Exiled (To, 2006)

Exiled, a beautiful and bizarre slice of Western lore served up Hong Kong style by director Johnnie To, flutters with cowboy iconography and codes of honor worthy of both John Woo and John Ford. This might be To’s purest expression of action yet, since he relies almost entirely on the tension built by montage and violence. Even though it’s drenched in powdery blood splatter, the film goes out of it’s way to connect the five assassin protagonists as boyhood friends forced back together to defeat their gangster boss, a distinct and effective basis in character which makes the action even more exciting. My only gripe with the film lies in it’s disregard for plausibility (in terms of story) and dependance on a magical realism of sorts, a strange tonal compliment considering the clashing genres at work. This aesthetic gets tiresome by the end, a jarring approach thankfully soothed by the film’s brilliant Western score and memorable layered action scenes. Another solid effort by today’s most ambitious master of mise-en-scene.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Verbinski, 2007)

This series became so bloated and tedious it’s hard to even remember the originality and cleverness of the maiden voyage. Like The Matrix, Pirates went epic after it’s initial success and lost what made it worthy in the first place – a great story. Better than Pirates 2 you say? Barely. But that just shows how far we’ve lowered our standards.

The Wire: Season 4 (HBO, 2006)

The series hits new peaks in Season 4, focusing on the failing Baltimore education system and and it’s complex relationship with the booming drug trade. When disgraced Detective Roland Pryzbylewski enters Patrick Tillman Middle School as a teacher, he gets a first hand look at the learning process under constant attack by outside influences. This new environment for conflict introduces an astounding group of young characters, one a child from a past enforcer, the others offspring of drug addicts and foster parents, all attempting to find an identity. The options become wonderfully complex as these children find adult voices in educators (Prez, Colvin), cops (McNulty, Carver) and gangsters (Chris, Marlo), all soothing their uncertainties toward the future in varying ways. The role of the mentor dominates Season 4, making these episodes the most fascinating and intricate yet. Both tragedy and celebration pop up in the finale, representing the push pull relationship between the community, City Hall and the education system, showing how well-meaning solutions for reform often contradict each other. The failures and successes of the “no child left behind” policy are systemic of the criminal violence and manipulation perpetrated on the young minds of a particular environment. In the end, the “youngin’s” pay with their future.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

A relentlessly paced psychological horror piece which dissects the vampire myth and pushes it swiftly through the apocalypse scenario. Many have called I Am Legend one of the masterpieces of Science Fiction writing and the story itself certainly warrants that consideration. Matheson builds Robert Neville’s world of isolation with ripe anger and guilt instead of bombed out mass destruction, an enviable decision which looks to be tossed to the wind for the upcoming Will Smith film remake. However, the idea often trumps the actual writing, making this a quick and fun read with plenty of pulp symbolism to mull over. Neville truly thinks he’s the last man on Earth, and his own ignorance toward the life cycle makes him a completely sympathetic and dimensional character. After losing a family and seeing Vampires take over the world, I think anyone would be consumed by their own situation and miss the forest for their own particular rotting tree.

The Wire: Season 3 (HBO, 2004)

Stringer Bell falls, Tommy Carcetti rises, and host of other dynamic events occur in the masterful and brutal Season 3 which focuses almost entirely on the theme of loyalty. Most distinctively, the show moves away from the police procedural angle and toward political jockeying, both on the streets and at City Hall, showing how similar politicians and gangsters can be. Loyalties are tested in every setting, from the conflict between new hood Marlo Stanfield and the Barksdale Crew, to the upcoming race for Mayor of Baltimore, which has vast repercussions from top to bottom. The Wire takes it’s time in developing these complex relationships and improves on Season 2’s somewhat stale re-visioning and breaks new ground with intricate arenas outside but equally important to the CID Unit. After thirty episodes or so, The Wire stands far and above all cop shows because it looks at the connection between all social and cultural institutions, showing the contradictions of power and the citizens who get lost in the shuffle, no matter how brutal the sight.

I’m Not There (Haynes, 2007)

Destined to be dissected and analyzed by film students and critics for years, I’m Not There functions as a text book art film, using jump cuts, flash forwards, elliptical editing and an ambiguous ending etc. to deconstruct the many identities of Bob Dylan, both fictional and fantastical. The film’s revolving structure seeps with ambition and some untimely self indulgence (Haynes uses six different actors as a mosaic of the Dylan myth), but one can’t deny the beautiful affect most of the actors have on the story, especially Richard Gere’s lonely and poetic version of Billy the Kid and Heath Ledger’s destructive and conflicted actor. All the hype about Cate Blanchett’s 1960’s thin and wild Dylan is warranted, however these scenes elicit a repetitive and soulless nature compared to Haynes’ other five story-lines. If I’m Not There wishes to transcend identity to get at the heart of an artist’s struggle, it succeeds greatly, moving through multiple universes with jarring cuts linked only by minor overlaps of character and Dylan’s resounding music. But something feels off about Haynes’ beautiful and invigorating love letter to the Dylan legend. This mostly has to do with the first hour, which haplessly roles around with an uneven Mockumentary about Christian Bale’s Jack, a protest singer turned preacher, never letting the actor out of the stranglehold that medium wields. Haynes has linked each character with different aesthetic interpretations, and I think anyone in love with the cinema can appreciate his genius for undertaking such a venture. That doesn’t make the final result any more interesting since certain performances and scenes greatly outplay others. I’m Not There will inevitably evolve with multiple viewings, because the meticulous layering and visual design play a huge role. But at first glance, Haynes’ film feels like one artist’s fruitless longing to understand the complex nature of another, an idol who doesn’t care to be understood, just left alone. Nothing more, nothing less.

Into the Wild (Penn, 2007)

Most unsuccessful Hollywood films suffer from one common failure – an unworthy story. So it’s great to see Sean Penn’s haunting new film Into the Wild prove how infectious a great story can be when told with care and purpose. Adapted from Robert Krakauer’s source novel about 22 year old Christopher McCandless’ travels through the American wilderness, Into the Wild paints a romantic portrait of the college graduate/runaway hero looking for spiritual rebirth. McCandless (played with charisma and gusto by Emile Hirsch), retreats away from his dysfunctional family, friends, and material belongings for the open air and adventure of the road, meeting a cast of memorable characters along the way, the most wonderful being a hippie couple (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener), a grain farmer (Vince Vaughn), and a lonely Vet (the sublime Hal Holbrook) with his own heartache to spare. Each falls in love with McCandless’ free wheeling spirit and charm, and are heartroken when he leaves them for the next turn. Chris understands each of their pain, yet he sees them as steps of experience toward the ultimate awakening – living off the land in the Alaskan wilderness. Most of the film is told through flip flopping time frames, paralleling Chris trekking through America’s backwoods, deserts, and rivers, with what ends up being his final resting place, an abandoned school bus in the Alaskan tundra. Penn utilizes this editing style to juxtapose Chris’ wonderful experience with the people he befriends, and his lonely demise after eating the wrong roots from the local terrain. For such a determined character to realize in his final moments the “one with nature” philosophy he’d lived by was incomplete without human connection, really speaks to the power of both Hirsch’s spellbinding performance (especially in the final moments) and Penn’s incredible patience with the material. Into the Wild depends on plenty of fantastic nature photography to create an aura of the wilderness worthy of McCandless’ vision, but these moments stand out only because the story unfolding holds beauty and mystery for the characters themselves. Thankfully, we get to share in the awe, of both McCandless’ fateful and revealing odyssey and Penn’s gallant and conflicted cinematic representation.