Friday, December 31, 2010
Starring Maynard James Keenan, Eric Glomski, Tim Alexander
Take a moment to conjure into your head your favorite song. Close your eyes and really listen to it - mentally peel away each layer and savor the different textures each movement of the song brings. When you take the time to experience music that way, it can be an edifying experience. The best musicians compose tunes that slowly let their flavors unfold and echo in the mind long after the listener has stopped listening.
A similar experience can be had, or so the thesis of Blood Into Wine goes, when one takes the time to consume a glass of fermented grape juice. Wine, like a song, needs to be nurtured and cared for, composed using different, and sometimes opposing, elements. The more thought and care that goes into making a wine, the better the wine will be, and the more pleasurable the drinking experience for the consumer.
A documentary that explores the complex process of wine making, Blood Into Wine is a love letter to those who spend years of their lives choosing the landscape, cultivating the ingredients, protecting the crops, harvesting the fruits, mixing the flavors, and ultimately bottling the aromatic alcoholic beverage. At the same time, it also peeks into the private life of one of rock and roll's most private and enigmatic front-man: Maynard James Keenan, lead singer of the progressive rock unit (and one of my personal favorite bands) Tool.
Notorious for shunning the press and shunning perspicuity when it comes to questions about their music, Tool have spent almost two decades letting their four full-length albums speak for themselves. As the lead singer, Keenan has spent that same amount of time cryptically fending off those who seek to find the answers to how and why he does what he does. In the mid '90's, he moved to Jerome, a small town smack dab in he middle of Arizona where, in order to tackle new challenges, he decided to become a wine maker in addition to being a platinum selling music artist. Teaming with fellow wine-enthusiast (and experienced wine creator extraordinaire) Eric Glomski, Keenan spent years juggling the rigorous nature of touring with Tool (and A Perfect Circle AND Puscifer, two other Maynard-fronted rock bands) with the difficulties of owning and operating a small winery in a location not usually thought of as being conducive to success in such an industry. Using the same techniques that he utilizes to create Tool's unique and complex songs to invent new and exciting flavors of wine, the film tracks Keenan and Glomski's failures and fortunes, with injections of witty humor for fun.
Knowing that Keenan would rather approach aspects of his private life in a darkly comedic way allows directors Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke more access to the man while offering up laughs to the viewer. After one instance of giving a very thought-provoking answer to a very tired question, it's revealed that Keenan is sitting on a toilet, and voices concern about the camera crew following him around everywhere he goes. One gets the feeling that the exchange for allowing insight into this part of Keenan was to let him do whatever he wanted to do, and have it be left up to the viewer on whether or not what he's offering up is authentic or not. This is something Keenan explicitly states during the documentary, although it's questionable as to whether or not he's being truthful or trustworthy with that declaration as well.
This is a theme that fits right in to Blood Into Wine, although it certainly may be frustrating to some viewers. You take out of a work of art what you want, much like tasting a wine. The more time you take to taste the layers and flavors of the art/wine, the more you'll get from the experience. To wit, the documentary has its own layers and flavors that need to be uncovered with a thorough and attentive viewing. At times it becomes enraptured with the science of how the DNA structure of grapes work and the chemical process of breaking down that structure and creating the fermented juices that go into making the wine. The clinical information is always conveyed, though, in an earthy setting - much of the documentary takes place outside, with beautiful Arizona landscapes as backdrops. Much of the time the subjects are down in the dirt while discussing their processes, and the film wisely eschews a talking-head format, much to its advantage.
Throughout its running time, Blood Into Wine also drops on the viewer some fun, sometimes obscure cameos. Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element, Resident Evil) spends a few minutes onscreen, as does comedian Patton Oswalt and Primus drummer Tim Alexander. As a fan of these individuals, it was a treat to see them interacting with each other while either adding a humorous aspect to the film or conveying narrative information.
Fascinating for both wine connoisseur and Tool fans alike, Blood Into Wine is an intriguing and hugely satisfying documentary film. It provides insight into an industry and process that is much more complex than most people realize, while providing a parallel to that complexity in a musician that many people thought would remain inaccessible to the end of days.
Addendum: I offer up Tool's song "Lateralus" as an example of the musical equivalent of a fine wine, dense with many layers and textures, and simply a grand experience. Even if you have an aversion to rock music, slide on some headphones, close your eyes, and prepare for a dramatic and spiritually uplifting experience here.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
There are only a handful of directors currently working who can make a film that sends me from a theater buzzing with emotion and dizzy with the feeling that I just watched a small step in the evolution of cinema itself. There are an even smaller number who make me feel that way with every single one of their films. One of those filmmakers is Darren Aronofsky, whose new film, Black Swan, is his finest and most impressive work.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a dancer, consumed with the art of ballet. When she's not dancing she's dreaming about it, and when she's done dreaming about it, she's living it. Her dream is to play that Swan Queen in her dance troupe's production of Swan Lake. So obsessed with the play is Nina that she begins to have paranoid delusions that new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), is trying to sabotage Nina's chances at obtaining the coveted role. Between trying to please her overprotective failed ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey), wrestling with sexual feelings for her instructor Thomas (Vincent Cassel), and dealing with bodily injury - which threatens her dancing career, Nina slowly descends into a world of madness and self-destruction.
It's a world that Aronofsky has tackled in all of his films, beginning with his independent debut Pi and continuing through 2008's Academy Award nominated The Wrestler. In fact, Black Swan can be seen as a companion piece in theme, if not tone, to The Wrestler, with lead characters that are on the opposite ends of the same coin. Randy "The Ram" Robinson and Nina Sayers both exist with their lifelines tethered to their respective art - wrestling for Randy and ballet for Nina.
The difference, though, is that unlike Randy, who faced the reality of being an aging professional wrestler with a clarity that debilitated him internally, Nina externalizes her fear of that tether being severed, and her irrationality yields hallucinations and begets a mental collapse. Almost immediately we see that the world Nina occupies is left-of-center, and we acknowledge that it is of her own doing that her world is that way. Innocent and naive, Nina sabotages her passions again and again, with a flawed determination of reaching the impossibility of perfection. She sees Beth, the dancer she works to replace (Winona Ryder in a small, but effectively creepy role), as the epitome of what she strives for. The harder she strives, the easier it becomes for her mind to break from reality.
Aronofsky illustrates Nina's psychotic break with visual and auditory cues that are sometimes subtle, other times over-the-top. Whether it's slight sounds of flapping wings on a train, or a pair of eyes moving in a painting, the director constantly aims to unsettle the viewer. While the film is consistently tense throughout (until the last act, in which the intensity is ramped up to an almost unbearable degree), Aronofsky never lets the urge to frighten overtake his steady and controlled take of the drama unfolding. Like Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In, Black Swan is horror movie that those who don't watch horror movies can enjoy, and will please even the most die-hard horror aficionado.
While there's relatively little gore in Black Swan, it does have its fair share of grotesque imagery, captured magnificently by Matthew Libatique's cinematography. The movie is a perfect example of a film with luscious photography that isn't all magic-hour horizons and blue sky back-dropped landscapes. Libatique and Aronofsky have been working together for so long that the director and cinematographer seem to function as one together, which is much to the benefit of Black Swan's endlessly fascinating series of sequences. Whether it be a choreographed ballet dance or a terrifyingly staged horror sequence, Libatique's camera lends Aronofsky's direction the exact tone and style needed for each scene. It's remarkable to watch.
Also remarkable to watch is Natalie Portman, who turns in not only the best performance of her career and the best performance of 2010, but what might actually end up being, years from now when I assess these sorts of things, one of my favorite performances by an actress ever. Portman has never been in command of a character as well as she is here. From her athletic execution of the dance sequences, to subtle facial expressions, it appears the actress threw herself into the role of Nina the way Nina attacks the part of Swan Queen. I don't want to sell Portman short, because I believe she's always been very talented, but I don't know if we'll ever see her reach the heights she has been to in Black Swan.
Not to be out done, Mila Kunis also impresses as the carefree, anything goes Lily. Seductive and outgoing in ways that Nina can and will never be, Kunis is equal parts sexy and sinister, and deadly effective in the role at that. It's easy to see why Nina has an attraction to Lily, as Kunis's large eyes express an intoxicating openness that invites those with lesser life-experience.
Furthermore, Vincent Cassel takes what might have been a one-note character and turns him into an authoritative figure with an unusual way of coaxing greatness from his students. While it's easy to think of Cassel's Thomas as nothing more than a manipulative sleazebag, Cassel injects a skewed humanity into the character who, while not lovable, is certainly more multifaceted and more likable than the script maintains.
Adding to the richness of the cinematography and acting is Clint Mansell's sumptuous score. Taking Tschaikovsky's theme from Swan Lake and building themes of horror and obsession on top of it, Mansell creates yet another effective score that you'll most likely recognize in trailers and movie ads years from now. (His Lux Aeterna piece from Requiem for a Dream has been used in numerous trailers, as has his work from The Fountain). Like Aronofsky's work with Libatique, the collaboration with Mansell creates moving images almost too powerful for the screen, and the three of them working together gives rise to the feeling of euphoria that hits me while watching an Aronofsky film.
It can not be overstated how well Black Swan works as a film, and how perfectly its elements come together to create a work of art that feels original and edifying. Some viewers may be exasperated by its deliberately paced narrative, which seems to sag mid-film. But those who open themselves up to its visual beauty, marvel at its innovative audio, and appreciate the highly skilled performances will find a film unlike most they've ever seen. It's unequivocally the best film of 2010.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Terrence Malick is a director who took 20 years off from work after he finished the film Days of Heaven only to return in 1998 with the WWII epic The Thin Red Line, which was overshadowed by that other war movie Tom Hanks starred in. He then dropped The New World on us in 2005, and next year will see his new film The Tree of Life hit theaters. Three films in thirteen years? Slow down, Malick. Your '80's self is wondering who that 21st century workaholic is.
Malick's films seem to divide film fans - although even those that don't like his films still seem to respect the man and his work on some level. Some people feel his narratives are meandering and pretentious. Others, including myself, think his poetic approach to dialogue and the heady, existential earth that all of his films blossom from are, while sometimes difficult to connect with on a human plane, pretty transcendental on a spiritual level. Characters in a Terrence Malick film don't feel so much like people interacting as they do parts of the soul.
Anyway, enough of me all trying to sound smart and sensitive. The trailer for Tree of Life is up at Apple.com/trailers, and it's about as beautiful as you'd expect a Malick film to look. I've watched this sucker three times and I'm pretty much in awe. Can't quite nail down the narrative, but it obviously has something to do with the father/son bond and the beginning/end of time. The whole thing pretty much puts a lump in my throat on every viewing.
There I go, sounding all sensitive again.
The trailer is embedded below, but I strongly suggest you watch this thing of beauty in 1080p, over at Apple's site, if you can.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Well it’s that time of year again, when the billions of critic groups around the country start handing out awards and high-fives to a number of deserving films and an even larger number of undeserving ones. I honestly don’t have the patience or the time to keep up with all the board/association/press accolades being discussed - 100% of them piss off half of us, and 0% of us are ever happy with all of them.
That being said, Thewere announced today, and since they’re the 2nd biggest awards ceremony in cinema I thought I might as well throw my two cents in. Unfortunately I haven’t seen a good percentage of the films nominated (simply because they haven’t opened around me yet), and I won’t even get into the television categories, because I just don’t watch enough of it.
The Best Motion Picture category seems to make the most sense, although I’m scratching my head over the inclusion of True Grit (which I have not). Inception is great filmmaking, but it's also bulky, oddly paced, and emotionally cold. I like Chris Nolan a lot and I’ll revisit the movie often, but it’s nowhere close to the brilliance of 127 Hours, which manages to be both masterful filmmaking and emotionally satisfying.and not (which I have seen) or
The next category I can’t comment on, as I’m not familiar enough with the nominees for Best Actress in a Drama, but I’ll go on to say I hope ends up acquiring a statue for 127 Hours Best Actor in a Drama category.
After those three fairly predictable groupings comes the oddest collection of Best Picture nominees I think I've ever seen. In the Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical category, the following films have been chosen: Alice in Wonderland (trash), Burlesque (supposed trash, haven't seen it), The Kids Are Alright (supposed greatness, haven't seen it), Red (supposed fun, haven't seen it), and The Tourist (absolutely wretched). Alice in Wonderland and The Tourist are not the best of anything except, maybe, at making me hate the art of filmmaking.
If those two films aren't a big flashing neon sign that blinks "WE JUST WANT TO BE LOVED AND COOL!", perhaps the fact that Johnny Depp is NOMINATED TWICE IN THE SAME CATEGORY (Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical) FOR THOSE SAME TWO MOVIES should betray the Hollywood Foreign Press' true intentions. Although The Tourist flopped, there's pretty much no bigger movie star in the world than Johnny Depp. Years ago, I wondered why he wasn't a bigger name than he was (around the ...Gilbert Grape years), and then the world caught up too late and the Depp love jumped the shark when, after almost 20 years of solid performances, he was finally nominated for an Academy Award after playing a flamboyant pirate.
And that's all I have to say about the Golden Globes at this point. I hate to be part of the inevitable backlash, but the HFPA has become increasingly nonchalant about their celebrity ass-kissing in recent years, and sooner or later the awards show itself will resemble nothing more than the MTV Movie Peoples Choice Awards.
For a full list of nominee, go here.
For a full list of nominee, go here.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
I'm woefully ignorant when it comes to the Marvel Universe. I've never read one issue of an Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, Captain America, et al. comic book, and I just recently read my first X-Men hardcover for the first time a few months ago. The only things I know about these characters is what I see in the film adaptations of their stories, and that includes the latest Marvel superhero to get the cinematic treatment, Thor, who I know (through general knowledge) to be a Norse god that carries a huge GDF'in hammer.
The film stars Chris Hemsworth (who played the father of James T. Kirk in the Star Trek reboot) as the titular character with daddy issues, after being cast down out of Asgard and down to Earth by his pops Odin (a cycloptic Anthony Hopkins). I know very little of what to expect when this is released next summer except that I'm sure it will be bombastic, as it's directed by Kenneth Branagh. I've generally been a fan of Branagh's directorial work throughout the years - I'm probably one of six fans worldwide of his 1994 adaptation Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. That movie is so gloriously insane that I can't help but kind of love it. If Branagh brings that same over-the-top and demented glee and injects it into Thor (and it looks like he did), then it's going to be a blast. Dumb and bloated, sure. But a blast nonetheless.
The film also stars my girlfriend Natalie Portman and the future godfather of our children Idris Elba. Thor opens May 2011.
Fun fact: I stood next to Clark Gregg (who plays Agent Coulson, the shady dude interviewing Thor at the beginning of the trailer) in a bathroom when I attended San Diego Comic-Con last July. That was right before I almost got run down by Jason Schwartzman and his posse when they rounded a corner and didn't see me standing in the hallway. Those are my two pathetic brushes with celebrity. I don't count the time my brother and I stared Amy Adams right out of a movie theater lobby.
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
With less than 3 1/2 weeks until the end of the year, December is looking to be anemic when it comes to quality films at your local theater. The nauseating trailer for Yogi Bear is almost enough to keep me more than 100 feet away from a theatrical release from now until 2012. On top of that there's Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro trying to milk the one note joke that started with Meet the Parents, The Chronicles of Narnia brings us another boring epic with The Dawn Treader, and Jack Black makes goofy faces all the way to the bank with Gulliver's Travels, squirting that last bit of goodwill he had worked up with Tropic Thunder down the toilet.
Of course there are a few films that look interesting enough - Tron: Legacy certainly seems to be a feast for the eyes, and The Fighter brings together the three egos of David O. Russell, Christian Bale, and Mark Wahlberg, which should make for some uncomfortable behind-the-scenes YouTube videos.
As much as I'm looking forward to those two films, their trailers just haven't excited me as much as the next two have. You've most likely been exposed to at least one of these movie previews, as they're both more than a few months old, but I think they're not only both well worth watching over again, but the movies themselves will live up to the promise of their trailers.
The first trailer is for the upcoming movie from Joel and Ethan Coen: True Grit. Not only do I think the Coen brothers are the best and most important American filmmakers living today, but they also happen to be my favorite directors as well. Their films define the word unique, even when they're adaptations of pre-existing material (No Country For Old Men). True Grit is their second adaptation in four films, and it looks to be another win for the brothers. This is also their second collaboration with Jeff Bridges, their first birthing one of the great slacker characters of cinema, Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski in The Big Lebowski. From interviews, Ethan and Joel have stated that their version of True Grit clings closer to Charles Porti's 1969 novel than the John Wayne starring film of the same name. I haven't had the pleasure of viewing the original film, and I most likely won't bother until after the Coen's version. Watch the trailer below or, for a downloadable version, check it out at Apple Trailers here.
The next film comes from another very important American filmmaker, Darren Aronofsky. Aronofsky blew minds with his late 90's independent film Pi, and then continued to release innovative and critically acclaimed films such as Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and The Wrestler. His new film, Black Swan, appears to be a Dario Argento inspired look into the world of ballet, where the pressure of competition can transform the innocent into monsters. The film is in limited release right now (and making some hefty coin at the box office, averaging $80,212 per screen last weekend at 18 screens throughout the US), and most likely I will drive to the closest theater playing the film (Amherst, Massachusetts on December 17) to see it. The Black Swan trailer is below, and head on over to Apple Trailers for a music video and a behind the scenes featurette.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
Feast your eyes (and ears) on the trailer, embedded below, just don't get any ideas that the final film is going to be anywhere near as beautiful.
The plot to the Jodi Foster directed The Beaver pretty much describes star Mel Gibson's current predicament succinctly: formerly loved (and lovable) man has a fall from grace and is, in turn, loathed and kicked to the dirt by those closest to him and pretty much everyone else who knows him as well. Man then finds a beaver puppet which he wears at all times as a therapeutic device to win back the hearts of those he lost.
Alright, that last part is where Foster's film and Gibson's life divorce plot-wise, obviously. But it's hard not to watch the trailer for The Beaver and see a reflection of the mega-star's personal life.
It's also hard not to watch it and not be overwhelmed by the sugary, feel-goodness of it all. When I first heard of The Beaver, I imagined some black comedy about a truly troubled individual. The guy wear's a beaver puppet on his hand that he talks to, for the love of God. But it appears the actual film is striving for a more inspiring, James L. Brooks affair.
The trailer is fairly terrible, complete with banal voice-over and all the important lessons the film teaches thrown at us in the last thirty seconds. We won't know if the movie will rehabilitate Gibson's image with the public until it's release, but from what I'm seeing here it certainly won't rehabilitate his career, which was dealt a hefty blow with the truly awful Edge of Darkness, the second worst film this year.
Check out Jodi Foster's The Beaver right here.
Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Carla Gugino
Faster, the new film in which Dwayne Johnson tries once again to be crowned King Action Hero, begins promisingly enough. After being released from prison, Johnson's character - dubbed only "Driver" by on-screen text - walks to the local impound, jumps in a '70 Chevy Chevelle SS, and proceeds to execute the first poor sucker in a group of men who betrayed and killed his brother after a bank robbery.
With the determination of a spurned Jersey housewife, Johnson is most effective in the film when the script calls for him to grit his teeth, squint, and generally look like he's about to throw a tree through someone's face. The former professional wrestler has the build of a Panzer tank, but hurtles through the first half hour of the movie like the runaway train from Tony Scott's Unstoppable. If Faster had kept it simple for the rest of the film and followed Driver on the hunt for each and every kill, it would have been a sweet, violent blast of adrenaline. Unfortunately, since Faster is a movie and movie's need stories, it doesn't, and the story it concocts is as disjointed as it is bulky.
Billy Bob Thornton is Cop, a - you got it - police detective on the hunt Driver. Cop gets a nice little introduction where we learn he's addicted to heroin. Not only is he a drug-addicted sleaze, he's also a joke on the force. His partner, Cicero (Carla Gugino) can't stand him, and neither can his estranged wife Marina (Moon Bloodgood). In a sub-plot that seems to come straight from another movie, Cop fights to be back in the lives of his wife and child, while telling Marina he'll kick the heroin habit for good. It's trite, melodramatic stuff, and it doesn't belong in a film that's introduced as one man's vengeance against those who wronged him.
Neither does another plot involving Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Jake Gyllenhaal's doppelganger), a New Age assassin with more insecurity issues than weapons to kill people with. While on missions he's also on the phone with his therapist. When not on missions he's trying to convince his girlfriend (Maggie Grace) that he's going to give up the assassination game once and for all. Soon. He promises. Just after this last job. While Killer is actually an interesting character and he's played with sexy danger by Jackson-Cohen, his story, like Cop's, appears grafted on from a completely different screenplay. At points, especially during Killer's wedding, I felt as if a movie from the next theater over had accidentally been projected onto our screen.
And therein lies the problem with Faster. It's never consistent, and it felt like the filmmakers wanted the film to be more important than it actually is. It also changes gears from a revenge flick to a Who Done It?, as Driver uncovers secrets about his brother's killing that may or may not involve his father, mother, and corrupt police officials. It's a shame that Faster becomes bogged down with unnecessary story complications and subplots.
It's also a shame that Faster doesn't live up to its potential as an ultraviolent action piece, and one that could finally elevate Dwayne Johnson to the action star status he's always strived attain. While the action in Faster is decent at best, it's surprisingly slow in parts, and doesn't take full advantage of its star's physical ability. In one scene, Driver comes to a fight involving sharp hand weapons with a hulking beast of a man, but the fight is over soon after the first punch is thrown. While it may be a more realistic portrayal of what a hand-to-knife-to-ice-pick fight would be like, it's disappointing that director George Tillman Jr. didn't choreograph a UFC style rumble that perhaps could have been the centerpiece of the film and a scene that could have been a reference point for Johnson's action star abilities.
While not a complete waste of film, Faster is most certainly disappointing, and its not going to do any favors for Mr. Johnson. If the movie had cut out all of the fat and accepted its role as a lean, mean, vengeance machine, Faster could have been one of the best action films of the year. Instead it's only a mildly entertaining, with only a few rousing kills and a likeable ant-hero we just don't get to spend enough time with. Better luck next time, Dwayne.