Friday, March 30, 2012

Day 120: Mirror Mirror

"This queen radiates crazy."

Tarsem is one of the most visually gifted directors in film history and I don't think anyone would begrudge him this fact. The content of his films (with the possible exception of The Fall) has always been the weakest link in their respective chains. The Cell was gorgeous to look at, and had some interesting concepts, but the performances were laughably bad, particularly Vince Vaughn, and it really fell apart in the third act. Last year's Immortals was one of the worst movies I've seen in a long time, ending up being nothing more than an embarrassing mash-up of 300 & Clash of the Titans, combining the worst elements of both. So when the first images and trailers for Mirror Mirror began cropping up, I held out little hope for it, beyond praying it would be better than Immortals. How wrong I was...
I won't go so far as to say that Mirror Mirror is a better movie than The Fall, but it may be my favorite film he's made so far. From beginning to end, it's a thoroughly entertaining movie that I would not be surprised to find out that parents enjoy more than their kids. It's not necessarily a meta fairy tale in the vein of the Shrek series or Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, but it's certainly very self-aware. It's like a fairy tale being told in a world where fairy tales exist.
The film opens with a brilliant animated prologue, narrated by the evil queen (Julia Roberts), in which we're given the entire back story on her deceased husband, the king, and her step-daughter Snow White (Lily Collins). When we return to present day, it is Snow White's 18th birthday, and she finds herself being treated hostilely by the queen, who is being pursued by a Baron (Michael Lerner) keen to unite their two kingdoms. In the woods outside the kingdom, a handsome prince, Alcott (Armie Hammer), traveling through with his servant Renbock (Robert Emms) are attacked and robbed by a group of savage bandits, who turn out to be a band of seven dwarfs.
Wishing to see what's become of the kingdom her evil stepmother has been running, Snow White sneaks out of the castle to find a society in decay. She's very upset by this, as the kingdom of her childhood memories was a happy place. When returning to the castle, she comes upon Alcott and Renbock, and frees them from the shackles they were placed in by the dwarfs. Alcott arrives at the castle, and the queen is immediately smitten with him, ordering her servant Brighton (Nathan Lane) to announce to the kingdom that there will be a royal ball to introduce the prince to the kingdom.
Of course, at the ball, the prince becomes smitten with Snow White, and the queen, not wishing to have anything stand in the way of her plans, let alone her insubordinate step-daughter, orders Brighton to take Snow White into the woods and murder her. Because Brighton is, at heart, a good man, he tells Snow White to run away and never return to the kingdom, reporting to the queen that he has murdered her. Snow White is taken in by the seven bandits from earlier, Grimm (Danny Woodburn), Napoleon (Jordan Prentice), Half Pint (Mark Povinelli), Grub (Joe Gnoffo), Wolf (Sebastian Saraceno), Butcher (Martin Klebba) and Chuckles (Ronald Lee Clark), and after convincing them to let her stay, she goes on to convince them that rather than robbing from anyone who comes into the woods, that they turn themselves into a band of Robin Hoods, robbing from the palace and delivering the rewards to the people of the kingdom
I was thoroughly worried that the film would, at any moment, devolve into a nonsensical assortment of pop-culture references and fart jokes, but thankfully, this is not that kind of film. It's not only very sweet, it's very smart, and the script by Melissa Wallack & Jason Keller is incredibly clever. It's the kind of film that makes you wish every revisionist take on a fairy tale put this much thought into where to put twists on the original material, as opposed to just making everything a twist on the old tale. This is a familiar story with no reason to be told anew, but the film adds just enough newness to the proceedings to make it feel fresh and new as opposed to superfluous. Some of the changes I really enjoyed were the way they dealt with the queen's magic mirror, the giant marionettes that attack the dwarfs, and the spell the queen puts on the prince to make him fall in love with her.
The design of the film is fantastic. The film world lost a costume design giant earlier this year with the passing of Eiko Ishioka, and while it's sad to say this was her final film, her designs are as gorgeous and varied as always. She doesn't just work in one style, there are multiple stylistic looks to the film from the first ball that is almost all white to the wedding sequence near the end where the costumes are a kaleidoscope of colors. The production design by Tom Foden is also great, and I can only hope this film will be remembered for its design excellence come Oscar time.
As far as the performances, they are all pretty great. Roberts is an actress I'm not usually fond of, but here I think she is wonderful. She appears to be having a great deal of fun, which certainly helps as it never allows her to take herself to seriously. Hammer is also great fun, and I'm looking forward to seeing more from him in next year's The Lone Ranger as I think he's a rare commodity in that he's incredibly handsome and also a very talented actor. Lane & Mare Winningham, as one of the women who works in the castle, are also terrific and a welcome sight in any film. They're so underused these days, that their mere presence is cause for excitement. Collins isn't as terrible as people have been saying. She's a tad bland, but it's never distracting. She's certainly got a lot more in both the looks and charisma departments than the other actress playing Snow White this year, and frankly, she's got the least flashy role, and she does a serviceable job in it.
The film really and truly belongs to the dwarfs though. These seven actors are all phenomenal, and they really get a chance to shine here. They're all very recognizable and you'll remember Woodburn from his time on Seinfeld as Kramer's stand-in partner, Povinelli from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Prentice from Harold & Kumar go to White Castle. This is sadly the first film since Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits to really give actors of this stature the kind of characters to really sink their teeth into, and they are all well-written, fully realized characters, not a bunch of sidekicks with funny quirks. I truly hope we don't have to go another thirty years before someone writes roles this good for these actors again.
That face pretty much sums up my surprise at how much I liked Mirror Mirror. I knew my five-year old daughter Clementine would enjoy it, and I snap up any chance I get to take my kids to see films by directors I love, but I was truly surprised by how much I liked it as well. As a parent, I get dragged to a lot of bad movies, and maybe a mediocre movie looks artificially good as a result, but I'm savvy enough to know the difference. This is not a movie for everyone, and I have to say that if there's not at least one element of what I mentioned that sounds intriguing to you, the film will do nothing to change your mind. But if you're a fan of Tarsem, and you were disappointed with the lack of imagination in Immortals, you'll be pleased by this return to form.
Lastly, just in case you were wondering, the Scarface reference from the trailer was rightly deleted from the final cut. I'm not sure who that joke was for, but it's not in the film. I think that if you give yourself over to the film, you'll be surprised by how taken with it you'll find yourself to be. It's really great, and it's always nice to be surprised by films nowadays, especially when you consider how many disappointments we've gotten right out of the gate so far this year. Snow White and the Huntsman has its work cut out for it now if it's going to be the best Snow White movie this year, and something tells me it's just not up to the task. Especially now that I've already seen a great Snow White movie this year.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Day 119: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

"You were precious to behold, Bob. You were white as spit in a cotton field."

When I sat down two years ago and made my list of the twenty-five best films of the decade for 2000-2009, I ranked 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford at number ten. After watching the film again, I think I would likely rank it eight, meaning that it would leap frog the films The Squid and the Whale and The Prestige both of which I adore, but neither of which pack the wallop that this film packs. The Squid and the Whale is a very personal film for me, as I feel it's the most honest and realistic depiction of divorce ever put on film, and The Prestige is a masterpiece of a puzzle that gets better every time I watch it. But The Assassination of Jesse James is the kind of film that just isn't made anymore, and certainly not this well. My love for the films of the 1970s is no secret, and this film embodies the spirit of the 70s so completely, and is firmly in line with the revisionist westerns of the decade like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Little Big Man and The Outlaw Josey Wales.

It seems odd to start a review by talking about the cinematography, but of all the incredible and fantastic elements that came together to make this film the masterpiece that it is, Roger Deakins' cinematography is the best of the entire decade. The film utilizes two distinct looks that make it unique. There's the "present" which is shot very classically, and then there are these smaller vignettes that occur throughout the film that feature narration and blurred edges of the frame, apparently achieved by mounting wide angle lenses to the front of Arri Macro lenses. It's an incredible achievement, and Hugh Ross' narration in these scenes is eerie and adds an otherworldliness to the proceedings. The train robbery sequence alone should have won him an Oscar (Robert Elswit won that year for cinematography for There Will Be Blood, deservedly so, but also because Deakins was a dual nominee for this and No Country for Old Men).

The film opens with the last big heist by the famed James gang, led by Jesse (Brad Pitt) and his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard). Most of the original gang has gone their own way, and the brothers have been forced to take on some less than stellar members in the gang, among them Jesse's hot-headed cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), Dick Liddl (Paul Schneider), Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt) and the Ford Brothers, Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Bob (Casey Affleck). It's less than ideal, but the job gets done, and Frank heads for parts unknown, while Jesse decides to try his hand at a normal life in Kentucky.

During his absence, things begin to fall apart for many of his gang members. Hite & Liddl can barely conceal their contempt for one another, particularly after Liddl sleeps with Hite's step-mother. The Ford Brothers, meanwhile, can't help but live in hope that Jesse will pick them to do another job with, and when Jesse re-surfaces after an absence, he informs the brothers that they will comprise his new gang for a bank heist he has planned. Paranoia grows among the brothers, especially when old James gang members start turning up dead, and they begin to believe that Jesse is trying to get rid of anyone who may be able to connect him with his old life as an outlaw.

Everything comes to a head when Charley convinces Bob that it's either going to be them or Jesse, and Bob, ever the loyal Jesse subject, but also a fame whore, decides that he wants fame on his own terms, so he guns down Jesse with the gun Jesse gave him for his twentieth birthday. Bob gets the fame he so richly desired, but as the legend of the now deceased Jesse grows, so too does Bob's infamy, and before long, he becomes a pariah.

First and foremost, director Andrew Dominik has a clear vision & a wonderful directorial eye. It's even more amazing when you consider that this is only his second feature after 2000's Chopper, which features a powerhouse performance by Eric Bana. He is not afraid to take his time with the story and lets things unfold in an elegiac way that befits the film's subject matter. It's rare these days that a director takes time to tell a story without giving in to self indulgence (I'm looking at you, Peter Jackson). This is also the rare film that was still good in spite of its release date being moved several times. Typically when a film's release date is shifted back, it's not good news, but in this case, it turned out to work in the film's favor, as a legend grew up around the film before it was ever released.

Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances here. He has always been an actor that relishes the power of silence, and he is given a chance to really use that technique to its full advantage here. He's never more powerful than when he seems to not be doing anything. He's also never more dangerous than when he seems to be in good spirits, and it's a dichotomy that Pitt plays to its fullest. While I don't think it's his best performance, it certainly helped prove a lot of people wrong about his abilities as an actor.
Casey Affleck is revelatory as well. I have never been a fan of his, as evidenced by my review of I'm Still Here, but this is one of those situations where an actor's limitations play perfectly into a very specific role. Here he is able to play unnervingly naive and dangerously stupid in such a way that I can't picture anyone else in the role. He is fantastic and I certainly hope that he proves me wrong in the future about his abilities.

The rest of the supporting cast is superb as well. Sam Rockwell is one of my favorite actors working today, and he's great as always. Jeremy Renner was still relatively unknown when he did this film, but he would rocket to stardom two years later with The Hurt Locker, and his formidable talent as an actor is on display here as well. To say that Paul Schneider is underused as an actor would be an understatement, but he is fantastic as well. Sam Shepard, Garret Dillahunt, even Mary-Louise Parker as Zee, Jesse's wife, are all wonderful too, and really fill out the film in the best possible way.

Overall, I think that while this is certainly not a film for everyone, if you can get your hands on the blu-ray, which looks amazing, and just shut everything else out for the better part of three hours and just let yourself get lost in the world of this film, you'll be amazed by its power. Then again, maybe you won't be, maybe you'll just be bored by it. But that's not my fault. That's your own.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Day 118: A Dangerous Method

"I think Freud's obsession with sex probably has a great deal to do with the fact that he never gets any."

David Cronenberg, no matter which genre he works in, always brings an interesting perspective to it. I would say that his remake of The Fly is one of the essential science fiction films of all time, and certainly outdoes the original in all respects. Naked Lunch is probably the closest anyone will ever get to putting Burroughs on screen in a way that honors his work (even though Nelson Muntz can think of at least two things wrong with that title). And his most recent film, Eastern Promises, put an interesting twist on everyone's favorite genre, European gangster crime dramas with male frontal nudity.

With last year's A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg turns his focus to the fathers of psychoanalysis & awesome facial hair, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) & Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Working from a screenplay by the severely underused Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), Cronenberg manages to button down one of the most buttoned-up eras in history, Victorian Germany. An hysterical woman, Sabina (Keira Knightley), is brought to Burgholzli Clinic in Zurich where Jung begins to work with her to discover if she really is in the throes of hysteria, or if there's something more to it than that. He begins talking to her about what can only be described as her deviant sexual behavior. She tells stories of being turned on by her father beating her, and how much it excited her. So yeah, she's got some issues.

Two years later, Jung travels to Vienna with his wife to meet Freud, who is introduced doing what else but smoking a cigar. The two get into some deep discussions about this and that, but Freud clearly wants to know what Jung's been up to with his Russian patient he's heard so much about. It's never outright said, but Freud certainly implies that his being Jewish gives him a much more keen insight into the human condition than Jung's own reflective religion. I find this interesting, particularly considering that Jung was one of the very few psychologists who believed that our spiritual life had a direct result on our happiness.

The film comes to life a bit when Freud sends a fellow psychoanalyst, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), to stay at Jung's clinic. Otto is the first one to plant the seeds that Jung needs to be laying some pipe in his patients, namely Sabina, in order to really understand what's going on in there. The interplay between Cassel & Fassbender is the much more interesting dynamic in the film for me, probably because they're both actors interested in relishing every word of dialogue and they use their scenes to one-up one another and their back-and-forth is fantastic. The scenes between Freud & Jung are severely lacking in this kind of fire. It also doesn't help matters that Viggo is wearing a ridiculously distracting fake nose.

The film spends a lot of time nailing the details of the era, and it's never short of gorgeous to look at, but the performances are so dry, they make the Sahara look downright humid. While I've never watched a single episode of Downton Abbey, I imagine it to be a lot like this, people in fancy costumes, talking a lot of nonsense, and all the meaning is in the subtext. And I also imagine them saying "what, what" a lot at the end of sentences.

So, what's A Dangerous Method all about? What is this method, and what makes it so dangerous? I don't know, really. Banging your patients might be a start. Considering that Gross went on to become an anarchist is probably a good indication that Jung shouldn't have listened to him in the first place. Obviously Jung wanted to get up in Sabina, and Otto's rationalization gives him license to give in to these desires, but it doesn't gain him much more understanding of her inner life.

Maybe I missed something. I always feel like Cronenberg is fifteen steps ahead of his audience, and by the time we catch up, he's on to his next film. Or the film after that even. I'm still not even sure I get what the fuck eXistenz was about, and that was like six films ago. Either way, I always look forward to his next film (especially his next, Cosmopolis, based on the novel by Don DeLillo) and I guess more than anything else, that's an indication of what a great filmmaker he actually is.

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Monday, March 26, 2012

Day 117: The Lorax

"You do know that you're talking in rhyme, don't you?"

Any issues I have with this film can sort of be summed up by that quote. It's trying to be meta and clever and self-aware when it just doesn't need to be. The official title of this film is Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, but I seriously doubt, after watching the film, that such claims of authorship are necessary. This is not Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. This is Hollywood Motion Picture Studio's The Lorax. I am glad in a way that I waited a full 24 hours before writing this review, because if I had written it immediately after leaving the theater, I would have completely and totally trashed it. In retrospect, the power of the story is such that even the weak nonsense & filler they put around it can't totally diminish its message.

The main addition to Dr. Seuss' original tale is taking the nameless visitor to the Once-ler's home and giving him a name, Ted, and an entire society that's been built in the aftermath of the events of the book. Ted (Zac Efron) lives in Thneedville, an artificial utopia where citizens pay for clean air, have trees made of fiberglass and lightbulbs, and live in blissful ignorance of anything that may be going on outside of its walls. The town is run by a tycoon named Mr. O'Hare* (Rob Riggle) who, we're told through backstory, came to power after The Once-ler's business ran dry. O'Hare controls the clean air & takes serious umbrage with anyone who wants to know what's going on in the world outside of Thneedville.

Ted's in love with a girl named Audrey (Taylor Swift, cue eye roll) who wants nothing more than to see a real tree. She paints pictures of trees in her backyard, and Ted makes it his mission to get her a real tree. A conversation with his grandmother (Betty White) leads Ted on a quest to find The Once-ler (Ed Helms) and find out exactly what happened to all the trees. The film more or less unfolds like the book after this, with lots of unnecessary filler, as The Once-ler tells his tale of his quest to make money, and how his destruction of the forest ran him afoul of a mythical creature named The Lorax (Danny DeVito, in the one stroke of casting genius) who "speaks for the trees." The last part of the film, after The Once-ler gives Ted the last Truffula seed, unfolds like an action-packed race against time, as Ted and Audrey try to plant the seed before O'Hare can foil their plan.

Alright, so let's talk about what works. There's no destroying the environmental message of Dr. Seuss' book (though lord knows these filmmakers try), and I think that if nothing else, kids will take that with them into the world after the film is over. As I said before DeVito is brilliant as The Lorax, beyond the fact that I'm an unabashed admirer, mainly from his work on It's Always Sunny... but he nails the gruff sounding Lorax I've had in my head for thirty-some years. And... that's about it.

So what doesn't work? Everything else. Padding a thirty page picture book to feature length is always a dangerous proposition. Of the four Dr. Seuss adaptations thus far, I think only 2008's Horton Hears a Who added anything worthwhile to the book, and even then it was still a ton of filler. That film also had Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Carol Burnett, Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, and lots of other insanely talented comedians in its voice cast. This film has Betty White & Rob Riggle, both of whom I like, and neither of whom are given nothing much to do.

Ed Helms is not an actor I'm particularly fond of, even in films I liked such as Cedar Rapids. Here, he is woefully miscast. He doesn't have an ounce of menace to his voice, and tries to infuse The Once-ler with humanity, which is the last thing in the world The Once-ler needs. This is also something I should fault the writers for, I suppose. The Once-ler ends up being a victim of circumstance in this film, instead of a merciless industrialist that would make Ayn Rand get all moist in her dead panties. They paint him as a decent guy who gets caught up in industry, instead of a guy with a plan that runs completely counter to being a good steward of nature.

That's an issue. A big one in my book, and one I can't quite get past. His song that he sings as he starts making money off selling Thneeds is so heavy-handed, it may as well have been written by someone from Fox News trying to imitate what a song written by an evil-environmentalist would sound like. And why do we need to take at least an eighth of the book and shove it into a montage? The book is short enough as is, and the animals leaving the forest is relegated to a montage. It's a fairly significant portion of the book because it shows The Lorax coming to the Once-ler at several points to let him know what he's doing to the environment, and hoping that he'll stop, but here, they just cram it all into a not-very-catchy tune.

The songs are pretty lame too, by the way. Coming off a year that gave us The Muppets & Winnie The Pooh, which had magical songs that moved the story along in addition to being awesome, the four or five musical numbers in this film felt shoehorned in to cater to a cast full of singers like Efron & Swift. It's just more filler in a film that didn't need anymore. I really wanted to like this film, I was downright excited to go see it, but that excitement faded pretty quickly. My daughters liked it, but I was just severely disappointed with the whole thing. I think it could have been so much better than it was, and it just felt lazy to me.

Kids don't need to be spoon-fed or pandered to, and that's what this film did. Dr. Seuss was able to clearly and concisely get his point across through metaphor & whimsy. This film felt the need to spell everything out. I would love for Pixar to do a Seuss adaptation because I think they might get it right, but honestly, his books are pretty much perfect just the way they are. They didn't need singing & dancing & heavy-handed nonsense to get their point across. I don't know necessarily where the filmmakers who made The Lorax went wrong, but I think it started when they thought that they needed to add anything to this story to make it good. The animation is gorgeous, but sometimes, that's just not enough.

*Brad Bird should pursue serious legal action against the creators of this character's design as he is a blatant rip-off of Edna Mole from The Incredibles. For cereal.

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Site News

Hey faithful readers...

I have recently accepted a position as a film reviewer on the website I have a two week trial period that I'll be going through starting tomorrow, so I may not be posting on a daily basis anymore. I know that kind of defeats the whole purpose of my blog, but while this was certainly not the expected outcome of keeping this blog, I'd be lying if I didn't say that this blog would lead to something bigger. I'll be posting any reviews I write here as well, and I'll also be contributing news items & top fives, so ultimately I'll be keeping pretty busy.
I cannot tell you how much your loyal readership has meant to me, and I encourage you to follow me over to populationgo. It's a cool site, and while the major crux of their site is currently anime and otaku, I'm hoping to help them elevate their film content and make them a go-to destination like /film.
This may all blow up and fall apart as well, so there's a possibility I'll be back to normal before long. I just wanted to give you all a heads up. Tomorrow will be my final consecutive review here on this site for The Lorax which we're going to see today. Beyond that, I know that my next review will be Mirror, Mirror on Friday. So who knows where all this will lead, but I look forward to what the future brings and thank you again for all of your support. It truly has meant the world to me.


Day 116: Carnage

"We'll worry about the victims after we have the shareholder's meeting."

Roman Polanski is one of the only directors that people have an opinion of beyond the films he makes. Some people won't even watch his movies, not because of any of his films' content, but because he was convicted of a crime a long time ago, and fled America rather than face his punishment. The story behind all of that is long and involved and has been covered at great length elsewhere. I bring it up only to indicate how hypocritical people can be. In general, humans like to take the moral high ground on issues where they don't know all the details. It reminds me of John Adams' attack on John Dickinson in 1776 when he accuses him of "hang(ing) to the rear on every issue, so that if the rest of us should go under, you'll still remain afloat." I've said this before and I'll say it again, films should be judged solely on their content, not on the details of the private lives of those involved in its making (unless that has some direct effect on the film's success or failure).

Of late, Polanski hasn't been the kind of director to set the box office on fire, but his latest film, Carnage, was met with indifference when it was released late last year, and I find that unfortunate. As a film, it reminds me a lot of Doubt, as it's based on a play with no easy answers that provides its viewers with a wonderful jumping off point for conversation. Based on God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, the film tells the story of two couples brought together by an incident that occurred between their 11 year-old sons on the school playground. Alan (Christoph Waltz) & Nancy's (Kate Winslet) son hit Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael's (John C. Reilly) son with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth. The former have come to home of the latter to meet and discuss the incident, ostensibly in the hopes of getting the boys together to do the same.

The fact that these are two sets of people that run in very different circles is immediately evident. Alan & Nancy seem to belong to an elite upper class conservative society while Penelope & Michael are very much the picture of buttoned-down upper middle class liberals. It's also very clear, almost immediately, that Penelope & Michael are putting on airs. Nancy seems to be understanding of the situation, and while clearly annoyed with having to even have this meeting in the first place, she seems to be making the best of it all. Alan could care less. He's an attorney, and is constantly fielding phone calls from various people he works with, as they are dealing with the fallout from a popular blood pressure medication's side effects.

At first, the meeting is civil but awkward, and an air of discontent hangs over the entire thing. The events unfold, more or less, in one room and in real time. There's a few trips into the hallway, as well as the bathroom & kitchen, but these people are trapped in a dead-end argument with both sides shifting power. As revelations are made and facts are lorded over their respective heads, Michael & Penelope soon become prisoners in their own house. It's an interesting dynamic that shifts quite a bit over the course of the films' very short, 80 minute running time, and they cover myriad topics from animal cruelty to art to African social constructs. It sounds a whole lot more pretentious than it actually is, and maybe it's my background in theatre that allows me to overlook the way the characters draw straight lines from their kids' conflict to the conflicts of feudal warlords in Africa, but it never felt out of the ordinary to me.

The performances are fantastic from all four leads. I've heard of stage productions wherein all four actors learn the entire show and then switch roles from performance to performance, and while at first that seemed insane to me, after seeing it, it makes more sense because these people all run the gamut and there's no defined physical limitations to any one of their characters. Obviously, being a film, the casting is much more rigid, as I could never see any of these actors playing the other's part, but they all master their character's arcs.

Waltz is an actor that we haven't seen enough of yet, if only because everything he does is phenomenal. His Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds deserves its place in the lexicon of great screen villains, and here he shows how good he can be when he plays things subtly. Winslet is one of my favorite actresses, and she has the most difficult role as her facade is so built up at the beginning that she inevitably has the biggest plunge, and she handles it extremely well, as to be expected. Foster is an actress who is so great, it makes me sad when I see her in a film that I don't see her more in films, but here, she plays a woman of slow-burning intensity better than I think anyone else could have. Reilly is a master actor, and no one can move as deftly between films like this and broad comedy like Step Brothers and Walk Hard. He's perfectly cast here as a guy dressed up by his wife to be something he very clearly is not.

The film is very funny, and has a lot of laugh out loud moments, but it is very clearly rooted in comedy of discomfort. A lot of the laughs come out of the sheer unease the audience feels with having to be trapped with these two couples. It's an area that Polanski hasn't worked in much, but I feel he does a good job opening up the world of the play enough to not make it feel too stagy.

Ultimately I think it's not as successful an adaptation as Doubt was, but it is a lovely companion piece (and you could squeeze them both in in under three hours).

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Day 115: The French Connection

"You stuck a shiv in my partner, you know what that means? It means all winter I gotta listen to him gripe about his bowling scores."

The importance of The French Connection in cinema history cannot be overstated. Quite simply, it gave birth to the gritty cop movie that has been done to death in the ensuing decades, and every single time, the imitators have paled by comparison. Prior to 1971, the cops in action movies looked like Steve McQueen & Paul Newman. After 1971, they started to look like character actors, such as Gene Hackman & Roy Scheider. Prior to 1971, action movies were shot very classically. After 1971, they all adopted the handheld, documentary style aesthetic employed by director William Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman.

Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Hackman) & Buddy Russo (Scheider) are detectives running a narcotics beat. They fit the model of two guys who never stop working. Early in the film, they leave work and go to a bar to unwind, and when they get there, they notice a table full of people throwing money around like there's no tomorrow. They decide, just for fun, to tail the man guy, Sal Boca (Tony LoBianco), and they end up stumbling into the middle of a potentially huge drug deal taking place with some Frenchmen, headed by Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), or as Doyle & Russo dub him, Frog One.

Doyle & Russo fall into the rabbit hole, and begin tailing anyone and everyone they think may be involved. Their exuberance gets the best of them, and they often end up paying the price for it. Their police chief trusts them, but knows that the guys they're dealing with a clever criminals, and that no matter how much info Doyle & Russo come across, they're always dangerously one step behind.

What was so groundbreaking about The French Connection was its interest in the procedural side of things. Nowadays, with shows like Law & Order all over the airwaves, 24 hours a day, these stories are run of the mill, but in the early 70s, a cop film usually had an inciting incident, a little bit of investigating, and then the busting of the perps. The French Connection gave rise to the notion that people might be interested in more than "just the facts" that Joe Friday was concerned with. This was detective work, lots of stakeouts, information gathering, shaking down informants, all that stuff the suits in Hollywood figured nobody was interested in.

For his fourth feature, William Friedkin decided to fall back on his early work in documentaries to establish the look of the film. He would rehearse his actors without the crew present, so that when shooting began, the cameramen would be scrambling to follow the action. Friedkin is a director known for his, and I'll put this generously, unconventional techniques, particularly when working with actors.

He apparently was constantly pushing Hackman to go darker with this role, and it paid off great dividends as both men won Oscars for their work (along with the film, the screenplay & the editing).
The film's total lack of closure is frustrating for a lot of people, but I've come to accept it over time. There are no easy answers and no tidy resolution you could possibly give this story. And whatever you do, please don't seek answers to closure in the god-awful sequel directed by John Frankenheimer, a man I have no issue with saying never directed a good movie.

The iconic car chase is arguably the film's highlight (though I prefer Doyle tailing Frog One through the streets and subway station). What's so revolutionary about the car chase is not just its relentlessness, but that fact that there's no score in that scene. There's no music whatsoever. As the chase continues on foot, climaxing in the famous shooting at the top of the stairs, there's music, but the entirety of the car chase is music-free, and that's just another pioneering moment in a film full of them.

On an interesting side note, and I'll close with this, the film was first released on blu-ray in late 2008, and Friedkin decided to play with the film a bit for this release. What he did, claiming it was the way he had always intended the film to look, is he desaturated all the color in the film, and essentially bringing it down to black and white, and then subtly layered in color, mostly blue and orange, giving the film an odd tint. Owen Roizman was apparently furious with this decision, and there is now a Best Buy exclusive blu-ray of the film that was released a few weeks ago. I picked it up tonight, and I'm happy to report that the film looks better than ever. Friedkin & Roizman both approved of this new transfer, and while I'm not getting rid of my old blu-ray as it's a cool conversation piece, if you don't yet own the film, pick up this new transfer. It looks amazing.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Day 114: Birdemic: Shock and Terror

"I hear a mountain lion, I've gotta get back to my house and you'd better get back to your car."

This is going to sound way more racist than I intend it to, and I promise I don't mean this comment insensitively, it's merely the only way I know how to get this point across. Birdemic: Shock and Terror could only have been written by a foreigner living in America. It has a lot of very American sounding dialogue and concepts, but they're all off, and end up looking and sounding ridiculous. For example, the main character, Rod (Alan Bagh), is a high-powered salesman and/or software designer depending upon which is more convenient for the particular scene, and in one particular scene, he's closing a deal of some sort, telling his friend afterwords that he just scored a big deal for "a million dollars." Even. It's like, the elements are in place for something that sounds remotely like a real deal made in real life, but instead, it ends up sounding ridiculous because he says that the deal was done for a million dollars.

Birdemic is full of shit like this, but make no mistake, it is one of the absolute best bad movies you could ever hope to see. It's rampant incompetence makes other bad movies seem like stylistic masterpieces. This film almost makes The Room seem like a triumph of form over content. The fact that for almost a full hour of the film's running time there is no indication, beyond the title, that there will be killer birds in this film, is a pretty good indicator of the quality of film you're dealing with.

The movie opens with the most interminable driving sequence this side of Manos: Hands of Fate, and then lazily stumbles into what it assumes is an American meet-cute between the two leads, the aforementioned high rolling businessman/software designer Rod, and a model about to get the biggest break of her life, Nathalie (Whitney Moore). The fact that these two are completely and totally devoid of anything even resembling a personality makes them a match made in heaven. Before I get too far ahead of myself, can we talk about the font used for the opening titles for a second? It was like Helvetica or Courier New, it was so pedestrian and comically oversized, it was an instant indicator of the quality of the film to follow. It also uses the phrase: Additional Casts to introduce the supporting cast. It's another one of those adorable foreign touches I was talking about earlier.

So anyway, the two leads set out on the path to romance, but luckily for them, the path is paved with their dream jobs as well. After posing for some pictures in a strip mall photography place by the name of "Dream Models," she gets a call letting her know that she's going to be on the cover of Victoria's Secret. There's no irony in this film, it doesn't have time for such contrivances, so they're pretty sincere about this plot development. Is it wrong that I'm getting hung up on this sort of minutiae in a movie about exploding killer birds? I don't think so, I'm trying to set the scene for the overall incompetence on display. American concepts, foreign sensibilities.

Make no mistake, this isn't just a badly written movie. It's startlingly bad on all fronts. The acting is atrocious, the directing is clumsy (there are at least five establishing shots before every scene), the writing is tin-eared, the audio mix is terrible (dialogue, ambient noise and room tone seem to be single tracked, if anyone even bothered with the latter two) and the visual effects are so primitive, they are laughable.

There's nothing good to be said about any single element of this film, but as many of you know, I am a bad movie connoisseur, so when all of these disparate elements combine, it makes for a wonderful viewing experience. Also, scenes and sub-plots come and go with reckless abandon, it's ridiculous. Consider for a moment all the nonsense herein: the solar panel salesman, the guy at the bar singing a song about "hanging out," the hippie in the woods who lives in a tree, the gas station owner who's jacking up his prices due to bird attacks. There's some really great stuff here, and I'm laughing just thinking about it.

Director James Nguyen has pulled off a coup here that only a few directors have been able to pull off before: Ed Wood, Uwe Boll, Tommy Wiseau among them. He's made a genuine piece of shit that has found a second life as a cult classic. I would hate to think that he set out to make a good movie, but once the birds start attacking, the talk of global warming, tree hugging, & the Iraq war make me think that he was setting out to make something that would get people thinking about the world in a different way. Characters throw out theories about the birds attacking with a commitment to their lines not seen since the advent of after-school specials. For example, the main characters go on a double date to see An Inconvenient Truth early on, again, without even a hint of irony.

I would love to think that Nguyen is a genius, and has mastered the art of making a thoroughly competent incompetent movie, but there's no way that's the case. Films like Black Dynamite & Hobo with a Shotgun are definitely of this ilk, but I think that Nguyen, like Tommy Wiseau before him, is trying to make the best of a bad situation. I heartily recommend that you watch Birdemic. You can find our liveblog of it archived here. I can tell you that we had a blast, and I can only hope that you will too. Share your favorite moments below (Rod eating a donut off a plate at his house, for example), and let's all have a good laugh together. That's what movies like this are all about.

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Day 113: The Producers (1968)

"'Gregor Sampsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach.' Nah, it's too good..."

I can't believe I'm nearly a third of the way through my year of movies and I haven't watched a single Mel Brooks movie. Well, I have remedied that, my friends, starting at the best place possible, the beginning of his directing career. While The Producers is now best remembered as a musical, it's origins as a film are vastly more interesting.

The story goes that the film was languishing on a shelf because producer Joseph Levine didn't want to release a film entitled "Springtime for Hitler." While filming I Love You, Alice B. Toklas in New York, Peter Sellers was having a private screening party for some friends, when he stumbled upon the film, ran it for his friends, and loved it. He called Levine, and demanded that he release the film, as it was destined to be a smash hit, and Levine eventually conceded, changing the title to The Producers. The film would go on to earn Brooks his first and only Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and effectively launched Gene Wilder's film career. I don't know if this is true or not, but as we learned from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Zero Mostel plays Max Bialystock, a low-rent Broadway producer, who's current life sees him scamming horny old ladies for money by having sex with them. He hires a mild-mannered accountant by the name of Leo Bloom (Wilder) to audit his finances, and Bloom discovers that through some "creative accounting," a producer could conceivably make more money off of a flop than he could off of a hit show. His hare-brained scheme involves over-selling the number of shares in a particular show, promising 10 & 20 percent ownership of the show to dozens of investors, but only if the show was a sure-fire flop, with no hope at all of turning a profit. This way, everyone involved, except the producers who would have pocketed the extra cash, can write off the investment and move on with their lives.

Bialystock & Bloom set out to find the perfect script, finally settling on a script entitled "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf & Eva through Berchtesgaden" by a young Nazi playwright named Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars, in the role Dustin Hoffman had to turn down to do The Graduate). It has all the makings of the sure-fire flop they were looking for, but just to be sure, they need to find a director who's bat-shit crazy, and will ensure that the show will tank. That's when they turn to cross-dressing director Roger DeBris (Christopher Hewitt, best known to people of my generation as Mr. Belvedere) and his assistant Carmen Ghia (Andreas Voutsinas).

Max & Leo are over the moon as they see their plan taking shape beautifully. DeBris, dissatisfied with nearly everyone he sees for the role of Adolf, settles on Lorenzo St. DuBois, or LSD for short (Dick Shawn), a crazy, drugged out space cadet. This is the biggest change that was made to the musical, apart from beefing up the role of their secretary Ulla (Lee Meredith). Her "Bialystock and Bloom" kills me every time.

As you have probably figured out by now, the plan does not go the way they had hoped, and LSD's antics as Hitler endear him to an audience that is, at first, mortified by the production. The famous intermission scene has been copied a hundred ways from Sunday, including by Brooks and his late wife Anne Bancroft on the brilliant fourth season finale of "Curb Your Enthusiasm."One of the constants that I've noticed as I've gone back and re-watched a ton of films that have been parodied or aped over the years, is how good, concise and perfect that first execution tends to be. It's so streamlined in this film, that any attempt to copy it over the years has only added unnecessary complications to the formula.

The Producers is not Brooks' best film, but it is absolutely one of the classic film comedies of all time. Zero Mostel is a force to be reckoned with on-screen. His theatrics only enhance how grand his character is, and he can almost never go "too big" with anything he does. Wilder is every ounce his equal in the opposite direction. When he freaks out over his blue blankie, it's incredible. They are a fantastic pair on screen, and if you haven't seen their re-teaming in the film version of Ionesco's The Rhinocerous, I can't recommend that enough either.

The supporting cast is fantastic as well, with Hewitt and Mars stealing the show. Brooks would work with Mars many times after this, most notably in Young Frankenstein, but he shows his comedic chops here, and they're both fantastic. It's a shame that most people only know this film through the musical, because while the musical is great, it's got a ton of filler, and for me anyway, the LSD subplot works better than the one they used in the musical (and please don't even get me started on the film version of the musical).

If you've never seen The Producers, now is the time to do it, and if it's been a while, it's time to revisit it. Like a fine wine, it only gets better with age, and honestly, you think you know better than Peter Sellers? He knew enough to recognize brilliance when he saw it. What, do you think you're funnier than Peter Sellers? Didn't think so.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Day 112: Kingpin

"Roy, what do you think about new beginnings?"
"What is that, the feminine hygiene spray?"

There is no movie on earth that I quote more often or laugh just thinking about, than The Farrelly Brothers' 1996 comedy masterpiece Kingpin. Yes, masterpiece. I can't think of any movie that packs as many laughs into 113 minutes as this one does, and virtually every single joke works. I would wager to say there's only two jokes in the whole film that don't work, but we'll get to that later. In the summer of 96, there was no movie that I wanted to see more than Kingpin. The ad campaign was brilliant, referring to Bill Murray as "Big, Bad Bill Murray" certainly didn't hurt.

I was primed and ready to go, and went to see it the day it opened, and laughed my ass off. The problem was, there were like a dozen people in the theater. The movie bombed, and faded quickly into obscurity (though I did manage to see two more times in the theater, having to drive almost an hour to see it the third time). Over time though, I've come to find out that in some circles, Kingpin is rightly revered and regarded as the masterpiece that it is. If I think someone's cool enough to hang, I may throw out a Munsoned reference, to see if they get it, and if so, they can hang.

In 1979, the bowling world was introduced to a hot, new talent from Ocelot, Iowa by the name of Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson). After winning the Odor Eaters Championship over bowling legend Ernie "Big Ern" McCracken (Murray), Roy seems to be on a "gravy train with biscuit wheels." His fortunes fade when he teams up with McCracken to earn some supplemental income by hustling at shady bowling alleys. After one incident goes wrong, Munson loses his hand to some thugs, and we jump ahead 17 years to 1996.

Munson is now a hook-handed loser, languishing just outside of Amish country in Pennsylvania, selling supplies to bowling alleys, his glory days long since over. At one of these bowling alleys, he comes across a young Amish gentleman named Ishmael (Randy Quaid) who he thinks has as much natural talent as anyone he's ever come across. He decides to turn his fortunes around, and manage Ish, taking him to the National Championships in Reno, where the winner takes home one million dollars.

Of course, persuading an Amish guy to travel across the country with him is going to take some work, so Roy poses as an Amish man passing through Ish's community to help egg him on. When it's revealed that the farm needs half a million dollars to keep the bank from foreclosing on them, Ish agrees to join Roy on his voyage to redemption. Along the way, they meet up with Claudia (Vanessa Angel) who becomes a third partner in their venture after a hustle Roy tries to pull on her boyfriend goes wrong.

So, it's a buddy comedy, a road trip movie, a love triangle, a redemption tale and a bowling movie, all rolled into one. Tell me where else you get that kind of value for your money?

One of the things that I love about the film is that there's a lot of really mean spirited humor, all of which ends up coming back around on the aggressor. It's sort of a precursor to shows like "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," where the characters are generally unlikable, but you're endeared to them because they always end up being the victims of their own mean-spiritedness. The film is also never better than when it attempts to be serious. It's never too far from your mind that you're watching a movie about bowling, so the scenes when they try to bring it down to earth and make things serious become that much funnier as a result.

The performances are all phenomenal. Harrelson has been better in other movies, but this is him at the top of his game. His performance is totally devoid of vanity, and he goes for broke like few other actors could or would. Randy Quaid has become something of a tabloid pariah of late, but he's hysterically funny in this film, playing up his character's naivete to comedic heights. There's a ton of great comedic actors in smaller roles like Lin Shaye as Roy's landlord, Willie Garson as the thief Roy hires to rob her & Chris Elliot as a "Robert Redford in Indecent Proposal-"esque gambler in Reno. I'll let that sink in so you realize the comedic value in it.

This brings me to Bill Murray, who is sublime. I think this is his second best performance ever (Rushmore being his best) and no one can play such an irredeemable character and still make him lovable like Murray. Apparently they had written this role for Jim Carrey, and Murray took the role on condition that he could re-write and improvise the entire character, and thank goodness they had the foresight to let him go hog wild. He has many of the best lines in a film filled with great lines. You can relive many of these line at this site which I spent a good deal of time at this morning. That Unified Fund commercial kills me every time.

So what are the two jokes that don't work for me? It's funny because they're often cited as people's favorite moments in the movie when I talk to people. First is the cow-milking scene. I didn't find it funny the first time I saw the movie, and I still don't. I sort of admire what they were going for, more than I think it's funny. The other joke is Ishmael shitting in the urinal. Again, I'm glad they were taking bold risks, but I just don't find it funny.

It's sad to me that The Farrelly Brothers' next film is the one that skyrocketed them to fame, as I find There's Something About Mary mediocre at best. It's nowhere near as clever or inspired as Kingpin, and the cast is nowhere near as good (Sorry Matt Dillon, you're no Bill Murray). But that's the way it goes, I guess. I don't think, as I used to, that Kingpin will one day be universally recognized as their best film, but to those that know enough to know best, it truly is their best film, and that's undeniable.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Day 111: The Howling

"Honey, you were raised in LA. The wildest thing you ever heard was Wolfman Jack."

Joe Dante got his start, like many other directors, working for Roger Corman. He even gives his old mentor a cameo in his first non-Corman financed film, 1981's The Howling. Seeing as how I was only two at the time, I don't quite remember why everyone had such a hard-on for werewolf movies in 1981. An American Werewolf in London, Wolfen & this film were all released in that calendar year. And at least these were all movies that featured good old-fashioned killer werewolves, not the shirtless emo douchebag variety currently littering movie screens.

Much like An American Werewolf in London, The Howling is a nice mixture of cutting edge makeup effects (for the time), genuine scary moments and both have tongue firmly planted in cheek. Joe Dante is a pretty big horror/sci-fi film geek. He works with legends of the B-movie genre like Kevin McCarthy & Dick Miller, and he's smart enough to know that there's an exhilaration to horror films like this when they're done correctly, and balancing them with comedy is the absolute right thing to do. While ultimately I think this film is not quite as good as American Werewolf, there's a lot to admire about it.

Karen White (Dee Wallace) is a television news anchor who has been receiving mysterious phone calls from a man that police suspect is a serial murderer. Using her as bait, they send her to meet with the mysterious Eddie (Robert Picardo), and a police officer shoots Eddie moments before he is about to attack Karen. Traumatized by the whole experience, and on the recommendation of famous psychiatrist Dr. George Waggner (Patrick Macnee, again Dante casts his movies well), Karen and her husband Bill (Christopher Stone, Wallace's real-life husband) travel to a remote campground called "The Colony" to relax and drop out of society for a while.

Things are not what they seem however, as the people living at The Colony are not like normal human beings. And of course they aren't, it wouldn't be much a horror movie if she went out to the woods and got over the whole ordeal. Some members of The Colony include the great character actors Noble Willingham & Slim Pickens. Anytime Slim Pickens shows up in a movie, you know you're in for a treat. I only wish Harvey Korman was around to play off him, as I still find them to be one of the most sublime pairings in cinema history.

It's not long before, back in the city, Eddie's body turns up missing and something begins to smell fishy to the detectives working on the case, played by Belinda Balaski, another Dante fixture, and Dennis Dugan, who would go on to have a lucrative career directing shitty Adam Sandler movies like Jack and Jill. Back at The Colony, Karen's husband is acting strange, and as she soon finds out, he has been turned into a werewolf, which most, if not all, members of The Colony are. All hell breaks loose and the special makeup effects start coming out in full force.

Overall it's a pretty good flick. It's not great, and like I said, considering it came out in the same year as American Werewolf, the similarities are striking, but its ultimately not as good. For starters, Rob Bottin did the special effects, and while he's good, he's no Rick Baker, so the transformation sequences, while cool, pale in comparison to the ones Baker did for John Landis. The ending is a sharp commentary on television news culture, but again, Network pretty much covered that ground five years earlier, so what else is there to say, really?

Of course now, having had at least five sequels made, it's easy to forget how good the original was, and all things considered, it's pretty good. It's not Dante's best work (that would be Explorers) or even my personal favorite (that would be Innerspace), but it's a solid movie from a solid director, and it helped to kick start the werewolf craze of the 80s, so there's that. If you're looking for something that's not too scary, but also sharp enough to know how ridiculous the entire premise of werewolves can be, you could do a lot worse than The Howling. If you have a choice though, I would recommend An American Werewolf in London.

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Day 110: John Carter

"John Carter of Earth? John Carter of Mars... sounds much better."

Okay, let's start right away with the title. It sounds like the worst movie Denzel Washington never made. He was a rogue cop, who didn't play by the rules. They tried to reign him in, they gave him a new partner, and what that new partner never bargained for... was John Carter. Directed by Tony Scott. Script by Ehren Kruger. So yeah, seriously, fuck that title. Even adding "Of Mars" to it would not have been an improvement. The sheer number of times people say John Carter in the film made me think Tennessee Williams was somehow behind this whole thing.

I'm not going to pretend that I know much about the source material. I know that the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs have a pretty rabid fan base, and that the story that he created over a century ago has been mined for countless science fiction novels & films over the years that the original now looks like a pale imitator. My friend Mark reviewed the film over on his blog, and I'm linking to his review right here so you can read more about the backstory, and get another man's opinion on this film, because our opinions of it differ greatly.

I found this film to be a miserable failure. For all of the money that was spent bringing this world to life, populating it with competent actors seemed to have been the furthest thing from the minds of its creators. Let's start with our eponymous hero, played by Taylor Kitsch, a man so thoroughly lacking anything resembling charisma, it made me think that even Josh Hartnett would have been a marked improvement. He's like all the worst aspects of Hartnett & James Franco when they're at their naval-gazing worst. I remember when The Matrix came out, and I couldn't figure out why on earth they cast Keanu Reeves in it, but once I saw that they needed someone who could easily play confused by all the strange new rules of a strange new world, he immediately became the perfect choice.

This is a similar situation. John Carter is a bad-ass on Earth, but once he's transported to Mars, he just picks up his bad-ass ways after about five minutes of acclimating to the new atmosphere. He never seems genuinely confused or frightened by anything. I know he's a bad-ass, but even the biggest bad-ass has to, at the very least, have a period of adjustment that extends beyond a handful of minutes.

Was this a directorial choice or an actor choice? It doesn't really matter because the blame for that lay firmly at the feet of director Andrew Stanton. If that wasn't what he wanted, he could have done something about it. Kitsch has all the charisma of a cardboard box, and he is most famous for playing a high school quarterback on television as recently as eighteen months ago, so I just don't buy him as a guy with any sort of backstory on a scale with the one they presented. Also, dude was way too cut for a man living in the 19th Century. Where was this guy getting his pump on? He looks like he strolled out of a Gold's Gym, not a Confederate prison.

Then there's Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars who becomes Carter's reason for standing up and fighting back. She's hot, that's undeniable, but that's about it. She suffers from Carrie Fisher syndrome, not knowing which accent sounds best, so she tries out a few. She's also so bronzed it's distracting. I am worried for her skin twenty years from now, and these are not things I should be thinking about while watching a sweeping epic. I guess that just goes to show what I felt about the film overall; I was so distracted by the amount of bronzer the female lead is wearing that it was all I can think about when she was onscreen.

There's some decent actors in smaller roles like Ciaran Hinds & Mark Strong, both of whom I like as actors, but neither of whom did anything for me here. Dominic West reprises his role from 300 in case you really liked his character in that movie, you get to spend another two hours with him here. While we don't get to see them, we get to hear Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church & Samantha Morton, all respectable actors playing cgi Tharks. Serkis must have been busy being in every other mo-cap movie ever made to have turned up.

I have been very vocal with my criticism of the marketing campaign for this movie. It was shit. And if this article is to be believed, the blame for it may not be totally on the shoulders of Disney's marketing people. I hope it's not true, as I am a fan of Stanton's work with Pixar, and would hate to think he's that short-sighted, but it wouldn't surprise me. I know that most of the reviews, particularly the negative ones, have dwelled entirely too long on the film's budget, so I don't want to re-hash any of that lest I be branded for being blind to the film's virtues. The film utilizes its budget well, and you can definitely see every cent of the budget up on screen (unlike films like Superman Returns that were unfairly saddled with carrying additional budget for all the times the film was attempted and didn't happen).

At the end of the day, I refuse to believe that this is the best possible version of this story that could have been filmed. One of the things that people fail to realize when criticizing a film for having broadly drawn, one-dimensional villains is that villains of that sort make it so much easier to become involved in the spectacle of it all. I'm not saying that one-dimensional villains should be par for the course, but when you look at the villains in Harry Potter, Avatar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, etc. it makes it so much easier to get caught up in the story because you don't have to spend time figuring out their motivations.

The motivations of the, no less than, four different sets of villains John Carter battles throughout this entire film, are unclear at best and not even present at worst. There were so many bad guys, I had no idea why I should be rooting for John Carter. Why not root for one of the other bad guy factions? I'm supposed to root for him just because he's in love with some bronzed up hussy that multiple people want to kill? Sorry, that doesn't work for me.

Overall, I guess I could see where people might enjoy this, but it just didn't do it for me. Maybe I'm a cold-hearted cynical bastard, but in reality, I think this film had far too many problems to be accessible to anyone but die hard fans of the source material. And if I'm grading a film on those merits, this one is an unmitigated failure.

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Day 109: Swingers

"They're gonna give daddy the Rain Man suite, you dig that?"

Movies have always had the power to influence trends in fashion & music. A lot of my friends were heavily influenced by movies like Wayne's World & Clueless, but for me it was Swingers that changed the way I dressed, the music I listened to, and the way I talked. I got totally caught up in it, wearing a huge chain attached to my wallet & bowling shirts, listening to bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Squirrel Nut Zippers & Cherry Poppin' Daddies, and referring to things as "money." It seems obnoxious in retrospect, but I swear I wasn't the only one; Others were complicit in this behavior.

It's been the better part of a decade since I've actually sat down and watched the film from beginning to end, and I'm happy to say that in spite of a few nineties hallmarks like the gigantic cordless phones, the film holds up incredibly well. For those that have never seen it, Swingers tells the story of Mikey (Jon Favreau, who also wrote the script), a comedian & actor who has just moved to LA, having broken up with his girlfriend of six years. He relies on his friends like fellow NY transplant Rob (Ron Livingston) & Trent (Vince Vaughn) to help him soldier on and get back into the social scene and dating world. The film then chronicles several weeks in their lives as they attend various parties, nightclubs & the like, in search of women. That's basically it, plot-wise, there's obviously more going on in the subtext of it all, and the film is ultimately Mikey's quest to either get back with or get over his ex with the help of his friends.

Doug Liman directed & shot the film, and while there's nothing particularly revolutionary in its low-budget aesthetic, it does flow nicely, and a lot of his lo-fi techniques, such as using a wheelchair for a dolly shot through a casino, have been aped by no-less filmmakers than yours truly. The script is great, it has tons of truthful dialogue that sounds very real, but is also firmly rooted in fiction. In other words, you don't think that you're actually watching a documentary per se, but you know that the dialogue has the verisimilitude to sound like the way that people actually talk to one another.

The cast is great, top to bottom, with Favreau being another great character actor so dissatisfied with the role he was getting offered that he wrote himself a great starring role, and he truly shines in it. The supporting cast is full of great small parts like Alex Desert's Charles & Heather Graham's Lorraine (by the way, how hot was Heather Graham in the mid-90s, seriously). There are also tons of great bit players like the woman at the party in the hills that asks Mike what kind of car he drives, and the dealer and the $100 minimum Blackjack table. It's one of those cases where casting the best people in the smallest roles gives the entire world of the film a much better feel, and makes the film that much better as a result.

In spite of all the glowing things that I've said about the rest of the cast and the script, I would be remiss if I did not at least entertain the notion that this movie might in fact be a one-man show, and that one man would be Vince Vaughn. Vaughn skyrocketed to stardom after this film, and it's not hard to see why. He is a machine, firing off one-liners and radiating charisma, it's the kind of performance you can look back in retrospect and very clearly see why he became a star as a result. His ease on screen is almost preternatural, and while he doesn't have all of the best lines, he's got about 95% of them. It reminds me of Matthew McConaughey in Dazed & Confused or Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, this was the birth of a star, and while he's made questionable film choices since this film (actually the same can be applied to all three of these gentlemen), when you go back and watch their big debut, it's easy to see why they became who they became.

Swingers is just a great little movie. It's genuinely funny and sweet, and it can be enjoyed by just about everyone. While I personally like Favreau & Vaughn's second collaboration together, Made, much better, this is a much more accessible film for everyone. It's the kind of thing that you could watch with your mom and you'd both end up having a good time. Plus they use Heart's "Magic Man" on the soundtrack. Tell me that doesn't give it serious street cred. And no, I'm not joking.

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Day 108: Hunger

"You want me to argue about the morality of what I'm about to do, and whether it's really suicide or not?"

St. Patrick's Day is a time for every Irishman to get in touch with his heritage. For most of the people that live in Chicago, that means getting drunk in public while wearing green (and I vigorously question the Irishness of people who think that the Saturday closest to St. Patty's Day counts), but for me, it means watching movies about Ireland. And you know what that means... depressing shit. Whether it's anything by Neil Jordan, Ken Loach or Alan Parker, you know it's going to be some depressing shit. You can now add to the list director Steve McQueen's 2008 debut feature Hunger about Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and the 1981 Hunger Strike that claimed his and nine other's lives.

The storytelling style of this film is particularly unusual and unsettling, and I'm glad I waited almost a full 24 hours after watching the film to write my review because things that bothered me at the time are now coming into focus as being strokes of brilliance. For example, the film opens with a man getting ready for his day, eating breakfast, leaving his house, culminating in his checking the undercarriage of his car for a bomb. This man is Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), a guard at the Maze prison. We follow him for a bit, before bouncing over to the story of two prisoners Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon) & Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) who are sharing a cell, and have taken part in the so-called "blanket" & "no-wash" protests happening among some prisoners.

To give some history (I had to look all this up, it's not really explained in the film) in the early 1980s, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher removed the status of "political prisoner" from certain men being held in prison who had committed political crimes. These prisoners are now being regarded in the same category as men who committed criminal activities, rather than ones that were politically motivated, and in protest of this, they had begun refusing to wear the prison-issued uniform, wearing nothing but blankets, and they stopped washing & even worse, had begun to pour their piss out the doors of their cells and smearing feces on the walls.

Meticulous detail is put into showing how these men tried to communicate with those on the outside & even amongst their fellow prisoners in the jail. It's painstaking, brutal and utterly realistic. It's one of the most intense movies I've ever seen. We're introduced to Sands after about twenty minutes of the film, but it's not until a scene begins at the forty-five minute mark that we get a real sense of who he is. There is a scene, smack dab in the middle of the film that is a single, sixteen minute stationary conversation between Sands and a Priest (Liam Cunningham) in which the two debate the morality of his protests. Simply put, the scene is unbelievable. There's not a direct correlation to it, but it reminded me of the centerpiece scene in The Graduate with Ben & Mrs. Robinson in the hotel arguing about whether or not what they're doing is wrong, culminating in her telling him he's not allowed to see Elaine.

In the scene, Sands tells the Priest that he is going to begin a hunger strike, and they argue about what it will actually accomplish. Sands tells an amazing story about his childhood, and Fassbender just owns it. The scene, his performance, everything about it is incredible. The film then becomes virtually wordless after this, as we follow Sands' slow journey to the grave. We see his body begin to deteriorate, and while it's hard to watch, it never feels exploitative. The thing that bothered me initially is that the film throughly shifts focus away from everyone else to just Sands at the end. It feels like the beginning of the film is now an afterthought, and we're only shown Sands' struggles.

What I've come to realize though is that the film is presenting multiple stories & multiple perspectives on the hunger strike, and it's not meant to be about any one person or thing from the event, it's about the overall experience. It works so much better in retrospect than it did at the time, and looking back on it, it makes me enjoy the film more. It is painful and difficult to watch. The brutality pulls no punches, and makes the film feel real, but it's necessary to paint a full picture of what these prisoners were fighting for. The film does a decent job of staying neutral at first, mainly by giving us an insight into the life of the prison guard, but it's very firmly on the side of the protestors. Maybe it doesn't agree with their tactics, and showing the violent deterioration of Sands' body is a clear indicator that he's doing it to himself, and almost forcing others to do it, but it's clear too that they were given no options to get their voices and demands heard.

Be warned, this is a tough film to watch, and don't even think about trying to eat something while it's on. It is incredibly powerful though, and Michael Fassbender gives one of the most amazing performances I've ever seen. If you're not already watching him, you will be after this, and he is an actor that demands your attention.

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Day 107: Scott Pilgrim vs The World

"Scott, if your life had a face, I'd punch it."

Easily the least deserving flop of the last ten years, Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs The World is a fantastic movie that was horrendously mis-marketed in a summer full of films with brilliant marketing campaigns like Inception & Despicable Me. There are lots of brilliant films that bombed in theaters and then found a second life on home video, but most of them (Office Space, Fight Club, etc.) came out in the era of the video store, where word of mouth could spread through town and then drive people down to their local establishment to find out what the hype is all about.

The age of total internet domination may have killed the possibility of this happening ever again. By giving everyone a forum to voice their opinion on things, it's made it virtually impossible to sort through the people who's opinions don't actually matter. I know this sounds a bit egotistical of me, but I do know what I'm talking about. We may not always agree, but my opinion never consists of "that movie sux because it's gay."

I wonder, then, if Scott Pilgrim will ever become a cult hit on a par with the cult classics of old. Only time will tell, I guess, but there are so many awesome things about this movie, I kind of refuse to believe that it will fade into complete obscurity. As I said, the film's marketing campaign was horrendous. It even managed to keep me away, in spite of a strong desire to see the movie when I first heard about it, the trailers made it look like another wacky action comedy with the kid from Superbad, and that's about as far from the truth as you can get. There is a built-in audience for this film, and they went to see it in spite of the horrible marketing, but the average person could not be won over by hyperactive trailers and lukewarm reviews.

So what is Scott Pilgrim vs The World? It's based on a manga series by Bryan O'Malley about a twenty-something guy named Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) who plays in a band called Sex Bob-omb (if you don't get the reference, this might not be the film for you) and is dating a high schooler named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). He begins having dreams about this mystery woman, and after running into her in his waking life one day, he becomes obsessed with finding out who she is. She is Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Scott makes it his duty to be with her. There are two problems with this however. The first is that Scott is a total wimp, and refuses to break up with Knives before pursuing Ramona, and second, and most importantly, Ramona has seven evil exes that Scott must defeat if he's serious about dating Ramona.

The book series, and especially the film, are for people raised in and on video game culture. The opening  Universal logo is actually the perfect indicator as to whether or not you're going to "get" the film as it's rendered in 8-bit style, complete with 8-bit music. It's a stylistic flourish that perfectly sets the tone for the film. Edgar Wright is a brilliant director who's early work on the BBC series Spaced showed that he was a genre geek capable of seamlessly integrating pop culture references & genre embellishments into a straight narrative. His attention to detail here is mind blowing, as you can discover for yourself in this article (it's #5, but there's major spoilers, so only read after you've seen the movie).

So, taking all of that into consideration, how is it possible for the average person to even enjoy this movie? It seems like it's so full of video game references and hyper-kinetic editing and the like for anyone to make it all the way through. If you're cynical or unsure of this movie, there are a few things you need to know before jumping into it. First off, Michael Cera is not the stuttering, nebbishy dork he usually plays in this film. He actually manages to turn a lot of those expectations on their ear, and while there are shades of that side of Cera, he bucks most of them and ends up being pretty spot-on perfect. Secondly, the film is a bit repetitive. It's just the nature of what the film is.

Around the forty-five minute mark, it basically just turns into a series of battles, and while they're creative and unique, it does wear a bit and become repetitious. I think that even the film's most die hard defenders would be hard pressed to defend this, but the film is smart enough to know that this is its weakness, and the final fight (the "real" final fight) is a stroke of pure brilliance that almost completely makes up for all of the repetition.

The supporting cast is amazing. Chris Evans gives a performance that I didn't think he was capable of as Lucas Lee, evil ex #2. Jason Schwartzman is fantastic as always as Gideon Graves, Kieran Culkin is also great as Scott's roommate. Alison Pill, Anna Kendrick & Aubrey Plaza are all wonderful too, Pill in particular, her character Kim is probably my favorite. Even Tom Jane & Clifton Collins as the Vegan Police are awesome.

The movie's a hard sell, no matter how you slice it, but I think that the film has all the elements of a great movie, and more than anything else, that's how they should have marketed it. It's not just a movie for teenagers. In fact, I doubt the average American teenager would even like this movie unless they have a solid sense of irony, or really cool parents, or a combination of the two. If you're a fan of Edgar Wright's other work, and who isn't, you will enjoy this film. It's super cool and has more imagination than most other films being made today. So run, don't walk to your local... wherever the hell you get your movies from now, and pick up Scott Pilgrim vs The World.

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Day 106: Horrible Bosses

"What is deliberately undressed? You get accidentally undressed?"

Horrible Bosses is one of those movies that has got a ton of stuff going for it, but ultimately it's just not as good as it should have been. The core trio of Jason Bateman, Charlie Day & Jason Sudeikis is great, but like with so many comedy trios, there's an odd man out, and here, it's Sudeikis. He's a fantastically gifted comedic actor, but he's not the straight man that Bateman is & he's not the sublime clown that Day is, so he ends up getting short shrift. I'm getting ahead of myself though.

Bateman, Day & Sudeikis play Nick, Dale & Kurt, respectively, and in addition to being friends, they have something else in common, they all have... have you guessed it yet? Anyway, Nick's boss is the evil psychopathic businessman Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey), Dale's boss is the sexually manipulative dentist Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston) & Kurt's new boss is the coke-head douchebag Bobby Pellitt (Colin Farrell). After drunkenly discussing how much better their lives would be without their bosses around, they come up with a plan to hire someone to kill their bosses. The plan sort of backfires though when the guy they end up paying a lot of money to Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx), accepts the money to act as a murder consultant, refusing to do any killing himself.

The trio of thoroughly incompetent friends then sets off to murder one another's boss, but as to be expected, nothing goes as planned, and the three are quickly set on the road to wackiness. There's a lot of funny scenes, and the back and forth between the three leads is almost always amusing (when you're not shaking you head at how ridiculously stupid they are), but overall, the film is not all it could have been. Colin Farrell ends up being the funniest of the three bosses. His performance is genuinely inspired and so far outside of what we've seen him do before, that it's genuinely revelatory.

Spacey is playing largely the same character he played in the vastly superior Swimming with Sharks, and with the exception of a few funny lines, he's not given much of anything to do here. That brings me to Aniston. She's an actress I've never been particularly fond of, and just because she says a bunch of dirty words and plays a total bitch, doesn't make her all that great in the film. A lot of praise was heaped on her, but I don't think she's very good in this film.

So why doesn't the film work as a whole? I think it has a lot to do with the sheer amount of shit they tried to cram into a ninety minute comedy. If it had just been two bosses and two sad-sacks, it would have been a much better film. Instead it's like ten pounds of sausage in a five pound casing, and while who doesn't love sausage, too much of a good thing is just that. If nothing else, I'm glad that the film was successful because the three leads deserve more exposure, especially Charlie Day. Those of us that watch It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia have known for years how absurdly funny and talented he is, and now the rest of the world knows, which is great. I could watch an entire movie of him sitting in the car singing along to that Ting Tings song (arguably the funniest scene in the movie).

There are a lot worse ways to spend ninety minutes than watching Horrible Bosses, but on the whole, it will leave you mourning it's wasted potential. It could have been great, but instead it's merely just a forgettably funny movie.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Day 105: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

"It's not easy having a good time. Even smiling makes my face ache."

It is generally accepted that the official death of The Rocky Horror Picture Show occurred on the day of it's fifteenth anniversary, when it was released on VHS. For me however, an eleven year-old from the suburbs, this was the birth of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I still remember that VHS, with the red flap, promising something unlike anything you'd experienced before. The purists will claim superiority over me and those of my ilk, who were denied the experience of seeing it for the first time on the big screen, at midnight, in a raucous theater filled with people in costume screaming and throwing shit at the screen. I've seen it four times in the theater since I first saw it on video, but for me, RHPS is a personal kind of experience and not the shared, communal experience it is for millions of others around the world.

If, by some miracle, you haven't seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, there's no way to explain what it is exactly. It's a musical, based on a stage show, simply titled "The Rocky Horror Show," written by Richard O'Brien (who has since come to be known to my daughters as the voice of Ferb's dad on Phineas & Ferb). It features a white bread couple from Denton, the home of happiness, named Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon), who are traveling to meet with a professor of theirs, Dr. Scott (Jonathan Adams) in anticipation of being married. Their car gets a flat tire, and they go looking for help at the only house they can find, a large mansion populated by some pretty odd denizens like Riff-Raff (O'Brien), Magenta (Patricia Quinn) & Columbia (Little Nell).

Their leader is a self proclaimed sweet transvestite from transexual Transylvania, Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), and the young couple has arrived on a special night, as the good doctor is about to give life to his newest creation, Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood). They couple are exposed to some pretty eye-opening behavior, and before the night is over, they and their lives are changed forever.

That's it in a nutshell, and re-watching the film for the first time in several years (on a pristine looking blu-ray put out two years ago), I was amazed by how iconic so much of the imagery in the film is. For being an unmitigated failure upon its first theatrical release, the film has now been mocked, imitated, & stolen from so often, it's hard to believe just how much of it originated here. Camp musicals had been done before, DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise is just one example of a film released just a year prior, but never before had something so original, yet oddly familiar been done before. The film takes pretty firm root in the B-movie monster films of the 50s, but it's also its own animal entirely.

It's interesting how tame a lot of the film is in retrospect. I'm sure that in its day it was pretty shocking, but the film is almost a sweet relic now. It's as quaint now as the films it was influenced by were when it was made. The performances are all pretty solid across the board. Several of the cast members were reprising their roles from the stage show, like O'Brien, Quinn, Nell, Meat Loaf, and others, but the true standout is Curry. He is phenomenal. It is the performance of a lifetime, and he has never equaled it or even come close. It's funny to me how much goodwill I continue to have towards him in spite of the fact that he hasn't done anything even remotely this good since.

Looking at Susan Sarandon in this film, it's hard to tell she would go on to be as successful and, frankly, great as she has become, but she and Bostwick both play their roles well, and they clearly understand the campiness at the heart of this thing. The one cast member not wholly successful here has got to be Peter Hinshaw as Rocky. To say he's the screen equivalent of a wet sandwich is almost an insult to wet sandwiches. He was right to call it a day after this film as I don't think he would've gone far, but hey, stranger things have happened.

The music is fantastic, endlessly singable, and some of the most iconic music ever written for a Broadway show (or a film for that matter). Director Jim Sharman does a serviceable job behind the camera, creating some iconic imagery, but the film doesn't have a ton of momentum behind it, for which I would tend to lay the blame at his feet. He seems to be biding his time between set pieces, and a lot of the film just kind of sags, especially the interminable Criminologist asides. Part of what makes the audience participation at the theaters so great is the amount of funny lines that lay in these valleys, but at home you really feel the weight of the sags.

Overall, there's nothing I can say or do to convince you that you're going to like Rocky Horror if you don't already like it. Watching it again is not going to change your mind. Going to see it at a theater might be a fun outing, but it's not going to make you like the movie any more. You either love this movie or you don't, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. There's plenty of great movies that are totally polarizing, and I think that's part of what makes them great movies. Rocky Horror is in no way, shape, or form a great movie, but it's one of my all-time favorites, and nothing that anyone can do or say can ever take that away from me.

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