Sunday, June 30, 2013

Battle Royale #15: Battle of the Tough Guys (The Results)

Well, after vacations and holidays, turmoil at home and abroad (okay, just at home), voting extensions and more voting extensions, Battle Royale numero fifteen has finally come to a close.  This Battle of the Tough Guys was a close one all along, but not so close that the lead ever changed.  From beginning to end, Jimmy Cagney, the song-and-dance tough guy, held his lead over Eddie Robinson, the intellectual tough guy.  In the end, with 40 votes cast, Cagney beat Robinson by a final tally of 22 to 18, or 55% to 45% for those of as more statistical bent.  Does this make Cagney tougher than Robinson?  Yes.  Yes it does.  Yeah, I know, where the hell are all the other tough guys?  Where is John Garfield?  Where is Bogart?  Hell, where the fuck is Mitchum, dammit!!  Yeah, well, I don't know, but it was still fun to see the battle between Jimmy and Eddie.  Of course, forty votes is not exactly a resounding voter turnout, now, is it?  No, it is not.  I have been trying to get these battles up to record heights (the current record is 66 votes cast, followed by 64, but most are in the thirties and low forties) but alas true believers, it just does not seem like that is ever going to happen.  Hell, this round even went an extra two weeks, and still just forty votes - thirty-nine if you don't count my own.  Should teh Battle Royale end?  Should I send it away for lack of interest?  Nah.  I believe we can still get to that triple digit voter turnout.  Ya just gotta believe.  So remember, Battle Royale #16 is just around the corner.  Next week even.  Who will the combatants be?  Who knows?  Maybe you can give me some hopefuls.  And also remember, The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World will still be going strong, with reviews of the latest releases, as well as looks at classic and cult cinema, and lots of other fun stuff.  And in the meantime, let me know what classic film stars (or directors, producers, what have you) you want to see in the metaphorical ring.  See ya on the flip side.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Shout Hallelujah, Come on Get Happy!! Return of Regular Posts!

To usurp a saying from Stan Lee, hey true believers!  I went on holiday last week, as I am sure all my faithful readers (now usurping from the late great Miss Dorothy Parker) already know, and have not posted a damn thing in and around these parts since before that.  Friday, June 14th to be a bit more exacting in my last posting.  I said I would be back, and so, here I am, but alas, many things have happened to your not-so-humble narrator in the so-called meantime.  As all those aforementioned faithful readers also already know, my lovely wife and I have run a three screen arthouse cinema in our home(ish) town of Harrisburg Pa, lo these past four and a half years.  Well, that all came to a crashing end on Monday (having just returned from the only real vacation we have had in these same said four and a half years) when we were both fired by the cinema's owners.  But, as they say, whomever they may be, c'est la vie, que sera sera, and all that jazz.  Life goes on, and Amy and I move on to new adventures.  

As of Monday, June 24th, around 10:08 am, Amy and I are enjoying our suddenly christened "Summer of Leisure."  When all this was coming to a head, and the stress and anticipation was killing us, I was contemplating a Summer long haitus from this very site, the one you "hold" in your hands right now, but what a silly thing to do.  I am suddenly inundated with free time (unemployment is great for the rest of the season, until I find something else to pay the proverbial bills) so why not write write write.  Oh yeah, and watch a shitload of films too!  Seriously, The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World is going nowhere, and it ain't stayin' dormant either!  I will be back this weekend with a final tallying of the latest Battle Royale (voting still goes for another day, so get your vote on over in the sidebar), and then early next week with reviews of Before Midnight, World War Z, The Bling Ring, This is the End, The Heat, and Upstream Color.  I will also kick my Fred and Ginger series into high gear, as well as get back to all the other promised things from earlier this year.  I also have lots and lots of movies to watch, something I have not been doing much of these past six or seven months due to the stress of everything happening elsewhere - and elsewhere that is now gone.  

Granted, I am saddened to not be running the cinema any longer (many of the customers were like family to Amy and I), and I will surely miss watching all my favourite classic (and not-so-classic) films on the big screen after hours everything from Taxi Driver to The Red Shoes to Dazed and Confused to The Blob), but in one of those blessings-in-disguise type of twist endings, the amount of stress that has been lifted from my shoulders is tremendous, and for the first time in months, I can breathe.  Now it is time to turn my attentions back to my film watching, reviewing, and everything that goes with being the great film historian I so want to be - which incudes maybe finally finishing that damn book I have been talking about for the last few years.  See ya soon true believers and faithful readers...I'm back baby!!  And to celebrate (as well as a sort of sidebar congrats to all my LGBT friends out there after the defeat of DOMA by SCOTUS yesterday) here is that lovely lady singing the title of this post (well, part of it anyway).  See ya on the flipside.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Film Review: Zack Snyder's Man of Steel

As far as my history with Superman movies go, once one gets past the 1950's TV show and accompanying big screen serials, which incidentally are great fun, the first two Christopher Reeve ones from 1978 and 1981 are good, solid superhero movies.  1983's third installment was just awful, and it's followup in 1987, The Quest For Peace as it was sub-titled, is just cataclysmically bad.  Then, after a couple of decades relegated to the small screen via Dean Cain and Tom Welling, the 2006 reboot, Superman Returns came around, and was not so much a bad movie, as just utterly forgettable.  Seriously, did that film really happen?  I am willing to bet the creators of this latest version, The Man of Steel, have cleaved it from their memories, and we probably should as well.

Now my personal history with the films of Zack Snyder are a bit more up and down, but consistently so.  I loved his first film, 2004's Dawn of the Dead remake (the best damn remake, retooling, whatever, we have seen in a long long time), then hated his second, the atrociously ridiculous 300 (though some of the director's eye-porn visuals were fun at times), but turned around and loved his third film, 2009's oft-maligned Watchmen (my favourite comicbook adaptation, and a member of my top ten for the year), and again hated his fourth film, Sucker Punch (now I would never knock a bunch of plaid skirted naughty schoolgirls kicking ass, but wow is this film bad).  Pretending that The Owls of Gagoobaly-Gook (or whatever that thing was called), was never even in Snyder's mish-mashed oeuvre (even more forgettable than Superman Returns), the critical algorithms of the director's life work is a clean yes no yes no.  In theory, this should mean I loved Man of Steel, right? Yeah, well, not so much.

Do not get me wrong, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel is a more-than-capable superhero film (produced by Christopher Nolan, giving credit where credit is due), with all the requisite creation story, moral angst, and heroic action sequences and balls-out fight scenes, not to mention one of the most iconic of superhero outfits, and even though it plays at being both something serious and something quaint, it just never reaches the level of darkness of the Wagnerian Dark Knight Trilogy, nor does it manage the old school whimsey of such Marvel movies as Iron Man or The Avengers.  What it does do though, is gives us two hours and twenty-some minutes of solid superheroic fun.  Granted, I have never been the biggest of Superman fans, tending, comicly-speaking, to lean more toward the Mighty Marvel side of things, growing up on a steady diet of Avengers, X-Men, Daredevil, The Defenders, and The Fantastic Four, but there is no denying the inherent heroism in the classic character, and it is this same heroism that Henry Cavill channels in his role as Kal-El/Clark Kent.  Having been born in the Channel Islands, there is probably some joke about the actor channeling the superhero, but we should probably just leave that in the aether where it belongs.

Actually, the British actor, complete with chiseled jaw and abs of (literal?) steel, is perfectly suited for the part, but considering that Supes, originally conceived by teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933, and making his debut in DC Comics in 1938, helping to usher in the world of superheroes, has never been the most convoluted of characters - you will never see the depth that ones sees in a Batman or a Spider-Man - his acting prowess is never really brought into question.   Others in the cast, such as Kevin Costner as Kal-El's adoptive Kansan father, Jonathan Kent, Russell Crowe as his Kryptonian dad, Jor-El, and Amy Adams as everyone's favourite investigative reporter, Lois Lane (more modernized than Margot Kidder's version, but still getting in just as much peril), do an equally capable job, but it is really Michael Shannon as General Zod (of course) who steals whatever show there happens to be to steal.  In the end, after Superman does what no other Superman has done before, we are left with a good, if not great, action movie, and a movie that, despite its flaws, will still make you believe a man can really fly.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Maybe We'll See the Ghost of Dean Martin too

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I know, my writing output has already been a little on the weak side these days (quantity, not quality, I hope), and now here I am telling all my loyals that the dry spell will continue.  Sure, I have lots of things planned for the Summer, writing-wise, and I will eventually be getting to them.  In the meantime though, the lovely wife and I will be heading west, to the City of so-called Sin.  That's right, we will be in Vegas soon, and believe it or not, I am not even taking my laptop.  That's right, I am goin' off the grid baby.  Okay, I will have my smart phone with me, I'm not that crazy, but seriously, there will only be one (maybe two) posts in and around these parts over the next week or so.  I will be rounding up the latest Battle Royale (Cagney vs. Edward G., for those who are caught unawares) this weekend, and letting you all in on who comes out on top in that one (tight race right now, get over there and vote - it is right near the top of the damn sidebar for crying out loud) and I will also be posting a review of Man of Steel either Friday or Saturday, but after that, it is off to the lights of the desert for some R&R.  Once I return (after the 24th-ish) I will be posting some rather overdue reviews of such films as The Purge, This is the End, Now You See Me, Before Midnight, and Upstream Color, as well as putting together a brand new Battle Royale, and getting started on a few fun Summer things (more on those later).  Until is a shot from one of my favourite Vegas-set films.  Yeah, that's right.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Film Review: M. Night Shyamalan's After Earth

With the director's last few films, M. Night Shyamalan has more than proven that he is an atrocious storyteller and just a god-awful filmmaker.  Sure, once upon a time, the director had a few films ranging from okay-but-overrated (The Sixth Sense), surprisingly enjoyable (Signs), and even kind of good (Unbreakable), but with each subsequent film, from The Village to Lady in the Water to The Happening to The Last Airbender, Shyamalan has managed to do the seemingly impossible - make a even worse movie than the last one.  After seeing The Village, and its array of preposterous narrative and ridiculous acting, one would have thought it near impossible to make a film that was worse than this.  With Lady in the Water, Shyamalan proved those naysayers wrong.  After the nonsensical bunk that was that film, the guy actually proved us wrong again with The Happening (Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel run from the wind...and actually outrun it!!??), and, with The Last Airbender, one of the epic crash-and-burns of modern cinema, on a par with monstrosities like Waterworld and Battlefield Earth, the so-called filmmaker proved us wrong once again.  Wow!  I must admit that in a warped kind of way, that is a pretty impressive feat indeed.  But the question remains, has he proven us wrong again?  Has he made a film even worse than The Last Airbender?  It seems highly unlikely that such a thing would be possible, but if anyone could pull off such a feat, it would be M. Night Shyamalan.

In a weird way, I now look forward, ofttimes with a giddy demeanor, to each of the director's films being worse than the last.  I think I would be doubly disappointed if he were to actually pull off a good film again.  I would be more upset with that outcome than with  having to sit through yet another atrocious M. Night Shyamalan train wreck of a movie.  Well, I am here to tell you that even though he did not pull off the seemingly impossible again - After Earth is not as terrible as The Last Airbender (what the hell could be!?) - I am not doubly disappointed, for this film is just godawful bad.  The best you are going to get out of this critic is the following statement: "After Earth is not the worst movie ever made."  Let's just leave it at that, shall we.  When you keep setting the bar so high (or so low, if you will), it will just naturally become more difficult over time to sustain such a level of, let us say, consistent descendent filmmaking behaviour.  But enough of this ripping apart on the director's past foibles and failures (not unlike beating that old dead horse we've heard tell about), for this is a time to be ripping apart the director's latest creation - even if, according to some people, it isn't the worst movie ever made.

After Earth.  What can one say about After Earth?  Without getting too mired down in such adjectives as terrible, horrible, ridiculous, ludicrous, or even godawful (my favourite), one can surely discuss how this story, about a military father and his less-than-militaristic son, both of Earth lineage, living on a somewhat distant planet, a thousand years or so after Earth became inhabitable, who crash land on, you guessed it, the aforementioned uninhabitable planet Earth.  This father and son duo, in a blatant nepotistic vanity piece, are played by Will Smith and son Jaden.  Now Columbia Pictures really knows how to sell such a film.  Never even mentioning Shyamalan, aside from a the briefest of small type print, in the trailer, and instead opting to highlight the Smith father and son team, those put off by the ever-declining quality of M. Night's oeuvre, may still actually go and see the damn movie - even if it still looks the steaming pile of batshitcrazy psycho baboon feces that it is.  Oh, have I not mentioned the batshitcrazy psycho baboons yet?  My bad.  You see, apparently (and this is said in dialogue), all the creatures of this futuristic killer Earth have evolved over these last thousand years to hate humans. How this came about without any humans being on the planet over these same thousand years, I am still not sure, but stupidity of narrative aside, what brings this film down most is the godawful (oh, I used that word) boredom that comes with having to sit through the damn dreck.

Though he is often considered something of a great actor by many, my thoughts on Will Smith tend to lean more toward the mediocre side of things.  Granted, I like the guy when he is doing comedy - his true calling I think - but when it comes to drama, the schtick just gets too thick for me to enjoy.  This is no different in After Earth, as both pére and fils Smith are far more serious about their circumstances than anyone could possibly be while watching their quite ludicrous (another word I said I would put aside) predicament.   Far more serious than the film actually deserves.  Then again, no matter how pedestrian I happen to find papa Smith's acting, it is nothing compared to the atrocious acting that Jaden shows here.  Seriously, as the fourteen year old actor ran around Killer Earth, trying to evade those batshitcrazy psycho baboons, some pretty fucking shitty-assed weather patterns, and a space spider-thingee who's sole purpose is to hunt and eat Jaden, tracking him by the fear he puts off, I kept hoping the baboons or the weather or the goddamn space spider-thingee would finally put an end to his miserable, bawl-baby character.  But alas, this is a Smith/Smith project, so nothing bad can really happen, right?  Whatever the case, this inane family therapy session - even M. Night should have bailed on this one - turned into the dumbest of sci-fi snooze-fests, is one to be avoided like the proverbial plague of batshitcrazy psycho baboons.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Forces of Geek "A History of Sci-Fi Cinema" - Pt IX

The fine folks over at Forces of Geek have allowed me the space and time to ramble on about the history of science fiction cinema.  These bi-weekly columns, will make an attempt, however feeble, at discussing the history of this often chided cinematic genre.  From its birth to the latest CGI box office hits, I will take a look at the films that have filled the genre, as well as their literary influences and TV offshoots.  In this episode, my ninth in the series, I take a look at the year 1954, a year that gave us an iconic creature from an equally iconic lagoon, a cheesy Disney-ized Jules Verne adaptation, and Mr. Big.

Read my column, "1954: The Year of the Big Bugs, the Black Lagoon, and a Big-Ass Lizard Called Godzilla," at Forces of Geek.

 For links to all the parts in this series, go here, and scroll down to the Forces of Geek section.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Guest Review: Carter Liotta Looks at Val Lewton - Part II

The following is the second in a series of guest reviews by my good friend, Carter Liotta.  Mild mannered eye doctor during the day, and ravenous cinephile at night, Liotta, whose writing, digital videos and pithiness can be found at his delightfully droll Wordpress sight, takes a look at the works of legendary film producer Val Lewton.  We here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World (which means, me) are glad to have him aboard.  Enjoy.


I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Two months before Cat People opened in 1942, the cameras had started to roll on producer Val Lewton’s second film. RKO Pictures had tested and approved the title I Walked with a Zombie, and now wanted a movie based on the title.

Zombie is a movie loved by most critics in spite of its failures and gaping plot holes. It works because it is about mood and atmosphere rather than horror itself. It’s about voodoo, mental illness and alcoholism. It may even be about zombies. Like many Lewton films, it’s never quite made clear.

Most of all, I Walked with a Zombie is an exercise in misdirection, including the title itself. Audiences expecting to see hordes of brain-eating zombies on the march have an entirely different experience.

The film begins with two figures walking distantly on a beach. It’s not clear who these people are, and the film never returns to this scene to let us know definitively. A voice-over from Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) explains in a wistful tone that “I walked with a zombie last night.” It’s the same tone in which Meryl Streep says “I once had a farm in Africa.” It promptly defuses any notion that walking with a zombie is anything other than a calm, etherial experience.

Connell, a Canadian, has been recruited as a private nurse to the ailing wife of a sugar baron named Paul Holland (Tom Conway). Holland lives on the fictitious West Indian isle of Saint Sebastian, where the black population was brought in chains generations ago and now practices Haitian voodoo.

Once on the island, Betsy learns that her charge is “a mental case.” Taken by fever, Mrs. Holland is now nonverbal and detached from the world except to sleepwalk or be guided by the sane. Concurrently, there is an unspoken, hard-boiled tension between Paul and his alcoholic younger half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), the result of a love triangle with Jessica prior to her becoming a vegetable.

Betsy decides to find a cure for Jessica, and is told by the two white medical experts on the island, including the brothers’ own mother (Edith Barrett), that it’s hopeless. At night, however, Betsy hears voodoo drums, and realizes that voodoo medicine may be able to break Mrs. Holland’s trance.

And so, Zombie is a movie of opposites: white people and black people, Canada and the Caribbean, medicine and voodoo, living and dead. Rather than being contrasted, the lines are blurred so that the audience does not have a good sense of right and wrong and how to judge the situation.

Adding to this disorientation are the sets, which seem to move in subtle ways. Does Betsy’s room look out upon the courtyard? The sugar fields? Paul Holland’s living room? Does Mrs. Holland live in a tower? Under a tower? In a room beside the tower? Moreover, why do seemingly important plot devices end up meaning nothing? Is it that a bad B-Movie was careless with the script and the shooting? Or are we being told that realities are far less explainable than what simple plot devices normally allow?

For a 1943 movie, I Walked with a Zombie is remarkably modern in its portrayal of its black characters, the history of island slavery, and even in its respect toward voodoo. It is surprising, given the films exploitative title, that it fails to exploit such low-hanging fruit. Lewton became fascinated by Hatian culture while working on the piece, and spent a percentage of his paltry budget hiring genuine voodoo drummers and a Hatian cultural and voodoo expert named LeRoy Antoine as a technical adviser.  It is quite possible that the relationship between Lewton and Antoine allowed a black perspective into the writing, rather than it being a white man’s perception of slavery and voodoo.

Mark Robson, in The Celluloid Muse, noted that Lewton was a difficult man with whom to work. He wasted time and seldom could accomplish anything without the pressure of a deadline. When his employees went home at night, his insomnia would keep him up, rewriting the script and mulling over new ideas.  Lewton encouraged extensive collaboration, but then made the end result deeply personal.

Hired to write the script was Curt Siodmark, whose work writing horror pictures for Universal monster movies was well known. Lewton’s plan had always been to throw away the Universal formula, and eventually he threw away Siodmark, himself, replacing him with screenwriter Ardel Wray.  As in many Lewton films, Val Lewton re-wrote the final draft of the script, but never took writing credit.

And so, we’re never sure whether the forces that lead to discord and death are spiritual or human, or whether the moon reflecting upon the water is beautiful, or whether it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies and is the glitter of putrescence.  What’s beautiful and benign can seem eerie, and those things that cause us great concern can, in the end, be benign.