have a blockbuster that expends maximum effort to create minimum joy and entertainment.  You know a Superman film is in trouble when you're sitting there thinking, "Boy, I hope they get back to the Smallville flashbacks!  That's the best stuff!"  Kevin Costner and Diane Lane get a pass for this.  Everyone else:  Back to the drawing board.

1.  AUSTENLAND

I almost feel bad kicking such a little-seen, barely-regarded film, but discredit must be given where it is due.  Jerusha Hess's adaptation of Shannon Hale's chick-lit hit is a classic example of a cute premise that the filmmakers have absolutely no idea how to utilize.  Keri Russell (perky enough and not really the problem) plays a lifelong Jane Austen obsessive who spends her life savings on a trip to an Austen fantasy camp in England, where she does herself up in the dresses of the era and gets caught in a love triangle between an actor playing a stuffy Mr. Darcy type (J.J. Feild) and the resort's gruffly handsome groundskeeper (Bret McKenzie), who just might have a secret or two up his sleeve.  Again, cute idea.  But unless the sight of modern people in period clothing sends you into gales of helpless laughter, there is nothing, nothing coming back at you from the screen to get excited about here.  The film seems to be almost afraid of its material, as if it doesn't want to really come out swinging, for fear of offending the Austenophiles who are, let's face it, the film's principal audience.  (I hate to sound like a bigot here, but I think this is a case where Hess's values as a Mormon filmmaker might have kept her from pushing the material to some gleefully vulgar extremes...think of what someone like in-his-prime Mel Brooks could have done with this concept.)  As the resort's stiff-upper-lipped director, Jane Seymour is ready to party, if only they'd given her some good jokes to work with, and as a loudly crude fellow guest, Jennifer Coolidge proves what I've long suspected about her...namely, that she just isn't funny.  Demerits as well for casting McKenzie, a brilliantly skilled Oscar-winning composer, and still filling your soundtrack with aural cotton candy by something called Emmy the Great.  MAJOR demerits for featuring a sexual assault on the Russell character by a supporting player who, after his attempted rape, never appears onscreen again.  Even the sometimes dismayingly easy-to-please romcom audience avoided this one.  Very good call.  

*   *   *  *  *  

Before we get to the year's best, I do feel the need to feature my first ever "honorable mention" for a film that screened as a theatrical feature in most of the rest of the world (it was even in competition at the Cannes Film Festival), and might have done so in America were we not living a country filled with tight-assed, hateful prudes.  I'm speaking, of course, of Steven Soderbergh's funny, thoughtful and surprisingly effective Behind the Candelabra, a realization of Scott Thorson's dishy memoir of his romantic entanglement with Liberace, the most confusing case of closet-dwelling that worked in entertainment history.  Michael Douglas and Matt Damon both turn in near-career-best work as the peacocky pianist and his young sexual charge, and the passion, rage and tenderness with which they suffuse the men's relationship make it a cinematic romance for the ages.  Terrific supporting turns abound, particularly from Debbie Reynolds as Liberace's brutally passive-aggressive mother; Rob Lowe, effortlessly hilarious as a pulled-tighter-than-tight plastic surgeon; Nicky Katt as a snappily smug drug dealer; and the ineffable Bruce Ramsay as Liberace's spoiled little bitch of a houseboy.  Richard Lagravanese's sharp and unsentimental script also is a subtle and satisfying look at the days when every gay mainstream entertainer lived in the closet, partly on the good graces of an audience who assumed everyone was straight as a matter of course.  It's the year's best biopic, and had it played in U.S. theaters, it definitely would have made my top 10.

But what theatrical releases did?  Here, for your enjoyment and hopefully approval, are the Movie Zombie's top 10 films of 2013...

10.  AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY

Anyone that knows me knows that the intimate, close-quarters relationship drama is not really my favorite genre of film.  I generally feel that this type of material is better handled in prose fiction, where the writer can really tap us into the mindset of his characters, or on the stage, where the playwright has the luxury of utilizing the soliloquy to gives us characters' thoughts as dialogue (indeed, John Wells's film has its roots on the stage, in Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama).  And indeed, when I first saw the trailer for this film, packed to the gills as it is with award-winning star talent, I thought it looked like a picture that would have less than nothing to offer me.  Imagine my surprise, then, when the snarling bite of Letts's dialogue and the pitiless honesty of the admittedly high-pitched performances took hold of me.  The results were funny, unsparing, and unexpectedly potent, with small cinematic filigrees that open up the material and somehow, amazingly, never made me feel like I was just looking at a filmed play.  Naturally, in a bench of actors this deep, a few performers get a little lost in the shuffle; Ewan McGregor is a tiny touch out of his depth as an adulterous college professor, and Juliette Lewis spends a good bit of the picture skirting the edge of country caricature.  But the performers who do work sock home their juicy roles with conviction and glee.  Julia Roberts has never been better onscreen:  uninhibited, angry and wounded to the quick.  Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper are beautifully lived-in as a married couple with a profoundly unsettling secret.  And Meryl Streep, who dances a fine line between beauty and grotesquerie throughout, manages to crack the carapace of actorly artifice here to hit at something dangerous, deep and very human. 

9.  PHILOMENA

Another film that could easily have gone awry is Stephen Frears's fact-based comic drama about a working-class Irishwoman (Judi Dench, enjoying for once getting to play someone who's not superior to everyone in the room) who enlists the help of a skeptical former journalist (Steve Coogan, who also co-scripted) to track down the out-of-wedlock son that was sold to America by a pack of duplicitous nuns decades before.  The raw material is here for a baldly didactic expose or a crudely sentimental weepie, but Frears, working with peerless taste and restraint, manages to find a gentle, yearning tone that is dead-on right for the material.  Coogan and Jeff Pope's screenplay is thought-provoking without being preachy, gives each character the courtesy of their often contradictory opinions, and finds room within potentially tragic material for some sly wit in a very English vein.  The film is also smart enough to not attempt to resolve the difficult issues at its center; age-old questions of morality and faith are at play here, and no 98-minute British indie drama can hope to solve all that.  But we do get a couple of wonderful lead performances.  Dench's Oscar-nominated turn is a master class in making a character specific and comic without resorting to mockery, and Coogan might very well have netted himself a best supporting actor nomination in a leaner year; his BBC newsman turned reluctant confidant is wryly amused and above-it-all, until the circumstances force him to fiercely speak his mind.  This is the type of picture that gives "issue" movies a good name.

8.  THIS IS THE END

I usually find room on this countdown for one balls-out comedy per year, no film of 2013 made me laugh harder than Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's gonzo tale of the apocalypse smacking a gang of self-satisfied celebrities right in the nuts.  The emerging theme of this countdown seems to be "films that have no business working as well as they do," and indeed, if this one, with its gaggle of comic and music heavy-hitters all playing themselves, had gone wrong, it might very well have been one of the year's worst, a calamitous disaster of navel-gazing and R-rated CGI effects.  But Rogen and Goldberg masterfully spin the characters against each other, exaggerating the stars' public personas (James Franco's affable stonerism, Danny McBride's impish evil streak) to brilliant ends.  As this gang of buddies ride out the end of creation in Franco's hip Hollywood pad, genuine narrative threads begin to emerge, old wounds are picked open to bleed and pus up afresh, scores are settled, lifelong bonds rekindled...oh, and Jonah Hill gets raped by a gigantic demon cock while a shovel-wielding Emma Watson steals all the fellas' food.  Everyone gets great moments in the comic sun here:  Jonah Hill hysterically prays for a fellow shelter-dweller's demise, while introducing himself to God as "Jonah Hill...you know, from Moneyball..."; Franco's ecstatic reaction to a bite of a forbidden Milky Way bar; and every time Danny McBride, in an Oscar-nomination-worthy supporting turn, opens his mouth or does anything.  McBride is an actor who blows hot and cold for me (he was, after all, the star and co-writer of the worst film of 2011), but here he's never been funnier.  Rogen and Goldberg also prove themselves to be surprisingly adept filmmakers; This Is The End has quality FX and a rich, moody look (the cinematographer is Brandon Trost), and the demon attacks, when they come, have a shocking heft.  It makes me want to see them take on a straight-up horror film.  Think about it, gentlemen.  This thing was a hit; you have the clout to make it happen.

7.  THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

In the interest of "Jesus, Zombie, haven't you gone on enough already?", I've previously written a full-length review of this film.  Check it out here.  

6.  BEFORE MIDNIGHT

In yet another expose of my horrific hypocrisy, this list by a man who declared that relationship dramas aren't really his thing arrives at its second relationship drama.  But honestly, what can one do when a film emerges with the piercing, eyes-wide-open take on relationships and the compromises and thwarted dreams they can sometimes represent of Richard Linkater's third film is his near-unprecedented "Before Trilogy"?  Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have now lived with Jesse and Celine for nearly twenty years now, and they bring all of that time and all of their talent to bear on what may be the best film of the series.  The couple have now been together (though unmarried) since the end of 2004's Before Sunset, and they have found that the dreamy mysteries and romance that surrounded them on their first night together in Vienna...well, life happened to them while they were busy making other plans.  The film finds them at a writers' retreat in the Greek Islands, where the gift of a hotel suite for a romantic evening turns into a nightmare when the rendezvous explodes into one of those arguments in which things are said that can never be unsaid, or unheard, or un-understood.  It's a beautifully written and powerfully acted showdown, with Deply (who plays much of the scene bare-breasted) at her peak for the series, a decade's worth of fury, frustration and being taken for granted bursting out of every pore of her being.  Given that this is a trilogy of films that consist in large part simply of people walking and talking, the dialogue better be pretty terrific to make it work, and Linklater, Hawke and Delpy (Oscar-nominated for their writing here) step up to the plate with lines that sting and sentiments that sink in strong and deep.  Linklater also continues to push the cinematic bounds of a potentially stodgy set-up; one early scene, a simple shot of Delpy and Hawke chatting in the car while their kids sleep in the backseat, goes on for seemingly (and thrillingly) as long as the opening shot from Gravity, a testament to the stars' skill and commitment.  Linklater has not formally announced a fourth film, but I know I'd be very curious to see where Jesse and Celine find themselves in nine years' time.  I fear, though, for what I might see there, given the harsh truth this film has the courage to unearth.

5.  THE WORLD'S END

This year's other old-buddies-face-the-apocalypse comedy, Edgar Wright's The World's End is like nothing else on the screen in 2013, a how-did-they-manage-this hybrid of lad's-reunion farce, English country town travelogue, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers sci-fi horror thriller, with a soupรงon of Mad Max dolloped on for a laugh.  And somehow, somehow, Wright, working from a dazzlingly original screenplay by co-star Simon Pegg and himself, sends this contraption soaring, in arguably the year's most purely joyous piece of filmmaking.  This is a director working at the utter peak of his powers.  The laughs land like punches to the gut, as do the punches to the gut in the film's balls-to-the-wall action sequences (a sprawling brawl in a men's room elicited spontaneous applause in the theater where I saw this).  And Wright has the daring to treat the pain and regret of his characters not as another gag, but with real weight and consideration, making this the rare comedy that might make you cry as hard as you laugh.  Pegg leads a gang of his old mates (Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan and the incomparable Nick Frost) on a one-last-ride replica of an infamous pub crawl they never finished in their youth, only to find that their hometown has been overtaken by robotic pod people eager to do the same to them.  It's a "you can't go home again" allegory Thomas Wolfe himself might have envied, and Pegg's pathetic and touching old-school hanger-on, clinging to the past glory that is the only tattered remnant of happiness he has left, is a marvelously original creation, one of the best characters and performances in a film this year.  A lot of the online coverage of this film has focused on how it fits into Wright's "Cornetto Trilogy", the allusions and inside gags that tie it to its sister films, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (both of which are just as inventive and entertaining as this).  While those sorts of activities can be fun for the die-hards, I really hope it doesn't distract them from the singular achievement of The World's End.  Trilogy or no, this film is really one of a kind.

4.  BLUE JASMINE

Okay.  I am not here to talk about Woody Allen.  Unless you want to talk about how Blue Jasmine is, two years after Midnight in Paris, another top-class production from one of America's most important auteurs.  About how the screenplay, which bleeds for its lead character even as it condemns her and the lifestyle she loves above anything else on earth, is one of Allen's sharpest to date.  About how Allen's direction, at the age of 77 (he turned 78 in December, after this film's release), is some of the toughest and most supple of his career.  About Cate Blanchett, who gives a career-high-point performance in the titular role of the ex-wife of a Madoff-type Ponzi schemer trying to pull her life together after the end, and not doing too fine a job of it.  About Sally Hawkins, as Jasmine's sister, who matches Blanchett as a good woman with relentlessly poor taste in men.  About a typical-for-Allen cast of heavy hitters doing rock-solid supporting work:  Alec Baldwin, self-satisfaction oozing out of his very soul as the con artist; Bobby Cannavale, as Hawkins's boyfriend, who would be a good guy if he wasn't such a son of a bitch; and God bless him, Andrew Dice Clay, surprising audiences and critics alike with a soulful and deeply pained performance as Hawkins's ex-husband, who lost everything at the hands of Baldwin and Blanchett.  About how Allen was willing to cast an unexpectedly critical eye on the one-percenters who, let's be honest, constitute his circle of intimates (I remember talking to friends about whether or not Allen actually knew Madoff, and concluding that he must at least have made his acquaintance).  About how Allen is unsparing in his depiction of Jasmine's trials, leading to a final shot that may be Allen's most haunting.  About the fact that Blue Jasmine is, in my opinion, the best straight drama Woody Allen has ever made.  We can talk about those things all you like.  

3.  INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

I am notorious amongst my friends for being very seldom moved to tears by movies.  I've been called a monster, a robot; I stunned my brother-in-law into silence by telling him that I didn't cry at the end of Rudy (my explanation:  I didn't go to Notre Dame; what do I care if he gets to play?).  I'm a tough nut to crack at the movies, tears-wise.  And the Coen brothers got me this year with nothing but a cat running through a subway, and the most bittersweet folk song I've ever heard.  Joel and Ethan's pitiless and heartfelt look at a week in the life of an immensely gifted but self-sabotaging early '60s folk singer is one of the year's most moving film experiences, a love letter to a long-gone and well-loved era of music and a hopeful wake-up call to anyone with passionate drives who keeps failing at their own hands.  The Coens' recreation of the Village folk scene of the era is lived-in and inspired (the art direction team, in my opinion, deserved an Oscar), and Bruno Delbonnel's camera bathes the scene in shadows and light at once nostalgic and foreboding.  The music is presented with delicacy and affection, but the Coens are wise enough to never let the songs overshadow the singers, because that man over there with the guitar?  He's real, and he's hurting to his marrow.  Oscar Isaac, in a revelatory performance, gives himself utterly over to Llewyn; his pain and anger are as ferocious as his voice and guitar playing are tender and thoughtful (Isaac does all his own playing and singing here, making his exclusion from this year's best actor Oscar race even more ridiculous).  He receives strong support from Carey Mulligan as another bad-choice-making good woman; John Goodman as a drug-addled jazz man with little patience for folkies; and, in one brief but brutally well-observed scene, F. Murray Abraham as a musical guru with the power to make kings...or strike them back down into the dirt.  The Coen brothers are frequently accused of having contempt for their characters, but few filmmakers loved, pitied and understood their protagonists more this year than they did Llewyn Davis.

2.  GRAVITY

Gravity, for me, was this year's Dark Knight, the most complete filmgoing experience I had in 2013.  Very few films can tell a dramatically satisfying story, provide a thrillingly cathartic emotional journey, and represent a technical triumph in the bargain.  That director / co-writer Alfonso Cuaron manages this task, while making it look as effortless as floating weightlessly in the empyrean, is a considerable achievement not to be ignored.  (And indeed it hasn't been; Cuaron has won a raft of Best Director honors for the film already, and is the presumptive favorite to take the Oscar on March 2.)  It's a relatively simple story:  A team of astronauts repairing a space station are stranded in zero gravity when their craft is destroyed by flying space junk, and two of the space walkers have to try, somehow, against odds as big as the earth itself, to get back home.  That's it for narrative, but Cuaron, working from a script he wrote with his son Jonas, spins out the obstacles in the astronauts' path with such invention, such an ever-escalating sense of danger and threat, that the film never tips over into tedium (a quality also supported by the picture's refreshingly compact 91-minute running time).  Cuaron also finds room for human drama, as the lead astronaut, played by Sandra Bullock in an Oscar-nominated performance that is easily the best work I've ever seen her do, reveals her reasons for being in space and reminds us that many people find themselves where they are not by going there, but by running from something else.  It's the story of a damaged woman rediscovering her will to be a part of the human family...not a mean feat for a film that is, for much of its running time, a one-woman show.  Gravity stands to dominate in the technical categories at the Dolby Theater in two weeks, and very well it should.  The visual effects team work the kind of wonders that make you forget you're looking at CGI; Steven Price's score is thunderous, emotional and inventive all at once, much like the film it accompanies; and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who will hopefully set right the wrong of his loss in 2006 for his work on Cuaron's Children of Men, dazzles with camerawork that can only be called sublime, including a nearly twelve-minute-long opening tracking shot that must rank among the great technical achievements in the history of cinema.  Gravity comes out on DVD and Blu-ray on the 25th of this month, but if you haven't seen it and you can find it, see it in a theater, in 3-D.  In IMAX if you can.  I'm not one to toot a horn for techie frills like that, but Gravity is a film that demands, and deserves, the grandest presentation imaginable.

1.  ALL IS LOST

I have not found myself recommending my favorite film of the year to that many people.  Honestly, I haven't even really talked about it all that much with anyone.  But it's for a very specific reason.  They say that if you see enough films, you will eventually, literally or metaphorically, see your own life story played out on screen.  And when I watched J.C. Chandor's thrillingly intimate look at a man (Robert Redford, who joins the cadre of actors doing the best work of their career onscreen this year) battling the elements and the sinking yacht he has found himself on, my faculties shut down.  I couldn't be objective.  Because I just felt like I was watching a film about me.  As a writer who has battled and is still battling, on a daily basis, an industry that has no real use or desire for the work that you pour everything you have into, no matter the cost, no matter how correctly you follow their protocols, no matter how deftly you pacify the gatekeepers of the business...it's a wonder every writer in the world didn't see themselves in this story.  Aren't all of us basically clinging to the bow beam of a sinking ship as we shout to the heavens, "But I did everything right!"  Redford's character (billed marvelously in the credits as simply "Our Man") makes no mistakes, follows every rule, does his utmost...and it all falls apart around him.  It's the same story as Gravity, really, but if that was an epic poem, this is a haiku:  spare, simple, unadorned with an excess of dramatic fluff or falsehood.  Redford barely even speaks in the film; he's the only character onscreen for the entire running time, and aside from an opening voice-over, his lines can almost be counted on one hand.  What we're left with instead is a master class in building character through action.  There's a moment where Redford (another character who finds himself where he is by running from something else) simply stops himself from reading a greeting card that is the most powerfully emotional expression I saw on screen all year.  Chandor, following up 2011's dazzlingly loquacious Wall Street drama Margin Call  with this stripped-down near-silent action painting of a film, is quickly emerging as one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers, a chance-taker with the chops to back up his visions.  Chances are good that you won't find All is Lost nearly as powerful or transcendent as I did.

Unless, of course, it's a film about you, too.