January 24, 2009

Defiance

A true story of four Belorussian Jewish brothers who help save thousands of fellow Jews from the Nazis during World War II. Strongly Recommended.
Based on an amazing true story- that's a cliche, but it's true in this case. The Bielski brothers retreat into the thick woods of their hometown to avoid the Russian police, who are rounding up Jews for the Nazis. When other Jews find them in the woods, their small campsite grows into a community trying to survive a long winter and avoid detection by police patrols. The larger their group becomes, the more attention they draw from the Nazis, and the harder it becomes to maintain law and order within the camp as well. Eventually the community, is forced to flee the forest in a Moses-like Exodus to freedom.
I appreciated that there were no black-and-white, good and evil people in this movie. The police who round up Jews are not totally evil, and the Bielski brothers are forced to make life and death decisions every day. This struggle is dramatized with the two eldest brothers, level-headed diplomat Tuvia (Daniel Craig), who manages to broker detente with the local Red Army resistance, and revenge-minded fighter Zus (Liev Schreiber), who joins the army to kill Nazis, rather than compromise himself. The performances were fine all around, the story was amazing as I had never heard it before, and the direction was quite good, even if the battle scenes were a little rudimentary.
Defiance was directed by Edward Zwick, who has made a series of passionate and important movies about war, politics, and race, including Glory and Courage Under Fire, which I both strongly recommend. Also, The Siege, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamond. (Somerville Theater)

January 23, 2009

Ranking All 185 Beatles Songs

Writer "JBev" completed a Herculean and thankless task: he ranked and reviewed all 185 Beatles songs (written by the Fab Four), from 185st to 1st. (NOTE: I am sorry to report that his website has disappeared since I first found it in 2009.) Of course I don't agree with all of his choices, but that's not the point.
I think it's kind of arbitrary to be so precise in your rankings- after all, how do you choose which song is 112th as opposed to 113th? -- but I have attempted something a little less precise. I have ranked all 185 original Beatles songs from 1/10 stars, to 10/10 stars, with two additional special categories- a 11/10 Stars Best of the Best, and a 0/10 Stars Bottom Ten list. Enjoy and Discuss!
NOTE: Each list is in alphabetical order.
 0/10 Stars Bottom Ten
“Blue Jay Way”
“Don’t Bother Me”
“It’s All Too Much”
“Maggie Mae”
“Only A Northern Song”
“Revolution 9”
“Run For Your Life”
“Tell Me What You See”
“The Night Before”
“Wild Honey Pie”
1/10 Stars
“Dig It”
“I’ll Be Back”
“Julia”
“Little Child”
“The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill”
“Think For Yourself”
“Wait”
“When I Get Home”
2/10 Stars
“Ask Me Why”
“Doctor Robert”
“Hold Me Tight”
“I Wanna Be Your Man”
“I’ll Get You”
“I’m Happy Just To Dance With You”
“Love You To”
“Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”
“Magical Mystery Tour”
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”
“One After 909”
“Sun King”
“Tell Me Why”
“The Inner Light”
“The Word”
“Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”
“Within You Without You”
“You Like Me Too Much”
“Your Mother Should Know”

3/10 Stars
“Another Girl”
“Baby’s In Black”
“Dig A Pony”
“Every Little Thing”
“Fixing A Hole”
“For You Blue”
“Hello Goodbye”
“Honey Pie”
“I Me Mine”
“I Need You”
“Not A Second Time”
“P.S. I Love You”
“Piggies”
“Savoy Truffle”
“Sexy Sadie”
“Thank You Girl”
“The Fool On The Hill”
“What Goes On”
“What You’re Doing”

4/10 Stars
“All Together Now”
“Baby You’re A Rich Man”
“Because”
“Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”
“Cry Baby Cry”
“Day Tripper”
“Flying”
“Good Night”
“I Call Your Name”
“I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party”
“I Feel Fine”
“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”
“I’ll Follow The Sun”
“Long, Long, Long”
“Rocky Raccoon”
“She’s A Woman”
“There’s A Place”
“You Know My Name (Look Up My Number)”
5/10 Stars
“All I’ve Got To Do”
“For No One”
“Good Day Sunshine”
“Her Majesty”
“I Am The Walrus”
“I Want To Tell You”
“I’m So Tired”
“Love Me Do”
“Martha My Dear”
“Mean Mr. Mustard”
“No Reply”
“Octopus’s Garden”
“Old Brown Shoe”
“Polythene Pam”
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
“You Never Give Me Your Money”
“You Won’t See Me”
6/10 Stars
“Ballad Of John And Yoko”
“Do You Want To Know A Secret”
“Don’t Pass Me By”
“Drive My Car”
“Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey”
“From Me To You”
“Get Back”
“Glass Onion”
“I Want To Hold Your Hand”
“I’ll Cry Instead”
“I’ve Got A Feeling”
“If I Needed Someone”
“It’s Only Love”
“She’s Leaving Home”
“Things We Said Today”
“This Boy”
“We Can Work It Out”
“Yes It Is”
“You Can’t Do That”

7/10 Stars
“All You Need Is Love”
“And I Love Her”
“And Your Bird Can Sing”
“Any Time At All”
“Come Together”
“Eight Days A Week”
“Good Morning Good Morning”
“Happiness Is A Warm Gun”
“Hey Bulldog”
“I’m A Loser”
“I’m Down”
“I’m Looking Through You”
“I’ve Just Seen A Face”
“Lovely Rita”
“Michelle”
“Oh! Darling”
“Revolution 1”
“She Came In Through The Bathroom Window”
“Yer Blues”

8/10 Stars
“All My Loving”
“Birthday”
“Can’t Buy Me Love”
“Don’t Let Me Down”
“Girl”
“Got To Get You Into My Life”
“Helter Skelter”
“I Will”
“If I Fell”
“Misery”
“Nowhere Man”
“Paperback Writer”
“Taxman”
“When I’m Sixty-Four”
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
“With A Little Help From My Friends”
“Yellow Submarine”
“You’re Going To Lose That Girl”
9/10 Stars
“A Hard Day’s Night”
“Back In The U.S.S.R.”
“Getting Better”
“Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End”
“Help!”
“Here Comes The Sun”
“I Should Have Known Better”
“I’m Only Sleeping”
“It Won’t Be Long”
“Lady Madonna”
“Mother Nature’s Son”
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”
“Penny Lane”
“Please Please Me”
“Revolution”
“She Said She Said”
“Ticket To Ride”
“Two Of Us”
“You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”
10/10 Stars
“A Day in the Life”
“Blackbird”
“Eleanor Rigby”
“Here, There, And Everywhere”
“In My Life”
“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”
“Tomorrow Never Knows”
11/10 Stars Best of the Best
“Across The Universe”
“Dear Prudence”
“Hey Jude”
“I Saw Her Standing There”
“Let It Be”
“Rain”
“She Loves You”
“Something”
“Strawberry Fields Forever”
“The Long And Winding Road”
“Yesterday”

January 15, 2009

Gran Torino

A modern-day Western, Gran Torino is the story of Walt Kowalski, a stubborn, "racist" widower who has nothing left to live for but his honor and manhood. You could easily set this movie in Arizona 100 years ago, with Clint as a Civil War vet, change the Hmong immigrants to Indians or Mexicans, and the movie would work perfectly. Gran Torino could be his horse instead of his car.grantorino

Clint is smart enough to take roles he's good at, and he was a pleasure to see in this movie. I never really believed Walt was really a racist- he spews an amazing variety of ethnic slurs, a ever-changing cornucopia of insults and offensive names, which was actually quite funny. The truth is, Walt has too much honor and decency to judge his neighbors unfairly- once he gets to know them. The two Hmong neighbors are played by newcomers Bee Vang as Thao, the teenaged neighbor who needs a strong father figure to avoid the gang life, and Ahney Her as his sister Sue, who befriends Walt with strength and honesty. I thought Ahney Her was quite talented and engaging, but I was never really convinced by Bee Vang.

The story is really quite plain and obvious, and the middle section is deadly slow. I liked the movie quite a lot, but it's easy to like a Clint Eastwood movie. In fact, when Clint Eastwood directs a movie, I think critics (and the Academy) give him a full letter-grade bump above what the movie really deserves. Why? First of all, he directs with restraint and class. Simplicity is the key, and there's no gloss or distractions. Secondly, he plays to his strengths, in directing and acting. He doesn't stretch himself, so he's always in his comfort zone. Third, he has such a consistent and quality track record, he gets the benefit of the doubt every time. Lastly, everyone in Hollywood loves him. (At Regal Fenway, screen 12, with Marc, Jeff, and Harry)

January 13, 2009

I Attempt to Rank the Pixar Movies

I finally saw WALL•E on DVD last month, and I liked it very much. I also watched the enclosed documentary The Pixar Story. The doc inspired me to attempt the ridiculous and impossible: I decided to rank the nine Pixar feature films.
Ranking Pixar films from best to worst is like ranking honor students: they're all so much better than the rest of the class, it seems petty to say one is better than another. However, there are differences between them, and at the very least, this list might inspire some conversations and arguments!
  1. Ratatouille (2007) A+
    A complete success on all levels. An artistic, emotional, and comedic triumph.
  2. Finding Nemo (2003) A+
    Nemo has the biggest heart of all the Pixar movies.
  3. The Incredibles (2004) A+
    Not only is it a great superhero movie, but it's a great adventure/action movie too, and it's about family.
  4. Toy Story 2 (1999) A+
    One of the greatest sequels of all time.
  5. Monsters, Inc. (2001) AF unny, funny, funny.
  6. WALL•E (2008) A
    The first half of this movie is a masterpiece, and the second half is a rollicking good time. I wish I had seen it in the theater, but after the terrible crowd at the Ratatouille screening in 2007, I couldn't bring myself to go to the theater.
  7. Toy Story (1995) A
    A great movie and a great beginning.
  8. A Bug's Life (1998) B+
    There's nothing wrong with it, but all these years (and many Pixar movies) later, there's nothing exceptional about it either.
  9. Up (2009) B
    I liked it. I was a little distracted by my newborn son, but that's a tradeoff I can live with! The opening prologue is rightfully praised for its brilliance, but the script seemed a little rough and overcomplicated..
  10. Toy Story 3 (2010) B-minus
    They didn't really need to make another sequel. I'm sorry they did.
  11. Cars (2006) B
    An ill-executed labor of love for Pixar founder John Lasseter, Cars only appeals to baby boomers and small children. It left me cold, and confused.
  12. Brave (2012) C-plus
    The most old-fashioned and "Disneyfied" film.
  13. Cars 2 (2011) D
    Misguided, nonsensical, unfunny, and too morbid for kids.

January 10, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

slumdogA simple romantic Dickensian drama told very cleverly, Slumdog Millionaire tells a very common story of an orphan who survives the slums of Mumbai through courage, heart, guile, and perseverance-- all through the lens of quiz show questions. This movie has so much heart, it makes Benjamin Button look like a bloodless effects exercise by comparison. I'm giving Slumdog an A grade, it narrowly avoids an A-plus because it didn't make me cry- but close! I hope it wins Best Picture.
Be warned: there are two brief but disturbing scenes of torture, one of them in the first five minutes. (with Emily and Pickles, at the Lexington Flick)
THEATER NOTES: The Lexington Flick was very full of middle-aged persons whom I can only assume are mentally retarded. Admittedly, the movie was in two languages, and the dialog was not always well recorded. Every time something happened which was not immediately explained or obvious, half the spouses leaned over to their more silent halves and started whispering, or even talking out loud: "What was that?"; "I don't get it"; "What did he say?" Slumdog was such a simple story, you could follow the plot if it were shown on an airplane and you didn't rent the headphones, AND you were watching the screen of the guy across the aisle from you. Yet these entitled assnuggets talk out loud like they're at home. Go home and watch Two And A Half Men- that's about the sophistication level these people can handle. Ugg.

January 8, 2009

120: Everything In Its Right MIX

I have been listening to this mix in the car for a few days, and I think it's done. Now I just have to give it a title!
  1. "Cleanin' Up The Town" by The Busboys is from the movie Ghostbusters. The words tell the story of the movie!
  2. "Barbara Ann" from The Beach Boys Party, an album recorded to sound like a house party where The Beach Boys are sitting around the living room, jamming on their favorite songs unplugged.
  3. "Nutmeg" by John Legend, is a sexy and hilarious song about the ultimate eggnog condiment, from A Steven Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift Of All!
  4. "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" My mother listened to a lot of pop-country when I was growing up. One of my strongest, earliest memories of music is this Crystal Gayle song.
  5. The Replacements' "Skyway" is about those heated passageways between buildings in Minneapolis, to keep the public warm in the wintertime.
  6. I heard "Tulsa County" by Son Volt on my iPod Shuffle All Songs function.
  7. I first heard "Guitars, Cadillacs" by Dwight Yoakam in the background of the honky tonk scene in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, where the Terminator acquires his biker clothes at the beginning of the movie. At the same time I bought this song on iTunes, I also picked up his cover of "Suspicious Minds". The review of his Best Of CD said that Yoakam is the first choice of alt-rock hipsters who want to buy some legit contemporary country music.
  8. "Here Comes The Weekend" Dave Edmunds
  9. "Topaz" I really enjoy the entire B-52's album Cosmic Thing.
  10. "Carry On" Maybe my favorite song from Crosby Stills Nash, and Young.
  11. "She's My Baby" I have been listening to a lot of the Traveling Wilburys lately.
  12. "Love is For Lovers" The Db's were a one-hit wonder; lead singer Peter Holsapple might be more famous for his work with R.E.M. This song was a near-miss single, which I have on the POPTOPIA Power Pop collection from Rhino. Holsapple wrote an extended blog posting about the making of this song for the New York Times.
  13. I love the guitar hook on "Rumbleseat", from John Cougar Mellencamp.
  14. "Another Done Somebody Wrong Song", My mother listened to a lot of pop-country when I was growing up. One of my strongest, earliest memories of music is this B.J. Thomas song. Thomas's biggest hit was "Raindrops Keep Fallin On My Head".
  15. "Tighten Up" Archie Bell & The Drells
  16. "Everything In It's Right Place" Somehow, the structure of this Radiohead song reminds me of the following track...
  17. When you hear "Motown", people usually think of fun and good times. "You Keep Me Hangin On" by Diana Ross & The Supremes is as serious as a heart attack! Such drama in the words and the music.
  18. I love the super-1980s drum sound on the J. Geils Band's "Flamethrower".
  19. The Futureheads' song "Robot" is a leftover song from my mix The Future.
  20. "Hip-Hug Her" is an instrumental by Booker T. & The M.G.s, better known for their "pitching change at a ballgame" instrumental "Green Onions".

January 4, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

A clever idea which isn't explored fully to my satisfaction, Benjamin Button would remind me of Forrest Gump even if they weren't both written by the same man (Eric Roth). Much like Forrest Gump, Benjamin wanders the globe, meeting a wild variety of colorful characters along the way. More a passive observer than an active participant, Benjamin never gets happy or sad or excited or angry, he just gently smiles and shuffles along.BenjaminButton

Brad Pitt is almost as talented as he is handsome, but this script offers him zero challenges. Cate Blanchett is excellent again, as usual. I enjoyed Taraji P. Henson as Button's adoptive mother, and English character actor Jason Flemyng (Layer Cake, Snatch, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) as Button's birth father.

The special effects are excellent- the young/old Button in the early scenes is easy to watch without distraction, and the super-young Cate Blanchett is also not distracting. When Brad Pitt finally shows up, in his actual body, about halfway through, he certainly looks old, but you don't notice how much makeup and effects they're really using until he finally shows up in "as-is" condition in the last 30 minutes.

Overall, I had much higher hopes from David Fincher, the normally provocative and inventive director of the underrated Zodiac, plus Se7en, Fight Club, and Panic Room.

January 2, 2009

Valkyrie

A mildly gripping but ultimately pointless conspiracy thriller. There were more than a dozen conspiracies by Germans to kill Hitler, but this one isn't particularly clever or exciting. The ultimate theme of this movie seems to be "not all Nazis are evil", which is hardly the most necessary story to tell, is it?
Tom Cruise, meanwhile, has devolved to the point where the only emotion he's capable of is single-minded determined certainty. I didn't find his regular American speaking voice distracting, but I did find it troubling that he was so certain and unwavering about everything through every second of the movie. It was impossible for me to empathize with his character. Kenneth Branagh has a supporting role as another Nazi conspirator, and I felt more empathy for his character and his plight in his few brief scenes than I ever felt for Cruise. Swap Branagh and Cruise's parts, and this movie earns a B+ instead of a C+.
THEATER NOTES: The 7:20pm showing at the Embassy Landmark Theater in Waltham was nearly sold out. I think this is a symptom of how few quality movies there are to choose from this season. Most of the movies I'm "supposed" to see before Oscars night look so depressing, this might be the only exctiing film out right now which doesn't star Jim Carrey or another animated character. If only the new Harry Potter movie weren't sitting in a vault right now. Sigh.