Tuesday, January 22, 2008

R.I.P. Heath Ledger

Like many, I was completely shocked to hear of Heath Ledger's passing today at the age of 28.

While he had a short career, he did have an important impact on the cinematic landscape. Truth be told, I missed a lot of his films due to lack of appeal, so I can't really comment about films like 10 Things I Hate About You or A Knight's Tale, for instance.

The first time I saw him was in The Patriot, costarring Mel Gibson. While the film is nothing to write home about, I did take notice of Ledger's appeal and his talent. It wasn't until Monster's Ball, however, that I became a fan and saw the beginnings of an interesting career. Although the role was brief, he really got to the heart of that character as much as anyone could in that screentime and created an indelible impression.

The next film I saw him in wasn't until a few years later, which was Brokeback Mountain. I will admit to being a fan of the film and while I would even put in my top 5 of the 2005, and I'll easily say that it should have won Best Picture that year over that ridiculous Crash nonsense, I'm not quite the heads-over-heels fan that most gay men are about the film. Not to discredit the film in any way. I own it on DVD and, actually, I'm watching again as I type this. It's just that every year hold about 2 to 4 films I absoutely love to death, and Brokeback Mountain is probably the 2005 film that comes closest to that group without being a part of that group.

But, that aside, I think Ledger was flat out amazing in the film and deserved every accolade that came his way. His performance exhbited skill and talent that I think very few actors his generation could muster, and even fewer would have the courage to take on this role. And that courage meant something to a lot of us. For those within the gay community, we respected not only his courage, but fell in love with the character and how identifiable he was. For those outside of the community, his portayal of Ennis Del Mar was an entry point (for those intelletually mature enough to get past the Brokeback jokes) to see what it's like to live as a man in denial of everything. It was a beautiful performance, and one that Ledger handled with a tremendous amount of dignity and grace both on and off the camera. It was a shame that he and Philip Seymour Hoffman gave such great performances that year, since I would have liked for both of them to win, but alas there could only be one.

The next film I saw him in was a little seen Australian film called Candy, costar ring fellow Australians Geoffrey Rush, Abbie Cornish, and Noni Hazelhurst. Truth be told the film is just alright. But it is elevated by some great acting, mostly from Cornish and Ledger. He again tapped into his dark side as a struggling heroin addict, and gave yet another great turn.

The last film I saw him in was I'm Not There which I wrote about previously, though I didn't talk much about Ledger. He gave a fine performance in the film, and his segment of the film (along with Charlotte Gainsbourg) was definitely one of the better segments of the film.

I think one of the things I admired most though was that he didn't seem to be an actor who rested on his laurels and he seemed to take on roles that gave him a challenge, particularly once Brokeback Mountain afforded him the opportunity to do so. I think this distinguished him from most of his contemporaries, leaving us with only Joseph Gordon Levitt and Ryan Gosling to keep the torch going. Brokeback, while a great film in itself, once seemed to be the stepping stone that would vault him into the league of actors with better offers and more selectivity with the roles he had to choose from, but now it seems that it will go down as his legacy. Not a bad one to have though. Like River Phoenix a decade before him, a very talented young man who was taken to soon and we'll never know just how far he would have gotten.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Ledger. You did good with the time you had, and you meant a lot to more people than you probably ever knew.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Some Overlooked Films Worth Your Time

Every year there are a few films that come out that I just sort of stumble upon and end up watching, and thank god for those films because they end up being such pleasant surprises. No hype beforehand to distort your perception of them, no unfair expectations placed upon them, etc.

While there are a lot of films that came out and undeservedly bombed at the box office, and I would sort of like to champion those films as well, I thought it would be worthwhile to turn the spotlight on some films I might not have even heard of had it not been for reading up on films. Each of these films should be available on Netflix either now or in the near future.

The Rape of Europa
This is a meticulously researched documentary about what happened to much of the world-renown artistic works in Europe during World War II.

Now, it does help that I took some valuable art history courses in school, so I had some familiarity with the artists, if not the works themselves. But, I don't think it is entirely necessary to have that knowledge to appreciate the film and it's topics -- it merely enhances it.

To go too much into the film is going to be difficult because so much is brought to the table here. But, I think one of the most fascinating aspects of the film is that the story continues on today. No one knows what became of some of these major works... were they destroyed? are they hanging somewhere in a museum without anyone knowing how it got there? Is it hanging in some one's home who inherited the painting from an ancestor who looted a bombed out museum? is it still sitting in an undiscovered underground bunker? or was it lost forever in a bombing? We may never know for sure what became of all these paintings or sculptures, but the mystery makes this one of the best documentaries of the year.

The Devil Came On Horseback
While much has been made of the conflict in Darfur, I don't know how many people understand it, what led up to it from a historical perspective, what the root causes are for the immediate conflict, and what is going on politically to do something about it.

Back when Hotel Rwanda came out, I know a lot of people were horrified about why we didn't do anything and how we could allow this to happen. Well, it's happening again, and we aren't doing anything now either.

I was able to catch another documentary on the topic called They Turned Our Desert Into Fire and that film (which is also a worthy watch, but it isn't readily available. At the screening I saw, the director said his film should be on PBS later this year) increased my knowledge on the topic as well. But this documentary in particular does a respectable job of exposing you to what is happening from a first hand account from a man who has been there and explaining the conflict. Certainly worth the time, if for no other reason than to educate yourself about the Darfur conflict.

Lady Chatterley
When I initially heard of this film, my mind automatically conjured up memories of sleepovers with friends and staying awake to watch the late night Cinemax soft-core porn that this literary character has probably become most synonymous with.

But, this isn't your trashy 13-year-old's shower nozzle masturbation material. It's undeniably erotic, but it maintains the highbrow pedigree that a Lawrence novel adaptation should have.

One thing that surprised me the most, and also probably kept me out of the theater for it was its nearly 3-hour running time. yet, when I Netflixed it, I was never bored. I appreciated watching the story develop and it was a beautiful film to look at as well. And in the titular role, Marina hands is a real find. She has a natural beauty and charisma that was well suited for the role and brings a lot forth from the character.

Despite every reservation I had, I though this was a fantastic picture and deserving of a wider audience.

This is a remake of a Dutch film by the director Theo Van Gogh, who was supposed to direct this film as well, but was infamously murdered in broad daylight in Amsterdam by a Muslim extremist, so Steve Buscemi, who had already been tapped for the lead role, stepped into the director's chair as well.

It's actually a pretty interesting film. At times it seemed to be a story that would better lend itself to the stage, although it never felt overly stagey to me.

I know Sienna Miller more from tabloids than I do from her work as an actress. She's the one who whored around with Jude Law while they were still married and that made her a name. And while she has been in other films, the only other thing I'd seen with her in it was 2004's Layer Cake (also a very underrated film), but she had a minor role in that.

Here, I think she was a revelation. She nails the part and exudes the sexuality needed for the role (and I think her being a tabloid magnet actually sort of works). But it's basically a story where two characters end up sort of stuck with one another and truths get revealed while deceptions are thrown in the mix. It's really quite interesting to see how it all plays out.

Red Road
This is actually a rather curious film that I stumbled upon and new nothing about the film itself, but also the movement it is a part of. To read more about Lars Von Trier's "Advance Party" concept, here is some more information.

Now, I have my reservations about the concept myself, due in large part to Von Trier's own inability to live up to the challenges he sets forth. But taken on its own, this is still a pretty damn fascinating film, in which a Scottish woman, who monitors the town's comings and goings as a surveillance monitor finds someone from a dark chapter in her past back in her town. And the obsession that follows and where it leads is pretty damn fascinating. It also helps that the two lead roles are phenomenally acted by Kate Dickie and Tony Curran.

While I'm simultaneously curious and skeptical about the two purported follow-ups, I'd be fine if this film stands on its own.

And while there are so many films to champion in a given year, I think these films are ones that deserve to be seen, and most are readily available through Netflix (The Rape of Europa hasn't been released yet, but the others are all available on DVD), these are some good year end films to check out that you may not have heard about or been exposed to, but are well worth your time.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Looking Ahead To 2008

So, I had initially planned to put up the top 100 as of December 31, 2007, but I figure that trying to edit in the new films as I see them will be a nightmare, so I will try to get that done as soon as I see everything I intend to see... or at least most of it.

There are about 5 or 6 films that have yet to be released in the Tampa Bay area that I haven't seen already at film festivals. Beyond that, it seems everything else is made up of films that I missed earlier in the year, and they all seem to be coming out on DVD between now and the end of February. The one big question mark is going to be 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which I am dying to see, but I have no idea when or if it will ever open locally, so I may just proceed to make a final list and then simply edit in that one title whenever it rears its head.

But... what I can tell you is that I came up with my list of older films that I plan to see for the first time this year. I've already caught the first two, but the list is as follows:

Harlan County, USA
Koko: A Talking Gorilla
Hearts and Minds
Don’t Look Now
The Man Who Fell To Earth
The Virgin Spring
Autumn Sonata
Blazing Saddles
Young Frankenstein
High Anxiety
All That Jazz
Edward II
A Lion In Winter
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner
The Glass Menagerie
On The Waterfront
A Streetcar Named Desire
Splendor In The Grass
The Seven Samurai
Throne of Blood
The Apartment
Sunset Boulevard
Double Indemnity
The Claim
In This World
9 Songs
Remains of the Day
Sense & Sensibility
Primary Colors
Yi Yi
Russian Ark
The Saddest Music In The World
A Woman Is A Woman
Monsoon Wedding
Mississippi Masala
Salaam Bombay
Diary of a Country Priest
Au Hasard Balthazar
Tokyo Story
Early Summer
Late Spring
A Story of Floating Weeds