Monthly Archives: November 2012

Top Ten Movies of the Nineties

Thanks to my friend Jason, I came up with my own rankings for what I believe to be the best movies of the 90’s. Tell us what you think about our choices, and I understand the fact that it’s probably a cardinal sin to put ‘Schindler’s List’ anywhere but number 1. What can I say, I cannot deny my love for Fincher and Tarantino! In all seriousness, the 90’s was a great decade for film, probably the second best behind the 70’s. Give us feedback, let us know what you think should be number 1.

Carson’s Top Ten Movies of the 90’s 

1. Pulp Fiction

2. Fight Club

3. Schindler’s List

4. Goodfellas

5. The Truman Show

6. Saving Private Ryan

7. The Shawshank Redemption

8. Groundhog Day

9. Fargo

10. A Few Good Men

Honorable Mention

11. Toy Story

12. Beauty and the Beast

13. Forrest Gump

14. Apollo 13

15. Se7en

15. L.A. Confidential

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‘Argo’: Saved by the Beard of Ben Affleck!

What makes us proud to be Americans? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately, and to be quite honest, I really don’t know how excited I should be to belong to the US of A. The economic woes of the past 4 years has really led us to be pretty ho-hum on patriotism and national pride. There seems to be this prevailing idea that our glory days are behind us, that the empire is now on the downward slide, and many of us have even resigned ourselves to the evidence that soon China is going to be the big kid on the block. This terrifies some of us, reigniting feelings of fear that we haven’t felt since the Commie-hunting days of McCarthyism.

Then there was the election (thank goodness it’s over!), in which both sides of the aisle did their part to even further the apparent gaps that exist in the politics of America. There was a time where democracy was meant to unite the people, and be a joy to participate in, because we were the one’s deciding our future; we were given a voice. But it has become a nasty affair that does not promote unity, but causes people of differing views and opinions to go at each other’s throats. When did Facebook become the megaphone for dissent? Who came up with the idea to flood the internet with hate and ignorance?

Okay… Getting off my soap box now…

What I’m saying is this; sometimes when the chips are down, and people have trouble finding a common identity, we need a hero to rally around to give us something that we all can root for. We need a story that we can all be proud of, something that makes us want to stand up in our seats and cheer loudly for freedom, like Uncle Sam taught us to! (drumroll……)

Enter stage left, Ben Affleck and his gnarly beard.

In November of 1979, the United States Embassy in Tehran was invaded by militant Iranian revolutionaries, where they quickly took control of the facility and captured 56 American citizens as hostages. Angered by the decision of President Carter to grant asylum to the former Shah of Iran, who was thrown from power by means of revolution, the revolutionaries made the promise that until the Shah was given back to the Iranians to face trial and execution, the Americans would remain prisoners of the Iranian people. The whole world was watching, and tensions built on both sides as attempts of diplomacy failed over and over agin.

But, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, six American citizens escaped from the embassy during the raid, and found refuge in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. This handful of people were now stranded in Tehran, a city that was becoming a powder keg of violence, living in constant fear that if they were to be found out, they would be killed in the streets.

‘Argo’ is the true life story of CIA officer Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), and how by impersonating a film crew for a B-rate Sci-Fi film, he led a mission to extract these six Americans safely out of Tehran. Written by Chris Terrio and brilliantly directed Ben Affleck, ‘Argo’ is not only intriguing and engrossing, but it is also the best two hours of entertainment that you will be able to find in a movie theater. Edge of your seat suspense, coupled with moments that will make you grin from ear to ear, make this one a Hollywood gem; an instant classic.

In my mind, ‘Argo’ really does something amazing. Right from the word ‘go’ it captures us with the raid on the embassy in Tehran, which I am willing to say in November, is the most compelling scene of film that was released this year. It keeps the audience engaged in the excitement, gripping at the conclusion of the film, and it does this without the bullets and bombs that are usually necessary to keep people interested. The climax is done the old fashioned way, by setting the stage of danger in Iran, creating characters that we share common ground with, and forces them to accomplish a feat that is, to both the viewer and the characters, seemingly impossible. Who would have thought that real espionage could be this wonderful?

The strengths of this movie are everywhere, but it starts with a great script by Terrio, who is able to take this big event from our history, and give an adaptation that makes us feel as though we are right back in the middle of the crisis itself. The dialogue is snappy and fresh, filled with purpose, and is all about the storyline, getting us from point A to point B with style and ferocity. But it’s not only the story that makes the writing marvelous, but it is also Terrio’s attention to creating great characters, how through moments of revealing dialogue, the audience begins to like these people more and more with every passing frame.

But we can’t give Terrio all the credit for creating great characters; you have to throw praise in the direction of the actors, and ‘Argo’ showcases performances in both lead and supporting roles, making this is very strong ensemble cast. I’ve seen bits and pieces of criticism of Affleck’s performance in ‘Argo’, and after seeing it twice, it’s obvious to me that they were not watching the same movie that I was. Affleck is a spot on lead, giving us a hero we believe in, an underdog of a spie. What’s not to like? And positive reviews have been falling from the sky for these two actors, but not enough can be said about John Goodman and Alan Arkin, who play Hollywood big-wigs John Chambers and Lester Siegal. Goodman is witty with pitch perfect delivery, understanding the importance of adding levity to a very intense film, and Arkin just steals the show through his attitude, showing that age doesn’t slow down a great actor. Arkin is a shoe-in for another Oscar nomination, and rightfully so, although the Supporting Actor field is going to be jam-packed this year.

But it’s not just Affleck, Arkin, and Goodman that give memorable roles in ‘Argo’; the whole movie hinges on the actors and actresses playing the American refugees, who are given a very tricky task. By giving to much visible emotion, the characters would seem cowardly and exaggerated, and by not giving enough, the film would ring false, but these six actors and actresses strike the chord between fearful and courageous. Specifically, Scoot McNairy gives a dynamite performance as the cynical Joe Stafford. Although the audience is at first resistant to Stafford, there are some very powerful moments where we realize that this is a man that wants to protect his wife, as well as someone who feels an intense amount of guilt for putting her in this situation. This can all be attributed to the subtleties of McNairy (who I’m excited to see in ‘Killing Them Softly’ next week).

However, the one prevailing thought that I had after seeing ‘Argo’ was ‘Wow, that Ben Affleck guy sure can make a good movie.’ After seeing ‘Gone Baby Gone’, ‘The Town’, and ‘Argo’, it is pretty obvious to me that the guy has an immense amount of talent, and I’m so happy that he has finally found his place behind the camera, where I think he is best suited. For a while, the joke of the day was always how Matt Damon was probably the real mastermind behind ‘Good Will Hunting’, and Affleck really just put his name on the thing, alluding that Damon was obviously the better actor. But, in the end, Damon might be the better actor, but Affleck is the better movie maker. Now that we’ve seen his expert understanding of character, story, theme, and entertainment, are we so sure that Damon wasn’t the one mooching all along?

What I really love about ‘Argo’ is that it showed us something that we did right; how we were able to save lives without violence, and how we were able to use our creativity to solve the problems that the world throws our way. I love how no matter what you believe about today’s America, we can agree that what was accomplished by Tony Mendez in Tehran was nothing short of miraculous, and it’s something that should make us proud to be Americans… and Canadians.

My Note: ‘Argo’ is simply a Hollywood gem; an instant classic!

My Grade: A+

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Stuck In The ‘Looper’ With You

In 1985, Robert Zemeckis became the “talk of the town” when he, along with Universal Studios, released a mainstream summer flick that was simply titled ‘Back to the Future.’ It had teen heart-throb Michael J. Fox, a catchy song by Huey Lewis and The News, and special-effects that were totally ahead of its time. What people expected to be a fun, “popcorn” movie, ended up becoming a fully fledged pop-culture phenomena. And sure, I am a little biased; ‘Back to the Future’ is one of my favorite movies of all time (check out our ‘Top 10 Lists’ link at the top of your page), but I really do think that when it comes to science fiction, humor, excitement, entertainment, and making the perfect ‘time-travel’ movie, ‘Back to the Future’ nails it.

I only write the above paragraph of geeky fan-boy praise to bring this up; in my mind, ever since the ‘Back to the Future’ franchise was wrapped up, the ‘time travel’ movie has really been done to death, often producing less than stellar results. I always hope that I’ll walk out with the same magic that Zemeckis gave me, but I usually end up burying my head in my hands, asking ‘Hello? McFly?’

Every once in awhile, you’ll get a ‘Groundhog Day’ or ’12 Monkeys’, which give you hope that a good time jumper movie is still possible; but for every good one, there is about 10 bad ones out there; ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’, ‘Terminator’ 3 and 4, ‘The Time Machine (2002)’, ‘The Butterfly Effect’, ‘Clockstoppers’ (I must abandon my nostalgia and be objective on this one), ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ (don’t try to prove to me that this is a good movie. It’s garbage. Watch it again, I promise it doesn’t hold up over time), and I could go on… for a while. I get it, I understand that there is the difference between a time travel movie that is serious and one that is a comedy, but goodness, why does your time travel movie have to be eulogy or completely idiotic? ‘Donnie Darko’ makes you want to jump off your own roof, and ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ makes you want to flee from the theater.

It’s the list of sub-par movies above that make you want to look up to the heavens and thank somebody when a movie like ‘Looper’ comes around. Not only is it a great work of sci-fi, taking a totally different angle on an overdone concept, but ‘Looper’ is also one of the most wildly entertaining, thought provoking, unique, and thrilling movies you can spend your money on. And when I say thrilling, I mean the ‘adrenaline shot to your aortic valve’ kind of thrilling.

The film is titled ‘Looper,’ but it is also the profession of our central character. The year is 2044, and Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper; and what does that mean? Well, here’s where it starts to get complicated. You see, in 2044, time travel has yet to be invented, but in thirty years time travel does exist, and although it is illegal, the mob uses this technology to send their enemies back in time. When their targets arrive, a looper is already waiting for them with a loaded gun, and kills the hooded victims on sight.

This is how the racket works if you’re a looper; you kill the victims that are sent from future, receiving payment in bars of silver for every kill, until one day your future-self appears in front of you. Doing what you’re trained to do, you kill the target on sight, effectively killing your future-self. “This is called ‘closing your loop’.” This is how these future mobsters end your contract, making it as though you never existed in the first place. When you ‘close your loop’, you’re given a lottery-sized pay day and an early retirement. You also get 30 more years to live until, of course, you are sent back in time to be killed, by yourself.

Our story really gets rolling when our “hero,” Joe, lets his target get away. Normally, this would just be a minor problem, except the man that escaped is Joe, from the future (played wonderfully by Bruce Willis). Now, present Joe is trying to hunt and kill his future self, future Joe is trying to change the future, and Joe’s employers are trying to wipe the both of them, present and future, off the map.

Watch future Joe escape! Click here!

Sadly, this is really all that I want to summarize about the plot of ‘Looper’. So much of this movie really depends on the element of surprise and experiencing all of the mind-bending twists and turns, and as always, I don’t want to spoil the fun for anyone.

Now, don’t let the schematics of ‘Looper’ scare you off. Although it takes a few moments to get into it, the action quickly gets rolling and the logic of it all begins to make sense, and the pay-off for this one is huge. It is clear that storytelling is the primary objective for up-and-coming director Rian Johnson, and this objective was reached and then some. I haven’t read the screenplay first hand, but I’m sure that ‘Looper’ is nothing short of a writing gem (Johnson also being the writer of the script.)

Another decision that I think really set this movie apart was the choice to have two separate actors play the same character, the present and future Joe. Although criticized by some, I one-hundred percent support Johnson’s decision to rely on the acting abilities of Gordon-Levitt and Willis to bring this character to life.

Using a very clever make-up job, JGL takes on an entirely different face, and an entirely different persona for that matter. In ‘Looper’, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is really pushed to go beyond his usual character and create a frustratingly neutral, and often unlikable young man. The more I think about it, the character of young Joe really establishes the reality of ‘Looper’; the reality that there are no good guys, and there are no bad guys. Every person in this story has their own motives, their own desires that they are desperate to defend. Maybe that’s what makes this film so flippin’ exciting.

On the flip-side, Willis’ take on Joe is nothing short of marvelous. He takes the groundwork that his younger co-star has given him, and builds a character that is both determined and sorrowful. In one particular scene, where the two Joeys sit down to chat for the first time, Willis brings the movie to a total halt by being the energy behind a commanding bit of dialogue. In all seriousness, this scene, which take place in a vacant country diner, may be the best thing you watch on a screen this year. Don’t miss it.

The best advice I can give you; Go to your local RedBox, Blockbuster, Netflix, or On-Demand provider and check out ‘Looper’ on December 31, when its released on DVD and Blu-Ray. If you hate it, I’ll refund your money myself. Just call my secretary, and they’ll iron out the details.

My Note: Looper is as unique as it is entertaining. You’ll want to go back in time just to see it again.

My Grade: A

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‘The Master’ Of The House

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a young World War II Navy man, returns from sea to a changing America, a world that is very different than the place he had called home. Like most men who returned from “over there,” Freddie tries to “fit in” the post-war society by finding a job. He becomes a photographer in a department store, and although he enjoys the company of one particular sales girl, he gets fired for drunkenly assaulting a customer. After his disappointing change in employment, Freddie finds work on a cabbage farm, until his own alcoholic concoction of paint thinner and jet fuel poisons an elderly co-worker. Freddie is then ran out of town.

Quite simply, Freddie Quell is a mess. Violent, sexually obsessed, and an alcoholic in the most extreme sense (the guy drinks straight Drain-O for goodness sakes,) for the prologue scenes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’, Freddie is as aimless as a ship without a sail, an automobile without a steering wheel.

However, one night during his drunken wandering, this walking disaster finds his way onto the ship of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a writer, doctor, theoretical philosopher, nuclear physicist, and a ‘hopelessly inquisitive man.’ But more importantly, Dodd is a leader of an American spiritual movement known as ‘The Cause,’ which seeks to abandon the trauma and pain of past lives in order to find happiness, meaning, fulfillment, love, etc. In short, you take one part L. Ron Hubbard, one part Philip Seymour Hoffman, you end up getting Lancaster Dodd, and also a pretty convincing 20th century cult. Instead of drinking the Kool-Aid of Jonestown, the followers of The Cause drink in the words of their Master, who is as eccentric as he is charismatic. Hoffman exudes the righteous confidence that not only brings this character to life, but makes Dodd seem as realistic as any religious figure that there ever has been.

‘The Master’ centers around the relationship between Freddie and Dodd. The man who seemingly has all the answers, and another that seems to be the human incarnation of a giant question mark. Dodd becomes fascinated with Freddie, convinced that he knows him from some sort of past existence, that somehow Freddie had known the Master long before he had stowed away on his ship. The Master puts Freddie through a period of intense psychological analysis, what Dodd calls ‘Processing’, in which he asks Freddie questions of his life’s previous experiences. Through this interrogation, we find out that Freddie is even more troubled than we had originally thought; a dead father, an institutionalized mother, a shameful sexual encounter with his aunt, and a love that he abandoned when he left for the war. We discover this past trauma, and lost love, and the root of most of Freddie’s dysfunction.

Dodd decides that Freddie must join The Cause in their travels, even though Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams) and other disciples remain skeptical of this unstable outsider. Freddie continues a pattern of boozing and violence, assaulting a man who debates with the Master at a dinner party, as well as getting arrested while trying to defend Dodd against a group of policeman. It becomes apparent to the following and to the audience that, despite the ‘treatment’ and attention he is receiving from this pseudo-spiritual guru, Freddie is not getting better. He remains an incredibly flawed, broken person.

As the story continues, it is also revealed to us that Dodd, this so-called Master, is also plagued with ethical shortcomings and a great many moral contradictions. His own son claims that he is a fraud, simply improvising his spiritual revelations, and when his latest book is published, Dodd is criticized by both his close friends and his followers. As the audience, Anderson clearly reveals to us that the Master is a slave to his own moral piety; seemingly a prisoner to his own philosophies.

But make no mistake; through all the complexity and thematic symbolism, ‘The Master’ truly is about the relationship between Mentor and Disciple; The Master and the Student. But it really is more than this. There is authentic friendship, and even deep love between Freddie and Dodd. Not only was Freddie lost before meeting Dodd, we come to believe that Dodd himself wasn’t fulfilled until encountering Freddie as well. It’s as if Freddie represents everything that the Master is seeking to do away with, but he simply cannot leave it behind. He is still attached to his vices, and the relationship with Freddie, although fulfilling, seems to be destroying him.

Anderson is truly a craftsman when it comes to filmmaking; an in-depth artist and director in equal parts. The way the film is shot, acted, and written truly is mesmerizing. As a viewer, I was enthralled by ‘The Master,’ and as much as I explained above about the actual plot and my own interpretation of the meaning, it is obvious to me that I have merely scratched the surface when it comes to fully understanding it entirely. It really is a movie that is so dense and complex, you truly could write a novel discussing everything that puts it together. Like Anderson’s 2008 film ‘There Will Be Blood,’ ‘The Master’ not only demands a second viewing; your brain is already shouting to see it again as you walk out of the theater.

That being said, with all the praise that I give this film, and as amazing as much of it is, ‘The Master’ is not without its own moral ambiguity on top muddled sexual imagery. I feel that there are a few scenes where the audience is truly lost, wondering of the purpose behind certain storytelling decisions. While Freddie is obviously a sexually driven person, Anderson plunges us head-first into his depravity, leaving us covered in his perverse ugliness. Also, the ending of the film leaves us asking, “What was it all about?” Perhaps this was Anderson’s intent. We, like Freddie Quell, find that the more we are immersed in this cult culture, the less that we truly understand, and we, also like Freddie, end up coming out of the experience more confused than changed. However, this ambiguity is really my own qualm with what is otherwise an incredible movie.

One last note on ‘The Master’: I truly believe that in this movie, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman have given performances that may be the best of their career, and also will end up being the best two performances you will see this year. They own the screen with such ferocity, at times leaving us awestruck. Too bad for both of them though, because Phoenix openly hates AMPAS and everything connected to the Oscars, so I feel that neither of them will truly get the recognition that they deserve.

“It’s total, utter bulls***, and I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t believe in it. It’s a carrot, but it’s the worst-tasting carrot I’ve ever tasted in my whole life. I don’t want this carrot. It’s totally subjective. Pitting people against each other … It’s the stupidest thing in the whole world.” -Joaquin Phoenix on the Oscars

Sometimes, bro, you just gotta keep your mouth shut.

My Note: Despite it’s moral ambiguity and complexity, ‘The Master’ is nothing short of brilliant.

My Grade: A- (This grade will most likely change over time. I need a second viewing, and I feel as I grow in understanding, this movie will just get better to me. Putting a grade on this thing is like grading a Picasso painting; it wasn’t meant to be done.”

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