Basquiat

Dir: Julian Schnabel, 1996. Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Benicio Del Toro, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman. Drama.

In Julian Schnabel’s intimate portrait of an artist, Jeffery Wright exploded on the film scene as Jean-Michel Basquiat, a graffiti artist turned international painter. The story is about his rise and fall amidst the New York elite, his friendship with Andy Warhol, and the women he loves.

After a successful painting career, Julian Schnabel (Oscar nominee for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) made his feature debut as a writer-director in this tribute to the life of his friend. His screenplay is simple, but efficient and his direction is gentle and compassionate -- bringing out wonderful performances from a brilliantly cast group of actors. He also does a great job of incorporating the music to define the times and emotions of the moment.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Apr 27, 2009 12:32pm

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

Dir: Sidney Lumet, 2007. Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney, Michael Shannon. Drama.

Maybe it sounds odd to call a movie "great" if by the end it makes you feel like your soul was taken away, but Before The Devil Knows You're Dead is such a work. With an amazing ensemble cast and a non-linear script that reveals new facts about the characters all the way until the final shot--this is a film that reminds you how powerful dramatic fiction is supposed to work.

Through the different character's perspectives, the film is about the build-up and aftermath of a botched jewelry store robbery in the suburbs. Opening with the violent event, we soon find out afterwards that brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) planned the robbery together as a victimless crime in response to some urgent needs for money. But these aren't your typical, slick movie heist-men whatsoever. Andy is a somewhat well-off business accountant seeking escape for a more fulfilling life, while Hank is a single father who's desperately behind on child support. Part of what makes the film work so well is how the script gradually unfolds and clues the audience into new details as it plays, so the only other plot point worth mentioning here is that the store they rip off happens to be owned by the men's parents, Charles (Albert Finney) and Martha (Amy Ryan).

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Posted by:
Paul Losada
Feb 18, 2009 12:49pm

In The Bedroom

Dir: Todd Field, 2001. Starring: Marisa Tomei, Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Nick Stahl. Drama.

In Hollywood films about revenge a grieving family or friend or lover typically realizes that the only way to bring closure to the loss of a loved one is to turn vigilante and mete out the justice they were denied and we are usually meant to cheer them on as populist heroes. But in the 2001 film In the Bedroom, the "grieving family avenging a loved one" plot may be a familiar one but its execution is decidedly not because the cheap and manipulative tactics that get us as an audience fired up for spilled blood are nowhere to be found. This story of a middle aged couple dealing with the tragic death of their son and falling apart as their anger consumes them is the rare film where the idea of grief is not just a pretext for something “bigger.” The visceral, teeth-gnashing sense of loss that death brings—especially the grief that follows unexpected violent death—is allowed to unfold and hang in the air like the slow heavy unstoppable force of nature that it is and it’s unforgettable. This is the rare film about grief and death and vengeance that has no room for histrionics. It has no false notes. The director, Todd Field, is shockingly assured for what was his first feature length film and the incredible cast including Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl, and Marisa Tomei hit rare notes of emotional honesty in their work.

Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek play Matt and Ruth Fowler, a well off middle aged couple getting on in their years in their small coastal Maine town. Matt is a town doctor and Ruth is the high school choir director. Their son Frank (played by Nick Stahl) is home for the summer before he starts college in the fall. He is seeing Natalie, a woman twice his age (played by the gorgeous and intriguing Marisa Tomei) with two small children, and this situation is cause for his mother’s concern and his father’s shy sense of pride in his son becoming a man.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Feb 18, 2009 12:18pm

Billy Elliot

Dir: Stephen Daldry, 2000. Starring: Jamie Bell, Gary Lewis, Jamie Draven, Jean Heywood, Julie Walters. English. Drama.

Billy Elliot stands out as a musical, a family drama and fiercely insightful look into the sacrificial toll on striking coal miners in Northern England in 1984. Stephen Daldry's direction alternately charms and punches with equal power until you are pulling at your own hair as Billy dances out his frustration through the run down back alleys, over cobble streets and finally into a brick wall furiously, fruitlessly and against all odds.

Billy is the youngest son of a widowed coal miner with an older brother not long in the mines himself, and an invalid grandmother. Coming from the tough and tumble Elliots, eleven year old Billy is naturally enrolled in boxing at school but somehow finds himself drawn to the girls' ballet lessons. Their teacher, the no nonsense Mrs. Wilkinson, sees potential in Billy and encourages his newfound passion and determination not knowing that Billy has kept it a secret from his family. All the while the coal miners' strike puts constant pressure on the Elliots, backing them into financial and emotional corners. When Mrs. Wilkinson procures Billy an audition at the Royal School of Ballet Billy must battle his family for the chance to be something different. Not only from what they know but what they themselves are fighting for.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 17, 2009 5:05pm

Lords of Dogtown

Dir: Catherine Hardwicke, 2005. Starring: Heath Ledger, John Robinson, Emile Hirsch, Nikki Reed. English. Drama.

I'm slightly envious of Stacy Peralta for not only conquering the professional skateboarding world but also for his career as a filmmaker. These two industries, in the general sense, do not correlate, but he manages to find the bridge. The result? A fantastic documentary about the legendary Z-Boys skate team in 1970s Venice named Dogtown Z-Boys, a 2004 documentary chronicling the evolution of big wave surfing called Riding Giants, and a biographical feature film about the Z-Boys journey titled Lords of Dogtown. Peralta penned the screenplay himself, with Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen and Twilight) directing.

The film, while written with obvious yet needed nostalgia, is action-packed full of skateboarding glamour, parties, competitions, strained friendships, and the intensity of male adolescent energy. The plot is loose and without any specific thread other than to chronicle the history of what happens to the Zephyr Skate Team from the beginning of their surfing days to the point where they meet again after the start of their separate careers. The lack of any overbearing plot creates an enjoyable, fast-paced energy that captures a certain spirit of the pioneering skate culture from the 70s.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Feb 17, 2009 4:31pm

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Dir: Michel Gondry, 2004. Starring: J. Carrey, K. Winslet, E. Wood, T. Wilkinson. Drama, Romance, Tripped-out Kaufman Comedy.

LOVE FOUND & MEMORY LOST?!

BOY MEETS GIRL Mild-mannered, sheepish, shy Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) meets his polar opposite in wild, weirdo, eccentric Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) and romance ensues, again...

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Posted by:
Joey Jenkins
Feb 17, 2009 3:32pm

Barfly

Dir: Barbet Schroeder, 1987. Starring: Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway, Alice Kringe, Frank Stallone & Jack Nance. Drama.

Written by American poet of the gutter, Charles Bukowski (based on his own experiences), Barfly is an urban fairy tale of two wanderers who are always in search of the next bottle. “Henry” (Rourke) is a writer who spends all his time drinking and fighting, occasionally fitting in some poems here and there. “Wanda” (Dunaway) is a boozer who lives off the generosity of various old men. Once these two meet, it is one of cinema’s most wonderfully strange love stories.

Bukowski’s script is very slice of life, but not the lives of most. With colorful characters and exceptionally quotable dialogue, the screenplay is on par with any of his works of poetry, novels or short stories.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Feb 17, 2009 3:25pm

Control

Dir: Anton Corbijn, 2007. Starring: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara. Drama.

When 24 Hour Party People came out, I overheard a lot of dour Raincoat types leaving the theater expressing their wish that whole film had been about Ian Curtis and not those awful acid house Blue Tuesdays or whatever was going on after Ian Curtis' death, at which point their lot zoned out 'til the credits. I thought of how awful that would be - a film about Joy Division. Biopics are always so suspect. Myth-making, made-for-cable garbage with chest-beating and hammy impressions instead of acting... you know, the kind of thing the Oscars are made of. Thankfully, Control is not like that.

Control is directed by Anton Corbijn, which I didn't know till the end. Whatever you think of the guys videos, he has an eye for arresting (if sometimes comically dour) imagery. He's also Dutch and therefore a natural fit for Joy Division’s world which is black and white and eternally wintery, even in the summer – like World War II movies.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 14, 2009 1:12pm

Boogie Nights

Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997. Starring: M. Wahlberg, J. Moore, B. Reynolds, D. Cheadle, J. C. Reilly, W. H. Macy. Drama.

From the opening sounds of sad circus music flowing into disco, you feel you are in for something unique. As the camera tracks across a street into a bustling nightclub, introducing us to a large array of characters in one take, you know you are in for one hell of a spectacle...

Boogie Nights is an epic tail about life in the swinging seventies through the lens of the porno industry of Southern California. It explores the transition of the business into the 1980s, where film was switched out for video, and the roof caved in for many. But it’s not simply a story of the sex trade—it’s about family. Although somewhat warped, the group of porn stars connect together as if they were brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Jan 26, 2009 11:25am

White Dog

Dir: Samuel Fuller, 1982. Starring: Paul Winfield, Kristy McNichol, Burl Ives. English. Drama. Criterion.

One would think that as blunt a director as Sam Fuller would have little use for metaphor when making a film about racism, but the director best known for his hard-hitting pulpy exposés of social injustice uses symbolism in White Dog as fluently as he used shock value in his previous films, without omitting any of the controversy expected of him. When Fuller made White Dog he had already pushed buttons with Shock Corridor’s blunt portrayal of inhumane conditions in sanitariums in the 1950s and The Naked Kiss’s vitriolic condemnation of small town hypocrisy. So why did Paramount seek out Fuller to co-write and direct a film based on a true story of a dog trained to attack Blacks, and then shelve the finished product? Fuller was back in favor after The Big Red One (1980), his first film after he made Shark! with Burt Reynolds in 1969, won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. Paramount pitched Fuller the concept, based on a Romain Gary article for Life magazine that Gary had adapted from his book Chien Blanc, and Fuller signed on to co-write the script with Curtis Hanson and direct the film. Together they adapted the non-fiction work into the story of Julie Sawyer, an aspiring actress who accidentally hits a white German shepherd while driving in the dark canyon roads of the Hollywood Hills. She rescues the dog, but after he attacks a co-worker, Julie believes that she has a former attack dog for a pet and takes him to movie set animal trainer Carruthers to reverse his aggressive training. When he sees the dog maul a Black man, he tells Julie that she has a “white dog,” a dog trained by racists to attack only Blacks. Keyes, a Black trainer with an anthropological bent, attempts to deprogram Julie’s racist dog as an experiment in the reversal of racial inculcation. Paramount was intent to avoid any accusations of insensitivity and in an attempt to obviate any complaints asked the president of the Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP to be on set during the shoot. After the film’s completion the organization voiced its disapproval of the film and Paramount decided to forgo its release.

This Criterion release is the first time White Dog has been available in the U.S. It never had a theatrical release here (although it did in France where it had decent ticket sales) and it has never been available on Beta, VHS, Laserdisc, DVD or shown on television. Those of us who were lucky enough to rent (or work, *hech-hem*) at Mondo Kim’s in the East Village could rent a fuzzy bootleg with overmodulated sound. It was painful to listen to Ennio Morricone’s score in such a distorted form, but Faustian bargains were made to glimpse Fuller’s recondite masterpiece. Criterion does film scholars and the film community an immeasurable service when they release rare and obscure films like White Dog, Salò, Taste of Cherry, Sans Soleil, etc., more than amply making up for the plastic and human resources the label wastes the few times it releases films of questionable cinematic value that were already in wide circulation (I’m not going to name names. But one starts with Chasing…) By releasing White Dog Criterion is sharing with viewers one the strongest denunciations of racism in American film history, a denunciation that was stolen from audiences by Paramount’s timidity and the NAACP’s short-sightedness.

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Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Dec 30, 2008 3:28pm
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