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FIVE STARSPart 2 – “Capote” to “Extras”

PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS IN "FIVE STARS"
Introduction
Part 1

And now, Part 2.

Capote (2005)
Director: Bennett Miller
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Chris Cooper
To say this movie is a one-man show isn’t to discount the efforts of Bennett Miller or anybody in the supporting cast. Rather, that’s just the nature of this film’s script and of Truman Capote himself. He didn’t just take over any room he was in simply because of his charisma or who he was, but also by his own unique presence; conspicuously bland in appearance to the point where he actually stood out because of it, with a whiny wheezing voice that should be like nails on a chalkboard but instead served to keep your attention focused on every word. And the conflicting nature of Capote extended past his characteristics and to his actual character, which Hoffman pulls off with believability. Which isn’t just impressive, it’s shocking, particularly since the nature of the man almost demands something bordering on a cartoonish impression.


Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
Director: Andrew Jarecki
You won’t see a more emotionally intense documentary than this one from Andrew Jarecki, which examines a controversial child molestation case involving a man accused of molesting the children in his computer camp and his sons, one of whom was also incarcerated for the crimes. The film raises questions about the guilt of the son, but Jarecki also doesn’t claim to know the answers himself. The most fascinating aspect of the film, however, is the family dynamic of the Friedmans; specifically, how the rifts that one would assume were created by the conviction of a father and son were pre-existing problems just waiting for a family conflict or tragedy to bring them to the forefront.

Carnivale (2003-2005)
This series was a prime example of not only HBO’s overachievement when it came to their original series, but also the downfall of its original programming in recent years: simply put, it costs a lot of money to make a show like "Carnivale" (see also: "Rome"). Additionally, in order to maintain the quality and tone of a series like this, you’re going to invariably lock out any audience that tries to jump in during the middle. For those reasons the show was doomed to fail, but it was a Hell of a ride while it lasted.

Casablanca (1942)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains
Perhaps the argument for this film begins and ends with the fact that most people who can recite its three most famous lines have never even seen the film itself. But to just base it on cultural relevance would be discounting the incredible cast, great script, and masterful direction. I mean, most of the film takes place in a single room, and yet none of it feels as claustrophobic as it would in less talented hands. And it didn’t just set the tone for several genres – heist films, gangster films, espionage films, etcetera – it also set the bar almost impossibly high for all of them.

Citizen Kane (1941)
Director: Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore
What else could I say about this film – widely regarded as the father of modern cinema and on my personal short list for favorite film of all time – that other far more intelligent and educated folks haven’t already? Orson Welles showed the depth of his brilliance as both director and actor, and as a result turned in both one of the greatest directorial efforts and acting performances in film history. To boot, it unleashed the Mercury Theater troupe on Hollywood, all of whom deserved to be far bigger stars consiering the depth of their talent.

The Monterey Pop Festival (1968)
Director: D.A. Pennebaker
What ended with Woodstock really kicked into high gear with the Monterey Pop festival that occurred in the Summer of 1967. For all the love and nostalgia heaped upon Woodstock, the Monterey Pop festival blows it out of the water in terms of both the quality of performances and also its diversity; from the wannabe pop group The Association to the unleashing of Jimi Hendrix on American audiences to an absolutely riveting performance from Otis Redding. While the "Woodstock" documentary may be a better film, for musical reasons and personal perference I’ll always prefer this one.

Cowboy Bebop (1999)
The tail end of the 1990s saw an interesting genre emerge in the world of Japanese anime which put the American Western in outer space with noir-ish dialogue and relationships between the ensemble cast. Perhaps the best example was "Cowboy Bebop," the story of the mysterious and rebellious Spike Spiegel, a space-faring bounty hunter who traveled with mentor and former cop Jet Black. In their travels they pick up two other crew members – the orphaned tomboy Edward (and yes, it’s a girl) along with her dog Ein and the moll-ish but dangerous Faye Valentine. The strength of this series isn’t just in its over-arching storyline, but also that almost all the episodes are self-contained…meaning you don’t need to pay furious attention to the first three episodes in order to understand what’s going on in the seventh. And of course, the soundtrack from Yoko Kanno is incredible and worth buying even if you don’t plan on ever watching the series. Seriously, it’s that good.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Martin Landau, Angelica Huston
A highly regarded opthamolgist’s affair turns sour, and his solution turns dark when he turns to his brother (who partakes in criminal activities for a living) to solve his problem. At the same time, a documentary filmmaker’s marriage falls apart as he becomes frustrated whilst trying to fund his documentary of a philosopher (whose brief appearance actually sums up the conflicts within the film beautifully) and becomes infatuated with another woman. Thoughwholly unrelated, neither plot distracts from the other and they come together in a truly unique and unexpected manner. In my opinion Woody Allen’s best work is a toss-up between this film and "Manhattan," and the success of this film is owed as much to Landau’s riveting performance as Allen’s direction and writing.

Dances With Wolves (1990)
Director: Kevin Costner
Starring: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene
Kevin Costner was wildly uneven as a filmmaker through the 1990s. What made his lesser works even more frustrating is that his directorial debut, 1990’s "Dances with Wolves", was so damn good. In my opinion it’s because the Western is Costner’s true passion, and as such he shouldn’t be ashamed to stick to it when it comes to his careers in front of and behind the camera. It’s a genre that not only plays to his stoic strengths as an actor and his love as a director of sprawling sceneries. I’ve heard some say his wider shots and angles do nothing more than ape John Ford. I don’t know if that’s fair, since a lot of other directors do far hackier imitations and are said to be simply "paying homage." Okay, long story short, Kevin Costner + Westerns (NOT set in the future) = great shit.

The Dark Knight (2008)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhall, Aaron Eckhart, Heath Ledger
One could say that the only weakness of this film is in the exposition of the protagonists, all of whom spend so much time talking about justice and fairness that the subject ends up becoming fetishized by the film’s end. However, that’s sort of the point, since the question’s raised by the end of the film whether Batman and Harvey Dent are truly forces for good or obsessed men that just happen to be putting their focus on the forces of good for the time being. Of course, Ledger as The Joker is great, but it’s Aaron Eckhart who really steals the show. Everyone had high expectations for Ledger before this film was released, and we all knew that Eckhart was a good actor. What we didn’t know was that he was brilliant, and could play off two wildly split personalities and make the transition so seemless that we don’t even notice that the transition is written rather clumsily.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Director: Robert Wise
Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe
It’s appropriate that I’m coming across this film on the heels of the remake’s release on December 12th. I’m sure it’ll be fine and all, but nothing’s going to top the original, particularly when you take into context every other film that had been released in the sci-fi genre up until that point. In an era where sci-fi was primarily b-movie drive-in schlock directed at necking teenagers who barely paid attention to the screen for more than fifteen minutes, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" was groundbreaking. No mainstream film since "The Grapes of Wrath" had been so outwardly and harshly critical of American society…except this film got away with it by including a spaceship and a robot. Simply brilliant.

Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
Director: Blake Edwards
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Lee Remick
No film has more accurately portrayed the dangers and perils of alcoholism than "Days of Wine and Roses," which is impressive considering the film was made when the idea of alcoholism was still sort of a relatively new and taboo subject to the mainstream. Even without the then- controversial subject matter and heartbreaking love story, the film’s still worth seeing simply because of Jack Lemmon’s performance.

Deadwood (2004-2006)
DavidMilch, creator of "NYPD Blue," topped himself with this series set in a South Dakota mining town. What was originally supposed to be the story of Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) bringing law to a lawless town instead became transformed into an ensemble piece due to both the strength of the then-supporting cast of characters and the actors themselves. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) became a cult phenomenon, but equal praise is due to the efforts of Keith Carradine as Wild Bill Hickock, Robin Weigert as the hard-nosed alcoholic Calamity Jane, and my favorite supporting character Charlie Utter (played to tender but gravelly perfection by Dayton Callie). Of all the great shows HBO produced, this is perhaps the best, but fell prey to the one aspect that was the downfall of all period dramas put out by the channel – its budget.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)
Director: Jeff Feuerzeig
When MTV visited Houston, Texas for a feature on the burgeoning music scene in the city, it stumbled upon a curious phenomena – a manic-depressive named Daniel Johnston who documented his struggles with mental illness and his obsession with a woman with whom he barely knew through songs, and whose sole means of distribution were cassette tapes he personally made. While the film definitively takes a side on the debate of whether Johnston was a true genius musically or a novelty act (it’s clear Feuerzeig is a proponent of the former), it isn’t afraid to put its focus squarely on the darker side of Johnston’s illness. Whereas most other filmmakers would insincerely portray Daniel Johnston as a musical genius who happened to be a manic-depressive, Feuerzeig makes the choice of documenting the life of a manic- depressive who happened to be a musical genius. Which is far more accurate and makes the story even more tragic.

The Dirty Dozen (1967)
Director: Robert Aldrich
Starring: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, et al.
It’s the ultimate "guy" movie that paved the way for future action flicks. An all-star cast of military convicts sentenced to death are given a choice: execution, or the chance of surviving a suicide mission. Honestly, this film doesn’t get too many points for realism (I mean c’mon – Ernest Borgnine a convicted murderer?!), but it more than makes up for it in kick-ass swagger and bravado.

Dolores Claiborne (1994)
Director: Taylor Hackford
Starring: Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Christopher Plummer
I remember seeing this movie when I was 13 years old and thinking, in my young mind, that there could be no better actress than Kathy Bates. It’s been 13 years since, and with all the time that has passed I’ve been exposed to numerous actresses of varying talents. And yet, still, I think there is no better actress than Kathy Bates. This film is perhaps the penultimate example of her talents and how they can single-handedly carry a film. Sure, the film itself is good, but its flaws are overshadowed by Bates’ subtle and understated performance.

Dr. No (1962)
Director: Terence Young
Starring: Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman
This film was the onscreen introduction to James Bond, perhaps the most enduring and profitable character in movie history. It also made a star out of the first man to portray the character, Sean Connery. Beyond that, however, it also redefined the traditional action hero. Sure, there were action heroes before who had his level of confidence, particularly in the Western genre. However, this one also took pride in not being representative in any manner of the average man, nor was he humble about his prowess with women.

Dr. Strangelove [or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb] (1964)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Slim Pickens
Although he made his name in Hollywood with the 1956 noir heist flick "The Killing," this is the film that made Kubrick…well, Kubrick. Whereas other films dealing with Cold War paranoia represented doomsday scenarios with a sense of terror and fear, this instead tried to make us laugh at the ridiculous nature of both speculation and international provocations from both the United States and Soviet Union. The film is also the perfect vehicle for Peter Sellers, who plays several cartoonish characters to hilarious effect. However, for all the comedic flexibility displayed by Sellers, the best performance of the film actually comes from a hilariously over-the-top George C. Scott.

Easy Rider (1969)
Director: Dennis Hopper
Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper
Many people present "Easy Rider" as the definitive film of the counter-culture of the late 1960s. However, its greatest contribution isn’t the reflection of the last gasps of the "free love" era but rather that it helped usher in an era of directors as the driving creative force in Hollywood, leading to what many film critics and historians consider the creative peak of American film. What I always found fascinating about "Easy Rider" was that at times I wasn’t aware if I was watching a film about two characters on a cross-country sojourn through the United States or a documentary about Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper getting stoned and trying to make a cohesive film out of it. All joking aside, the results are fascinating, even if it’s inconsistent in quality and seems to bear no semblance of a pace. However, it gets five stars from me simply because it still to this day comes across as braver than most other (even better) films.

Ed Wood (1994)
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker
Tim Burton’s films are often described as dark, quirky, and unique. However, I’ve thought that at times rather than compliments those are instead handicaps for Burton. There came a point in his career where the black comedy with dark color tones became less of a staple and more of a comfort zone that he didn’t seem eager to move out of. The one major exception is also hands down my favorite film of his, 1994’s biopic "Ed Wood," the story of the strange career of the title character, a man whom is credited with creating the worst films of all time (including the infamous "Plan 9 From Outer Space"). In honesty, there were and still are worse films that are produced, but few revel in their campiness and are as blisfully unaware of their failures as Wood’s sci-fi failures. It’s only fitting, then, that a film about his life turned into one of the best films not only of Burton’s career but also of the decade in which it was released.

The Elephant Man (1980)
Director: David Lynch
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft
Not to be confused with the Broadway play. David Lynch’s tale is tender,gripping, and hearbreaking in its portrayal of the disfigured John Merrick (the real name of the real-life "Elephant Man" though this is an entirely fictional account of his life). Stylistically the film is a nod to the classic biopics of Hollywood’s silver age and German expressionism.

Extras (2005-2006)
Ricky Gervais’s follow-up to the critically and commercially successful "The Office" (the UK version that inspired the one currently airing on NBC) focuses on two struggling actors who try to break through via bit-parts in various film and television productions. The main gimmick of the series revolves around one big star (or former star) appearing as a hilariously inaccurate caricature of themselves…although I’ve heard that Patrick Stewart really is quite a cheeky little bastard. Speaking of which, that’s probably my favorite episode, although honorable mention goes to the series finale where Gervais’s character ends up in the celebrity version of "Big Brother."

NEXT: "Fargo" to "Grizzly Man"

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  1. Anonymous
    December 1, 2008 at 9:01 am

    Deadwood review

    David Chase is the creator of “The Sopranos” not David Milch.

    • December 1, 2008 at 1:23 pm

      Re: Deadwood review

      You’re right – I most definitely confused the two. Milch was the series creator of NYPD Blue.

  2. December 1, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    Just wanted to give you a quick thank you for taking the time and effort to do all of this! I like movies but don’t really have a lot of time to watch them (which means that I like to be relatively picky about what I do watch), so I love it when people provide thoughtful recommendations.

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