Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Few Thoughts on the Oughts

This past decade will hold a special place in my mind (film-wise, that is). It was during this time that I “came of age” in the world of cinema. I began scouring the pages of the Internet Movie Database, soaking up all the information I could. It really became a kind of addiction – one that continues to this day. (I’m not sure I want to know how many hours I spent combing through the filmographies of various filmmakers over the years.) I also began reading reviews and commentary on film. It interested me to hear from different perspectives and learn how others constructed their viewpoints. And while I valued the “critical” opinion on films, it was important for me to make up my own mind.

So, the films released this decade became of great interest to me. I started viewing them differently than I had previously; from a more critical point-of-view. I think 2002 was a turning point as I began going out of my way to see films that others had little interest in. Even if it meant going by myself, I felt compelled to view films like Adaptation and The Hours. This path led me down a fascinating road filled with films as wide-ranging as can be imagined.

While I spent time waiting for new releases, I also caught up with many films from decades past. With the advent of Netflix, there’s no limit to how many films are available and I take full advantage of it. As my knowledge of film progressed, the more I enjoyed the artform and I desired to learn even more. That desire led me to study film at the University of Oklahoma, eventually earning a Film and Video Studies degree.

So, yeah, I guess films have had a large impact on my life and will probably continue to do so. I’ll continue viewing and writing about them so long as my enthusiasm for the subject holds up.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Inception Trailer Continues to Intrigue

The second trailer for Christopher Nolan's latest, Inception, continues to fascinate me. While there's no real breakdown of the plot, I really don't need one at this point. The visual inventiveness highlighted in this trailer alone merits my time and attention. Nolan has easily become one of my personal favorite directors and any project coming from him represents an event-film for me. The idea of him doing an all-out sci-fi mindbender seems like a perfect fit, as his films typically focus more cerebral themes. Plus, the cast involved ranks among the best for any film this coming year. Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard and Ken Watanabe star, along with Nolan veteran Cillian Murphy. What more could you ask for?

Inception hits theaters next summer. Watch the trailer here:

Monday, December 28, 2009

Box Office: Avatar Sets 2nd Weekend Record

James Cameron appears to have pulled off another hit with his newest film, Avatar. Despite some naysayers, the film definitely looks on track to become one of the highest grossing films of the year, and perhaps of all time. In it's second weekend, Avatar grossed 75.6 million - down only 1.8% from it's first weekend! As good word-of-mouth continues to spread, Cameron's visual spectacle will no doubt spawn more films using the same technology, ushering in a new era of big-budget filmmaking.

In other news, Sherlock Holmes debuted with 62.3 million, a more than solid figure for the Robert Downey Jr. vehicle.

This last weekend of the year boosted 2009's total box office take to 10.3 billion, a new record. Theater attendance was up, which is a good sign in a time when piracy has become more and more prevalent. Overall - a decent year for the movies.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Celebrity Necessity?

I can understand the appeal for celebrities to become involved with animated projects. Most of them want to be a part of something their children can watch. It’s also an easy gig. With just a few recording sessions involved, they get an easy paycheck. And I can understand why studios jump at the chance to include as many big names as possible. After all, they have to sell their film somehow. But with all that said, there are certain instances when I have to ask, “Why bother?”

I recently scrolled the credits for the new Alvin and the Chipmunks film (don’t ask me why) and I saw that actors such as Justin Long, Amy Poehler, Anna Faris, and Christina Applegate lent their voices to some of the titular furry critters. Now, what’s the point of having these celebrities provide their voices when post-production work simply alters them to fit the super-high squeakiness of the chipmunks? Furthermore, the advertisements for the film make no mention of the celebrity names. Another culprit of needless voice usage is Dreamworks studios, and more specifically in Kung Fu Panda. Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, and Seth Rogen each voice characters in that film and they can’t have more than 25 lines between them. At times this practice borders on distraction since your hearing such recognizable voices coming from secondary characters. There’s just no point of having these people if you’re not going to use them. Situations like these just make no sense to me.

Surely some professional voice actors could fill these roles with ease. With animated films mostly catering to children, name recognition plays little importance anyway. By avoiding the big names, studios wouldn’t need to bloat their budgets on these films either. But I suppose the “bigger is better” mentality wins out in the end.

What are your thoughts on celebrity voice-work?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Some Quick Thoughts on Avatar

After years away from narrative filmmaking, James Cameron has finally returned with Avatar, a sci-fi adventure film on a grand scale. This film has undergone a lengthy development and an enormous amount of hype leading up to its release. Many have been doubtful that Cameron could deliver on his promise of a “game-changing” film in terms of technology. Well, any doubts on a technological level should be laid to rest. Avatar delivers in a way only a Cameron film can.

The Good:
A visual marvel to behold, the film entrances its audience; making them believe completely in an alien world. The 3-D effects impressively added a layer of depth to the picture. As opposed to gimmicky 3-D of the past, this technology, at least as utilized by Cameron, goes for subtle touches which help immerse audiences into the film. Real actors seamlessly interact with CG creations. Thanks to the new technology developed especially for the film, the CG characters become more legitimate as dramatic leads.

The Bad:
While the tech side of the film might be unequaled, the overall story and dialog can leave something to be desired.

Bottom line:
Everyone should check this out in theaters. You simply cannot get the same experience at home.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

For Love of Money: American Crime in the 90's

(Note: This post represents another paper from my college days.)

At some point everyone daydreams of a life without work. The theme of bucking the system in earning a living features in a multitude of stories. Within the world of film this notion exemplifies itself most in the crime genre. Audiences are captivated by the lives of criminals and the underworld they inhabit. The films hook us in; depicting risks that we would never undergo ourselves, but don’t mind watching others perform. After all, the criminal life bursts with excitement, possibilities, and sometimes wealth. But while crime films draw us into the world of criminals, they simultaneously jerk us out. The underlying greed that drives some of the characters ultimately becomes repellent to an audience. Besides, most die for positioning money over anything else. The wealth-oriented criminals portrayed in films such as Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Pulp Fiction, Fargo, and Jackie Brown would not inspire anyone to resemble them. By each film’s end, plans go awry, betrayals are made, people go to jail, and many are killed. Through the criminals’ failure, these stories ultimately emerge as morality tales that reinforce the idea that the quick cash and potential prestige of criminals ultimately burn out. The only potential for redemption and a fulfilling life for these characters originates from honest work and fixing their focus on others above themselves.

Although ultimately hollow, the appeal of gangster life remains inescapable. In Goodfellas Henry Hill details how, even from his early days of fraternizing with the mob, he scored the perks. He divulges to the audience that, “One day the kids from the neighborhood carried my mother's groceries all the way home. You know why? It was outta respect.” Aside from the clout commanded by the mob, they exhibited a bounty of material goods (“Anything I wanted was a phone call away.”). The crooks in Goodfellas drive swanky cars, dwell in decorative homes, wear tailor-made suits, and consume sumptuous meals. Criminals not portrayed as wealthy at least get stylized in ways that build them up. Look at the opening of Reservoir Dogs for example. The film introduces us to a team of thieves as they take in their last meal before they push off to their heist. As with any Tarantino film the character’s dialog is more dynamic than it has any right to be as they ramble over what should be mundane conversation. There’s an energetic rhythm that flows through their talk that compels us to lean in and join them. In the next scene the gang strides in slow motion, as the poppy tune of “Little Green Bag” trumpets over the soundtrack. During the song each member receives a close-up to mug for the camera. This sequence portrays the thieves at their height before they fall.

The lives led by these criminals do not embody as much allure as they might at first seem. Even when they flourish, as in the first half of Goodfellas, there is an undercurrent of unpleasantness. Goodfellas records the story of Henry Hill, documenting his involvement with gangster life. A good example of uneasiness in the midst of an affluent life arises during a scene when Karen, Henry’s new wife, meets the other wives of the men that Henry works with. The scene focuses on how the women conspicuously cover various bruises they have sustained from their husbands. Karen’s voiceover comments on how “they wore too much makeup” and overall “didn’t look good.” As the women discuss violent events that characterize their husband’s lives, Karen realizes the temperament of the world in which she’s consumed. The ritzy lifestyle she and her husband lead comes at a price. For example, any wealth that these criminals compile tends to be directly juxtaposed with the brutal, unsavory crimes they must commit. In Jackie Brown criminal Ordell Robbie constantly looks over his shoulder in order to protect his money - not to mention his freedom. To contrast with his beautiful residence on the beach, Ordell’s work often leads him to dark areas. In one sequence Ordell exterminates his protégé Beaumont out of fear that Beaumont might testify against him. Ordell comments, “Now that my friend is a clear cut case of him or me.” Paranoia fills the air in this dog-eat-dog world.

To heighten the unglamorous aspect of their lives, quite a few of the criminals portrayed are deficient at their jobs. While on a stake-out at a target’s home, the hit man Vincent in Pulp Fiction makes the deadly mistake of leaving his gun sitting out on a counter-top while he uses the restroom. When his target, Butch, comes back home, he spots the gun and shoots Vincent when he leaves the restroom. Another example appears earlier in the story when Vincent makes another deadly mistake. While he and his partner Jules drive, Vincent accidentally shoots a contact named Marvin in the head when their car may or may not have hit a bump in the road. In Jackie Brown, criminals Louis and Ordell engage in some serious mistakes as they underestimate the title character during a sizable score. Louis in particular bungles up when he glimpses, but thinks nothing of, Max Cherry at a money drop-off. Cherry is a bail-bondsman who has ties with Jackie Brown and emerges as her accomplice in her bait-and-switch plan. Only afterwards do Ordell and Louis piece everything together. In addition to being oblivious to Cherry, Louis ends up killing his female companion involved in the crime, Melanie, as he gripes, “she got on my nerves.”

As much as those characters fumble, Fargo takes the prize for the most botch-ups made by the various criminals involved. The film is essentially about a man, Jerry Lundegaard, who attempts to collect a ransom from his father-in-law for the kidnapping of his own wife. The two men hired for the kidnapping, Carl and Gaear, execute their job haphazardly. While knitting in her living room, Mrs. Lundegaard watches as Carl ineptly approaches a window and peers inside. There is unquestionably no striving for surprise. Although the two kidnappers succeed in their mission, it is in part due to Mrs. Lundegaard’s panic. When transporting Mrs. Lundagaard to an isolated cabin, the pair creates more turmoil when they get pulled over because they have no tags on their car. What could be a minor incident transforms into a bloodbath as Gaear kills the policeman. When dragging the body to the side of the road, a couple of passersby in another car witness the crime and they too are killed. Fargo not only portrays these characters as unprofessional, but sometimes they border on acting downright dim-witted. Many other events in Fargo, as well as other crime films, spin out of control.

Within each of these films, plans fall apart, no matter how thoroughly or shabbily rehearsed. The film Reservoir Dogs revolves around a group of men who set out to rob a jewelry store. Their off-camera heist is an utter catastrophe. One member of the team is eventually revealed to be an undercover cop who tipped off police members about the robbery. As a result, two of the six members of the team get shot down and another gravely injured during the robbery. The survivors spend the remainder of the film bickering over which one tipped off the authorities. During the finale, nearly all of the surviving members involved with the heist undergo a standoff which results in fatality for all. Only one man, Mr. Pink, wanders out alive, but by then the police arrive and shots ring out at him off-screen. In True Romance, a drug deal that culminates the film ends with a disastrous shootout exceeding the body count of the Reservoir Dogs confrontation. The story centers on the couple Clarence and Alabama as they venture to sell a suitcase of drugs they stumble upon. Both the police and a group of gangsters involve themselves in the eventual transaction. As in Reservoir Dogs, almost everyone dies in the final confrontation, although Clarence and Alabama survive.

The actions taken by these characters evolve out of greed. That greed is shown to ultimately be meaningless. None of the characters driven by greed are shown to gain anything. Instead they lose everything they have, including their lives in most cases. We discover emptiness at the end of the violence, illustrated by the complete disregard for human life. Fortunately for audiences, these films exhibit something more.

Among the greed or power-driven characters there is usually one or more who emerge to lay everything into perspective. In Pulp Fiction it’s Jules. Through a miraculous event where both Jules’ and Vincent’s lives are spared, Jules has a “moment of clarity” that leads him to withdraw from “the life.” He grasps that the career he has led means nothing and commits to reform. In the film’s final scene Jules and Vincent eat at a restaurant. A couple who decide to stick up the restaurant confront Jules. A stand-off develops comparable to the ones in Reservoir Dogs and True Romance. But, unlike those films, this stand-off ends peacefully as Jules assumes control and reasons with the thieves. He presents them with some of his own money and sends them on their way, soaking up a lesson through the ordeal. Jules’ decision to help people in need gives the message that there is more to life than easily won money and a potentially comfortable existence. True Romance strikes a similar chord as love ultimately vanquishes any thirst for monetary value. After the massive shootout, Clarence and Alabama feel blessed to be alive. The films final moments picture the couple a few years later with a son. As the family plays along a beach, we see that a modest family life provides all they needed to begin with. They appear entirely content without money.

Several films provide examples of the kind of working-class lives that criminals attempt to evade. In Fargo the character of Marge acts as the film’s center. She sublimely represents a working-class woman who remains unwavering in her role as both a policewoman and a wife. Her honesty and hard work juxtapose with Lundegaard’s sleazy plan for some quick cash. By the film’s end, when Marge breaks the case and apprehends Gaear, the theme of the film presents itself in her line, “There’s more to life than a little money, you know.” Resembling Marge, the mild-mannered Max Cherry in Jackie Brown wishes to quit his job as a bail bondsman because he finds the work unrewarding. He performs his job proficiently, but tires of spending time around hardened criminals and would rather move forward with his life. When he discerns that Jackie Brown needs help, he decides to aid her plan to rob Ordell of his money. Jackie’s only offense, after all, is stealing from a known criminal who would kill her if she ever got in his way. By Max’s selfless act, Jackie manages to launch her life over again with restored optimism. He generates a positive difference in one person’s life and asks nothing in return.

All of these characters epitomize that there is more to life than gathering money and possessions. They put value in other pursuits, such as career, family, and helping others as best as they can. Most of all they reinforce the idea that working an honest living and helping others shapes a difference. Their actions weigh against those who crave only after money and strengthen the message that crime demonstrates pointlessness.

Crime films have been a staple of cinema for generations. The narratives function as cautionary tales in a way. They insinuate that if you give up on working within the system, then you’re on your own. Destruction fundamentally concludes this decision. However, as long as people reside within the system, they hold the possibility to lead a productive and meaningful life. Jules walks the road less traveled by abandoning his criminal position. He explains to one of the restaurant thieves that, “The truth is you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd.” While Jules may struggle with his transition, at least he discovered a worthy cause to believe in that surveys beyond himself. By acting on this cause, a fulfilling life becomes within reach.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Trailer Round-Up

As the year winds down, previews for some of next year's big releases start to trickle onto the web. Here's a listing of the most recent, along with a few comments:

Robin Hood - Directed by Ridley Scott, Starring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchette
There's not a whole lot to this trailer, although I'm still very interested in the film. Robin Hood happens to be one of those stories that ends up receiving a re-telling for each generation.

Iron Man 2 - Directed by John Favroe, Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gweneth Paltrow, Mickey Rourke, Don Cheadle
Well, they're certainly pulling out all the stops for this one. And after the success of the first, why not? With a great cast, a bigger budget, and even more public awareness, this sequel is all set to be among next year's biggest releases. Let's just hope they aren't biting off more than they can chew.

Clash of the Titans - Starring Sam Worthington, Liam Neesan
Action, action, and more action. That's what this trailer delivers and that's pretty much all I expected. Sam Worthington seems to be in high demand for action flicks these days. He appears to have what it takes when it comes to all the fighting and yelling, but will there be a decent script behind all the adrenaline? (Oh, and Liam Neesan looks kind of ridiculous in his costume.)

Alice in Wonderland - Directed by Tim Burton, Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway
Although not necessarily my favorite as a kid, this material still intrigues me. Tim Burton and his usual band of actors are probably some of the most qualified people to tackle this project. I think it helps that this is more of a sequel/re-imagining of the original stories, as it allows the creative team license to do as they wish. Burton has embraced CG more than ever for this film and I like what I'm seeing thus far.

Shrek Forever After - At this point, who cares?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mini-Review: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Talk about a bad case of sibling rivalry. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis star in what turns out to be a portrait of fame, family, and delusion. It's really a nasty little film; certainly not a "feel good" story with a happy end.

The set-up: In their youth, two showbusiness siblings vie for the spotlight. Jane (Davis) is the star, while Blanche takes a back seat. But as they grow up, the tables turn and Blanche achieves success in film. Filled with extreme jealousy, Jane rams into her sister with a new car, leaving her paralyzed. The remainder of the story takes place years later as the two sisters still live together; neither one with a chance to return to their former glory days.

Crawford and Davis are perfectly cast. Their real-life hatred of each other lent itself well to the film. Some of the confrontations become so heated that you don't know where the performances end and reality begins. Davis gets the showier part and is probably better remembered because of it. Although good, her performance borders on camp ( some would say it is camp). In fact the whole film has an element of campiness to it, intentional or not. I didn't have a problem with that element, though. Any over-the-top elements can be easily put aside as the story builds the tension higher and higher.

Although it's kind of a strange film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? certainly deserves a viewing. The performances from the two leads are great fun to watch as they do all they can to out-act each other.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Catching Up to the Best

With the year quickly drawing to a close, many critics have begun piecing together their annual Top 10 lists. While I enjoy viewing other people's lists, I always struggle for one of my own. There are simply too many films I've yet to see and won't get a chance to for quite some time. This isn't too surprising, though. I'm constantly playing the catch-up game when it comes to new releases. In fact, I feel like only now could I compile a decent Top 10 list for 2008. Living in a small-ish Oklahoma town certainly doesn't help, as the local theater's selections usually leave much to be desired. Oh well, I guess I'll resign myself to viewing most of the following films on DVD as my best of '09 list waits well into the next year.

Yet to see:
Avatar, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Invictus, Nine, Precious, A Serious Man, Up in the Air, The Road, Crazy Heart, The Cove, The Lovely Bones, The Messenger, (500) Days of Summer, A Single Man, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, Big Fan, The Princess and the Frog, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Star Trek, Moon, Watchmen, Bright Star, In the Loop, The Informant! ...and many more

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Back to Basics: Some Thoughts on Animation

With Disney's release of The Princess and the Frog, their first 2D animated feature in quite some time, I've begun to feel a bit nostalgic. While I've always enjoyed the advent of CG films (I still count Toy Story as one of my favorite theater-going experiences), they've become a dime-a-dozen these days. Some of them look like glorified video games coming from studios in search of a quick buck.

I think that, ultimately, I appreciate traditional animation moreso than CG because it contains more of a personal quality. For example, there's less of a seperation from the artists in a hand-drawn medium, as opposed to the calculated pixels of CG. Especially in early 2D films, viewers can see the unique stylings of each animator on screen. While perhaps not the most polished of looks, the level of charm and character involved is simply unavoidable. Meanwhile, the latest CG films seem to be locked in a battle for who has the best looking water effects.

I realize that 2D films now incorporate many aspects of computer technology, but the results still possess a warmth to it - a familiarity on some level. Yes, each form contains strengths and weaknesses and both require great skill. But this holiday season, I'll be enjoying Disney's new take on an old style.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mini-Review: Silver Streak

Starring Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Jill Clayburgh, Patrick McGoohan
Directed by Arthur Hiller

A brief synopsis: Book editor George Caldwell takes a train ride to Chicago and becomes involved in a romance with a secretary named Hilly. Shortly thereafter his trip takes a turn for the worse when he witnesses a dead body falling from the train. Now George must get to the bottom of what he saw without getting killed himself.

In a way, Silver Streak represents one of those hard-to-categorize films. Sure, it’s definitely a comedy, but there’s more to it than that. The film contains a fair bit of action and intrigue, along with some romance for good measure. Actually, the word Hitchcockian comes to mind. Add to that the pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor and you’ve got a unique mix of a film – one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

The cast of this film really shines. Gene Wilder is as appealing as ever in the lead role of George. He’s charming, sympathetic, and you root for him to beat the odds that are stacked against him. This film was the first pairing of Wilder with Richard Pryor and it’s easy to see why they made three more films together afterwards. One of the highlights of the film involves Pryor disguising Wilder with shoe polish and teaching him to “pass” for black. Watching Wilder attempt to dance and jive talk had me laughing for quite awhile.

This film seems slightly underseen today, although I'm not sure why. I think it has something for everyone to enjoy. So seek out Silver Streak for a solid cinematic ride.

Monday, December 7, 2009

New Film from P.T. Anderson Takes Shape

In my opinion, Paul Thomas Anderson represents one of the best directors working today, so any new project from him catches my attention. It looks like his latest film, currently untitled, is in development right now and the big news is that long-time collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman will be on board to star. Set in the 1950's, the film focuses on a charismatic and intelligent man (Hoffman) who creates a popular faith-based organisation in America. The crux of the story will examine the relationship between Hoffman’s character and a 20-something drifter, who finds himself questioning the belief system.
I've enjoyed each one of Anderson's films thus far, so hopefully this will be no different. From the brief plot description above, it seems that Anderson will return to some of the themes he touched upon in his last effort, There Will Be Blood. There's definitely a great wealth of material for him to mine within those themes; and with Hoffman starring, this project should be one worth the wait.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Mini-Review: Thieves' Highway

Recently, I took a trip into the world of film noir, courtesy of Thieves' Highway (1949). I was drawn to watch this film mostly due to its director, Jules Dassin. After viewing Riffifi (1955), another of his films, I became curious about the director's other work. Dassin helmed several films set in this dark, gritty genre and each one seems worthwhile. The story of Thieves' Highway centers on Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) as he returns home from his travels abroad. His pleasant homecoming becomes spoiled when he discovers his father has been crippled; the result of his dealings with a shady businessman, Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). Nick swears vengeance on behalf of his father and sets out to confront Figlia.

Thieves' Highway represents a very solid entry into the film noir genre. The performances from the leading actors serve the film well, especially Cobb as the heavy. He's great at parts that require intimidation along with some wormy charm. Cobb's performance here reminded me of his role in On the Waterfront (1954) where he famously played a mob boss. The story combines the essential elements of the genre, but, at the same time, there's more humanity on display than in most noirs. There's some social commentary on capitalism that stands out from most films of this era. (Perhaps this kind of material contributed to Dassin's trouble in the 1950's McCarthy era when he became blacklisted.) Only a couple of factors detract from an otherwise fine film - the major factor being the ending. Without giving anything away, I'll say that it felt off tonally from the rest of the film and could have had more of an impact. There's an element of it that feels tacked on and easy. In fact, Dassin did not approve of the ending; instead it was the result of studio interference. Otherwise, I really have no other complaints about this film. Thieves' Highway makes for some solid entertainment - with a bit more than meets the eye.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Independent Spirit Award Nominations Announced

Awards season has officially arrived as various groups announce their picks for the year's best films. Among these groups, the Independent Spirit Awards represents one of the more prestigous ceremonies. For my money, they not only provide a hint of things to come for the Academy Awards, but also end up representing a superior line of nominees. Leading the way this year are Precious and The Last Station, each with five nominations.

Here are a few of the major categories:

BEST FEATURE (Award given to the Producer)
500 Days of Summer
Sin Nombre
The Last Station

The Coen Brothers for A Serious Man
Lee Daniels for Precious
Cary Fukunaga for Sin Nombre
James Grey for Two Lovers
Michael Hoffman for The Last Station

Maria Bello for Downloading Nancy
Helen Mirren for The Last Station
Gwentyth Paltrow for Two Lovers
Gabby Sidibe for Precious
Nisreen Faour for Amreeka

Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart
Colin Firth for A Single Man
Joseph Gordon Levitt for 500 Days Of Summer
Souleymane Sy Savane for Goodbye Solo
Adam Scott for The Vicious Kind

Alessandro Camon, Oren Moverman for The Messenger
Michael Hoffman for The Last Station
Lee Toland Krieger for The Vicious Kind
Greg Mottola for Adventureland
Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber for 500 Days of Summer

For a complete listing, visit

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Review: Not Quite Hollywood

When it comes to exploring unfamiliar territory in cinema, I’m always on board. So, when I heard about the documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008), I knew I should give it a watch. The film centers on the decidedly low-brow features produced within the Australian film industry during the 70’s and 80’s. Presented in a thoroughly entertaining manner, Not Quite Hollywood tells the story of exploitation cinema from the perspective of those who lived it. The film not only effectively educates its audience on a group of otherwise little-seen films, but also places them into cultural and historical perspective.

Conveniently, the film divides itself into three sections, each focusing on different genres. The first, Ockers, Knockers, Boobs, and Tubes, zones in on skin flicks and gross-out comedies. These films illustrate the loosening social mores of the time; shattering the boundaries of decency. They also gave Australians an opportunity to poke fun at themselves and other countries perceptions of the Outback. The second segment, Comatose Killers and Outbreak Chillers, focuses on suspense and horror films. Ranging from the ridiculous to the insane, this segment films I won’t soon forget. They may be trash, but you can’t turn your eyes away. From there, the third segment, High Octane Disasters and Kung Fu Masters, covers action films. Shot practically and on low budgets, you’ll likely never witness stuntwork as dangerous as you see in these films. As an actor, you know you’re in trouble when the crew shoots live ammunition toward you! Plus, the Aussie car chases are probably some of the best put to film.

The commentators of Not Quite Hollywood provide the film with one of its biggest assets. As with most talking-head documentaries, the commentators can make or break the film. Luckily, Not Quite Hollywood features some engaging interviewees telling captivating stories. A wide range of experts provide their thoughts, mostly writers, directors, actors, producers, and stuntmen involved in Ozploitation filmmaking. Their enthusiasm and passion for the work on display becomes immediately evident as they tell many entertaining, often outrageous, anecdotes. Even Quentin Tarantino joins in on the fun as he once again proves his cinema expertise. These stories easily create a contagious sense of excitement that I couldn’t resist.

Adding to the sense of excitement is the level of filmmaking on display from director Mark Hartley. He kicks things into high gear with some fast-paced editing, often times set to some adrenalin-pumping tunes. Also, a fair amount of graphics seamlessly incorporate themselves into the mix, helping create transitions and punctuation to the already in-your-face movie clips. With these skillful aesthetic choices the film moves at a quick pace, and, before you know it, the 105 minute runtime comes to an end. And although the subject matter is thoroughly covered, I wouldn’t have minded some additional material. I suppose that signals the mark of an effective documentary – give audiences enough to chew on, but also leave them wanting to explore a bit more on their own.

Not Quite Hollywood will provide movie buffs and genre film enthusiasts a plethora of previously unknown films to enjoy. Yes, the content will turn many (perfectly sensible) people away, but for those adventurous enough, these films will provide viewers with something completely different. The kinetic style and great storytelling make Not Quite Hollywood a quality documentary worth seeking out.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Giving Thanks

One thing I'm always thankful for on holidays like these are the James Bond marathons. They're the perfect films that you can float in and out of while you catch up with family members and stuff your face. It's easy to zone out of them for awhile and then tune back in for any favorite exciting and/or comical sequences. The actual plots are essentially interchangable and can usually be ignored without much trouble. I've come to associate these films with the holidays as they're something that my entire family enjoys and will watch to some extent. I guess you could say it's a real bonding experience (Get it? Yeah, lame.).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Trailer: Greenberg

The trailer for Noah Baumbach's latest effort, Greenberg, has hit the web recently, so I thought I'd take a look. Baumbach's an interesting director. His projects seem so personal, almost to their detriment at times. For example, I was mixed over his last film, Margot at the Wedding, but loved The Squid and the Whale. I felt that the latter used elements from his personal life more effectively than the former. With this new film, I'm definately looking forward to it. The story centers on a 40 year-old man, played by Ben Stiller, who "wants to do nothing for awhile". He decides to housesit for a relative while he attempts to figure things out.
The trailer features Baumbach's usual humor and wit, along with a nice music choice. I kind of perk up when a see something like this that doesn't necessarily fit into a specific box. And it's good to see Ben Stiller branching out from his usual mainstream fodder. I'm interested to see how he handles this material.
Look for Greenberg when it hits theaters next year.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Cinerama Recommends: The Movie Club Podcast

The Movie Club Podcast brings together a group of dedicated cineasts who, for each episode, discuss two films in depth. While the episodes come few and far between, they are worth the wait as each show provides some quality discussion. The films chosen range greatly from the mainstream to the obscure. Just as an example, the most recent episode included Artificial Intelligence: AI and Prince of Darkness. The podcast maintains a fairly laid-back tone and includes plenty of humorous moments. Most of the participants come from either Film Junk or Row Three, two quality movie blogs that I read regularly. So check out The Movie Club Podcast for some interesting talk on film. You won't regret it!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Reworking the Western: High Noon

(This essay was one that I wrote in college, although somewhat modified. It's an early effort and nothing overly impressive, but I've decided to post it anyway.)

In 1952 director Fred Zinnemann presented in new type of western onto the Hollywood scene with High Noon. The results would leave some people praising the film, while others criticized, such as director Howard Hawks and John Wayne. They felt the film violated the western genre through the atypical portrayal of its hero. Hawks felt so strongly against the film that he directed another western as a response, called Rio Bravo (1959). On the surface, High Noon contains all the elements of a typical western: a small town, the local sheriff, outlaws, and unassuming townspeople. But while all those conventions remain present, in actuality the film acts as an anti-western. This film challenged many traditions that the western had stood for and in doing so it changed the way people looked at western heroes. High Noon refused to mythologize the west the way most Hollywood westerns do, but instead showcased a more realistic portrayal of the west and its inhabitants.

One of the primary ways High Noon deconstructs the mythical west is through its portrayal of the western hero. In the “classical westerns” heroes easily save the day and are universally praised by all the townsfolk. These heroes are young, good-looking, and possess an enormous amount of confidence in their abilities. The hero of High Noon, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), represents the very antithesis of this caricature. Throughout the film Kane wears black, which in past westerns would normally be worn by villains. Such a detail suggests that Kane represents a conflicted character; one who may not possess all the makings of a typical hero. Also, Kane is much older than the usual hero figure. Zinnemann avoids flattering photography with his protagonist. Instead, Kane is presented for who he is: a middle-aged, somewhat weary man with no illusions of grandeur.

The set up of the story starts as any western might with a small town threatened by the presence of outlaws. Three rough-and-tumble types arrive at the town’s train station, awaiting the arrival of Frank Miller, a destructive force from the town’s past. Everyone knows that Miller wants revenge on the now-retiring sheriff Kane who sent him to jail previously. Residents of the town naturally become concerned, but hesitate to get involved. Everyone turns down the chance to help Kane for various reasons and some of the townspeople even oppose him. One scene in particular illustrates the isolation that Kane feels. Shortly before the climatic showdown, Kane returns to his office, knowing he will fight alone. He wearily sits down at his desk and then begins to cry, which is perhaps the only time in the film that he allows himself to really let out his emotions. This scene plays out so simply that no dialog is required, but, at the same time, much information is communicated to the audience. The audience can see the pain and anxiety on Kane’s face. This is a man who has done everything that he can do to handle the situation. The town that he has protected for so long has turned its back on him. He knows that he has reached the point of no return and must face his enemies even though he fears for his life. Soon after this moment, Kane begins to write his will, showing extreme uncertainty of his fate. This kind of doubt and vulnerability breaks with the tradition of the “classic western” hero who shows no signs of doubt. Shortly after that, Kane steps onto the empty street and the camera cranes back very far to show how isolated the town has left him.

This scene leading up to the shootout keeps in line with Zinnemann’s European influences by focusing on interior conflicts. Kane wants to do the right thing and protect the town, but at the same time he is frightened to fight when no one will help him. Prince says that the “presentation of a vulnerable, anxious, vacillating Marshal has a certain de-mythifying effect” (66). In this film the idea of the classic “western hero” does not exist. Kane attempts to be the classic “western hero,” even though he realizes that he is not and cannot be that kind of hero.

Visually, most westerns take advantage of the beautiful outdoor scenery that the stories typically necessitate, associating the films with qualities such as expansiveness and freedom. Schatz says that, “These films do not celebrate the past itself, but rather our contemporary idealized version of the past” (63). This is not the case with High Noon. Gone are the picturesque vistas of Monument Valley found in the films of John Ford. With a diverse background in film, director Zinnemann was influenced by European filmmaking and, in particular, Italian Neo-Realism. In fact, Prince says that, “The escapism and sentimentality of Hollywood films appalled [Zinnemann] in contrast to the direct social content of post-war European films” (62). As a result the film practices a minimalist visual style and focuses on the main character’s actions. Prince says that realism is maintained by, “avoidance of elaborate visual or technical gimmickry and an interest in grounding the image in the ongoing social history” (61). Perhaps the dedication to realism explains the film’s constant shots of clocks as they mark the time before final conflict, always grounding the audience as the events of the film take place almost in real time. In this respect High Noon has much more in common with Neo-Realism than the Hollywood western.

One section of the film illustrates how inverted typical conventions of westerns become as outlaws are praised by the mild mannered townspeople, while the sheriff becomes dismissed by them. Midway through the film, one of the outlaws comes into town for a drink. The fact that he feels confident enough to casually walk through the town shows the level of power that he views in Kane. As he walks into the bar, many people greet him with cheer, as if saying hello to an old friend. The patrons talk with glee about his future fight with Kane. As the outlaw leaves, Kane walks up to the local bar to recruit some help. When their paths cross, the outlaw shows no signs of panic whatsoever, while Kane freezes, terrified to spot the outlaw. The look that the outlaw gives Kane is a look of total confidence because he knows that Kane can do nothing to stop him. Kane is put in a position where he is powerless to do anything to stop him because he has not broken any laws yet. This is just one of the many examples that show how diminished Kane, and effectively the symbol of the western hero, have become.

Immediately as Kane walks into the bar, an uncomfortable feeling emerges from everyone present. The bartender talks poorly of Kane as he walks inside. Kane then punches the bartender to the ground as most western heroes would do, but then immediately apologizes and offers to help him up. Admitting any wrong doing is not a practice that mythical western heroes tend to practice since they always do the right thing, at least according to their own code. Therefore, by apologizing Kane admits a sort of defeat.

Standing alone in the middle of the room, Kane then asks for volunteers to help him in his struggle. By the look on Kane’s face he knows that he does not stand a chance at finding any help in the bar, but also knows that he must try anyway, if only out of a sense of desperation. The bartender even points out that many of the patrons present were friends of the man that Kane must fight. As the men simply stare at him in silence, Kane’s level of authority becomes clearly diminished throughout the scene. As he leaves the men start to laugh at Kane for even attempting to acquire their help. Such treatment of Kane, the man who symbolizes law and order, was unheard of in western films.

The scene in the church is one of the pivotal points in the story. In this scene the viewer does not see an idealized gathering of people who unite for a common cause, but one that shows what people really care about. This scene is important because the townspeople are allowed to voice all of their opinions and the viewer gets to understand their logic. All of them seem to think that Kane is a good man, but ultimately decide not to help him. Their reasoning that the town would be better off without a gunfight and all its publicity may have some truth, but ultimately they are just turning their backs on a man they know has been good for the town. In this way the scene plays out like a microcosm for the whole film.

At the end of the film, after the villains are killed, Kane effectively does to the townspeople what they had done to him by throwing his badge to the ground in disgust. Just as the townspeople return to accept him as a hero after the fight, he turns his back on the town. By throwing down his badge he is basically saying “Thanks for nothing” to the entire town. The hypocritical townspeople can only stand in silence as Kane rides away. They know that they have forsaken a decent man during his time of need and, as a result, a feeling of guilt follows as Kane leaves. As with Neo-Realist films such as De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948), High Noon contains an anti-climatic ending. The action plays itself out in a realistic manner without any melodramatic elements.

Overall, High Noon broke many precedents for the western genre. The uncertain sheriff, conflicted townspeople, and outlaws who have some of the town’s admiration are just some of the aspects the film turns against the conventions of the genre. After the success of the film, other westerns began to focus more on interior psychological aspects of its heroes. The criticisms of Hawks and Wayne and the resulting film, Rio Bravo, a popular film in its own right, have failed to diminish this film as one of the great examples of American filmmaking. Through its departures in character portrayal and influences in European cinema, High Noon changed the way that people thought about the western.

Works Cited
Prince, Stephen, "Historical Perspective and the Realist Aesthetic in High Noon," Film Criticism (Spring-Fall, 1994): 59-71.

Schatz, Thomas. “The Western.” Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. New York: Random House, 1981. 45-80.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mr. Scorsese

Mr. Martin Scorsese, always a favorite director of mine, turns 67 today. I always looks forward to whatever project he becomes involved in and enjoy revisiting his past work. His enthusiasm and passion for cinema helped inspire my own interest in film. So happy birthday, Mr. Scorsese. Here's to many more great films to come!

Monday, November 16, 2009

They Don't Make 'Em Like That Anymore: Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry

“Back in the all or nothing days, the Vanishing Point days, the Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry days, the White Line Fever days, they had real cars crashing into real cars and real dumb people driving ‘em.” - Stuntman Mike in Grindhouse

I first heard of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) through Quentin Tarantino’s half of the Grindhouse double-feature, Deathproof. Tarantino name-checks the film for good reason, as it’s exactly the type of film he was attempting to emulate. Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry acts as a gritty, campy, down-and-dirty, romp of a story which exemplifies the type of genre filmmaking that simply doesn’t get made much these days – at least not in this form. And that form is the road movie, more specifically the chase film filled with fast cars wildly driving to avoid the authorities. Now, I’m no gear-head, but I appreciate a good car chase, and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry features some fine footage along those lines. The fact that all the driving stunts had to be accomplished without the aid of CGI or any other modern-day trickery allows viewers to truly become involved in what they’re watching – if not from a story point-of-view, then at least from a filmmaking point-of-view.

Although simplistic, the story serves as an adequate launching point. As it begins, two thieves, Larry and Deke, plan to rob a grocery store and then “head south” (presumably to Mexico). Their plans become complicated, however, when a girl named Mary, who Larry had slept with the night before, almost casually decides to join them as they make their getaway. The rest of the film follows our protagonists as they attempt to avoid the authorities, making for some solid action and car crashes.

While nothing outstanding, the actors involved work to elevate the material into something entertaining. A long-haired Peter Fonda stars as the rebellious Larry, while the other titular character Mary is played by Susan George. These two enjoy a love-hate relationship throughout the film, bickering one minute and making up the next. This dynamic may be formulaic, but it serves the movie well. Adding to that dynamic is Adam Roarke as Deke, the more professional of the two crooks. He’s annoyed that Mary has wound up on the run, but begrudgingly puts up with it. Vic Marrow kind of steals the show as the aging policeman in charge of apprehending the delinquents. His renegade policeman stops at nothing to complete his assignment, essentially attempting to prove his worth.

The real highlights of the film come partially from the dialog. Some of the one-liners thrown out are both cheesy and awesome at the same time. The level of swagger from Larry alone brought a smile to my face. The ending also counts as a highlight. Without spoiling anything, it’s one of the most abrupt endings I’ve ever seen and one that I won’t soon forget. After the credits began rolling, I simply sat there, mouth wide open, at what I had just witnessed.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Mini-Review: Swimming with Sharks

Movies about the movie industry have been fairly common for many years now – some would even say they’re to the point of becoming worn-out. So when I watched Swimming with Sharks, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a film that stands out from the ordinary. It’s a dark, cynical film that reminded me of Sunset Blvd. in its level of pessimism (and that’s really saying something). Certainly not a film for everyone, Swimming with Sharks cuts deep into the volatile world of the Hollywood machine, where even the best intentions fail for those attempting to succeed.

This low-budget film features some fine performances from its stars, Kevin Spacey and Frank Whaley. Each one attempts to outdo the other in their scenes together, working side-by-side to create an increasingly contentious relationship. The story took me places I was surprised to go and brought up some angles that typically wouldn’t be explored. Although dark, the film provides many comedic moments that are just odd enough to come from real life. Ultimately the film acts as a cautionary tale, asking us to be careful what we wish for.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Ode to Emmerich

I'm by no means a poet. In fact, it's a subject I know nothing about. But, I was suddenly struck with the idea to try my hand at it anyway. So, in honor of this week's big release of 2012, I decided to write a poem on its director, Roland Emmerich. He's the modern-day Irwin Allen, the king of disaster films, and the poem reflects this lofty position.

An Ode to Emmerich:

O Mr. Emmerich
How I love to see
Gigantic disasters
On my TV

Those buildings you crumble
With explosions to spare
You destroy existence
Without a care

That gleeful abandon
Which you spread about
Causes everyone
To scream and shout

You’re truly the master
Of all you survey
In your cinema playground
You alone hold sway

So, should people complain
About all the clatter
You can just say the word
And they’ll be part of the splatter

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Teaser Trailer for Clash of the Titans Remake

Well, yet another remake has been shaping up and this time it's a remake of the 1981 fantasy-epic Clash of the Titans. I watched the original recently and thought that it could benefit from a retelling. Visually-speaking, the film looks promising. The creature designs seem interesting and the story appears to be action-packed. And if that's all the film really offers, I can't be too disappointed. The '81 version felt at least partially like a cash-grab opportunity with the studio targeting a Star Wars type audience. They even included a little mechanical owl which blatantly called to mind R2-D2, as it chirped and clicked itself into humorous situations.
The movie stars Sam Worthington, Liam Neesan, Ralph Fiennes, and Gemma Arterton. We'll find out more details in the coming months, but in the meantime, check out the trailer at the link below.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

This Could Get Messy: Top 10 Poop/Fart Jokes in Film

Finding a truly universal joke can prove to be a tricky task. With all the cultural differences in the world, many types of jokes simply do not translate from country to country. People miss out on the subtleties and nuances of verbal gags; misunderstand situations that are unique to a particular area, and essentially fail to identify with the cultural norms that jokes are constructed from. So, in order to find humor that anyone can enjoy, you must look toward the most basic functions in life; things that everyone deals with.

Bathroom humor falls under that limited category. Let’s face it, everyone goes to the bathroom, it’s a part of life – and it makes for some of the best laughs.

Now, I know that some people may look down at this type of humor, thinking that it’s simply crass, juvenile, or just plain gross. To those people I would say, “Get off your high horse!” I think everyone has laughed at some form of bathroom humor in their lives. If it isn’t your style, then that’s fine, but just remember, when it comes down to it, bathroom humor is one of the few things that connects us all. As a wise man once said, “Everyone poops.”

To cut to the point, one of the best places to find some good bathroom humor is in the movies. I’ve compiled my own personal top 10 list of these jokes – not an easy task as there are many films to choose from. So, here it is, in no particular order, the best of best, the cream of the crap!

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
Every entry in the Austin Powers series contains its share of bathroom humor, but I think the gag that tops them all comes from the first film. When an assassin attempts to strangle Austin while seated in a men’s room stall, hilarity ensues. This joke is so well set up and paid off (“What did you eat?”) that no matter how many times I see it, it makes me laugh.

Dumb and Dumber
Turbo Lax: “one spoonful for fast, effective relief.” Harry (Jeff Daniels) gets his share of laxative and then some when his buddy Lloyd attempts to sabotage his date. His scramble into the bathroom and the resulting effects of the Turbo Lax are a highlight of the film. As he learns that the toilet is broken, the look of horror on Jeff Daniels’ face adds the perfect closer to the scene.

Rocket Man
Do people remember this one? Well, they should. I’ve always been a big Harland Williams fan and this film was his attempt at a starring vehicle. While the film didn’t fare so well financially, it left a lasting impression on me as a kid. Williams’ specific style of humor shines throughout the film, but there was one particular scene which I immediately thought of when compiling this list. If you’ve seen the film, then you know what I’m talking about. But for those who haven’t, I’ll give you two words: space farts. Yeah, you’re sold now, aren’t you?

Blazing Saddles
This film is, perhaps, the pioneer for fart jokes in cinema, so I must include it. We watch as a bunch of grizzled cowboys consume plates full of beans while sitting around a camp fire – all accompanied by a multitude of fart sound-effects that build in frequency. This scene is brilliant in its simplicity and Slim Pickens delivery of the line “I think you’ve had enough” never fails elicit a smile. Thank you, Mel Brooks.

Lethal Weapon 2
We all dread this situation: dying on the toilet. And that’s exactly what Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) comes dangerously close to experiencing in this film. Someone wants our hero dead, so they plant a bomb on his toilet. The second he stands up, the bomb will go off. Fortunately, Roger’s got Riggs (Mel Gibson) to help him out. This scene plays out with both humor and intensity; not an easy combination to achieve. If nothing else, it will make you think twice the next time you go to the can.

Me and You and Everyone We Know
I won’t give away the context for this scene, simply because I couldn’t do it justice. Instead, I’ll just quote the signature line of dialog: “Back and forth, forever and ever.” While one of the oddest scenes I’ve ever witnessed, it’s one of the most memorable as well. ))<>((

You know it, you love it, it’s the Swimming Pool Scene. This Jaws parody delivers every time as a Baby Ruth candy bar becomes mistaken for feces floating in the country club swimming pool. The mad dash out of the pool, followed by its clean-up, remains one of the highlights from this comedy classic.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Many of Kevin Smith’s films could qualify for a place on this list as he deals heavily with “low-brow” comedy, but I’ve chosen his most recent work as it goes a bit further than the rest. This is definitely the most visually graphic scene on this list, but funny nonetheless. I won’t describe the details, but suffice it to say that a cameraman is put in a most compromising position while filming a low-angle shot of a constipated porn actress. Things get messy…very, very, messy.

Sasha Baron Cohen would have us believe that when those from Kazakhstan excuse themselves to go to the restroom at a dinner party, they typically return with their waste wrapped up in a bag. While I doubt this is a custom in any country, it does make for one of the most awkward dinner conversations I’ve ever seen. Like most of the material in the film, the real joy in this scene generates from the reactions of the unsuspecting dinner guests – those poor, unfortunate people.

Billy Madison
In a gleefully juvenile scene, Billy and his two friends light a bag of crap on fire in front of an old man’s house and watch as he angrily stomps it out. Their laughter throughout is infectious and the fact that the old man is pants-less while stomping out the bag adds a slightly bizarre element to the situation. Truly, this is a sublime moment.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Shamefully Unseen

Even though I consider myself a major fan of film, I'm always hesitant to describe myself as a connoisseur. You see, no matter how many films I watch, there will always be thousands that go unseen. Of course, there are those films for which I simply don't have an interest. I could live my entire life without seeing Dude, Where's My Car? and be perfectly content. But, then there's also a large list that I've wanted to watch, only to remain unseen for one reason or another. Some of these films are well-known, award-winning hits like Ghandi and Malcolm X. Others are smaller, more off the beaten path such as Paris, Texas or The Saragossa Manuscript. Whatever the level of popularity, I think everyone has at least a few films that they've always wanted to see.

When I think of the areas in which I'm most deficient, I'd have to say foreign films top the list. Although I attempt to watch a fair number of them, I know there are plenty of quality titles I've yet to experience. I've seen a few from the likes of Renoir, Kurosawa, Bergman, and Truffaut, but zero from other often-named greats like Ozu, Almodovar, or Ray. I'm certainly not averse to these types of films, but I do sometimes wonder what holds me back from seeking out more than I do. Perhaps it's the sense of familiarity; or ,rather, the lack of it in some instances. Without a full understanding of other cultures, it's impossible to grasp everything a foreign film presents to you. The sense that there will always be something missing from my experience might, therefore, cause me to shy away at times. In any case, foreign films only account for one area of lacking film knowledge.

Some of the other types of films I don't watch as much of include a number of the more lengthy bio-pics, such as the aforementioned Ghandi and Malcolm X. I'm not opposed to longer films either; they just require a little more committment and preparation. Also, I don't get around to watching many musicals. It's usually just not my genre - although, again, I'm not averse to them.

And then there are some films simply fall through the cracks...

Here's a small sample of films on my "to see" list:
Destry Rides Again
The Magnificent Ambersons
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The Red Shoes
The Man with the Golden Arm
Elmer Gantry
High and Low
Band of Outsiders
Take the Money and Run
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Barry Lyndon
Opening Night
Empire of the Sun
The Last Temptation of Christ
Leaving Las Vegas
Big Night

What are some of your "shamefully unseen" films?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

This Year's Oscar Ceremony Hosted By...

Well, it looks as if the Academy Awards will change it up a bit this year since both Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin will be hosting. Yep, two hosts for the price of one. It's been quite some time since the Oscars have had multiple hosts - in fact this will be my first opportunity to witness such an event. I'm not exactly sure how the whole multiple host thing will play out, but the change seems in keeping with Academy's tendencies lately, what with the expansion of the Best Picture category from 5 to 10 nominees. I like the choice of Martin, who has hosted previously, and Baldwin seems like an inspired choice. After watching the two of them together on SNL, I think they'll have a good chemistry and I look forward to seeing them perform side-by-side again. This year's show is shaping up to be an interesting one, shaking things up from the usual. The ratings have been down in recent times, so maybe this year will be the shot in the arm that the Oscars need. Only time will tell.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Mini-Review: The Blob (1958)

Sometimes it's nice to look back on the film's that, while influential and revered by some, typically get dismissed by most. The Blob (1958) provides a classic example of this situation. Starring a young Steve McQueen, The Blob acts as a prototypical sci-fi/horror film. When people think of 50's sci-fi, this film is exactly what comes to mind.

The story is simple. When a meteor crashes onto Earth, a strange creature begins to creep its way into the nearest town, devouring anyone who comes into contact with it. Soon, the responsibility falls on McQueen and his teenage friends (all played by twenty-somethings) to warn the townspeople of this new threat. Of course, the adults don't believe the kid's wild story, instead blaming them for the disturbances that go reported. McQueen and the gang must find a way to either defeat the creature or warn others of their impending doom.

I suppose the story elements seem all too familiar and it certainly doesn't go above and beyond the typical films of its genre, but The Blob contains enough elements to make it a worthwhile watch. The film was independently financed, with a good deal of the money going towards the effects. While they may seem shoddy by today's standards, I think the only fair way to look at them is through the context of the time in which the film was made. By those standards the effects seemed just fine to me. The blob itself looks alien enough (figuratively and literally) to create a eerie atmosphere. It's also interesting any time you can look back on a big-name star like McQueen early in their careers. If anything, it illustrates that everyone has to start somewhere. Oh, and I should mention the opening title song, which has been stuck in my head ever since I first heard it. The song really conflicts with the tone of the rest of the film, as it's this peppy, poppy number that seems added at the last minute (in fact, I believe it was). Still, I enjoyed the song, maybe because it simply defied expectations.

So, if you should come across The Blob some night on TV, I'd say go ahead and watch if science-fiction is your thing or if you happen to be a big fan of Steve McQueen and want to check out some of his early work. If your not interested, just wait for the eventual remake.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Horror Fest '09: Fright Night

Picture this: a teenager begins to fear for his life when he suspects his new neighbor of being a vampire. Well, that’s exactly the situation Charley Brewster, the main character of Fright Night (1985), must face. While that scenario may seem standard, even cliché, the film handles it well, making the most out of common story elements. For this type of film the story becomes almost secondary to the tone, which was what ultimately won me over. There are certain sensibilities which run throughout; mostly a sense of fun and a sense of history, which hit the right chords for me.

The appreciation for film history starts right off the bat. The beginning of the film will bring Rear Window to mind for many fans of cinema, as Charley spies on his neighbor and struggles to convince others to believe his wild theory. Referencing Hitchcock’s work, whether intentional or not, sets a particular mood – one of intrigue and suspense that will carry the film. Since no one he knows believes him, Charlie sets out to find Peter Vincent, an aging horror film star who happens to be down on his luck. The Peter Vincent character brings up more references to films past as his name itself recalls horror icons Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. The filmmakers do well to pay tribute to the genre without letting their admiration interfere with telling their own story.

This film boasts some fine performances, especially from Chris Sarandon as the creepy new neighbor. He strikes both a sinister presence and a suave charisma as suspected vampire Jerry Dandrige; a tough line to walk. One minute he’s charming, the next he’s dangerous. Most of the film’s scares come courtesy of Sarandon, especially when Jerry confronts Charley alone at night for the first time. Another top performance comes from Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent, helping represent the lighter side of the film. He seems to be having a fun time alternating between the horror host persona and true-life cowardly self of his character. William Ragsdale and Amanda Bearse function adequately in the lead roles, although nothing overly memorable comes from them.

I enjoy the relatively small scale of the story as it allows the film to focus on performing the few key aspects it needs to function effectively. As an example of the film’s small scale, essentially only six characters make up the bulk of the film. That aspect makes the film easily watchable, something to throw on when whenever you want. There’s something satisfying about watching a film use standard elements well. It’s like the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. Sure, it may not be the best thing for you, but it’s familiar and likable. Perhaps Roger Ebert put it best when he wrote, "Fright Night is not a distinguished movie, but it has a lot of fun being undistinguished.”

Sometimes the simple approach works best. That’s certainly the case when it comes to Fright Night, a film filled with well-executed conventions. While some may call it cliché-ridden, the film’s overall effectiveness and sense of fun pulls it from stale territory and into fresh.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Double Dose of Damon

Two new trailers premiered within 24 hours of each other, both of which star busy-man Matt Damon. The first trailer was for Green Zone, which essentially looks another Bourne film, only set in the Middle East (not that that's a bad thing). That comparison, aside from the Damon connection, is mostly due to director Paul Greengrass's presence as he brings his signature hand-held, kinetic style that he supplied in the Bourne sequels. The film's story, based on the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, involves a search for weapons of mass destruction. Other than that, I don't know that much about the plot, but that matters very little at this point. With Damon and Greengrass, as well as co-stars Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan, Brendan Gleeson, I'm already sold based on the talent involved. Green Zone premiers on March 12, 2010.

The second trailer was for the latest Clint Eastwood film, Invictus. Based on actual events, the story follows Nelson Mandela’s first term as president of South Africa, and how he held hopes for uniting the country on the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Morgan Freeman plays Mandela, which is no big surprise. Not only does he seem like a natural for the part, he's worked with Eastwood in the past. Matt Damon plays South African team captain Francois Pienaar.
The trailer certainly looks like the Oscar-bait material that people have come to expect from Eastwood, especially of late. I'll definately see it, but the potential level of sentimentality has me slightly skeptical. Invictus will premier on December 11, 2009.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Criterion, You've Done It Again

For some time now, it's been known that the Criterion Company would be releasing Steven Soderbergh's epic bio-pic Che, but details on the release had not been made until now. The film will arrive on Blu-ray and DVD in January with all of the great extra features that collectors have come to expect from the company. Interestingly enough, the film was originally intended as a December release, but was delayed when Soderbergh needed additional time to prepare some of the additional content for the discs. Of the delay, a spokesperson from Criterion stated that, "[it's] a trade we will always make, even if it means we don’t get the benefit of sales in the holiday season, and we think that’s the kind of decision our collectors would want us to make”. This attitude from Criterion deserves some praise. How many companies would choose to wait out a heavy buying season in order to ensure a quality product gets produced? I'm personally looking forward to Che as I'm a fan of Soderbergh's work. He's taken quite a few chances with his films and this one represents one of his biggest. The two-part film will hit stores on January 19, 2010.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Horror Fest '09: The Howling

Some people simply don’t get the credit they deserve. Case in point: director Joe Dante has spent his career crafting some solidly entertaining films, and yet he isn’t anywhere near a household name. Sure, he achieved prominent success with Gremlins (1984), but most people paid attention to executive producer Steven Spielberg’s name above the title. Mainstream success aside, Dante has continually generated films with his own personal sensibilities, paying homage to the history of the silver screen and winking at the audience members in on the nods. The film which gained him the attention of Spielberg, eventually earning him the Gremlins gig, was The Howling (1981), a low-budget horror flick with a bit more on its mind than most. It represents one of those under-seen films, the kind that you feel pleasantly surprised to discover. Released the same year as An American Werewolf in London, The Howling swiftly fell off audience’s radars in favor of the similarly themed film. Fortunately, hindsight allows us a chance to consider this film and its place within that most hallowed of genres: the werewolf movie.

The film commences with a somewhat odd set-up, playing out more like a police procedural than a horror film. News anchor Karen White assists the police in capturing a serial killer who had been preying on the homeless. Her role in apprehending the killer proves quite traumatic, leading Karen to experience intense nightmares. Needing a rest, her psychiatrist suggests she head to The Colony, his own clinic away from the trappings of civilization. Once at the clinic, however, strange events lead her to believe that her life may be in danger. From there the film paces itself fairly deliberately, slowly revealing the scares and setting up a sense of atmosphere.

The Howling may contain its share of scares, but a streak of black humor also carries on throughout the proceedings. Aiming for more sly moments of amusement than laugh-out-loud jokes, the film will play better for those who know the genre best. For instance, Dante and company decide to mess with the typical rules associated with werewolves, leading to a humorous scene with an occult book store owner as he discusses his theories on dealing with the creatures (“They’re worse than cock-a-roaches,” he says). Also undermined is the archetypal portrayal of the werewolves as sympathetic, instead depicting them mostly as bloodthirsty beasts who have few qualms with luring unsuspecting people as prey. This switch leads to some sinister moments of humor as the werewolves discuss hunting habits and encourage others to join them. And those especially in-the-know will notice some werewolf-related visual puns as well as small references to werewolf films past, such as the fact that many character’s names are those of old horror film directors.

To fill out the cast of characters, Dante called upon old character-actors like John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Kevin McCarthy, and Dick Miller, further illustrating an appreciation of film history by the filmmaker. It’s a real pleasure to watch these actors go to work. They’re experienced pros who know the exact tone the film calls for. As for the leads, each one performs adequately for what is required of them. Dee Wallace portrays Karen with an equal amount of sympathy and paranoia, making her a character that we care about following. A special mention should go to Robert Picardo who plays the mysterious Eddie, a patient at The Colony who provides the film with some of its creepiest moments. As with anything else, the actor’s performances work to enhance the other filmic elements at play to create just the right tone.

The level of craft behind the film has gone undervalued. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the scenes of transformation in this film nearly rival the innovative effects in An American Werewolf in London. As in London, practical effects were utilized to portray the change from human into beast, resulting in a more visceral feel than past films supplied. The transformations exhibit a great level of pain for the creatures as bones bend and curve to their wolf forms. And, once again, I think this film represents another case in which a low budget forced the crew into becoming more creative. For a majority of the film you only receive glimpses of the monsters, a tactic which assists in building up the tension. That way, when the creatures do appear in full view, all the built-up tension delivers as the audience has already developed a fear of them.

Thematically, the film plays out the usual dilemma of a werewolf story: the struggle between being civilized and letting animal impulses take over. The Howling manages to convey this standard idea interestingly, modernizing it to include aspects of media, self-help groups, and marital fidelity. The opening of the film frames the central conflict effectively by focusing on the words of a psychiatrist as he speaks about repression as “the father of neurosis, of self-hatred” and how people should return to more base instincts. Though not at the forefront of the film, these facets remain in the margin for those who wish to explore them. Not many horror films can be enjoyed on multiple levels like this one and for that I’ll give credit.

The Howling may not represent groundbreaking cinema, but it offers solid entertainment. Those with a taste for the genre shouldn’t be disappointed as there’s plenty to pick up on and enjoy. With this film Joe Dante may not have gained the attention of the masses at the time, but some people (like Spielberg) took notice. Now maybe a few more will give it a shot.

Friday, October 23, 2009

First Look At The A-Team

The first official photo from the production of the new A-Team movie has been released, giving us a glimpse of the four leads. I'm not exactly what tone the film will take on, but if this picture gives any hint, the filmmakers will hopfully stick to the spirit of the TV series. They certainly have the looks to the characters down, slightly modernized, of course. The film stars Liam Neeson as Col John ‘Hannibal’ Smith, Bradley Cooper as Lt. Templeton ‘Faceman’ Peck, Sharlto Copley as Capt. ‘Howling Mad’ Murdock, and Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson as Sgt Bosco ‘B.A.’ Baracus.

This film will depend heavily on the camaraderie between the leads. If they succeed in that department, then half the work is done. It's been awhile since we've seen a decent buddy-cop type of film and this could definately fit the bill. While The A-Team isn't among my favorite shows of all-time, I have fond memories watching reruns of it when I was a kid. It had a great mix of comedy and action, something you don't see as often today. I'll be looking forward to viewing a trailer to see how this project develops. Right now, a June 11, 2010 release date has been set, so stay tuned for more updates.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Trailer: The Wolfman

With Halloween almost upon us, what better way to get in the mood than watching the latest trailer for the remake/reboot of The Wolfman? Starring Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, and Hugo Weaving, the film tells the classic origin story of Lawrence Talbot, cursed to become the infamous werewolf. Directed by special effects guy Joe Johnston, the trailer certainly is a feast for the eyes, with plenty of transformation shots and glimpses of the wolf in action. And, I must confess, I have a hard time resisting a cast like this. Del Toro seems like a perfect choice for the lead. There's something primal about his look that lends itself well to the titular role. Although reshoots and delays on this project keep me skeptical, I'm still hoping that we get a decent, fun throwback to classic horror when The Wolfman is unleashed in theaters on Feb. 12, 2010.

Check out the trailer below:

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mini-Review: Duplicity

Tony Gilroy, writer/director of Michael Clayton, constructs something unique with his latest film, Duplicity. Starring Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, Duplicity comprises itself of equal parts romantic comedy and espionage films. Gilroy’s screenplay, while intricately constructed, may become too labyrinthine in its twists and turns for some people to follow. Luckily the real joy of the film doesn’t depend on following every little detail thrown in front of you. Instead, the real pleasure comes from the relationship between the main characters, two spies who decide to team up for an ultimate score. All the while, they play cat-and-mouse games with each other as neither one completely trusts the other.

This film reminded me of something like Charade; the kind of film that doesn’t get made much nowadays. Some of the exchanges between Owen and Roberts recalled the quick-fire dialog found in an old screwball comedy. And although I bring up these older references, Duplicity is thoroughly modern in its subject matter. The film takes a satirical look at corporate greed, bringing things to the most extremely ludicrous level.

In short, it’s a smart film, made for adults.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Wild Weekend At The Box Office

While I typically won't talk box office numbers too often on here, I thought this weekend provided some interesting results. Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are achieved the #1 spot as most people thought it would, earning an estimated $32.5 million. This represents a solid opening for the big-budget art film, which had been plagued by some very public post-production troubles. It's nice to see a major studio take a gamble on what ultimately is a very personal film and one that won't appeal to everyone. Any time a movie like this can succeed, it gives me hope that more projects along these lines can be made.
Meanwhile, the Gerard Butler starring Law Abiding Citizen came in at #2 with a solid $21.3 million, proving once again that Americans have a thing for blood-lust.
The real surprise of the weekend was the #3 spot which went to Paranormal Activity, the independently financed horror film. Expanding to only 760 theaters the film grossed an estimated $20.2 million, representing an incredible achievement for the $11,000 budgeted project.
Rounding out the top 5 were Couples Retreat at #4 and The Stepfather at #5.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Ferrell To "Go" Dramedy

After his next collaboration with Adam McKay on The Other Guys, which is currently shooting, Will Ferrell has signed on for a low-budget indie comedy called Everything Must Go. Based on a short story by Raymond Carver, the project represents the directorial debut of commercial director Dan Rush. The script was recently featured on the Black List, a list of Hollywood's best unproduced screenplays. Variety gives a quick description of the film:

"Ferrell will play a guy who loses his job and gets locked out of the house by his wife. She deposits his belongings on the front lawn, and he spends the next four days trying to sell his possessions."

I'm glad to see Will Ferrell attempting to branch out, mixing his mainstream films with something like this. Audiences have seen him do the dramedy thing before with Stranger Than Fiction, and hopfully this film will push him even further down that road. Some people may laugh, but I think Ferrell has a great performance in him. Whether or not this film brings it out remains to be seen. Regardless, though, I'll be pulling for him.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Horror Fest '09: The Lost Boys

The Lost Boys combines the horrific and the comedic in a way that only the 1980’s could produce. Director Joel Schumacher effectively updates the style and demeanor of vampires to fit the era. In fact, the film instantly becomes defined by the time in which it was made – from the clothing and hairstyles to the punk-influenced attitude. Although perhaps the style inadvertently sticks out for today’s audiences, The Lost Boys fortunately has more going for it than a bunch of hair gel.

Our story begins as divorced mother Lucy and her two sons, Michael and Sam, move to the small town of Santa Carla to get a fresh start. Little do they know that strange disappearances and killings regularly occur in the city, prompting some to dub Santa Carla the “Murder Capital of the World.” Despite such a dubious label, Michael and Sam quickly familiarize themselves with the area, hanging out on the boardwalk where many young people gather. Unfortunately some shady characters also explore the area with great interest. When Michael, the oldest boy, locks eyes with a girl named Star, trouble soon follows. As it turns out, Star associates with the shady bunch who patrol the boardwalk, headed by David (Kiefer Sutherland). Soon enough, Michael unwisely attempts to fit in with these new acquaintances, leading to a truly bizarre night that he can’t quite remember. Sam soon begins noticing unnatural changes to his brother (sensitivity to light, floating in mid-air, a thirst for blood, etc.) and the remainder of the film essentially focuses on getting Michael back to normal. Along the way, the film throws in plenty of jokes to balance out the horror aspects, as well as a few twists and turns dealing with vampire mythology.

While the story contains some interesting ideas, some aspects come across as clunky. The romance between Michael and Star, for example, barely develops and yet it becomes the catalyst responsible for launching the story forward. With the main thrust of the story lacking an adequate amount of depth, the overall stakes of the film aren’t as high as they could have been. The villains aren’t especially well-developed either, coming across as interchangeable and underdeveloped (except for Sutherland). Often times in horror films, a lack of knowledge of the monsters will benefit the effectiveness of the story. But with vampires, one of the few monsters who spend a significant amount of time mingling and associating with the living, I think a tad more character development is in order. These flaws by no means derail the film, though. In fact, The Lost Boys succeeds on several levels.

The film works most effectively in its tone. From the opening shot we get a strong sense of foreboding as an image of a nighttime boardwalk accompanied by an eerie song fills us with unease. Joel Schumacher and crew create a real sense of place that adds to the creep-factor. From empty parking lots to abandoned caves, the set-ups for scares put you in the scene. But, at the same time, the film switches smoothly between its creepy set-ups to humorous one-liners. The fact that it maintains this shifting tone throughout becomes the most impressive feature of the film.

The cast proves serviceable given the material. Kiefer Sutherland gives an effectively creepy performance as David, the lead vampire. Between this film and his bit in Phonebooth, I’m convinced this guy should play more villains. Jason Patrick probably has the most challenging role, switching from typical teenager to a psychologically tortured half-vampire, a change that he captures with skill. Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander provide the film with a majority of its comedic relief as two comic book store employees who know a thing or two about dealing with vampires. It just goes to show that a vast knowledge of comics could potentially save your life; a comforting thought for all those collectors out there, I’m sure. Perhaps the unsung heroes of the cast would include performances by adult actors Dianne Wiest and Edward Herrmann as they provide a sense of balance against the adolescent performers.

All in all, I’d say The Lost Boys represents a solid entry in the sub-genre of vampire flicks. While the climax builds up to a pretty paint-by-numbers ending, there’s plenty of fun along the way. It’s already become one of those time-capsule films that couldn’t really be made anymore, at least not in the same spirit. For better or worse, they just don’t make them like this anymore.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Gary Ross at the Directing Helm

Writer/director Gary Ross, whose credits include Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, looks for his next project to be a reboot of the Matt Helm series. This series centered on a slick secret agent who foiled criminal mastermind's plans, as well as making time to woo plenty of ladies in the process. Back in the 60's Dean Martin played the super-spy in a series of films essentially spoofing James Bond. Originally, Steven Spielberg had shown interest in the film, but backed out to pursue other projects. Now Ross has his chance at it, with the suddenly-high-in-demand Bradley Cooper in negotiations to star.

This project sounds interesting to me. If they can spoof today's spy films the way the 60's films spoofed Bond, then I'll be happy. Gary Ross turns in solid work and so does the screenwriter Paul Attanasio. So here's hoping they can make this a success. Oh, and if you haven't seen any of the 60's Matt Helm movies, then you might give them a try sometime. They're goofy and stupid, but pretty harmless fun.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Toy Story 3 Trailer

Well, it's been a long time coming, but Pixar has moved forward with Toy Story 3 and now the first trailer is available online. The basic premise of the film features Andy leaving for college, leaving his old toys to be dumped at a local daycare center. After some abuse from the kiddos, Woody and the gang decide to form an escape plan.

This series holds a special place for me, so of course I'll be in line (like many others) to see this when it's released next year. I still remember going to see the first film when I was ten years old, which was probably the perfect age to see it. I was old enough to recognize the technological advances being made, but still enough of a kid to have the story completely take hold of me. Walking out of the theater, I knew that I had just witnessed something special. With this new film looking to expand on the themes explored in the previous installments, I'll be interested in what direction they decide to take it.

On a side note: So many sequels come off as cash-grabs, but with Pixar involved, I know this project isn't one of them. Their level of quality and consistency goes unmatched. I am a bit concerned, though, that they are starting to lean more towards sequels than original stories. While Toy Story 3 is fine, after that there are plans for a Cars sequel and I've even heard rumors of a Monsters Inc. sequel. In the past, members of Pixar have stated that they wouldn't focus heavily on sequels; doing them only if a film really warranted one. I'm not trying to say that Pixar is beginning to slum it, but do Cars and Monsters Inc. really need additional films? Just some food for thought.