Kick the Bucket – New reviews

The Bucket List may not be the worst film of 2007 (2008 for Seattle), but it is easily the worst film coming from such a pedigree: Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman star and Rob Reiner directs (okay, Reiner hasn’t been a sign of quality for years now; really, what happened?). The film is a dying wish fantasy with two old men (only one of these old men is grumpy) facing terminal illness, and one of them (the grumpy one, of course) a conveniently placed billionaire to fund the whole deal.

Chambers (the reflective mechanic played by Morgan Freeman) inadvertently reviews the film in a remarkably prescient comment lobbed at Nicholson’s tiresome character: “Edward, I’ve taken baths deeper than you.” He could have been talking about the lukewarm bath of a film he found himself in.

As Chambers reminds us, the bucket list — an inventory of things to do before you kick the bucket — is “supposed to be a metaphor,” but this is a film that takes everything literally. Cole uses his unlimited checkbook to make Chambers’ dreams come true with a barnstorming world tour by private jet of the wonders of the world. They are spectacularly un-wondrous scenes, no thanks to conspicuously indifferent computer effects to match the film’s glib insincerity.

These two cutely eccentric movie oldsters verbally parry, philosophize and bond over dinners in Paris and motorcycling across the Great Wall of China. And for all Cole’s spiritual apathy — strange in itself considering his library of inspirational literature — that old cliche rears its familiar head: Just as in foxholes, there are no atheists in American movies about terminal illness.

The review is at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.

Also this week: capsule reviews of the documentaries War Made Easy and Billy the Kid and the surprisingly endearing Japanese juvenile romantic drama Honey and Clover, co-starring Yu Aoi of Hula Girls and Hana and Alice.

The gentle conflicts and easy rhythms and small triumphs over personal adversity are low-key almost to a fault, and the smitten stares and unrequited crushes and creative crises suggest high school melodrama as much as young-adult drama, but that restraint also is part of its comfortable charm. It’s cute and sweet without getting saccharine and avoids the contrived complications of American stories of students charging the emotional and sexual minefields of adult relationships and responsibilities (no one here even makes out, let alone sleeps together).

All three capsule reviews can be found here.

Rebels Without a Cause: The Wild Angels

Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels took the outlaw culture of the biker movie into nervy, nihilistic territory. Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda) presides over a chapter of Hell’s Angles, a gang of disaffected drop-outs and scruffy road rats who live to ride in packs and parade their colors (black leather, mostly, adorned with swastikas and Iron Crosses) as a show of defiance to the establishment.

The film branded Fonda as a counterculture icon, but his lanky aloofness and arrogant disdain for the establishment masks an alienated, empty soul flailing at every authority figure just to provoke some sort of sensation. Nancy Sinatra’s thigh-boots were made for straddling a chopper and she is all hipster attitude as Blues’ chick, Mike. Sinatra is a wooden actress, but there’s a nervousness and fear of abandonment behind her vague expression which puts Fonda’s cool posturing into perspective.

Real members of the Venice chapter of Hell’s Angels fill out the gang and provide the stunt riding, which helps give the film its rough and ready character, but it’s the anarchy of this gang and the chaos they leave in their wake that makes it so memorable.

They are truly rebels without a cause, a tribal gang that we watch devolve into primitive savagery in the wake of the death of their beloved brother, the Loser (Bruce Dern in a swaggering performance of breezy disobedience). It’s not malevolence that makes them dangerous, but apathy and amorality. They just don’t care who gets hurt in their search for the next thrill.

“We wanna be free!,” demands Blues in a rambling eulogy turned incoherent (anti-)statement of purpose. “We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded! And we wanna have a good time. And that’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna have a good time. We’re gonna have a party.”

The empty eulogy becomes an epigraph for a defiant anti-establishment rebellion fallen into decadence and anarchy and Heavenly Blues proceeds to preside over the desecration of a church and the systematic trampling of every boundary of decency that Corman could push past censors in 1966. The Wild Angels becomes a portrait of emptiness and hostility, a social revolution spiraling into narcissism and self-destruction.

Director/producer Roger Corman was more than a B-movie legend. From 1955 to the late ’60s, he was America’s most prolific low-budget director, and he grew more ambitious and more inventive throughout the decade. The eight features in this box set, on four two-sided flipper discs in four thinpak cases, collect many of his best films, two of them making their DVD debut here. The most notable is Bloody Mama (1970), his wickedly weird twist on the “Bonnie and Clyde” outlaw gangster picture, with Shelley Winters as Ma Barker, who loves her demented sons so much she sometimes sleeps with them. Don Stroud and Robert De Niro are two of Ma Barker’s boys, and Bruce Dern, Pat Hingle and Diane Varsi co-star. Previously released but even more essential are Corman’s notorious biker classic The Wild Angels (1966) and the quintessential 1960s head film The Trip (1967), written by Jack Nicholson and starring Fonda as a burned-out TV director who drops acid under the protective watch of Dern and Dennis Hopper. The trippiest film of the bunch is Corman’s hippy apocalypse Gas-s-s-s (1970), a groovy satirical road movie set in a future where everyone over 25 is killed by an experimental weapon, and a group of peace-loving hippies goes looking for utopia amidst the fashionable fascists that have taken root. It was his last film for his longtime studio home, AIP, because it (along with “The Trip” and “Bloody Mama” before it) was re-edited behind his back.

The DVD pictured above is actually out of print, but you can still get it on a biker double feature with Hell’s Belles and in the 5-disc, 10-film Roger Corman Collectionbox set, an odd collection that includes Corman’s other great counter-culture classics The Trip and Gas-s-s, his perverse take on the Ma Barker story Bloody Mama, and his great black comedy A Bucket of Blood.

I reviewed the box set for MSN.

Read the entire review here.

‘Zodiac’ – DVD of the Week

Zodiac debuts in a 2-disc special edition.

When Zodiac was originally released in a bare-bones, single-disc edition six months ago, I suspected that a special edition would follow. After all, this is a painstakingly crafted David Fincher film, and Fincher… well, he likes DVD and he’s happy to share his work and let the audience peek behind the curtain. And why not? Fincher is appropriately obsessive in his attention to detail as he recreates seventies San Francisco and American culture, right down to his filmmaking choices, which evokes the period cinema without aping it. One of the most technically accomplished directors working today, he avoids all temptation to impress us stylistically to draw us into a complex story and a complicated investigation that spans years and reverberates through the culture even longer.

I really couldn’t pick out the new footage in the extended cut, which is only a few minutes longer. Fincher talks about some of it in his commentary, but there are no major new scenes and the structure and storytelling are essentially the same.

My MSN review is here.

Also new on DVD this week: Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, a visually spellbinding science fiction film that overcomes a creaky B-movie plot with sublime imagery; Clive Owen in the gonzo action blast Shoot ‘Em Up, an adrenaline-driven affair that refuses to take itself seriously; and Emanuele Crialese’s gorgeous Golden Door. I also want to call out Takashi Miike’s Big Bang Love, Juvenile A, an expressionist juvenile prison drama by way of Jean Genet, and a film he called his masterpiece. On TV, the first season of the Showtime/BBC co-production The Tudors and the FX comic drama The Riches, starring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver, debut, as well as all four mysteries in the An Unstuitable Job For a Woman series, starring Helen Baxendale as P.D. James’ fledgling detective Cordelia Gray.


My complete DVD column can be found here.

Remembering George MacDonald Fraser

I just learned that screenwriter and novelist George MacDonald Fraser, author of the “Flashman” ribald historical romps and screenwriter of Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers (not mention Lester’s screen version of Frasier’s Flashman novel Royal Flash), died Wednesday at the age of 82.

His major claim to fame is a dozen comic novels featuring Sir Harry Flashman, accidental hero and rotter of the first order whose instinct for self-preservation was matched only by his blind lust and sexual adventures. the character, appropriated from “Tom Brown’s School Days” (he was the school bully who tormented hero Tom), winds up at the center of major historical events in each novel, such as the Charge of the Light Brigade in “Flashman at the Charge.” He brought that same sensibility and penchant for deflating heroic postures and aristocratic dignity to his collaborations with Richard Lester.

But in addition to these (and other) cheeky historical satires, he wrote serious memoirs (such as “Quartered Safe Out Here,” about his experience as soldier in Burma in World War II) and even a book on Hollywood’s historical epics (“The Hollywood History of the World“) that arrived at the almost contrarian conclusion that, for all of the liberties that studio costume dramas have taken with history, they got it right more than they got it wrong. Considering how much Fraser loved and respected history, his argument demands some attention at the very least.

Obituary in the Telegraph:

The fag-roasting bully of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Thomas Hughes’s 1857 tribute to Dr Arnold’s Rugby, was last seen being expelled for drunkenness. Age had not improved him. Fraser’s appropriation in 1969, Flashman, joyously confirmed him as a thoroughgoing rotter and cad of the first water.

The book and its 11 sequels purported to be the memoirs of General Sir Harry Flashman, VC, discovered in a saleroom at Ashby-de-la-Zouch and entrusted to Fraser for editing.

This device allowed Fraser to pilot Flashman through a picaresque series of encounters with some of the choicest episodes of Victorian history. Thus, the first novel took as its background the First Afghan War – for Flashman an odyssey of self-preservation justified by his being the sole survivor of the Retreat from Kabul.

(…)

George MacDonald Fraser was born at Carlisle on April 2 1925. His father was a doctor, his mother a nurse. George was educated at Carlisle Grammar School and Glasgow Academy, where his performance as Laertes was distinguished by his unscripted defeat of Hamlet in the pair’s duel.

In 1943 he joined the Border Regiment and served as an infantryman in North Africa and with the “Forgotten” Fourteenth Army in Burma. He was eventually commissioned in the Gordon Highlanders.

Some of his finest writing is contained in his graphic recollections of his Burma service, Quartered Safe Out Here (1992), in which the affectionate portrait of his Cumbrian comrades demonstrated his keen eye for character and acute ear for dialogue. John Keegan, in The Sunday Telegraph, justly called it “one of the great personal memoirs of World War II”.

Read the complete obituary here. Also, obituaries in The Guardian, the New York Times, and The Washington Post.

For more background and information, check out The Flashman Society, and the GMF biography therein.

Thanks for the heads up on this, Nick!

DVD News – Blu-ray triumphs?

Have you been waiting for the industry to settle on a standard before committing to a new high definition DVD system? Warners, the last of the studios to release its HD offerings in both Blu-ray and HD DVD formats, has tipped the balance (ostensibly past the point of return) by announcing its commitment to the Blu-ray format solely. They will honor their HD DVD commitments through the end of May, and then drop the format, leaving only Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Dreamworks Animation supporting HD DVD.

“The high-definition DVD war is all but over,” opens the New York Times piece by Brooks Barnes.

Hollywood’s squabble over which of two technologies will replace standard DVDs skewed in the direction of the Sony Corporation on Friday, with Warner Brothers casting the deciding vote in favor of the company’s Blu-ray discs over the rival format, HD DVD.

In some ways, the fight is a replay of the VHS versus Betamax battle of the 1980s. This time, however, the Sony product appears to have prevailed.

“The overwhelming industry opinion is that this decides the format battle in favor of Blu-ray,” said Richard Doherty, research director at the Envisioneering Group, a market research firm in Seaford, N.Y.

You can also get more information in this Variety article:

Warner Bros. will throw all its weight behind Blu-ray later this year, a decision that could serve as a death blow to the rival HD DVD format.

Continue reading “DVD News – Blu-ray triumphs?”

New reviews – ‘All My Love’

I have the pleasure of offering one of the first reviews of a feature film from a Seattle filmmaker: Brian Short’s “impressionist documentary” All My Love, which makes its theatrical debut this week at the Northwest Film Forum.

Shooting in the deserts of the American Southwest, the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, as well as urban Berlin, Short creates a visual play of beautiful imagery and shifting scale, and then digitally manipulates the material to play with texture and color and clarity. He evokes the visual textures of Stan Brakhage, the godfather of American experimental cinema, in some of his imagery, but with different tools and a distinctively different gestalt.

Read the rest here.

The Village Voice/LA Weekly 2007 Film Poll is up.

I played with my list once again for this poll, and you can find it here.

Remembering the things I’m thankful for

J.Michael Staczinski's "Spider-Man"

2007 has been a good year for me. This year I passed the 12-year mark in Seattle, making this the longest I’ve ever lived consecutively in one city. I developed a taste for gunpowder green tea and yellow curry, thanks to an Asian market that opened right next to a nearby multiplex. I discovered a few new authors (thank you, Arturo Perez-Reverte and Tonino Benaquisto, for joining my list of favored writers) in between continuing my run through the Spenser novels of Robert Parker and completing Neal Stephenson’s “Baroque Cycle.” I continued my reengagement with comics and graphic novels through bound collections of both mainstream titles (the J. Michael Staczinski-penned “Spider-Man” comics and the “X-Men” issues by Joss Whedon and Grant Morrison) and indie series (the brilliant “Powers” by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming and the comics-noir “100 Bullets” by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso), thanks to a library system that actually carries these titles. I continued delving into garage rock past and present (with plenty of help from Little Steven’s Underground Garage). I made an effort to be, however small, a part of the lives of my nieces and nephews and honorary godchildren (that’s what happens to the single friends of married couples). And I finally launched my own website, thanks to the diligent efforts of my dear old friend Nick Henderson and my much newer friend Felipe Lujan-Bear. I’m still working on the rest of my 2007 New Year’s resolutions, but I’m happy with the headway I’ve made so far.

And professionally, it’s been a great year. After a decade of developing and writing my DVD column online, first for film.com and then for the IMDb, I approached MSN with a proposal to expand and enrich their coverage. My column went live in April and I’ve been writing a weekly column for them ever since. I also started writing for Turner Classic Movies in 2007, which I’ve greatly enjoyed, I continue to write for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and GreenCine.com, and this year I attended my first Toronto International Film Festival, which is a film lover’s paradise and the critic’s keys to the kingdom.

Zombie Heaven

I had grand plans for the week leading up to New Year’s Eve, but I wound up taking it easy and focusing on things close to home – getting back into jogging, organizing my finances for taxes, cleaning house (literally – a near-complete top to bottom clean), and clearing out the clutter by hauling off all those things I’d been saving to donate. I called my parents to wish them a happy anniversary (I’m lousy with birthdays, but I always remember my parents’ anniversary as it is on New Year’s Eve) and listened to “Odyssey and Oracle” by The Zombies, a magnificent pop album released long after the band had broken up, with only one hit (“Time of the Season”) but a unity close to perfection. I opened a bottle of Benton-Lane First Class 2003 Pinot Noir (from the Willamette Valley, my previous home), had a dish of spaghetti, and spent New Year’s Eve repeating what has become my annual ritual: staying at home (avoiding the roads full of drivers under the influence) and watching the DVDs that I’ve been wanting and meaning to see for months or even years. This year, it was King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn, on a poorly mastered import disc with shoddy subtitles, yet was glorious enough to overcome those surface deficiencies. For those of you unfamiliar with the director, Hu is the godfather of the genre known as “wuxia pian,” or romantic chivalry, and was a major inspiration of the Hong Kong New Wave and director Tsui Hark (who remade the film as Dragon Gate), and of the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which is practically a tribute to the films of King Hu.

Dragon Inn

Dragon Gate Inn is a pure delight, a wild ride of an action film with a sprawling cast representing all sorts of forces who converge on the inn of the title, which lies open and exposed in the middle of the desert. An ambush is plotted by a powerful eunuch, but mysterious figures have, for various reasons, gathered to protect the targets of the assassination conspiracy. Swords flash, poison wine is spilled, arrows fly, armies clash, and rather humorous insults are thrown at the eunuch. Yet it was one otherwise unmemorable moment of the film, a slow track forward in POV shot of the warrior heroine creeping up on the occupied inn of the title, that sparked a purely reflexive response in me: damn, how I love a slow tracking shot, one that creeps with such deliberation that you feel transported into the movement. It started me thinking about those techniques and conventions and details we otherwise take for granted, yet transform otherwise mundane films into visceral experiences, and in the hands of an artist can be turned into transformative moments.

So I started cataloguing, off the top of my head, just a few things about the cinema that transport me, thrill me, engage me, excite me, stir me, and reward me – in films conventional and curious, good and bad, terrible and transcendent. I’m dedicated to exploring cinema for the good and the great, but there are so many things that me engaged in between that I felt compelled to list just a few…

Things I’m thankful for:

Hawks

Howard Hawks – I could put any number of directors here, I suppose, but there is no single director whose world I find more comforting to visit.

The perfect match cut – I realized that I was not meant to be a director in college because I never really had a story to tell when I was making student films, but I could spend hours mucking about on the sloppy, pre-digital videotape editing deck of my college perfecting the editing of my rushes, alternately flaunting exaggerated shifts in perspective and angle and hiding cuts in the movement within the frame. (I might have turned out to be a good editor if I kept with it, but I ultimately found myself drawn to writing more than filmmaking, and I followed my impulses.) I’m still swept along by editing that follows the action to slide from shot to shot and carries the viewer along quietly through rhythms. It was during the third screening of John Woo’s Hardboiled that I noticed how Woo used the momentum and vectors of action to guide his cutting in the opening restaurant shoot-out. It makes the runaway momentum feel even more out of control and chaotic, but Woo is in complete control.

Continue reading “Remembering the things I’m thankful for”

A Christmas DVD Wish List… plus “Diva” and David Cronenberg

Inspired by the possibilities of DVD releases seen this year alone in terms of special editions and box sets, I put together an initial wish list of essentials I would like to see in the coming years and published the piece on GreenCine:

What a year we’ve seen for domestic DVD releases. Marvelous special editions of Breathless and I Am Cuba. A deluxe presentation of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The release of such long-awaited films as Killer of Sheep (an amazing 2-disc special edition), Ace in the Hole (Criterion, no less), Witchfinder General (in the uncut British version), and Duck, You Sucker (restored and reconstructed), just to name the first that come to mind. And new standards of quality and exhaustive completeness have been set with the sprawling, unprecedented box set Ford at Fox and Blade Runner: Five-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition.

And the hits keep on coming. Warner has been working on mastering elements for a The Magnificent Ambersons special edition for years (modest editions are already available in France and Britain) and Paramount is reportedly working on an extensive restoration of The African Queen. Criterion has a Max Ophüls set in the works (the only confirmed titles are Earrings of Madame de… and Le Plaisir, and perhaps La Ronde – I hope they add Lola Montès to replace the inferior Fox Lorber edition) and is considering the films of Kenji Mizoguchi (including Street of Shame and Life of Oharu), Shohei Imamura, and Mikio Naruse (either in Criterion editions or Eclipse box sets), not to mention all those Rialto re-releases. There are Lon Chaney classics, Forbidden Hollywood collections, Looney Tunes boxes, and sets of such series as The Saint and Falcon in the works, as well as the rollout of the entire Andy Hardy series (gosh, dad, that’s swell!).

Yes, we go on and on about what’s not yet on DVD, but it is not in spite of these releases that I offer my own dream list of DVD Special Editions and Box Sets. It is because I am inspired by their example to dream big. This is no fantasy of lost films found (like the 132-minute version of Magnificent Ambersons, the 40-reel Greed, or magically rediscovered prints of London After Midnight or Four Devils), but a modest proposal to pull out films from the vaults, restore and remaster them where necessary, and give them the presentation they deserve on DVD.

What kind of releases did I choose? Here’s my top pick in a “best of” list of my dreams:

1. Touch of Evil: The Ultimate Collection

Continue reading “A Christmas DVD Wish List… plus “Diva” and David Cronenberg”

More lists and lost “Youth”

I really wanted to like Francis Coppol’a Youth Without Youth more than I did, just because he seems to have gotten his own creative youth back with the film. My review is on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

The film effortlessly evokes “Faust,” the fountain of youth, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” and even “Frankenstein”– spinning tales of reincarnation and estrangement without finding its own identity.

It’s hard not to think of “Youth Without Youth” as Coppola’s attempt to recapture the cinema rapture of his youth with the grace of age and experience. There is a joy in his simple but rich imagery and vibrant filmmaking. He has returned to simple, practical techniques to create his fantastic imagery, only discreetly resorting to digital touches. It’s gorgeous.

Read the rest here…

More lists, more lists:

The Indiewire list was posted on Thursday, December 20. I had the honor and the pleasure of participating, though thanks to an E-mail snafu I found out a little late and didn’t have time to write up comments. I might as well now:

2007 is unusual in so many high-profile, substantially-budgeted American films have proven to be so interesting, so inventive, so creative, and so demanding. Films like I’m Not There, There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, and Into the Wild are autuer films in the studio system (calling them indie is to abuse the word too much, but they are certainly lower-priced productions than Rush Hour 3 and Evan Almighty). The shortage of exciting foreign films actually getting a stateside release, however, is a concern, and those that do get released become more and more niche releases. If the film critic matters at all, it’s in creating audience interest in things like the thrilling burst of cinema coming from Romania right now. Hopefully the wave of praise for Secret Sunshine, the tough and emotionally prickly Korean drama that was the top pick for Best Unreleased Film, will help find it a distributor and a stateside release.

The compiled lists are here, and the individual lists are listed by critic here. My list, which is slightly different from my other lists this year, can be found here.

My favorite list of the year to date: Jim Emerson’s 10 Best List: The Movie at his Scanners blog.

Ten movies, 76 seconds, two or three shots apiece (more or less), no dialog, no annotations. (The critical comments will come later.) This is my hommage to the ending of the late Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Eclipse” and to the writers who are currently on strike. (Full disclosure: I’m a WGA/west member and I absolutely support the writers.) The effort was to look at my favorite movies of the year (inspired, to begin with, by the opening of “No Country for Old Men”) solely through establishing shots, architecture, landscapes, inanimate objects… and a few glimpses of extras and motionless actors who don’t speak.

The haunting howl of the wind, which serves as his soundtrack, really makes the piece.

Coming soon: The Village Voice/LA Weekly Critics Poll.

‘Blade Runner’ – DVD of the week

My last DVD column of 2007 wraps up the home video releases for the last two weeks of the year.

Twenty five years after Ridley Scott‘s visionary reworking of Philip K. Dick’s novel flopped at the box office (and was subsequently reborn as one of the pre-eminent cult movies of the past three decades), Scott delivers what he promises is his final take on the compromised classic.

The ultimate release of Blade Runner is the release of the week. I’m still going through the discs – the epic 3 1/2 hour documentary is astounding, the outtakes and deleted scenes are cut together into a kind of narrative, a stranger alternate universe companion film with completely different credits and a completely different narration by Ford. I’ll be writing about this in more detail later on this site.

The Simpsons Movie

The big-screen debut of America’s favorite yellow-skinned family plays like a supersized episode with gags crammed into every verbal and visual nook and cranny of the wide-screen format and an afterthought of a story…. It’s as puckish and irreverent as the television show, but with PG-13 parameters (resulting in, among other things, an inspired gag sprung during Bart’s naked skateboard ride through town), awfully funny and fairly unmemorable.

Also new in this week’s column: Once (“the sweetest little musical of the year”), Eastern Promises (which arrives on DVD on December 23), and new special editions of The Evil Dead and Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York.

Also new this week is my tribute to the fictional history of rock and roll: the Greatest Bands that Never Existed.

The alternative history of rock ‘n’ roll is filled with class acts: The Swanky Modes, Steel Dragon, the Luminaries, and who could forget the upstart grrrl group the Stains? Most people do forget … because these bands don’t exist outside of the movies. In fact, there’s a veritable alternative history of rock ‘n’ roll that only exits in film. Many nonexistent bands are bad; many are surprisingly good; some are downright inspired.

If you’re a fan of Strange Fruit, The Venus in Furs, The Bang Bang, and Max Frost and the Troopers, then this is for you. If you haven’t heard of these bands, then jump in:

5. The Venus in Furs
Big-screen appearance:Velvet Goldmine
Musical definition: Glam rock redux
Signature song: “The Whole Shebang”
Liner notes: Jack Slade became the poster boy for androgyny rock and “the first true dandy of rock” in his taboo-busting phase as the flamboyantly bisexual singer/songwriter fronting the Venus in Furs. His career never recovered from the staged assassination at a concert and he disappeared, possibly into a new persona.
Behind the music: Todd Haynes recreates the pop-culture earthquake of glam rock with a fictionalized take on David Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust phase (incarnated by Jonathan Rhys Meyers with a pouty, androgynous pose and a fabulous wardrobe), directed as a cheeky tribute to “Citizen Kane.” The period-perfect music was created by members of Radiohead, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth and Ron Asheton of the original Stooges.

Click here to read the other nine picks and more…

New reviews: ‘Juno’ and ‘Mala Noche’ plus Top Ten lists

The annual running of the lists is usually kicked off by the (often laughable) National Board of Review’s awards (and really, any group that lists The Bucket List as one of the Top Ten films of year earns the term “laughable”). Now I and my fellow MSN writers toss our opinions into the ring, along with other goodies.

The Top Ten 2007 Films poll can be found here with individual ballots found here. My top pick (at least for this list) was Into the Wild.

The Best (and Worst) of 2007 TV, meanwhile, is here.

For the record, my top pick for 2007 TV is Mad Men, and my pick for worst (which didn’t make the list): Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Upon reflection, however, I realize that I had forgotten a much worse show from another major creator: The Black Donnellys. Must have just blocked it out to save myself the pain of remembering.

For another take on the year in review, check out the delightful “Moments Out of Time” by Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy. If the name sounds familiar, maybe it’s because you used to devour the annual recounting of cinema moments in “Film Comment,” or before that, in “Movietone News,” where it was born decades ago.

Also new this week:

My review of Jason Reitman’s Juno: “the feel-good film of the pregnant teenager comedy genre,” is at the Seattle P-I. That description may sound like a glib dismissal, but it’s actually an appreciation of the film’s wit: it is actually quite smart and mature as well as clever and entertaining.

The original screenplay by Diablo Cody ricochets with askew dialogue, a fantasy of youth slang gone wild that borders on precious and contrived. In this skewed cinematic universe it’s both defiant and defining, a private language for a bright high school non-conformist.

Under the cleverness is a very human and humble story of growing up, and Page is engaging and energetic and palpably vulnerable under her self-possessed eccentricity. We watch her rise to responsibility as she watches how adults face up — or don’t — to their own.

My review of Criterion’s release of Mala Noche is new on Turner Classic Movies this week:

Gus Van Sant’s intimate black and white tale of l’amour fou has been hailed as a precursor to the American wave of queer cinema that started to swell in the late eighties. Its credentials are established in the opening lines as Walt (Tim Streeter), a counter jockey at a hole-in-the-wall liquor store, gazes upon Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), an illegal Mexican immigrant with fleshy lips, a wide, youthful grin, and a streak of juvenile machismo. “I want to drink this Mexican boy, Johnny Alonzo,” he rhapsodizes in voice-over, and he spends the rest of the movie doing all he can to get next to this beautiful boy (“He says he’s 18, but he’s probably 16,” Walt confesses). Johnny is full of attitude and sass and contempt for his gay admirer, but not too proud to take advantage of Walt’s desire for his company to score a handout at the store or a turn behind the wheel of Walt’s car (which he pilots with the reckless mania of a teenager on a video game).

Over the rainbow with ‘The Wizard of Oz’

Lions and tigers and bears and … flying monkeys? Oh my!

When gingham-clad farm girl Dorothy Gale rode the tornado out of the somber, sepia-tinged black and white of her Kansas dust bowl farm and into the sparkling Technicolor fantasy land somewhere over the rainbow, she changed the lives of her audiences (both then and now) as assuredly as she changed her own.

wizard-of-oz.jpg
Following the yellow brick road into movie history

The Wizard of Oz was adapted from the first book in L. Frank Baum’s series of Oz adventures, but MGM’s bright incarnation has a life all its own. MGM was the dream factory of the 1930s and 1940s and this was its most imaginative screen dream, but it is Judy Garland who grounds the fantastic sights and delirious imagery in the human story of a winsome, plucky, melancholy girl who dreams of visiting lands outside her humdrum neighborhood and, when that dream comes true, wistfully yearns for home.

Garland’s Dorothy embodies the fantasy of all children who dream of leaving the cocoon of their protected lives and spreading their wings. With her companions — the clowning but clever Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the compassionate Tin Man (Jack Haley) and the blubbering Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) — she journeys along the yellow brick road through a land of magic and wonder, a butterfly blossoming in a candy-colored phantasmagoria.

More than a movie classic, it’s an essential part of the popular culture, thanks to film revivals and the annual TV ritual that, sooner or later, captured every kid growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. The love has since spread, with lavish DVD sets preserving the glory of the singing munchkins (“We represent the Lollipop Guild … “), the cackling, green-faced Wicked Witch of the West (“I’ll get you my pretty. And your little dog too!”), the flying monkeys and the merry, merry land of Oz for generations to come.

The moral of the story makes for a strangely conservative tribute to fantasy and imagination: “There’s no place like home,” Dorothy chants as she clicks the heels of her sparkling ruby slippers. But was anyone fooled by this sop to rural integrity and homespun values of modesty and restraint? Or did kids and grown-ups alike walk away from this scary, funny, thrilling, singing and dancing Technicolor blast of flying monkeys and talking scarecrows and melting green crones with a passion to break out of their monochrome lives and follow their own yellow brick road?

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.