Monday, December 31, 2012

Hail, Hail, New Year's Eve

Well, looks like 2012 is just about over, and 2013 is just 'round the proverbial corner.  Here's hopin' you have a better New Year's Eve than poor ole Bill Holden.  See ya in the new year...

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Film Review: Tom Hooper's Les Misérables

When it comes to the musical - a genre that, historically speaking, is one of my favourites - my tastes tend to lean more toward the Minnelli/Berkeley/Donan & Kelly camp than the Sondheim/Lloyd Weber/Cameron Mackintosh arena, so my adoration for this cinematic adaptation of Les Misérables, comes as much of a surprise to me as it does to anyone who knows me.  But, be that as it may, this film, directed by Tom Hooper, a director whose last film, the Oscar winning The King's Speech, left this critic more than a bit cold, seriously blew me away.  From Hooper's choice of framing his all-singing cast up close and personal, as if he were filming a musical homage to Sergio Leone, to the brazenly artificial CGI-created Parisian backgrounds, that create the most beautiful of cinematic frauds (and I mean that in the most complimentary manner), to Anne Hathaway's blow-them-outta-the-water belting out of "I Dreamed a Dream," an emotional powerhouse, single shot performance, that has all but assured the actress an Oscar, this musical extravaganza, though perhaps not quite in the realm of some of the better examples of those aforementioned Minnelli/Berkeley/Donan & Kelly campers, is easily one of the finest films of the year.

The story, based, of course, on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel about the most miserable of French citizenry (and for the uninitiated, if you are looking for a feel-good movie experience, you might want to look elsewhere), was first turned into a stage musical in France in 1980, before becoming a hit on the London stage in 1985, and eventually a Broadway smash in 1987.   Now, nearly five years after its final Broadway bow (the show is still going strong in London's West End), producer Cameron Mackintosh (also known for such "minor" hits as Cats, Miss Saigon and The Phantom of the Opera) has teamed up with Tom Hooper, to recreate the magic that filled those past 7,176 Broadway, and 10,000 plus London performances.  And to accomplish this, director Hooper has filled his show with both the biggest wigs of Hollywood hitdom and the sadly unknown, but quite resonate forces of the Broadway and London stages, because no matter what Hooper does with his camera, o matter what he may do in the editing room or in post production, the movie either plummets or soars by the vocal and acting abilities of its cast - all of whom do their own singing, and most of whom do said singing, unlike in most musical films, live on camera - and, aside from a few rather lackluster moments (which do not deteriorate the enjoyment all that much, but we will get into that in a bit), the film does indeed soar.

Hugh Jackman, always the triple threat (quadruple if you include his adamantium claws), takes on the über-heavyweight role of Jean Valjean, a man sentenced to nineteen years at hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread (well, five years, but with time added on for escape attempts).  Jackman's voice is something of a laudable stage presence, and that shines through here.  Sure, he may not be tapdancing his way about the stage like a cheeky new millennial Fred Astaire (his musical strength), but he more than holds his own, in both vocal range and acting depth, in the tragically iconic role.  We even get a glimpse of Colm Wilkinson, West End and Broadway originator of that very same tragically iconic role, in a cameo appearance as a kind-hearted bishop who rescues Valjean's body and soul.  As for Russell Crowe, as Javert, the prison guard turned inspector who spends his life tracking down Valjean after the ex-prisoner changes his identity and makes a new life for himself, the tough guy actor may not have the chops of Jackman, but his more rocker-like voice plays well enough for us to keep listening.  But, as I more than alluded to earlier, it is Hathaway, in the role of the fateful Fantine, struggling single mother who is forced into prostitution, is the stand-outiest of all the stand-outs in Hooper's musical motion picture.  Hathaway, who between her few scenes, is only on the screen for about fifteen or twenty minutes, if even that, hands in one of the most emotionally cathartic performances in a long long time, and it is this performance, this character, that is the veritable tragic crux of the film.

Granted, the film does lose some of its momentum, some of its passion, when we see Cosette, the now grown daughter of Fantine, as played by the rather underwhelming Amanda Seyfried, but the character, though quite important in tying all the separate threads together, is probably the least interesting character in the bunch anyway, and these momentary slips into such lackluster territory, are not near enough to bring down an otherwise quite strong film.  Jackman and, especially Hathaway, are more than enough to keep this revolutionary ship afloat.  Add to them, performances by Eddie Redmayne as Marius, a student protester and lovesick squire of Cosette; Aaron Tveit, stage star, and Gossip Girl regular, as Enjolras, leader of the revolutionaries; Samantha Barks, who makes her film debut by reprising her West End role of Éponine, cruel but ultimately self-sacrificing former playmate of Cosette; and Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as Éponine's unscrupulous parents and roguish con artists, and you have yourself one hell of a musical.  Powerful, emotional, tragically beautiful (if ya don't cry, then ya ain't human), Tom Hooper's adaptation of Schönberg and Boubill's adaptation of Hugo's classic novel, is much much greater than this critic was ever expecting.  The last ten minutes or so, are enough to make even the sturdiest of constitutions break down in fits of weeping despair - and yet the whole thing is such a gorgeous spectacle, one cannot possibly come out of it without a bounce in their step as well.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Film Review: Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Granted, he doesn't take as long as Terrence Malick once did, but still, the nearly three and a half years since his Inglourious Basterds blew up the big screen, is an unbearable length of time for someone so enamoured with the cinephiliac workings of the mind of Quentin Tarantino, someone who finds each and every one of the director's films - even Jackie Brown, even Grindhouse - an almost religio-filmic experience, someone who waits with the most baited of breath for another goddamn masterpiece of uncomfortable hilarity and creatively over-the-top wham-bam-biggery to come our way, someone who doesn't care what all the (obviously wrong-minded, and quite misguided) naysayers out there say (more on these punks later), but who believes Tarantino to be the second coming of Sam Fuller or Nick Ray or Sergio Leone or even Stanley Motherfucking Kubrick - someone like, say, me - to have to wait.  Unbearable, I tell you.  Unbearable indeed.  But that wait is finally over, and now here we are, finding ourselves in, what one could call, a bit of a pickle.  

So, how exactly does one such as that adorably gaga guy described above, one such as me (adorable or not), even begin to give an honest critical analysis of a Quentin Tarantino film, without sounding like nothing more than a gushing fanboy or a lovesick schoolgirl, or even a preening motherfucking idiot?  Such worries have kept me from ever reviewing a Tarantino film.  Even though I was already a working film critic by the time of their respective releases, for fear of sounding like nothing more the president of the Quentin Tarantino fan club, no reviews of Kill Bill, Death Proof nor the aforementioned Inglourious Basterds, has ever seen the light of day 'round these parts.  But, I suppose, this is as good a time as any to let one out of the proverbial coop, and see what happens.  Let the bitch fly, if you will.  With that said, the creature you are about to read, though gushing as any preening, lovesick fanboy and/or schoolgirl-cum-idiot ever could be, not to mention most likely playing out as a defense of the director and his work, is meant as a highly critical look at the film, with all due disclosures, that this particular critic calls the best film of the motherfucking year.  Oh yeah, and in keeping with the tone set by good ole QT, there may be quite a bit of goddamn swearing.  Ye have been warned.

Based, obviously, though quite loosely, on the 1966 Sergio Corbucci Spaghetti Western, Django, starring Franco Nero in the title role, Django Unchained, the eighth feature film from provocateur Tarantino (seventh if one were to count the Kill Bill's as one entity) moves his story to Texas and the deep south of 1858 and 1859.  This new breed of film - a Spaghetti Southern, if you will (and no, I cannot take credit for that term) - takes the ultra-violence of its predecessor genre, and ramps it up to a typically burning hot Tarantino degree.  Tarantino's film tells the story of a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter (shades of Doc Holliday perhaps), played by Christoph Waltz, juiced up with just as much vim and vigor as he gave to his Oscar-winning portrayal of Colonel Hans Landa, aka the Jew Hunter, in Basterds, and the slave he purchases and then frees, and then partners with in order to make enough money to rescue Broomhilda, Django's wife, here played by Jamie Foxx in a performance that straddles the finest line between stoic early Eastwood-esque nonchalance and broad Tarantino-required over-the-top-ness.  Set up as a revenge movie - a genre that the director has some rather intimate knowledge with - Django is just as bloodthirsty as Kill Bill or Inglorious Basterds, and just as giddily playful at it as well, and believe me when I tell you that the director bloody damn well wants us to know it.

Now, there are more than a few Tarantino haters out there - movie goers, both of the knowledgeable and of the novice variety, who are put off by the director's violent tendencies, his supposed arrogance and/or self-indulgence, and what many, including most notably the always angry Spike Lee, have mistakenly referred to as political incorrectness.  There are also a whole bunch of these haters - several I know personally, and several who are not exactly unschooled in the art of film and film theory, mind you - who dislike the director for "stealing" from other movies.  Not to sound to much like the auteur's defense lawyer, but this is total hogwash.  Total hornswallow.   Total bullshit, if you will.  Sure, go ahead and dislike a film, or a filmmaker, hate them even, but at least have a viable argument for such dislike or hatred.  As far as the violence goes, I understand how weaker-stomached folk may turn a disgusted eye away (my lovely wife does such, but she never takes the other eye off the screen), and especially with both the inevitable penultimate and climactic blood baths that literally repaint the sets red with an orgiastic amount of blood (enough to even put someone like Peckinpah to shame), but the violence that Tarantino uses is like an artist painting with a super artificial palette.  In fact, the whole idea of cinema is based on the ultimate artificiality.   Outside of things like Cinéma vérité, and, of course, documentaries, what we are watching on whatever screen we happen to be watching, is a fantasy - and it is this fantasy on which Tarantino erects his own insular universe.

Granted, this universe is filled to the veritable gills with cinematic references - many of which go over the head of those non-cinephiliac filmgoers - but to say the auteur steals is something else.  Okay, okay, Tarantino himself has been quoted, half tongue-in-cheekly, saying basically the same thing, but what Tarantino steals is nothing more than what other modern day directors - everyone from Spielberg to Lynch to Scorsese, Fincher and both the Anderson's - are doing with every film.  The only difference is, Tarantino makes no bones about it.  Every great director is influenced by those before them, but when someone like Tarantino puts it out there so blatantly, it makes some cinema purists cringe.  Of course, if someone is not in on the joke, then they too, are off put.  Those who do not notice the obvious references to Leone or Peckinpah or Sammy Fuller, will just never get it.  Those who hear that Waltz's horse is named Fritz, and do not automatically think of Fritz Lang, will never get it.  Those who see the screen filled with the word Mississippi, and do not see the connection with both Gone with the Wind and the films of Jean-Luc Godard, will never get it.  Those who wonder why the soundtrack has both Tupac and Jim Croce on it, will never get it.  Those who are not thrilled by that meta moment midway through when Foxx's Django is sidled up on by the original article, Franco Nero, in one of the best played cameos in the film, and the in-joke shared between them, will never get it.  The artificial universe created by Tarantino in each and every one of his films (the director even goes so far as to claim that Django and his wife, played wispfully by Kerry Washington, are the great great grandparents of seventies iconic streetwise character, Shaft) may not be for everyone, but for those who get it, those for whom said universe was created, it is the blastiest of blasts.

As for that other argument - the one that says the constant use of a so-called N-word (and this may be a record amount of times spoken) is racist - it simply holds no water.  It is an argument that is brought forth by the same type of people - angry, fed-up blacks and guilty-feeling liberal whites alike - who want this same dreaded word erased from the likes of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom's Cabin.  This is history people.  Granted, it is a terrible, ugly history, and we as a nation should feel ashamed such a history was perpetrated on an entire race like it was, but it is still history.  In 1850's Mississippi, this word was most likely used quite a bit, and mostly unashamedly, and to remove it from such a story would just be ridiculous.  Of course, some claim it is taken overboard here, and yes, Tarantino does tend to take pretty much everything overboard in his films, but again, this is a fantasy, and should therefore be looked upon as one.  An artificial construct.  A thousand armed beast.  A goddamn movie.  But enough of all this Tarantino-defending.  There are just those who get it, and those who do not.  Instead, let us concentrate less on explaining to the unfortunate masses, why they should like, and enjoy, the work of Tarantino, and more on preaching to the so-called choir.  Well, that, and talking a bit about the film.  Of course, that latter part is a bit difficult, since too much talk will give away all the film's secrets, and all the film's surprises - and there are quite a few in the casting alone.  Then again, Jonas Mekas once said, "It is not my business to tell you what it's about. My business is to get excited about it, to bring it to your attention. I am a raving maniac of the cinema."  Well damn, I can do that.

Seriously though, this film is indeed brutal and bloody, biting and badass.  It is most certainly a film that does more than its share of button-pushing, and it is a film that will most likely be hated by as many people as love it, but it is also a film that, once one removes the stick from one's ass, can be a gorgeously shot piece of pop cinema fetish fantasy, that never once wavers in its onslaught of both its agonizing brutality and shockingly gleeful irresponsibility.  From Foxx's demanding performance as a man caught between two worlds (there is one moment of utterly harrowing wrongfulness, where Django must watch as an innocent man dies, by almost his own hand, in order to save his wife, that gives the character a terrifying depth) to Waltz's show-stealing turn as the wickedly good mirror image of his Jew Hunter role (it is funny to note that the most racially sensitive character in the film is German, and is played by the same man who made us hate/love the quite evil-minded Col. Landa just a few years back) to Leonardo DiCaprio's take on the maniacally depraved, yet oh so the southern gentleman, Calvin J. Candie (a role that the usually just meh actor, manages to devour and make his own sick and twisted amalgamation), to Sam Jackson's hybrid of Stepin Fetchit and Jules Winnfield (a character that seems to be parodying the white-washed southern house nigger of Gone with the Wind), Tarantino's film is a motherfucking blast to watch.  And at 165 minutes, still does not seem long enough.  Of course, I am far from the right person to ask to criticize such a film (remember, gushing schoolgirl and all), but for what it is worth (and remember, I even liked Four Rooms), I give it as many thumbs up as I can, and consider it the logical extension of the director who created Inglourious Basterds lo those aforementioned three and a half years ago.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy X-Mas (Apocalypse is Over)

Well ladies and germs, we have survived the so-called end of the world.  Gotta admit, pretty big let down.  I was promised a rapture-like start to my week-end, and what did we get?  Nothing dammit, nothing.  Okay, so perhaps the whole birds and snakes and aeroplanes thing (and those who know, get my meaning here) would not have been the best way to spend the week-end - you know, dying, nothingness, all that wouldbe jazz - but still, maybe at least a little bit of scary stuff.  Something to make it a memorable fake apocalypse.  Maybe all cable, satellite, phone and online services should have went down for a few minutes on Friday.  Tell me that wouldn't have scared the bejeezus out of some people.  But I digress.  This is supposed to be a Christmas post after all, and not some riff on the apocalypse, or lack there of - even if my blatantly ripped off post title says otherwise. Then again, it does say the apocalypse is over, so....but, again, I digress.  And anyway, all I really wanted to say was, thank you to everyone out there that has supported me and this site (and all the other cyber doodads that I doodad at) through the years.  I may not be loaded with the amount of fans and readers that some of my better known critical compatriots are, but the ones do have, are pretty darn special.  Aw shucks.  Anyway, thanx to all, and here is wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas, or a Merry Kwanzaa, a Happy Hanukkah, a mighty Festivus (oh those feats of strength), or even a festive Life Day (again, nerd reference).  Whatever it be, have a safe and happy one.  I will be back after Christmas, with brand new reviews of films like Django Unchained, Jack Reacher and Les Miserables - not to mention my Top Ten (or maybe eleven) of 2012.  After that, comes 2013, and a whole lot of fun stuff indeed, including, but certainly not limited to, a slew of brand spankin' new Battle Royales, so many reviews it'll make your head spin, a delving into the films of Ingmar Bergman, and my very own Top 1000 Films List.  See ya on the flipside folks.  Merry Merry and Ho Ho Ho.

For more pics like the one above, which incidentally, is America's Sweetheart, Miss Mary Pickford, putting up some 1922ish holiday cheer, go on over to my Tumblr. site, Random Fraudish Monkeyshines (hows that for a name!?), and browse through my ever-growing selection of all the great classic Hollywood nick-nacks that the world wide web has to offer. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Battle Royale #9: Battle of the Silent Queens (The Results)

Well kiddies, here we are at the end of another Battle Royale.  This time you, my faithful readers and true believers, were asked to choose between those two great stars of silent cinema - Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish.  A choice between "America's Sweetheart" and "The First Lady of American Cinema."  And who did you pick?  Well, it was kind of a landslide.  Not quite as bad as our last Battle Royale, where The Marx Brothers trounced The Three Stooges by a score of 38 to 7, but still quite a mandate.  And who was the mandate for, you ask.  Well, it was for Miss Lillian Gish.  With a final score of 31 to 16, or 66% to 34% if you will, the First Lady beat out the Sweetheart.  From the beginning, I figured Gish would end up the winner (she did get my vote I know), but I expected it to be at least relatively close.  Certainly a lot closer than it ended up being.  Well, Mary does have an Oscar to lord over Gish, so there's at least that.  And yes, I know, if the Oscars had been around, Gish would probably have won one as well.  Then again, the year Pickford won hers, Gish gave one of her finest performances in The Wind.  But I am rambling, so I digress.

Usually, at this point in the festivities, I say that we will be back with a brand spankin' new Battle Royale in just a few days - but such is not the case this time around.   We are holding off the next one until after the new year.  This way, you can all enjoy your holidays without any of the added stress of trying to decide who deserves the crown as Battle Royale Champion.  Ya know, because there is so much stress in that.  Anyway, we will be returning with that aforementioned brand spankin' new Battle Royale after the holidays.  After back-to-back landslides, hopefully this new one will go back to biz as usual, and be a closer race - maybe even a photo finish.  Also hopefully, we can get the voter turnout to be a bit better this time around - something we can perhaps write home about, as they say.  Since the beginning, I have been trying to get as many voters involved as I can.  So far, this has been met with only slight success.  My wish is to get our little game into the triple digits on a regular basis.  As of now, our best turnout was a mere 66 votes (courtesy of Astaire and Kelly), and this time we had just 47 voters.  I send reminders to bunches of hopeful voters, but still nothing.  This time around I sent voter invites to over a thousand people on Facebook alone, not to mention regular tweets, but still only 47 decided to come aboard.   So basically, what I am saying is - c'mon people, let's get this thing going.  I have seen other online polls get hundreds, even thousands of votes, so why can't we!!?  Anyway, have a safe and happy holiday (whichever one you so choose to celebrate) and have pleasant and giddy dreams about our new Battle Royale.  We will be traveling to the Far East next time around.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Retro Review: Roland Emmerich's 2012

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation. Appropriately enough, considering the date, and all that silly jazz that has been going on around said date, this particular edition of Retro Reviews, is on the end-of-the-world film 2012, and if the doomsayers are correct, it will be the very last thing I ever write.  Insert maniacal laughter here.


There are certain filmmakers who revel in the CGI-exhaustive filmic destruction of planet Earth and it's major cities and landmarks.  Judging from his oeuvre, which includes both Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, as well as the rather forgettable Godzilla remake of last decade, Roland Emmerich is definitely one of those aforementioned certain filmmakers.  Unfortunately for both we the moviegoers and Emmerich the disaster director du jour, his latest planet-wide deconstruction destruction, the numerically ominous 2012, lacks most of the giddy masochistic fun that ran rampant through the thoroughly more enjoyable Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow.  Instead, we get a tired boilerplate kind of motion picture event with most of its entertaining parts (and we can only assume the possibilities such a film could have) excised through sheer middlebrow filmmaking.  Then again, perhaps we have just become so jaded by such CGI-spectacles, that even the complete destruction of Earth has become passe and run-of-the-mill.

Yes there are a few fun moments in Emmerich's "end-of-the-world-er", such as hapless hero and sad sack ex-hubby and weekend dad John Cusack (paycheck big enough buddy?) weaving his battered limo through the streets of L.A., estranged family in tow, as the city of angels crashes and burns around him, finally slipping back into the mighty Pacific from whence it came and making all those nutcase sidewalk prophets feel vindicated as they too crash and burn and slip back into the mighty Pacific.  At one point Cusack takes his stretch through the window of a falling skyscraper and out the other side before it crashes to the street below as if some sort of hybrid of Evel Knievel and a batmobile-driving caped crusader.  There are other such whack-a-doodle scenes, including a race-for-their-lives plane ride through crumbling cities and the requisite destroyed national monuments, a last ditch escape plan involving driving a car out the back of a plane and the semi-climactic underwater rescue of thousands of wouldbe disaster survivors.  Silly and extremely improbable but isn't that what a disaster movie is supposed to be all about?

Unfortunately though, none of this ridiculous disaster scenario works on the level that equally silly classic films of the genre, like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, or even Emmerich's own earlier works do.  The ever-important inbetween moments (those scenes not involving cliffhanger-esque danglings but attempted character development instead) fall completely flat here.  We don't get those quieter moments that we did in the aforementioned earlier classics of the genre.  We don't get the emotion inherent with a character's death as we did when poor Shelly Winters saved them all only to succumb to the deadly waters of her own ocean grave.  Then again, perhaps all moviegoers want these days are the improbable CGI effects that inevitably go along with the reborn genre.  They want sheer disaster, and nothing else, and I suppose, that is exactly what they get here.  A disastrous disaster indeed.  No fun, no mirth, no gleeful rage against the dying of the light.  Nothing but disaster.  It is almost enough to make you wish the world really was about to end.  Luckily for us, the movie does end - it just takes waaaay too long to do so.

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 12/11/09] 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Anomalous Material Feature: 10 Best Alternative Christmas Films

Here we are once again true believers, with my latest 10 best feature written for the fine folks over at Anomalous Material.  For those of you not in the know, those same said fine folks have given me a (possibly foolish on their behalf) regular gig as feature writer.  It is a series of top ten lists on all kinds of various cinematic subjects - and anyone who knows me at all can surely attest to how perfectly suited I am to such an endeavor (yes I am a  list nerd).  This newest feature, my thirty-first such feature, takes a look at the holiday season.  But these ain't your granddaddy's Christmas movies, baby.  These, for the most part, are the kind of Christmas films rarely found on your typical Christmas movie list.  Just go take a look for yourself.

Read my feature article, "10 Best Alternative Christmas Movies" at Anomalous Material.

Since it was a TV special, it did not make my list, but mention still has to be made of a particular 1978 George Lucas holiday special.  Of course, it is also not about Christmas, so much as the Wookiee race's Life Day, so that too makes it ineligible.  Anyway...

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Film Review: Sasha Gervasi's Hitchcock

Bookended with out-and-out references to Hitchcock's iconic television series, Sasha Gervasi's adaptation of Stephen Rebello's 1990 book, "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho," is a fun watch indeed.  It may not have the depth that one would hope for in a film about the making of one of this critic's all-time favourite films, but the portrayal of the Master of Suspense, by Anthony Hopkins, is a pitch perfect portrayal.  Granted, much like Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar-winning turn as Truman Capote, Hopkins' portrayal of Hitch is a bit mired down in what seems like cliché, but what is really just a perfect rendition of a bizarre and unique individual, but nevertheless, he sure is fun to watch.  Oh yeah, and Helen Mirren ain't bad either.  That last comment was, of course, tongue-in-cheek, as Ms. Mirren's performance as Alma Reville, wife of the legend, is as remarkably wry as ever.  Yes, perhaps the film is a bit lackluster in certain places, and quite unspectacular in others, and much of this has to do with the direction, which seems to dangle a bit too long in middle-of-the-road territory, but the lead performances, and the cinephiliac asides and in-jokes, are enough to bring that dangle into more friendly territory for the duration.

Not actually a biopic - the crux of the film takes place over just six months or so - this film tries to play out less like a look into the life of the great and glorious Alfred Hitchcock, and more like a case study in paranoia, but in the end, it is nothing more than a pair of bravura performances, surrounded by a flat, yet fun, motion picture.  There is a fun turn by James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins, in which he becomes a veritable dead ringer for the late great actor.  Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel, aka the new Mrs. Timberlake, are rather staid as Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, respectively - but then they are not really given much to do, so they are not really to be blamed for such underwhelming performances.  With an ongoing motif of birds - supposedly to give us rather obvious foreshadowing of Hitch's next film, a foreshadowing that is needlessly heavy handed - and little nods and winks into film jokes, and cultural references of the time period, this film can be fun at times - cute even - but overall, this critic was hoping for more - a lot more.  Still though, since watching a film based on one of your own heroes, can be quite dodgy - will they get it right, or more importantly, will they get it the way you want it to be, right or wrong - this film could have been quite a lot worse that the middling, but often fun film that it ends up being.  Good evening, he said in his best Hitch voice.  No offense Sir Anthony, but let us leave here with an image of the real Sir Alfred, and our own bird motif.

Film Review: Joe Wright's Anna Karenina

So far, the oeuvre of Joe Wright has included the stunning, and surprisingly spry visual wit of Pride and Prejudice, the gorgeous dream-like feel of Atonement, the rather mediocre aching of The Soloist, the kinetic kitsch of Hannah, and now, the middling, yet ultimate failure of Anna Karenina.  I suppose this means the director is currently running at a 60% success rate overall, but such a stat still does not help make this mish-mashed version of Tolstoy's classic novel any more bearable than it is.  Which, incidentally, outside of a certain visual audacity, is not all that bearable at all.

Now, as any well read person can surely tell you, Tolstoy's novel is beyond reproach.  Though I tend to lean toward Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment as my favourite, Anna Karenina may very well the single greatest novel ever written in the Russian language.  A classic of eternal depth through and through.  With such a stature, a film version is bound to come off as something less than desired.  Of course, since it is inherently difficult - one could even say impossible - to adapt any great work of literature into a proper film version, especially one as detailed and intricate as Karenina - anything shy of a sixteen hour Sergei Bonderchukian epic could never do it justice - one should not expect an adaptation of Tolstoy to include every minute detail the author put in there.  There have been twelve film versions of Anna Karenina, beginning as far back as 1914, and though I have only seen but three of these - four counting Mr. Wright's recent addition to the stables - it is a rather safe bet to say that none of these managed to recreate the novel in any sort of semblance of its entirety.  Even my personal favourite, the 1935 Clarence Brown version which stars Great Garbo in the title role, does not do complete justice to the book.  What it does do, is create an atmosphere where one can see and feel what Tolstoy saw and felt while writing his novel.   What we felt reading it.  This is all we can hope for in such a situation.  This is what we desire.  Much of the strength of the Garbo version has to do with the exotic enigma that was, and always will be, Garbo.  What Wright's version lacks is the feel of Tolstoy.  What else it lacks is the power of someone like Garbo to give its title character her much needed power.

I am not saying Keira Knightley is a bad actress.  She is not.  Given the right role (Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Cecilia Tallis in Atonement, even Sabina Spielrein in A Dangerous Method) Ms. Knightley can truly shine.  Given the wrong role - one that needs a depth the actress has never been able to reach - she only flounders, and so too does the film.  I know that the actress is Wright's muse and all, but she just does not have the heft to pull off such a character.  One could easily see someone like Carey Mulligan or Michelle Williams or Natalie Portman pulling this off - Kate Winslet would own the role - but just not poor Keira.  If one has read the book, they will inevitably wonder upon seeing this film, why such a strong-willed character as Anna Karenina, is made to seem like a whiny and shallow bitch throughout.  I suppose a good portion of those seeing this film, have probably never read the original, so such a problem never rears its ugly head.  But still, the problem is there.  Jude Law does what one would call a bang-up job in his role, and Aaron Johnson is fine as the sadly underdeveloped Vronsky, but Knightley just doesn't swing it.  And none of this even starts to ask why Wright has decided to Baz Luhrmann his settings up by staging much of the action on a purposefully stagey erection, which would be perfectly fine - and the film does indeed have many moments of sheer visual beauty - if he did not then randomly break free from such erections with no real rhyme or reason.  Ah well, the director is still running at 60%, so I suppose we can only hope his next project puts him at 67% and not down to 50%.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Film Review: Michael Haneke's Amour

Unflinching.  Harrowing.  Terrifying.  Undeniably disturbing.  All these things can describe Amour, the new French-language film from infamous world-renowned director Michael Haneke.  In fact, all these things can describe, for better or for worse, just about every film Haneke has ever made.  Now the Austrian-born auteur does have a lot of haters out there, and this style of filmmaking - this undeniable disturbance - is the reason for such rabid hatred, but whether you love or hate the man - and I do not think there is very often anything in between these two divisive emotions when it comes to M. Haneke - upon seeing this, his eleventh feature film, one can add a new, as of yet unseen descriptive to the filmmaker's list of synonymic attributes.  This addition is humanity.  Granted, this new found humanity is probably not going to sway any of these aforementioned haters over to his side of thinking, but nevertheless, it does come as quite a shock, even to this critic - a critic that has always been in the director's corner from almost day one.

I for one have always admired the director's lack of humanity - his coldly calculating dismantling of societal norms, and therefore of humanity itself - and this has always been the most dependable, for lack of a more apt term, ideal in the director's chillingly disturbing oeuvre.  And yes, I do realize that in order for the director to dismantle humanity in his work, he must first portray humanity, so yes, it is there, but only as a way to a means.  Here, in his Palme d'Or winning Amour (the director's second such honour), we watch the tale of an octogenarian Parisian couple who find themselves at an end-of-life crisis that may very well be too much for either to handle. Haneke inserts a surprising amount of humanity into this film.  But do not get me wrong, for even though this film is full of the humanity most of his other work, though purposefully so, has been lacking, this by no means is to say that his new film is lacking any of the unflinching, harrowing, terrifying and quite undeniably disturbing content that most of his pictures have in veritable spades.  It is still there, still there most indeed.

Playing out as almost a funeral march, full of somber chamber pieces (the aforementioned elder couple are both musicians and music teachers), Haneke's film may be a hard beast to watch for many - there, but for the grace of god go I, kind of thing - which is something anyone familiar with the auteur is already well aware of, and should be expecting, but what makes the film even more harrowing, and for that matter, gives the film that extant, and terrifying humanity we inevitably must surprisingly speak of, are the performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as Georges and Anne, the aging couple, respectively.  Their life of comfortable luxury is thrown asunder when Anne suffers a stroke.  Her desire to no longer be a burden on her husband and his frustration at not being able to care for her properly, are etched upon these actor's faces in such desperate clarity, that only a soulless bastard would be unaffected by these performances.  In the end, we the viewer are left pondering our own, inevitable demise.  I, for one, wonder how I would deal with the pressures of such a situation, no matter which side I was on.  Haneke, in all his treacherous glory, has created a film that, in its stark and uncompromising humanity, is more terrifying than any of the so-called monster movies from the director's past. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Film Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

First off, I must confess to having never read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.  I admit to having tried, on several different occasions throughout my forty some years, but I just could never get past the first few chapters, mainly due to utter boredom over the whole thing.  I suppose if that is your thing, then alright, but I just could never dig it.  Now I have read and seen and enjoyed lots of other fantasy-like stuff, I have been a comic book aficionado from way back, and I can proudly boast about having seen every episode of Star Trek, in all of its incarnations (well, not the ill-fated Enterprise series, but anyway), so it's not like I do not embrace nerd culture, or whatever one calls it these days - and the so-called nerd culture that revolves around Tolkien is powerful enough to make even the most die hard Trekker or Trekkie, look sane by comparison.  The simple fact is, is that I just don't dig on Tolkien - and I have tried, and tried, and tried again.  But this does not mean I still can't enjoy, on a basic gut level, the adventure of it all.  But still, my knowledge in such things is probably not what it should be.

This, of course, means that going into Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - the first part of a trilogy, based on a book that was never a trilogy to begin with - any and all of my not-so-vast knowledge of the source material is based on a relative handful of now long forgotten pages, seeing the followup trilogy (this time adapted from an actual trilogy) on the big screen, watching a certain Rankin/Bass cartoon in my childhood, gazing in wonderment at a round-eared Leonard Nimoy, and a bunch of creepy pointy-eared children, frolicking about on the rocks, singing the praises of a certain famous denizen of the Shire, and spending way too many hours of a misbegotten youth playing Dungeons & Dragons.  In other words, to all you Tolkienheads, or whatever you may call yourselves collectively, out there, please take it easy on this Middle Earth novice, while he tries to muddle through a critique of your precious (yeah, I said it) little golden book.

Now there is one thing I do know about, and actually consider myself a relative authority on, and that is cinema.  Which means, that even though I am no expert on how well Mr. Jackson follows the rather convoluted tale of Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, I can tell you exactly what I think of the movie itself.  Actually, it ain't half bad.  Granted, it is far from the be all and end of of cinema that so many Tolkien fans claim it to be, even before ever seeing the film, but it certainly has more than its share of moments.  The story tends to wander off into a myriad of asides in its first half - which I am assuming the book does as well - and I suppose if I were more familiar with all the goings-on, much in the same way my knowledge of the world of comics gives me a deeper insight than non comicbook readers, into recent films like The Avengers of The Amazing Spider-Man, these would lend more enchantment for me than they do.  Then again, they are not distracting in any way - which I have heard some fellow critics state.  And anyway, I always welcome a good aside, so who am I to complain.  The more the merrier if you ask me.  Though perhaps nearly just as far from great as from terrible, and overall, if you are not expecting the second coming of the rebirth of cinema (and some might be), Jackson's film is enjoyable on most levels, and plays out nicely as a fantastical adventure story that is able to get your blood rushing around at times. 

Which brings us to the technical aspects of the film, if indeed, we can even call it a film in this brave new digital world old habits do die rather hard around these parts.   Filmed, er I mean, made using the most advanced cinematic technology out there today, Jackson's film, er I mean, movie, is most certainly what one could call, state of the freakin' art.  Shot at the high rate of 48 frames per second (for those laymen among you, the industry standard is 24 frames per second, and has been since the latter days of the silent era), The Hobbit comes out, where one can almost taste the pores on the actor's faces, looking much slicker than your average bear.  I was lucky enough to see it projected in this, the proper manner desired by the director.  The majority of cinemas around the world do not have the capability of properly showing the film in 48 fps, but since I am a stickler for seeing the director's one true vision, this time also including that darned 3D projection that I am usually wary of, I lucked out by having one of these very cinemas right down the street from my house.  With a critical bend to my elbow, I must say that it makes for an enjoyable watch, but in the end, it most certainly is not near as mind-blowing as many would make it out to be.

Much of the time, this high frame rate, or HFR as it is short-handedly called, and Jackson's use of 3D, lends itself to the picture, with a deeper resonance and more superficially realistic feel - and some really scary-ass Orcs - but a bit too often it just muddles things and distracts from the actual filmmaking and film watching process.  But since the former outweighs the latter, I suppose we can call this a win.  Contrary to popular belief - being the old school, classic-heralding film lover that I am - I do not begrudge the existence and the use of any of the new tech that has come into vogue in this digital age, and would fully embrace it if it stood side-by-side with the old, and now sadly outdated style of filmmaking that anyone over the age of eleven has grown up with, instead of usurping that old technology and making it as obsolete as the nickelodeon.  But, as they say, change is constant - and there is not a damn thing any of us can do about it anyway - so one must turn one's critical head toward the new and see what comes of the whole shebang.  Here, for the most part, that technology works.  Perhaps not in any particularly spectacular manner, but it does seem to work.  The film itself, also in no particularly spectacular way,  works on most levels as well.

Now for the surprise twist in our little story, or at least the twist in of this little critical doodad.  Every word of this review, up until this point, was written prior to actually seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  In an attempt to prove that the formulaic, franchise filmmaking that constitutes much of the big box product spewing forth from Hollywood these days, is so predictable, so unsurprising, so not unexpected, that one need not even see the film to know exactly what one will ultimately think about it, I have pre-written this review with all the verve and vigor I normally put into the writing of films I have actually seen.  The idea being, that if need be, I could go back and edit out what was not appropriate and put in whatever was.  But, in the end, the film was indeed so predictable, so unsurprising, so not unexpected, that nary a word need be changed.  I did indeed enjoy the film about as much as I expected.  I did indeed find the film enjoyable on most levels, though not in any particularly spectacular way.  I did indeed find the 48 fps look to work more often than not.  I did indeed experience everything just about the exact way in which I envisioned.  What does this say?  Hell if I know.  It was just a silly little critical experiment.  But again, none of this presupposition means that the film is not an enjoyably fun romp.  Because it actually is just that.

Granted, if, after leaving the IMAX theater in which I saw the film, I found myself either completely enamored with or completely disgusted with the film, I would have had to go on back to the ole drawing board and rewrite this entire review.  My not-so-noble experiment would have been a dismal failure.  I would have been laughed out of the critical community.  Luckily - or not so luckily, take your pick - my experiment was a rousing success.  The idea of mediocrity being the cornerstone of this new age of moviemaking has been proven.  Yes, I know, there has always been mediocrity in cinema.  There has always been formulaic filmmaking, born of the assembly line studio days of that oh so coveted golden age I so often speak oh so gloriously of.  But still, the point has been, at least a little bit proven, that a film such as this - the story of an intrepid little Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman, last seen in every BBC series of the last ten years or so, and the mighty wizard, Gandolf the Grey, reprised here by Sir Ian McKellan of Trilogy fame, not to mention a rather spry looking Gollum, again done in mo-cap by Andy Serkis, today's technologically-bound Lon Chaney - need not even be seen to be reviewed.  Of course I would never have printed said review if the experiment did not work, and therefore no one would have ever known anything about all these silly antics anyway.

Anyway, all this gobbledegook aside, the film, in both its technical aspect and its narrative, is, for the most part, enjoyable.  I am not about to praise the thing just to prove I am simpatico with a certain sub-culture ethic, nor am I about to trounce it just to prove I am not one of those people.  Actually I am one of those people, but a different kind of those people.  I am that nerd of a different colour you've heard tell about.  But I digress.  As I was saying, the film ain't half bad.  There is one particular scene, where mountains battle it out like gigantic Rock 'em Sock 'em robots, that is quite spectacular indeed.  Jackson even makes us feel legitimate sympathy for a character like Gollum.  Sure, it isn't what the purists will all say it is, but it surely ain't half bad.  Do I think I wasted my thirteen dollars on admission?  No.  Would I see it a second time?  Other than to re-acclimate myself upon release of part two, probably not.  But still, as I said, it wasn't half bad.  But I am sure this statement, even if I were to remove the more passive-aggressive sections, will not please everyone.  A certain group of folks, a group who think of Tolkien as a deity, and who have already praised the picture as great and incredible and fantastical, without even seeing the damn thing (yes, I know, the angry hand of irony comes down upon me like Maxwell's Silver Hammer), will still look down upon this review - even though, for all intents and purposes, it is ultimately a thumbs up, as a pair of critics of yore would say.

No sirree, not only does this film not need to be reviewed, it truly cannot be reviewed, even if we wanted to.  One of what the powers-that-be would call a critic-proof movie, The Hobbit, along with most franchise pics of late, will do that oh so important box office biz, and it will make that all-powerful quadrillion and a half dollars, and there is not one damn thing we critics can do about any of it.  No longer do we live in a day where someone like Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris can make a little known film a hit and turn a bad Hollywood product into fine minced meat.  Granted, this film should really give no one reason to want to mince its meat, but still, even if one did, there is no longer a place to do such a thing in this day and age, and with a movie like this one.  Too many a Tolkien advocate (or shall I say acolyte) will stand their ground in praising anything their master (or Mr. Jackson for that matter) puts forth - and that is that.  Even though my review is of the relatively good caliber (two and a half stars out of four if numbers are your thing), and I must admit that the final half hour or so, which incidentally is what one would call non-stop action, is a splendid roller coaster ride of eye-popping eye candy, it is far from the total rave we must all strive for, and therefore, I am minced meat in the eyes of the all-seeing Tolkienites.  But then, who am I to start cow-towing nowadays?  I just calls 'em like I sees 'em - even if I don't necessarily need to sees 'em to calls 'em.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

10 Best Nicholas Ray Films

Well over a year ago, over at Tony Dayoub's fine fine site, Cinema Viewfinder, a Nicholas Ray Blogathon was held.  Among the many many many great contributions to this blogathon, were two by yours truly (hopefully at least half as great as the others).  These were called "The Dangerous Beauty of Nick Ray Parts 1 & 2" (originally meant as just one piece, I could not stop myself from writing, so split into two it would go) and took a film historical overview of the great auteur's equally great oeuvre.  As I went about watching the Ray films I had yet to see (and re-watching old favourites) I thought to myself what a great time for a top ten list.  I was now what one would call a Nick Ray completest, so a list was most certainly in order.  Regular readers of this site as well as those regulars over at Anomalous Material where I write a weekly series of differing top tens, know full well how excited I get at even just the mere thought of a top ten list (or for that matter a top eleven or twelve or thirteen or twenty-five of one hundred or so on and so on).  Yeah, it's a turn on - gotta problem with that!

Anyway, I ended up not fitting it into my blogathon schedule and instead, as the great procrastinator that I am, give it to you now.  I would like to preface this list with the fact that out of Nick Ray's 20 directed films (22 if you should count his two final films, the experimental group directed We Can't Go Home Again and the Wim Wenders' directed Lightning Over Water for which the German filmmaker gave Ray a co-director credit, or even 23 if you count Macao, mainly directed by Josef von Sternberg but finished by Ray who, against his own wishes was given co-credit) there has not been one I disliked.  Yes, there are a few I could (and would and have) call average and/or even mediocre, but still not a truly bad one in the bunch - even those few, like King of Kings and The Savage Innocents, that are most often panned by my fellow critics.  But the following ten are the be all and end all of Nicholas Ray cinema.  A director by the way who Godard once famously called "Cinema" itself.  So without further ado, here are my choices for the 10 Best Nicholas Ray Films.

1. Johnny Guitar (1954)  I may be showing my old school affinity with Godard and the French New Wave with my number one choice, but the sheer gaudy decadence of Ray's visuals, combined with the audacious nature of Joan Crawford and the batshitcrazy Mercedes McCambridge make this one a no-brainer - even amongst the deep-pocketed oeuvre that is the career of Nicholas Ray.  Perhaps the auteur's strangest film and the one most likely to elicit complaints and criticisms of cheesiness (pure camp and done the way camp should be done!), Johnny Guitar is nonetheless the director's boldest and bravest film as well.  Still waiting for a proper home video release in the US (my copy is a European PAL version) let alone its rightful, and hopefully inevitable, transfer onto Bluray, this bizarro-world western is a film I could watch over and over and over again without ever tiring of it.

2. Rebel Without A Cause (1955)  The first Nick Ray film I ever saw (around the age of thirteen or so) and probably the most iconic, thanks to the tragic status of James Dean, this prototypical teen angst motion picture is an emotionally draining, psychologically searing, philosophically drenching cinematic event - and that is a description  without adding extra hyperbole.  The story of three teens, played by Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo (all dying violent deaths, at 25, 43 and 37 respectively) trying to cope with the complexities of life, and the pressures of growing up (and varying degrees of parental problems), this film is probably the director's most emotionally intense work, and yes, Ray's wiles with a camera make it worthy of inclusion here, but much of this hullabaloo, much of this rather, for lack of a better term, magical touch, has to do with Ray's allowing method actor Dean to do his own improv thing throughout the film.  Oh yeah, and it looks damn beautiful as well.

3. In A Lonely Place (1950)  A cynical Humphrey Bogart.  A sexy Gloria Grahame.  A salacious murder.  Film noir.  Nick Ray.  Who could ask for anything more?  In a Lonely Place tells the story of a Hollywood screenwriter who has had a rather bad run of luck, and who is suspected of the murder of a young hat check girl who is found dead the day after spending the night at his place.  Bogie plays the screenwriter with his typical blend of machismo and urbane refinement.  Meanwhile, we also get Gloria Grahame as the new neighbour and obvious love interest for our hero.  But that is just it.  Is this guy really a tragic heroic figure brought down by innuendo and bad timing, or is he indeed a cold-blooded killer?  We do get an answer one way or the other by film's end, but before that, the question remains looming in the air, ready to destroy everyone and everything around it.  The sexual chemistry between Bogie and Grahame is rather palpitating, and Ray's weaving, voyeuristic camera, makes it all the more intriguing.

4. They Live By Night (1949)  This was Ray's first film.  It was made in 1947, but due to the chaos of Howard Hughes' takeover of RKO, it was not released for two years.  Meanwhile, many big names in Hollywood saw the film via private screenings, leading to Hitchcock casting Farley Granger in Rope, and Bogart hiring Ray to direct Knock on any Door.  Once it was released, it became sort of the prototype for the couple on the run movie, influencing everything from Gun Crazy to Bonnie and Clyde to Badlands to (of course) Robert Altman's remake, Thieves Like Us.  Granger, along with Cathy O'Donnell, who, story be told, was handpicked by Granger, play a young couple on the wrong side of the law.  Innocent (the naive kind of innocent) and in love, these two play the tragic lovers/heroes of the story.  Raw and natural, as is often the case for directorial debuts, this is probably Ray's most grounded picture - and in this grounding, we get a story of harrowing circumstances, done in the most cinematically innocent way.

5. On Dangerous Ground (1952) The first act of this film plays out like a gritty police procedural - something akin to the cop shows of today - the second and third acts, though still full of intensity and urgency, come off as a more lyrical kind of storytelling.  These two sides of Ray's proverbial coin - the roughness of They Live by Night alongside the smoothness of In a Lonely Place - come together to make this tale of hard-boiled NY police detective Robert Ryan and bitter and blind Ida Lupino, soar with the most powerful of wings.  Watching these two stellar - and often overlooked and/or underappreciated - actors pair off against each other, is worth the price of admission alone.  Ray's weaving, sometimes invasive, sometimes ethereal camera, makes it a bargain indeed.

6. Bigger Than Life (1956)  I first saw this film just last year, projected on the big screen, and I was mesmerized from beginning to end.  Ray's sultry use of colour, his play with lighting and shadows and tilted camera angles, the bravura performance of James Mason - possibly the actor's greatest performance - all come together in an explosive and quite harrowing drama.  On the edge, both thematically and stylistically, Bigger Than Life tells the story of a drug addict, back in a time when films did not readily breach such divisive subjects - but then, Nick Ray was never known as one who would shy away from controversy.  Of course, the bigger controversy came not with drug addiction, but the way Ray portrayed the American family and the so-called values that went with them.  Again, that is Nick Ray, and, as I and Jean-Luc Godard stated earlier, he is cinema.  And speaking of Godard, in 1963, the director named this film one of the Ten Best American Sound Films ever made.

7. The Lusty Men (1952)  Yes, Ray was supposedly bisexual, and yes, there is more than it's fair share of homoeroticism not so hidden away in this appropriately titled film, but this does not mean this isn't a manly film.  A real man's man kind of film.  The kind of film where men are men, yeah, anyway, I digress.  Seriously though, this Robert Mitchum picture is truly a manly movie.  A movie for men, as the Spike channel has been heard to say.  It is the story of a retiring rodeo buck, played with the usual barrel-chested charm associated with Mitchum, and the newbie he takes under his wing, played with the usual sideways-glancing snarkiness of Arthur Kennedy, and the woman who comes between them, played with the usual casual sexiness of Susan Hayward.  Full of vim and vigor, and not too low on the sexual tension, The Lusty Men takes Ray's typical undercurrent of eroticism and brings it out to the glaring forefront.

8. Run For Cover (1955)  This Jimmy Cagney western is usually criminally overlooked when discussion of Nick Ray's oeuvre comes up, and that is just a goddamn shame.  With the usual pastiche of such directors as Ford and Mann and Hawks, Ray gives his own cock-eyed subversiveness to the whole shebang, and creates a genre picture that manages to perfectly blend the classic era of the genre to the revisionist beginnings of the, then modern day cinema.  But the real reason this film is so enjoyable, other than Ray's not-so-subtle touch, is because it is always fun to watch James Cagney ply his trade - be it as a gangster, a hoofer or, in this case a cowboy. 

9. The Savage Innocents (1960)  More than any other Nicholas Ray film, save perhaps for King of Kings, this tale of an Eskimo trying to survive in the wilderness, and trying to survive the encroaching modern world, is the most often cited dud on the director's filmography.  Starring the Mexican born Anthony Quinn, an actor who probably played just about every ethnicity in Hollywood at one time or another, as Inuk the Eskimo, The Savage Innocents is often referred to as racist, but I do not think Ray had anything like that in mind when he made the film - this was just the norm for the time.  What the film really is, is pure, and sometimes quite ridiculous, fun.  Hey, and Dylan wrote a song about the whole damn thing too.

10. Born to Be Bad (1950)  This early career melodrama, much in the same vein as John M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven, is about a beautiful and quite manipulative young woman, who will do anything to get what she wants.  In fact, one could even say that she was born to be bad.  This manipulative young woman, someone who in less classy circumstances would be called a fucking bitch from Hell, is played beautifully by Joan Fontaine, one of my favourite actors, in one of her best, but sadly most overlooked, performances.  We also get Robert Ryan and Mel Ferrer, who are always fun to have around, but this is Fontaine's picture, and with it she runs away, and she does so with beautifully flying colours.

Well, that is it for my look at the ten best films of the man known as cinema itself, Mr. Nicholas Ray.  I suppose one could go on and bring films like Hot Blood or Party Girl, or even The Flying Leathernecks into the equation, but I suppose one should leave it at that.  To end on a quote from my number one pick, and I think this somehow strangely sums up the cinema of Nicholas Ray rather well, "There's only two things in this world that a real man needs: a cup of coffee and a good smoke."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Anomalous Material Feature: 10 Best Kevin Smith Characters

Here we are once again true believers, with my latest 10 best feature written for the fine folks over at Anomalous Material.  For those of you not in the know, those same said fine folks have given me a (possibly foolish on their behalf) regular gig as feature writer.  It is a series of top ten lists on all kinds of various cinematic subjects - and anyone who knows me at all can surely attest to how perfectly suited I am to such an endeavor (yes I am a  list nerd).  This newest feature, my thirtieth such feature, takes a look at a place called the View Askewniverse, that world created by writer/director Kevin Smith, and inhabited with all his made-up miscreants.  In this piece, I reveal those ten miscreants that I consider to be his best.

Read my feature article, "10 Best Kevin Smith Characters" at Anomalous Material.

No, Stan Lee, for his great performance as himself in Mallrats, is not on the list, but since he is Stan Lee, the man who created Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Dr. Strange, The Man-Thing, Iron Man, Thor (well, at least the Marvel version of Thor) and The X-men, among a multitude of others, there was never any way I could not mention him here.  Anyway, go check out the list. 'nuff said.

Retro Reviews: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.


There are a number of older critics (let's call them the fuddy-duddy set) who have not only called Scott Pilgrim vs. the World a bad movie (which it most certainly is not - and they should now that!) but have called it so because of some self-delusional belief that the film has little or no relevance for anyone over the age of thirty - or maybe even twenty-five.  This seems to be less a rational and thought out type of film criticism and more a reactionary pot shot at a youth culture they do not understand.  A youth culture they are perhaps a little bit afraid of, perhaps not remembering those halcyon days when they too were young and they too were part of a youth culture thought unfathomable by their parents and parental peers.  But alas, such is the prerogative of the geezer set.

I on the other hand, am of that age straddling both sides of said generational gap.  Having turned 43 just last month, I am of that very first video game generation that cut its collective teeth on Pac-Man and Space Invaders and Pitfall, and later on Super Mario Bros. and Mortal Kombat.  Yet, at the same time, I am not so young (or foolish) as to believe I am still part of that youth culture in any way (other than as an outside observer) and therefore not so young (or foolish again) to mistake something ultra-cool or awesome for something good, or even great - a mistake made by many a moviegoer these days, as well as many a fevered blogger and/or "ain't it cool" film reviewer - that gives rise to many an otherwise mediocre movie, placing it in the so-called cultural stratum not for it's filmic qualities but because of its temporal hipness.

Luckily for all concerned (even that aforementioned old-fogey set, whether they like it or not!) director Edgar Wright is of pretty much the same straddling generation as I am (seven years younger but still brought up on Donkey Kong and Zelda - which shows in his use of an 8-bit Paramount logo to start the movie off in the right frame of mind), and therefore able to distinguish between the so-called awesome and the legitimately made work of cinema.  And this is exactly what Wright gives us in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - the perfect amalgam between the ultra hip and the ultra cinematic. Blending a cinematic prowess that shows just how much Wright loves his calling, with a hipster mentality that shows just how on the pulse with that (again) youth culture the director is, he has created the perfect concoction for the post-millennial movie crowd - aka, that youth culture that has been all the rave so far in this review.

But then, since this is supposed to be a film review and not a debate on the generational gap, perhaps one should stop waxing philosophical about how all these damned generations cannot get along (an obvious dilemma come every new generation anyway), and start talking about the actual movie itself.   So here goes.  As is the trend these days, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an adaptation of a popular graphic novel (one that this somewhat inconsistent comic book junky admittedly had not read prior to seeing the movie) and to add to that, an adaptation of a graphic novel about the gamer sub-culture of today's (yes, here it comes again) youth culture - and in being so, blurs the newfound proverbial line even further between movies and video games.  But not to worry true believers, for this blurred vision does not equate - as is usually the case it seems - with the visual awesomeness overshadowing the desired inherent cinematic quality.

Luckily, since that above mentioned hipster helmsman, Edgar Wright is involved (and quite in charge the old school auteurist in me wants to shout!) and can play with the genre with a giddy, but not overblown chutzpah, rarely found in today's moviemaking community, and in doing so, creates what is essentially the most genre-accurate comic book/graphic novel adaptation this critic has ever seen.  Dissected and percolated to look like a comic up on the screen - less a movie, more a motion comic of sorts - Wright has manipulated the imagery of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World into the most unique hybrid of comic book, video game and motion picture the world has ever seen (he said with a booming crescendo of dire exclamation!).  All hyperbole aside though, Scott Pilgrim is a unique creature unlike any other - even other recent graphic novel adaptations (though both with a bit more heft than here) worthy of praise, such as Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City and Zack Snyder's erroneously maligned rendition of Alan Moore's Watchmen.

Yet, even with all the CGI-created glitz and glitter, and video gaming art direction (a big part of Wright's film is how he places us inside a wholly functioning universe that seems to be the magical inner workings of a video game without ever bringing into question how or why we are in such a world) and the director's rabid faithfulness to the source material (I have gone back and perused said source material), the movie would not work if the cast did not work.  Luckily (again) the cast is outta sight.  Michael Cera, as the titular young Mr. Pilgrim, has taken his usual acerbic, soft-spoken, lovable geek persona (a persona hated by many of those aforementioned fuddy duddies, as well as the actor's very own youth culture peers - mainly for having played the same riff over and over again til almost ad nauseum) and combined it with an acerbic, soft-spoken, semi-tough guy persona, to create the perfect melange of characteristics appropriate for the role.  In other words, he is Scott Pilgrim.

Playing a 22 year old bass player (the lead singer of his band is snidely named Stephen Stills and the drummer is Scott's bitter ex-girlfriend) who must dump his seventeen year old girlfriend, Knives (an extremely naive Chinese-American Catholic school girl!?) in order to date the girl of his (literal) dreams, the multi-hair-coloured, sexy-hipster-chick-with-a-past Ramona Flowers (played with her own style of acerbic aplomb by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, mostly known for playing Bruce Willis' daughter in the most recent Die Hard and, especially, her cheerleader-outfitted Grindhouse girl in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof).  The real problem comes when he finds out he must also battle the League of Evil Exes (to the death!!?) in order to keep dating Ramona.  Going through the league (all seven of them) like levels in a video game (complete with super powers and coin prizes dropping from the sky) Cera steps up his usual dry humour with some rather kick-ass (albeit in a semi-comedic style) moves. 

Also along for the ride are a slew of hilarious supporting characters.   Chris Evens as a skate-punk-turned-actor evil ex, and Superman Brandon Routh as a grown-up child of the damned, uber-vegan bass player and most evil of the evil exes are two of the highlights.  We also get the cocksure hipster-dufus extraordinaire, Jason Schwartzman as the eventual (and quite inevitable) maniacal leader of the League of Evil Exes, who of course, Scott Pilgrim will end up having to fight with in a final, top level, free-for-all battle royale - replete with Schwartzman's (and who else could have played the role!?) dubious (and quite purposefully ridiculous) posturing.  The downright funniest performance though, goes to Kieran Culkin, channeling Robert Downey Jr., as Scott's gay roommate and royal egger-on.  All this and Cera in better-than-ever form - who could ask for anything more?

Yet more is just what Wright keeps giving us.  Taking the idea of parody and/or satire and leveling it up a ratchet or three, the auteur (and yes he is!) that managed to give a heart to the zombie genre and real wit to the buddy action flick with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz respectively, now takes on the comic book and succeeds beyond any and all expectations.  Surpassing the rather sadly disappointing other attempts at such this year, namely the sporadically enjoyable but overall mediocre Kick-Ass and the lamely-concocted sophomore attempt at Iron Man (doubly disappointing due to the first one being so damned entertaining!), Wright has captured what it is like to read a comic book and/or graphic novel and in doing so has entered the world of comic book culture - and in turn that ever so-present youth culture the geezer set has so maligned.  In other words - this movie is awesome!  Generational idioms be damned!

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 08/18/2010]

Monday, December 10, 2012

Chaplin's Limelight, and How I Completed My Quest

December 3rd.  Charlie needed a date, so I gave him one.  December 3, 2012.  This was to be the day we completed our quest.  This was to be the day we could say that we have seen the 1000 Greatest films.  Charlie needed some sort of end date.  A blip somewhere in the future, that he can watch as he checks the films off the list.  A beacon in the fog.  A North Star to guide his way if you will. That is just the way Charlie is built.  I, on the other hand, need just to watch the films and enjoy or not enjoy, whichever may be the case.  But Charlie wanted a date, so a date we set.  December 3rd, 2012.  And a final film we set as well.  Appropriately enough, I chose Chaplin's Limelight to be our final film.  Charlie, being Charlie, pile-drove his way through the list.  When Charlie joined my quest (about two years after I had begun the beast) he started out about two hundred films behind me, so I suppose he had to quicken his pace in order to reach me by that aforementioned date.  This pacing (did he even have time to enjoy the films he watched I wonder), which was at a breakneck speed, got Charlie to #999 about a month before me.  At that point, since I was not about to go at any sort of cheetah-like speed (I wanted to enjoy what I was watching - savour it if you will), all poor Charlie could do was wait for me to reach #999, and mark December 3rd off on his calendar.  Well, December 3rd came and December 3rd went, and after watching Chaplin's Limelight (on the big screen, after hours at the cinema of course), both Charlie and I could now say, in a moment of triumph, that we have seen the 1000 Greatest Films of All-Time.

Now, of course, such a list can only be worth the paper it is written on, or in this case, worth the memory it is pixelated upon - or some sort of more computer savvy kind of saying.  Such a list, this one incidentally found over at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, whereupon a master list is compiled using hundreds of critic's, director's, film historian's and organization's individual lists, is subjective at best, and pedantic at worst.  I mean, the list is filled with mediocre fare such as Ordinary People and The Bridges of Madison County, as well as ugly things like Forrest Gump (and do not even get me started on Stan Brakhage!), while it omits films like Rififi and Sirk's Magnificent Obsession, and all but one of the films of Frank Borzage.  Crazy really.  Crazy.  What I am trying to say is that these are not necessarily the 1000 Greatest Films of All-Time (Brakhage!?  Really!??) but I still believe there is more good than bad on the list - even if neither Footlight Parade nor Stella Dallas are included. But then again, the list did include many films that I had not seen until taking on the quest, that have joined my all-time favourite list.  Films like Leave Her to Heaven, Gun Crazy, Gilda, Seventh Heaven, A Canterbury Tale, Smiles of a Summer Night and DeMille's Samson and Delilah, just to name a few off the top of my head.  And then there is Chaplin's Limelight, a film that can perfectly summed up by just one word - sublime.  A perfect ending to an all but perfect quest.  But I digress, for the great moments certainly outweighed the bad (even Brakhage!!?), and I am that much cinematically richer for the experience.  My knowledge of cinema is greater for the experience.  I am a better human being. My life is grea...but my hyperbole is getting a bit off track.  Not that cinema is not art and life and all that jazz - because it most certainly is.  But now is not the time for such poeticism.  There is now life beyond Thunderdome.  Life beyond the list. 

The question now is this - what the hell do I do now!?  I mean, in the way of cinema and movie watching that is, which is everything (isn't it?).  Well, other than not watching anymore Brakhage, I have lots of things to do.  I will of course, still be writing and posting regularly at this same bat channel (as well as periodic stops at other cyber locales), but that is nothing new.  As far as the new goes, there is a plenty to come.  First off, I suppose this is as good a time as any to become an Ingmar Bergman completest.  When I first began getting into cinema as an art form of which to follow, Bergman was one of the first director's (along w/ Fellini and Kurosawa) that I began to watch in earnest.  Eventually the filmmaker kind of fell by the wayside, as I discovered others, so as of today (one week after finally completing said quest), I have seen just nineteen of the Swedish auteur's forty some films.  That needs to be remedied, and remedied dark tootin' quick.  In conjunction with this venture, I will begin a new series here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World.  It is called The Bergman Files, and it will consist of me taking a fresh look at every Bergman film ever made.  From his arthouse hits to his more obscure early films to his later television work (including the soap commercials he did back in the fifties), I will take a look at each one of his films.  Writing up one every two to two and a half weeks or so (my projected rate of inclusion) this series will last about two years or so.  This should be quite fun.  Yeah, I said watching Bergman will be fun.  Some would not think so, with his rather austere and often tragic outlook, but it shall be fun indeed.  My kind of fun.  Perhaps those people should question their own ideas of fun.  But again, I digress.

There will also be other cinematic goings-on around these parts.  Catching up on my precode watching, and adding to my woefully lacking knowledge of silent cinema.  Filling in the gaps in my knowledge of directors like Sirk, Renoir and Borzage; Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse; John Ford and Howard Hawks.  Completing watching the oeuvres of actors such as Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck; Blondell, Kay Francis and Janet Gaynor; Cagney, Bogart and Edward G. Robinson.  Checking out more South American cinema and the obscurities of African cinema.  I have three piles, each about two feet high, of DVD's just waiting to be watched.  Works by Agnes Varda and Mike Leigh; early Lubitsch and Hollywood Renoir; lots of precode stuff and lots of Japanese cinema; random classic Hollywood; Spanish and Italian films from the sixties; Mario Bava and Jess Franco; and have I mentioned Bergman.  Plus, re-watching many of my favourites, up on the big screen, is a must do item for this new year.  I have already been trying to watch all of Scorsese, De Palma, Sirk, Kubrick and Powell/Pressburger on the big screen, and that will continue.   And then there are those packed bookshelves that line my room.  Star bios and film theory; Hollywood history and director's monographs; critical essays and behind-the-scenes stuff.  There are a hell of a lot of film books on those shelves, whose spines have yet be broken - and a breakin' 'em I am a gonna do.  Oh yeah, and speaking of books, there is the one I am going to write.  A book that will be half memoir of a quest and half film history/criticism.  Whether anyone will publish such a book, only time will tell, but I am still going to write it.  But that is it for now.  My quest complete, the final film a work of art, the doings of a book in the future.  'nuff said...for now.