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Moriarty’s Holiday Marathon Catch-Up Begins With A Report On The BNAT Premieres!!

It’s the most wonderful tiiiiime of the year. And, in terms of personal pressure, one of the more stressful as well. I like to be thorough when I write my personal list of favorite films for the year. I like to see as much as possible, but new parenthood is by far more rewarding at the moment and time-consuming as well, so I’ve seen a dramatic shift this year in terms of how I’ve spent my evenings when most screenings occur. I’ve also been working on a few projects that are coming to fruition this year, things I’m very excited by and pleased with. So, as always, I am playing catch-up. I am now in the position of trying to see as many films as possible before the first week or so of January, when I have to start writing if I’m going to make a January 10th publication date. I’m not in any rush to be first. And I’m not trying to sway anybody else’s opinion about anything. I just want to take the time to make proper sense of a film year that strikes me as one of the richest of this decade so far. Over the next week or ten days, as I see stuff, I’ll be posting my reactions. I keep a running list all year long that I maintain at the Zone. Working from a list of 300 titles (give or take a dozen), I’ve seen 190 films so far, I have 29 in the house to watch, and I’m confident I’ll have another 30 or so in the house before I’m done with the process. That leaves about 40 films that it looks like I’ll just plain miss out on seeing this year. If you are involved with any of these films and you feel it’s imperative I see the film before I finish my list, then please contact me at my e-mail address so I can give you shipping information or you can give me screening information in LA. Anything between now and January 10th would be great for: SCOOP, FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION, DAYS OF GLORY, FAST FOOD NATION, 13 (TZAMETI), QUINCENERA, FUR, WE ARE MARSHALL, 49 UP, TIDELAND, HARSH TIMES, SLEEPING DOGS LIE, THE NATIVITY STORY, A GOOD YEAR, JUST MY LUCK, SEE NO EVIL, PEACEFUL WARRIOR, PUFFY CHAIR, SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS, MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND, ZOOM, EVERYONE STARES: THE POLICE INSIDE OUT, THE AMATEURS, TRUST THE MAN, THE QUIET, OLD JOY, LOOKING FOR KITTY, MUTUAL APPRECIATION, GHOSTS OF CITE SOLEIL, THE US VS JOHN LENNON, AL FRANKEN: GOD SPOKE, GRIDIRON GANG, AMERICAN HARDCORE, RENNAISANCE, BANDIDAS, ROMAN, ANGEL-A, THE GROUND TRUTH, KEEPING MUM, EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH, MY FIRST WEDDING, HOUSE OF SAND, RIDING ALONE FOR THOUSANDS OF MILES, THE GRUDGE 2, DRIVING LESSONS, DIXIE CHICKS: SHUT UP AND SING, DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE, THE BRIDGE, SANTA CLAUSE 3: THE ESCAPE CLAUSE, ERAGON, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, or BLACK CHRISTMAS. If you send me the film, I promise I’ll make time for it before I finalize the list. I’ll give everything its shot if I get the opportunity. BNAT was great fun as always this year, and it helped a lot since we had seven new films that night. I think it might be, pound for pound, the best line-up of premieres the festival has ever hosted, too. BLACK SNAKE MOAN is a big leap forward for Craig Brewer, proving that HUSTLE & FLOW was no accident. His strong suit is character and heart, and BLACK SNAKE MOAN is every bit as moving and as involving, with two great leads and a rich supporting cast. Sam Jackson is one of those guys who works so much, in so many different kinds of films, that you sort of forget just how precise and powerful he can be with the right material. He absolutely transforms into this new person in this film, becoming this character in a specific physical way. The moment everyone will be talking about in the film takes place during a thunderstorm, and everything you see Sam do in the film, he’s really doing. That’s really him playing. That’s really him singing. It’s one of the most audacious moments in a film in recent memory, and it works. Christina Ricci takes a nearly-impossible role as written and finds the reality of it. She plays her character as bruised but somehow innocent, and the chemistry between the two of them pays off to surprising effect. Even more surprising is the way Brewer uses Justin Timberlake in a key supporting role. When someone’s as famous for being themselves as Timberlake is, it’s hard to believe them in a genuinely demanding character role. Brewer makes you forget who Timberlake is, and as the love story between Timberlake and Ricci unfolds, it gains a surprising resonance. Even though the film starts with a crazy exploitation premise (and you’ve got to love those lurid, overheated one-sheets), the execution is anything but. It’s a film with real soul, and it marks Brewer as one of the most exciting emerging voices in film right now. I’ve written at length about my affection for DREAMGIRLS, and I ended up seeing it four times in the theater if you count the BNAT screening. As much as I root for anything in an Oscar race, I’m rooting for Eddie Murphy for Best Supporting Actor. The film’s open in limited release right now, and I’ve been reading reactions from all over the country of audiences participating in the film. I have a theory about Bill Condon’s canny use of the audience in his film that has to do with how the film plays to a full house, but I’ll get into that more when I include the film in my list. I mean, I’m pretty confident at this point, even if I see 30 or 40 or even 50 more films before I write my list. I’m fairly sure I know the general shape of things. After all, I keep my list broken up into five general categories, which seems more honest and quantifiable than anything like stars or thumbs: EXCELLENT, VERY GOOD, GOOD, NOT SO GOOD, and FUCKING AWFUL. I’ve got 22 films in the EXCELLENT category for the year so far, so my top ten is most likely coming out of that group. So I admit... right now I’m sort of comparing everything I see to what I feel are the high watermarks of the year so far. The movies I’m watching are up against some really special experiences that I’ve had with cinema. For example, seeing ROCKY BALBOA at BNAT. As I said in my review, I admire the film, but don’t think it’s perfect. No matter. It was a fantastic experience, and my wife (who was in Austin, but who did not come for all of BNAT because we had Toshi with us) came for just that one film. She loves Rocky. She loves everything about the character, and every frame of film so far in the series. Yes... even part five. In fact, especially part five. And I finally understand why. She thought that was the last Rocky movie, and so she savored the things she liked about the movie, and she ignored the things she didn’t. She just enjoyed spending time with the character. Seeing this film with her at the Drafthouse, it was probably the best two hours we spent together in a theater all year long. When the crowd started to chant “ROCKY! ROCKY! ROCKY!” during the big fight, she had tears of joy in her eyes, and I have BNAT to thank for that, for that perfect audience for the perfect screening. I’m also relatively sure that I’ll never see another screening of KNOCKED UP like the one we had. This was the last movie added to the BNAT line-up this year, and it was a real leap of faith for writer/director Judd Apatow and producer Shauna Robertson to let us have it in workprint form. The film’s reeeeeeally long right now, and at two-and-a-half hours, it’s basically an embarrassment of riches. Apatow gives his actors a lot of room in this film, and the whole cast delivers. Seth Rogen comes of age as a movie star with his performance here, fulfilling a promise made in 1999 with the premiere of FREAKS & GEEKS. He was part of that remarkable ensemble, and right away, he had such an original and natural sense of comic timing. Now, he’s just the right age to play this man-boy, Ben Stone. He lives with his friends, and Apatow’s cast a group of Rogen’s real friends, all great young comic actors who have worked with Apatow before. Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, and the great Martin Starr. All of them do a great job, but if I had to guess, it’ll be some of their material that hits the floor as Apatow trims the film up before its released. They serve as a mirror that Ben looks into of his own prolonged childhood. I lived with buddies my entire time in LA before I got married, and anyone who has ever had a group of roommates will recognize the dynamic between these friends. The spine of the film is the relationship between Ben and Alison Scott, played by the formidable Katherine Heigl. Yes... that’s right. I said formidable. I’ve never really thought of her as such, but the work she does here is rich and funny and sexy and adult, and it suggests that she’s been sadly underutilized in films so far. I also think this is a sort of celebration of all the funny that is Paul Rudd, and his performance in this in the version we saw is so revealing and so funny and unbelievably wincingly honest that I would start thinking about running a Best Supporting Actor campaign for him next year. He is to married men what Ricky Gervais was to mid-level managers in THE OFFICE. And he gets as good as he gives from Leslie Mann, Apatow’s real wife. She plays Alison’s older sister, who is married to Pete, played by Rudd. I am seriously afraid of her after seeing her argue with Rudd in this film, but I’m also sort of crushing on her all over again for the way she attacks her role. Her character, Debbie, knows she’s getting older, and the scenes where she confronts that are blisteringly funny. But she’s also a great foil for Rudd, and a nice obstacle for Rogen to have to overcome in the film. There are a lot of little touches that really pay off. Apatow’s two daughters play Rudd and Mann’s daughters in the movie, and they give delightfully non-professional performances. They are just real little girls, and they serve as a sort of Ghost Of Christmas Future for Ben and Alison as they hang around with them during Alison’s pregnancy. I like what this film has to say about responsibility. It seems like a more centered message than the way Hollywood normally sells us the All Successful Fathers Are Shitty Fathers scenario, and Apatow’s comedy has a generous human side as always. In the days since THE BEN STILLER SHOW and THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, Apatow has honed his sensibilities to the point now where I think he’s sort of running at peak on all fronts these days. I’ll be curious to see how the final film looks, but it was a hick of a viewing of a work in progress, and the audience was really into it. They gave Seth Rogen a warm reception afterwards, too, and I think he was surprised by just how much they connected with it. He should get used to it, I’m guessing, because he’s in for a huge jump in visibility when the film is released in June. I am shocked and amazed by how much I loved Paul Verhoeven’s BLACK BOOK, easily the best thing he’s made since ROBOCOP, and arguably a better film even than that. I’d written Verhoeven off a while ago, but with this film, he reasserts himself as one of the sharpest stylists in the business, and one of the most subversive. There’s a scene in KNOCKED UP where all the buddies are hanging out and talking about how MUNICH is great because it shows Jews kicking ass, something that you don’t see in enough films. It’s a funny conversation, one I’m not doing justice to, but it because even stranger in hindsight based on how much ass the Jews in BLACK BOOK get to kick. Verhoeven brings all the slick of his Hollywood action movie work to bear on the story of the Dutch underground during WWII and one woman, Carice van Houten, and what she does to survive. Her work as Rachel Ellis is remarkable, and she is pushed to extremes in sequence after sequence. It’s an audacious film, and it flirts with absurdity several times. Verhoeven is still the master of the simple shock, like a scene where van Houten prepares for a date with a Nazi by dyeing her pubic hair blonde. Van Houten plays the scene seated, facing a mirror, legs spread for the camera, just the sort of “holy cow” moment that Verhoeven loves to shoot with his actresses. But unlike Elizabeth Berkley or Sharon Stone, I doubt you’re ever going to hear van Houten complaining about how Verhoeven tricked her or bullied her or seduced her into such shocking behavior. Van Houten’s performance is strong, self-aware, unflinching. She’s got to play some crushingly heavy emotional material, and she does so with perfect pitch throughout the entire film. It’s impressively nuanced work from an actress I’ve never seen before. If there’s any justice, this is the start of a huge career for this gifted actress. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this film as Sony Pictures Classics rolls it out in the spring. I don’t feel qualified to review the last two premieres of the evening. I was outside the Drafthouse, it was incredibly late... or early, I guess you’d say... and instead of eating the starch-heavy breakfast that is served each year, I opted to share the tail end of a joint with a reader. Seemed harmless enough until I sat down and the lights dimmed for Joe Carnahan’s hypercharged ode to cartoon mayhem, SMOKIN’ ACES. I am a boring old married man these days, kids, and I can’t be taking random drags off these supercharged cigarettes you youngsters are rolling. I’m not built for it, especially at the end of a 20 hour stretch being awake and loaded up with Sudafed. Carnahan’s film blasted by in one loud and crazy wall of color and carnage, and I had a great time watching it. I couldn’t really describe it to you, though, and I can’t really tell you what happens in it, and that’s a problem if you’re going to try and review something. And then there was 300. Earlier this year, I was invited to meet Zack Snyder at his editing rooms near Warner Bros. In the hour I spent with him, I found myself won over completely by his approach to his craft and by his obvious love of both storytelling and image. Here’s one of those guys who was set up to fail with his first feature, taking on the unenviable task of remaking the beloved DAWN OF THE DEAD. To his credit, Snyder proved to be the right guy for the job, and I never got a sense in any of the press he did for that film that he thought he was reinventing the wheel. The first ten minutes of that film remains my favorite part, but it’s so confident and so well-built that it put Snyder on the map as a filmmaker to watch, in my opinion. 300 will launch him to a whole new level of creative power as a filmmaker, and it’s going to bring him the opportunity to do anything he wants next time out. Which is exciting because 300 is not a typical studio movie in any way. This isn’t a safe bet. This isn’t the sort of film that the studio can make and just dump into theaters knowing it’ll make its money. 300 is a leap of faith, but I think it’s coming together in a really special way. Snyder’s a guy who can really work a room, but it doesn’t seem calculated. He’s just got a forceful personality, and this infectious enthusiasm that’s constantly on a high simmer. He’s not slick, and that’s part of his charm. He just comes across as a guy who’s really happy with his new film, and who seems to take enormous pleasure in seeing someone else react to it. I get the impression that he is constantly bubbling with ideas, and a conversation with him is a sort of torrent of energy, with lots of ideas going on all at once. However, 300 doesn’t appear to be the typical ADD-spastic pop culture junk version of this story that I was, quite frankly, expecting when I first heard the announcement that they were adapting Frank Miller’s book. Remember... this announcement came before SIN CITY was finished. And at the time of the announcement, I had no idea what Zack Snyder had planned. This is a good case to remember when talking about how important it is not to jump to conclusions. Because everything I’ve seen so far is far beyond my expectations. The first thing Zack showed me in the editing room was the style book that he created, based on Frank Miller’s artwork and the work of painters like Boris or Frank Frazetta, and I’ve seen stylebooks like this before. Filmmakers frequently start the development process by pulling together images that inspire them, things they can show to help evoke a tone when talking to costumers or production designers, and a lot of times, those initial collections of images are more visually striking and distinct than the final film. Here, though, the images that Snyder pulled together are the images he’s creating onscreen. Using the stylistic freedom of completely creating his world, he has put together something painterly and surreal and emotional. This is definitely not meant to be a realistic vision of history, and that’s pretty clear from the very first frame. I went to an event here in LA about two months ago where they showed us a half-hour or so of film. And even after all that, I was completely hyped up about actually laying eyes on 300 in its finished form. So imagine my frustration at nodding in and out of it for the entire running time. My version of 300 was forty minutes long, and it seemed to consist almost entirely of very loud sounds that jarred me back into consciousness. What I saw, I loved just as much as I’ve loved everything I’d seen before BNAT, but just as I managed to wake myself up the rest of the way, the film was over, and there was my wife and Toshi and my mother-in-law, there to pick me up so they could take a look around the aftermath of BNAT. I’ll end up seeing both SMOKIN’ ACES and 300 again before I write any sort of real review for either. But you know what the very best part of BNAT was? Out of the entire 25 hours or so? There was one moment in the middle of it... which film it was or what scene is beside the point... but I looked down from my seat to where Harry was sitting, and I saw him with Patricia, the two of them cuddled close, Harry laughing incredibly hard. And I can honestly say in the full nine years I’ve known Harry, I’ve never seen him that happy. Patricia is the Best Thing in a long line of best things that have happened to this improbably lucky friend of mine, and for him to celebrate his birthday party with this line-up of movies surrounded by friends and well-wishers and with his fiancée at his side... it warms my heart to see him like that. I’ll be back tomorrow with reviews of more of the films I’m watching during this marathon. LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, NOTES ON A SCANDAL, and CHILDREN OF MEN are up first, and I’m sure I’ll have more for you as well. For now, I hope you guys are enjoying the holidays as much as I am, and I hope you’re seeing good stuff every time you go out.

Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

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