Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Snooch to the Nooch!

Well, another summer has come and gone, and I’ve gotta say, between full-time employment, artistic endeavors both cinematic and musical, and actually ataining a social life (since when did that happen?), I think I did pretty damn well as far as movies go. OK, in summer’s past I caught as many as 30-plus films in theatres (and this year I missed some promising indies in “The Proposition,” “Wordplay,” “The Descent,” and “Scoop”), but when you’ve got as much going on as I have, you get to what you can. And it was actually a pretty decent summer as well. Most of the movies I singled out in my preview back in early May? Seen. Only one (Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion”) was released and just missed; the other two were pushed back to Fall, including one that’ll hit my list of Top 10 to see until the end of the year. The structure of this will be slightly altered from summer’s past for my longtime readers, but it just makes sense. Still, some things never change, and included- as always- will be my Summer’s end “awards” and my list of movies to most get excited about this fall. Hope you enjoy!

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle

End-of Summer Best/Worst/Oscar-Worthy:
Best Film: “World Trade Center” (A+)- It’s funny actually. I saw all four of my “4-star” movies for the year during the summer months, including the two best (“United 93” and “Brick”). But this is about movies originally released between May and August, meaning for the summer, Oliver Stone’s inspiring and heart-rending dramatization of the entrapment of two Port Authority Officers in the rubble of the Twin Towers achieved the greatest artistic success of the summer, even if it was lacking in the muck-racking controversy Stone- in films like “JFK” and “Platoon”- is so well known for. Not far behind, though, were two other films likely to land on my year-end 10 best; first, there’s “An Inconvenient Truth” (A+), the hit documentary which puts to film Al Gore’s riveting lecture on Global Warming that plays like the most stimulating college course you’ll ever attend, followed by “Little Miss Sunshine” (A), this summer’s star indie flick which features a great and original treatment of a dysfunctional family and superb performances by a cast that includes Steve Carell, Toni Collette, and Greg Kinnear.

Best Entertainment: “Cars” (A-)- I would never be so bold as to put Pixar’s latest hit with the indelibly fun likes of the “Toy Storys,” “Finding Nemo,” and “A Bug’s Life,” but I’m sorry, John Lassetter’s laid-back fable of a race car who learns that there’s more to life than wins and fame won me over the moment Rascall Flatts’ cover of “Life is a Highway” hit the soundtrack. It’s not a fast trip, but it’s certainly one well worth taking (although “V for Vendetta” is still my favorite film of the year). Coming up behind Lassetter’s tailpipe is another racing comedy- Will Ferrell’s hilarious NASCAR biopic spoof “Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”; the summer’s biggest smash, the swashbuckling sequel “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”; Park Chan-Wook’s gripping conclusion to his revenge trilogy, “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” (A-); Ivan Reitman’s underappreciated superhero romantic comedy “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” (B+); Kevin Smith’s funny and sweet sequel “Clerks II” (B+); Dreamworks’ hilarious forging-for-food-in-suburbia comedy “Over the Hedge” (B+); the sweet and sassily funny indie “Little Miss Sunshine”; and Ron Howard’s entertaining- if more than a little slow- adaptation of “The Da Vinci Code” (A-).

Worst Film: “Lady in the Water” (D+). In all actuality, I skipped a lot of the movies thrashed by critics, and plan on continuing to do so in some cases, and kept to my pre-summer must-sees. That’s part of what made “Water”- from writer/director/multi-hyphenate M. Night Shyamalan- so damn disappointing. Granted, Warner Bros. couldn’t produce an interesting trailer for me until the final one, already being a harbinger of badness, but no one who was a fan of Shyamalan’s previous hits (“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” even “The Village”) could possibly have expected such an unmitigated artistic failure from the Philadelphia native and star Paul Giamatti. Only composer James Newton Howard- whose scores for Shyamalan are continually-impressive artistic triumphs- made it out reasonably unscathed creatively (though Giamatti was good as always). How will Night recover?

Worst Disappointment: (Artistic) “A Scanner Darkly” (C)/(Financial) “Miami Vice” (A-)- In all actuality, these two were kind of no-brainers this year. On the surface, Richard Linklater (who was in this same category last summer for his mean-spirited “Bad News Bears” remake) made one of the year’s best-looking animated films with his delayed adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s futuristic novel. Once you delve beneath that surface, however, to study the film’s actual content, you can’t help but be surprised how little is in fact there from the gifted writer-director of “Before Sunset” and “Waking Life.” All in all, this summer’s flicks are falling- more or less- in the levels of financial success they deserve. Still, I would have liked to have seen Michael Mann’s intriguing and gritty update of the 1980s TV show he helped create achieve blockbuster status, or at least the same degree of success “Collateral” and “Heat” have with fans. (Some more love for Ivan Reitman’s enjoyable “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” wouldn’t have sucked, either.)

Biggest Laughs: “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (A-). Wow, this year I honestly didn’t have to stretch for this won. Before it was halfway done, Will Ferrell and his co-writer/director Adam McKay made me forget all about the lack of great funny in “Anchorman” with their hysterical deconstruction of the sports biopic as told about a dim bulb NASCAR driver whose speed is put to the test when a gay French driver threatens his hold on not only the NASCAR circuit, but also his life. After this, the animated hilarity of “Over the Hedge” (Dreamworks’ best CG-animated film since “Shrek”), the hit-and-miss comic daring in “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” and “Clerks II,” the bitter laughs of “Little Miss Sunshine,” the campy fun of “Snakes on a Plane” (B), and the easygoing humor of “Cars” pales in comparison. This was probably the best summer for comedy in recent memory.

Biggest/Best Surprise: In all honesty, I could go with “Superman Returns” (B+) as box-office lightweight as the biggest surprise, but truthfully, one look at what Bryan Singer tried to do with the movie and it’s not that shocking for many movie fans. Instead, big props go to Johnny Depp, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Gore Verbinski for “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (A-), which was the biggest surprise for its’ record-breaking box-office run (including obliterating “Spider-Man’s” astronomical record for best 3-day box-office) towards $400 million, and the best surprise because, as a sequel to a genuinely original modern adventure film and take on the swashbucklers of cinema’s past, everyone involved actually came up with a story worthy of our interest and box-office dollars. When’s the third one coming out again?

Biggest Dud: “Miami Vice”. Yeah, Michael Mann’s crime thriller was already mentioned as the financial disappointment of the summer, but at a $135 million dollar budget- and not even half that in box-office receipts- it can’t help but be singled out as the unrivaled financial failure of this summer. (At least “Superman Returns” came closer to its’ astronomical budget in the long run.)

Most Gratuitous Cash-In: In all truthiness, nothing this summer screamed of creative sell out (“Mission: Impossible III” (B+) redeemed the series after the overkill of “M: i-II,” “Superman Returns” offered a great story at least, and “Clerks II” had an easy- if profane- charm to it). That said, though, it was unforgivable for this geek to watch Fox fast-track “X-Men: The Last Stand” (B) to a Memorial Day weekend opening (when it broke records) at the expense of a great franchise motivated towards its’ conclusion more by the desire to beat departed director Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” to theatres before they allowed new director Brett Ratner find the right emotional bearings for the story he was brought in to tell.

Favorite Performances: A lot of performances to choose from this year, a lot of varieties of performance, as well. My favorites reflect this wide spectrum. They are: Will Ferrell as the win-obsessed NASCAR driver in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”; Steve Carell, a duel choice for both his hyperactive Hammy the squirrell in “Over the Hedge” and as the gay suicidal professor in “Little Miss Sunshine”; Uma Thurman as the sexy and neurotic superheroine in “My Super Ex-Girlfriend”; Lee Young-Ae as the just-released title character in “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”; Samuel L. Jackson as the FBI agent with a crazy terrorist scenario in the works in “Snakes on a Plane”; Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena as the trapped Port Authority Officers in “World Trade Center”; Paul Newman as the old-time race car looking to teach a rookie some life lessons in “Cars”; Meryl Streep as the bitchy boss and Anne Hathaway as the hard-working drone who changes her lifestyle in “The Devil Wears Prada”; Bill Nighy as the villainous Davy Jones in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”; and Gary Cole as the deadbeat dad looking to redeem himself (kind of) in “Talladega Nights.”

Oscar-Worthy Mentions (Acting/Directing/Writing): In a just world, the below individuals would make the awards season very interesting this year. In this world, I wouldn’t expect more than a few to make the cut, if that. For Best Actor, I’d love to see “For Your Consideration” campaigns for Nicolas Cage (“World Trade Center”), Vince Vaughn (“The Break-Up”), Will Ferrell (“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”), Greg Kinnear (“Little Miss Sunshine”), and Edward Norton (“The Illusionist”). For Best Actress, Meryl Streep (“The Devil Wears Prada”), Toni Collette (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Lee Young Ae (“Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”), and Jennifer Aniston (“The Break-Up”) almost round out the category by themselves. In Best Supporting Actor, Michael Pena (“World Trade Center”) and Steve Carell (“Little Miss Sunshine”) have a considerable lead on a pack that includes Paul Newman (“Cars”), Bill Nighy (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”), Choi Min-Sik (“Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”), Gary Cole (“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”), Jon Favreau (“The Break-Up”), Paul Giamatti (“The Illusionist”), and Ian McKellen (“The Da Vinci Code”), while Maria Bello (“World Trade Center”), Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Maggie Ghyllenhaal (“World Trade Center”), Anne Hathaway (“The Devil Wears Prada”), and Kiera Knightley (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”) made just as lasting impacts as those they were supporting to make a strong Best Supporting Actress category. For Best Director, Oliver Stone made a good case for his third directing Oscar for the force and feeling he brought to “World Trade Center,” while Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Park Chan-Wook (“Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”), and Michael Mann (“Miami Vice”) did more than any other directors to deliver original takes on age-old themes in cinema (don’t worry, this Fall will surely round out the directing category). The screenplay categories were interesting this year, in their content for Best Original Screenplay, where “Little Miss Sunshine” (Michael Arndt), “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” (Chung Seo Young & Park Chan-Wook), “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (Will Ferrell & Adam McKay), and “World Trade Center” (Andrea Berloff) all found new stories to tell within old trappings, and in the fact that for Best Adapted Screenplay, the best new contenders were sequels- “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio) and “Clerks II” (Kevin Smith)- that found new territory to mine.

Oscar-Worthy Mentions (Technical): It’s funny how this summer- above all other seasons- has given us so few real legitimate contenders for the technical awards next March (“V for Vendetta” and “United 93” have dominated so far in my book). Still, the technical crews of these films being singled out deserve the consideration: “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, Best Costume Design); “Superman Returns” (Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design); “World Trade Center” (Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing); “Miami Vice” (Best Sound Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing); “Mission: Impossible III” (Best Sound Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing); “The Illusionist” (Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design); “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” (Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing); “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing); “X-Men: The Last Stand” (Best Sound, Best Makeup); and “The Devil Wears Prada” (Best Costume Design).

Oscar-Worthy Mentions (Musical): Last year was one of the worst summers for movie music. This was one of the best in recent memory. Will any of it be remembered come year’s end? Maybe in the songs; the scores are a bit more questionable. Still, for my money, the Best Original Score category received some exceptional potential nominees by the unorthodox likes of “A Scanner Darkly” (Graham Reynolds’ music is beautifully avant garde), “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (Hans Zimmer’s score is a great action sequel score), “Little Miss Sunshine” (the type of comedy-drama score you expect from Mychael Danna, the composer of “Capote” and “The Sweet Hereafter”), “World Trade Center” (Craig Armstrong’s music is indelibly moving), “Lady in the Water” (James Newton Howard’s score is the film’s evocative highlight), “The Illusionist” (a moody and memorable work by Phillip Glass), “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” (Cho Young-Wuk’s work is striking for this thriller), and “The Da Vinci Code” (another great epic effort by Hans Zimmer). But the biggest surprise this summer was for the Best Original Song category, which got three automatic nominees in Melissa Etheridge’s “I Need to Wake Up” from “An Inconvenient Truth,” Randy Newman’s “Our Town” from “Cars” (sung by James Taylor), and Ben Folds’ “Still” from “Over the Hedge,” which also included great songs like “Family of Me” and “Heist.” This might actually be an interesting category this year.

Summer 2006: The Complete Moviewatching List:
The A’s: “World Trade Center” (A+); “An Inconvenient Truth” (A+); “Little Miss Sunshine” (A); “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” (A-); “Cars” (A-); “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (A-); “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (A-); “Miami Vice” (A-); “The Da Vinci Code” (A-)

The B’s: “The Break-Up” (B+); “Over the Hedge” (B+); “Clerks II” (B+); “The Lake House” (B+); “Mission: Impossible III” (B+); “The Illusionist” (B+); “The Devil Wears Prada” (B+); “Superman Returns” (B+); “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” (B+); “Snakes on a Plane” (B); “Accepted” (B); “X-Men: The Last Stand” (B); “Poseidon” (B); “Click” (B-); “Nacho Libre” (B-)

The C’s: “A Scanner Darkly” (C); “The Night Listener” (C-)

The D’s: “Lady in the Water” (D+)

The F’s: Didn’t See Any.

Brian’s 10 “Must-See” Movies of Fall 2006
1. “Apocalypto” (12/8)- Mel Gibson has put me in a tricky spot with the recent controversy surrounding his drunk driving arrest and deplorable anti-Semetic slurs said at the time. He now enters the territory of a Roman Polanski, another talented filmmaker who has something so indefensible in his personal life he makes it difficult for his fans to support him with their box-office dollars. That still doesn’t mean I don’t want to see Gibson’s latest directorial effort, another tremendous risk with not only his own money (though the millions he made off of 2004’s smash hit “The Passion of the Christ” surely makes it easier on the wallet) but also with making a movie in a foreign language- in this case, the ancient Mayan language. But a story about our Lord and Savior (however violent) is an easier sell than an action epic about a civilization not really known to the majority of the public, and that’s where Gibson’s now-tarnished name was going to play a big role in “Apocalypto’s” marketing. It puts Disney- who’s distributing the film- in a bind, but from the look of the original trailer put out last Winter, the Oscar-winning filmmaker (for his great 1995 epic “Braveheart”) might just be able to redeem himself, and reaffirm his skill as a director.

2. “Lovers, Liars, and Lunatics” (September 2006)- You won’t see a trailer for this movie in theatres. You won’t see posters in movie theatre lobbies. You won’t see an ad on TV or another DVD. So why is it so high up on this list? Like “Apocalypto,” it’s all about person making it. This is the second feature-length film written, directed, and starring Amber Benson, the exceptionally talented and lovely actress who first caught eyes as the lesbian witch Tara on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (not only did she act in the series, but she also has written three comic book stories within the universe). But since her stint on that, she’s largely been absent except for the occasional indie that’s- quite frankly- not very good (if I could only take back the time I spent watching “Intermedio” and “Latter Days”…) while developing her own films as a truly independent filmmaker, funding and distributing her movies herself. In 2002 I made a trek over to Birmingham, Alabama’s Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival to catch the world premiere of Amber’s first writing-directing effort “Chance,” after which she, and many of the other cast and crew, held a Q&A for the many fans in attendance; it still rates as my favorite moviewatching experience of all time. When the film- a genuine original of cinematic comedy (capturing both sly laughs and genuine truths)- was offered on DVD, I made sure to include it in my collection. From what I’ve read of the synopsis of “Lovers”- about a dysfunctional family held hostage by burglers, I can’t help but a) expect more of the same style of comedy this time around, and b) expect to be just as surprised as I was with “Chance.” “Lovers, Liars, and Lunatics” won’t be seen initially by me on the big screen, unfortunately, but on the DVD I pre-ordered this past month, and should be receiving by month’s end. I can’t wait to share my thoughts with you on the film.

3. “The Departed” (10/6)- Normally a remake of a cult hit foreign film- in this case, the Hong Kong thriller “Infernal Affairs”- wouldn’t rate so high on a list of movies to see for a year, but wait till you hear about it. The story is an intriguing one- a Boston cop is undercover in a local mob family, who also has one of their people undercover in the Boston Police Department. Interesting enough, right? Wait till you check out the talent involved. The script is by William Monohan, whose literate script for “Kingdom of Heaven” was one of the year’s most underrated. The score is to be by Howard Shore, who will no doubt draw upon his years of experience with dark, psychological character studies with such directors as David Cronenberg and David Fincher to deliver a score as dense and full of dramatic color as he has for “A History of Violence,” “Spider,” and “Se7en.” The cast includes three of the best actors working today; Leonardo DiCaprio is the BPD officer working undercover, Matt Damon is the mob guy under the noses of the BPD, and Jack Nicholson is the mob boss at the center of the story. So why is this so high? The director is none other than Martin Scorsese, the film geek-turned-master director whose films on mafia life- from “GoodFellas” to “Mean Streets” to “Gangs of New York”- have become the gold standard everyone holds other films up to. That he found one more angle to explore the subject on- and with his current favorite actor (it’s his third straight collaboration with DiCaprio)- means this embattled director (“Gangs of New York” drained him, “The Aviator” was another Oscar disappointment) still has a keen eye for mining new territory in the subject he’s explored for 30 years now. I can’t wait to see this one.

4. “For Your Consideration” (11/17)- Comments to be added in the future.

5. “Flags of Our Fathers” (10/20)- Comments to be added in the future.

6. “The Fountain” (11/22)- You may recall- if you’re a long-time reader- that I put this in a slot on my Fall 2005 “Must-See” list when it appeared in a Fall Movie Preview Guide (for your info, it was Premiere). Well, Fall came and went and still no sign of the latest piece of surreal, artful cinema from visionary writer-director Darren Aronofsky (“Pi”), his first film since 2000’s “Requiem for a Dream.” Long in development (actors like Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett have been attached in its’ history), “Fountain” tells an epic story of a man who travels through time- the story spans 1000 years- to try and rescue his soulmate. As the plot outline on IMDB says, it is “a story of love, death, spirituality, and the fragility of our existence in this world.” That Warner Bros.- who put together a fascinating trailer for the film- is putting this story in the hands of a director of indie innovator is encouraging enough (I can’t wait to hear the score by Aronofsky’s composer Clint Mansell); that- with an admittedly modest $40 million budget- they would let him cast actors Hugh Jackman (who hasn’t had a major hit outside of the “X-Men” films) and wife Rachel Weisz (an Oscar winner for “The Constant Gardener”) in the leads as opposed to big stars is even more so. Could we be watching another “Matrix” like cult hit? For those who know my opinion on that overblown phenomenon, you know I’m hoping for something greater.

7. “The Holiday” (12/8)- Comments to be added in the future.

8. “The Science of Sleep” (9/15)- The trailer is a strange experience, describing in somewhat oblique terms about a “graphic artist held captive by his dreams” (that’s from Premiere). It stars Gael Garcia Bernal, who was kind of absent from theatres last year after two star-making performances in 2004, one in “The Motorcycle Diaries” as a young Che, the other in Pedro Almodovar’s wicked film noir “Bad Education” as a transvestite whose abuse in school transformed him as an adult. So what’s the draw? It’s the writer-director who created it. “The Science of Sleep” is the first fictional film from writer-director Michel Gondry since his astonishing Oscar-winner “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (he also directed “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” earlier this year). Whether he has “Sunshine” writer Charlie Kaufman’s gifts as a writer of surreal stories is yet to be seen (though he was the initiator of “Spotless Mind,” and was one of the three Oscar-winning writers), but on the strengths of “Mind” and 2002’s “Human Nature” (also scripted by Kaufman), Gondry- a former music video director- is one of the most singular visionaries working in modern cinema (I so have to get that Directors series set with his shorts and videos), so at the very least, this’ll be an interesting film to look at.

9. “This Film is Not Yet Rated” (9/1)- Comments to be added in the future.

10. “Flushed Away” (11/3)- Comments to be added in the future.

Other Fall Films to Be on the Lookout For:
There’s actually quite a bit this fall to really get excited about. The above are the Top 10. The rest of the best include: “A Good Year” (11/10), a dramatic comedy from director Ridley Scott (“Gladiatork,” “Black Hawk Down”) starring Russell Crowe; “Inland Empire” (N/A), the latest film from iconoclastic writer-director David Lynch with Laura Dern and Jeremy Irons that doesn’t have a release date; “The Prestige” (10/27), a period drama about rival magicians from co-writer/director Christopher Nolan (“Memento,” “Batman Begins”) starring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, and Scarlett Johannsson; “Volver” (11/3), the latest rebel effort- with supposedly a knockout turn by Penelope Cruz- by Spain writer-director Pedro Almodovar (“Bad Education,” “Talk to Her”); “Stranger Than Fiction” (11/10), another fascinating blend of fantasy and reality from director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”) starring Emma Thompson as a writer killing off her main character (played by Will Ferrell)) of her most recent novel, who happens to be a real person; “Idiocracy” (9/1), the much-delayed follow-up to “Office Space” from writer-director Mike Judge starring Luke Wilson; “The Black Dahlia” (9/15), a mystery thriller about the notorious murder of an up-and-coming actress in 1947 starring Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, and Hilary Swank, from a novel by “L.A. Confidential’s” James Ellroy, and directed by Brian De Palma (“Carrie,” “Femme Fatale,” “The Untouchables”); “Renaissance” (9/22), a great-looking animated thriller set in 21st Century Paris with a style not unlike “Sin City”; “School for Scoundrels” (9/29), a comedy about a traffic cop (Jon Heder from “Napoleon Dynamite”) taking a confidence-building course from a deceptive instructor (Billy Bob Thornton) from director Todd Phillips (“Old School”); and “Lucky You” (9/8), a promising character drama about father and son gamblers from director Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential,” “8 Mile”) starring Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore, and Robert Duvall. But that’s just the first 10; several other movies- including Todd Field’s “Little Children” (October 2006), Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” (9/29), Steven Soderbergh’s “The Good German” (12/8), “Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny” (11/17), Tony Scott’s “Deja Vu” (11/22), Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” (11/17), Barry Levinson’s “Man of the Year” (October), and many others- have a lot of promise in them as well. But this is long enough as it is.

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