Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Real Shit

I didn't mention this yesterday, but among the four or five high-profile discs coming out next Tuesday (10.5) is the in-tact, complete and three-years-delayed theatrical version of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse.

Obviously the thing was a notorious blunder at the box-office in April of 2007 and as a result, it was split up into two longer cuts and released as Planet Terror and Death Proof separately which drastically altered the charm that these films had together when I saw them opening day with the fake trailers, the "missing reel" gags and the more abbreviated and appropriate 80-90 minutes running-times. 

A screen capture from the upcoming (10.5) Grindhouse Blu-ray.
I've waited a while to just be able to watch Grindhouse as it played theatrically and I'm hoping this unearths some of those good vibes that I had with it three years ago. And of course those who have only seen the film(s) in their extended and isolated form will definitely need to check it out, it's a different animal.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Blu-ray Bonanza

All of the sudden, I'm feeling overwhelmed and a bit out-of-the-loop with all of the kick-ass Blu-ray releases that are hitting shelves in the next week or so, or already have. I mean, we're talking 10 or so must-buy titles in a 2-3 week span - no joke.

First off, Criterion released Stanley Donen's Charade (a personal favorite) just last week and then Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line yesterday and all the buzz amongst cinephiles and hardware/home video junkies is that it's a knockout. 

Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen's Charade, out now on Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion
Then you have Warner Home Video's one-two Bogart punch of John Huston's The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre releasing next Tuesday. Hollywood-Elsewhere's Jeff Wells is all raves about the latter and has a favorable review of the former. (Would you expect anything less from WHV?)

John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, out on 10.5 on Blu-ray - the more high-def film noir we can get, the better.
But that's not all - we also have Merian C. Cooper's King Kong, Disney's Beauty and the Beast, William Friedkin's The Exorcist, Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans (!!!) and that's not even counting the killer Nov/Dec schedule from Criterion, David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai and the Alien Anthology. Good thing Christmas is right around the corner.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Review: Animal Kingdom (2010)

David Michod's Animal Kingdom is a sun-bleached Australian crime drama that I mentioned delivers in a way that Ben Affleck's The Town just couldn't quite match. It has a creeping sense of familial tension and paranoia that eventually boils to a head with a stunner of a conclusion.

At its center is a liberating self-journey as Josh (James Frecheville) - almost mute - takes his inherited family of criminals and bearded baddies and slowly and then violently disrupts the natural hierarchy.

Josh, with his innocent reserve and submissive mentality a drastically effective contrast to his uncles' overflowing machismo, is a fascinating character to center this drugworld saga around - not a story of crime ladder ascension, but a slow and steady dismantling.

Frecheville has a unique appeal as Josh, introverted to the point of immobility yet surrounded by bullish thugs, yet its Ben Mendelsohn as the sinister Uncle Andrew who steals the film and emerges as chief villain in this slow-burning, epic family struggle. [B+]

Saturday, September 25, 2010

You're Only a Day Away

Tomorrow (Sunday) I'm meeting my sister for a showing of Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go, which is by all accounts very respectable and classy but almost coldly so - we'll see. 

I have seen a couple of films that I've yet to review including Will Gluck's Easy A and David Michod's Animal Kingdom. The former is the unfortunate stepchild to the new wave of over-written adolescent comedies while the latter delivers in a way that's contrary to the muscular yet undercooked The Town.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Review: The Town (2010)

After seeing Ben Affleck's The Town twice now, I'm committed to the idea that it's a strong (if unspectacular) crime saga that has enough in the tank to grab you, reel you in and make you feel it, yet it never stirs things around and tries to construct something truly compelling - it just stays with the basic shapes, colors and forms. 

It's a much more muscular type of genre film from Affleck, maybe not as refined or authentic or intricately detailed as Gone Baby Gone, but something slick and streamlined. It's just that with The Town, you don't get any interesting flavors or textures to mull over or sink into - it's basically comfort food, a well-made cheeseburger with a few of the fixings - you know what you're getting. 

It's not Michael Mann or Christopher Nolan, whose work in the genre - from Heat to The Dark Knight - has an auteuristic, palpable sense of weight. The Town is a bit more old-fashioned and straight-laced and agreeable - basically Public Enemies without the digital period sheen, Elliot Goldenthal's score, Johnny Depp's underplayed performance and that killer fatalistic movie theater scene at the end.

With potentially hazardous and hoary material, luckily Affleck employs a sturdy hand to the action pieces (including a riveting back-alley car chase) and supplies a more-than-capable ensemble, including himself. 

As a Boston bank robber with daddy issues and a promising past, Affleck manages to make us take stock in his future as he falls for a potential witness (played by the always good Rebecca Hall). As Doug MacRay, he may have painted his antihero a bit too favorably, but the whole thing goes down smoothly enough to avoid major complaints - okay, maybe a bit too smoothly. [B]

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Review: Machete (2010)

Robert Rodriguez's Machete is a brutal joyride and a bone-crunching tongue-in-cheek masher. It's chock full of the usual Troublemaker Studios shtick - a grungy rock score, hot chicks with guns and a childlike sense of humor, etc. - but like Planet Terror, its spiritual forefather of schlock, the joke runs dry as the threadbare plot continues to unfold into limitless excess.

I've always loved the way Rodriguez frames these intentionally low-rent grindhouse features - the extensive grain, the soft-core pornography, the lurid violence - but he's proven twice now that he simply can't hold it all together for the duration, which is a fault of his own diffusive storytelling and ambitious running-time.

Planet Terror, Rodriguez's nasty zombie-killing first-half of Grindhouse is a much better film but it too bears the marks of Machete's tedious tendency for protraction, an elaborate, overstuffed cast and a weakness for sticking the landing. (The action finale here is such a mess it's embarrassing.)

For the first thirty minutes, you're in Rodriguez heaven - it's gleefully violent, shamelessly skimpy and menacingly hard-boiled - it's just a shame that both he and the film can't recognize when to quit, or how to. [C+]

Monday, September 13, 2010

Classic Rewinds: Quentin Durward (1955), Valley of the Kings (1954)


Robert Taylor's early-to-mid-50's adventure films have always just been a bit off for me, as in they aren't nearly as propulsive or charming as the Errol Flynn brand exhibited in Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk.

Quentin Durward, a CinemaScope Sir Walter Scott adaptation about a Scottish nobleman who becomes involved in a combustible national crisis involving a beautiful countess, is a widescreen wonder with a dose of engaging set pieces (including a duel inside cavernous clock tower) that nevertheless is a bit tiring and overplotted.

The beautiful Kay Kendall is an apt damsel in distress, almost too much so compared to Taylor's capable, spiritless adventurer. The film works best as a pseudo swashbuckler (there's plenty of action, just not much deftness with the sword), less so as an historical romance and pretty much wilts as a 14th-century castle dweller. [C+]


A sandy dust-storm of an adventure film, Robert Pirosh's Valley of the Kings predates the treasure-hunt mischief of Indiana Jones minus the Nazis.

The film was shot on location in Egypt and the ambition shows in the cinematography of Robert Surtees (Ben-Hur, King Solomon's Mines) and assures a unique, visual authenticity to a film ripe with hokey Egyptian scripture. (There's also a worthy score from the legendary Miklos Rosza.)

Like King Solomon's Mines (an obvious influence), the film centers around a journey through an unforgiving terrain led by a disgruntled, cynical archeologist (Robert Taylor) and the woman (Eleanor Parker) who persuades him to assist her in her quest to fulfill her father's lifelong quest.

There are plenty of double-crossings and romantic embraces and desert vistas, and mostly it's an enjoyable mix of the three, despite the shortcomings of its lead actor who is too emotionless to be a romantic and too passive to be a hero. [B-]

Saturday, September 11, 2010

This is Kinda of a Sad Story

Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's It's Kind of a Funny Story (Focus Features, 10.8) is getting thrashed in Toronto, which is both a shame and a surprise given their recent track record with both Half Nelson and Sugar.

Then again, the trailer kind of annoys me every time I see it, even though it looks like Zach Galifianakis and Emma Roberts have something going. The hand-drawn intertitles, the awkward virginal mumbling, the beards - it just looks a little lacking.

Critics Scream Movie Title While in Line

Okay, so Matt Reeves' Let Me In (Overture, 10.1), the English language remake of Tomas Alfredson's excellent Let the Right One In screened at Toronto on Saturday and reactions are pretty much solid all the way around, with critics claiming that it's as composed and ice-cold atmospheric as the original 2008 Swedish film.

And then it hit me - well what's the point of that? I didn't want the new film to turn into a Platinum Dunes schlock-fest, but it struck me just now how potentially tedious this new remake may be. I think Chloe Moretz has a chance to be just brilliant here, but honestly, what's the goal here? So it's comparable to the original? Okay...

Classic Rewind: Return of the Bad Men (1948)

Ray Enright directed a handful of "B" Westerns at RKO in the late 1940's beginning with an unremarkable farmers vs. outlaws tussle in Trail Street ('47) before bringing back the same key cast members for the more skilled and noir-ish Return of the Bad Men ('48).

This time Randolph Scott and Robert Ryan are on opposite sides of the law, with the latter playing one of his more cold-blooded and vile roles as the notorious Sundance Kid. (Some other famous outlaws make appearances, like Billy the Kid and the Younger and Dalton Gangs.)

Scott, rather fittingly, plays the open-minded U.S. Marshall pent on enacting his revenge on Sundance and his bank robbers pent on sweeping through the Oklahoma Territory. Among their rag-tag clump of misfits is the beautiful Cheyenne, a woman who tries to defect from the group after she's captured and offered reprieve by the grinning and chiseled Vance (Scott).

If a bit too impaired by its B-movie trappings, the film, like many RKO Westerns at the time (Blood on the Moon for example) was heightened by a brooding sense of style and metaphysical comeuppance that resembles the thematic trademark of classic film noir.

There's certainly traces in the arc of Cheyenne (played by Anne Jeffreys), the bank robber-turned-telegrapher who tries to bury her past with the prospects of her future and ends up paying the price. And certainly in the way cinematographer J. Roy Hunt films Ryan as the be all end all bad guy from hell.

Enright's no slouch, either - just watch the opening bank heist or the quiet, climactic shootout to see trademark examples of ratcheting tension through a measured, cautious approach. Return of the Bad Men isn't and shouldn't be a Western staple, but it's a buried artifact ready to be unearthed by willing viewers. [B+]

Friday, September 10, 2010

Review: The Last Exorcism (2010)

If there's one thing audiences can't get enough of its James Cameron...but if there's another it's the mockumentary horror film - those spooky, micro-budget camcorder frighteners that play the lost-footage game all the way to the end.

The Blair Witch Project kicked it off over a decade ago and the format was revived several years later with [REC] and Quarantine, even going Hollywood with Cloverfield and then generating midnight revenue (and sadly, another horror franchise) with Paranormal Activity last year.

Daniel Stamm's The Last Exorcism doesn't do anything new with its faux-documentary shooting style, eventually fizzing out into irrelevancy, but it's approach to the well-worn exorcist genre and a few convincing scares keep its head above water for a while.

I loved Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a phony showman and preacher who stages exorcisms for money, and the lingering doubt as to whether Nell (his "last patient") is possessed or not is fun and the filmmakers play off of that doubt pretty well, not necessarily within the audience but within Cotton himself.

There are some neat pathways that the film alludes to (sexual abuse, psychotic disorder, etc.) but mostly the filmmakers simply aren't talented enough to balance all of these potentially gripping ambiguities and too often the truth and the inevitable conclusion are too easily conceived and ham-fisted.

The finale is a backwoods Gothic horror-fart, a coalescence of ideas from other movies that lacks conviction or plausibility or even genuine fear. The only thing dumber is the intuition of Cotton and his two camera buddies who couldn't smell a demon if it crawled under their noses. [C+]

On The Town

So Ben Affleck's The Town (Warner Bros, 9.17) is a week away and reactions are starting to pile up across the board and the consensus seems to boil down to "solidly-made yet unspectacularly conventional."

Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeff Wells doesn't really like it, Time Out London's David Jenkins says it follows the genre book line by line while InContention's Guy Lodge is just happy to settle for a well-oiled Hollywood genre piece.

Supposedly it's more of a high-energy, shoot 'em up heist thriller opposed to something more delicate, arty and sophisticated like The Departed or Gone Baby Gone. Even if it's middle-ground pulp with a few nice action set pieces, it'll be fine with me. It just doesn't seem like the kind of thing that's going to storm the Oscars.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The King's Speech Takes the Lead?

I missed the big reaction this past weekend from the concurrent Telluride and Venice Film Festivals, with Tom Hooper's The King's Speech making the biggest splash. InContention's Kris Tapley is a big fan and now The Wrap's Steve Pond is going all in for it to win the big prize.

I'll happily bite my tongue if I'm wrong, but this looks like the yearly British invader, a well-acted historical drama with high-class performers playing real-life characters, where's Michael Sheen? Did Peter Morgan write this?

I have no question that it's a quality film, nice and neat, a well enunciated crowd-pleaser, but I'm not exactly anxious to see it. We'll see. After Toronto all the front-runners will align and we'll see where this is headed.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Classic Rewind: Gypsy (1962)

Adapted from the Arthur Larents' 1959 stage musical of the same name, Mervyn LeRoy's Gypsy ('62) is yet another stunning example of lavish widescreen design prominent in the 60's American musical, but on the whole it's a rather tepid, off-kilter film adaptation that mostly works in spite of its musical numbers and lopsided plotting.
Following a rapidly aging mother (Rosalind Russell) who attempts to drive her two children to stardom via vaudevillian trifles, Gypsy is an acute study of the dogged pursuit of fame, the fine line between exploitation and modesty and finally, the parents who attempt to rewrite their failures and shortcoming through the lives of their children.

Russell is the main attraction here, capturing both the mom-from-hell stage abuse of her two daughters and the sympathetic, desperate longing for glory that has since passed her by. The fast wordplay gives her an excuse to dip into her screwball comedy upbringing and in the twilight of her acting career, she gives one of her best performances.

From the get-go, Gypsy is simply a gorgeous film - John Beckham's art direction, Ralph S. Hurst's set design and Orry-Kelly's costume design are all superb - with the whole package having the widescreen visual punch of a My Fair Lady or a Carousel.

Songs like "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You" and "Dainty June and Her Farmboys" have fun with the film's vaudeville roots and physical playfullness, while "Little Lamb" (sung by Natalie Wood herself) and "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" are irksome.

The film's closing number, "Rose's Turn" threatens to take the film out on an unusually tragic high, with Rose (Russell) taking her turn under the lights, but unfortunately, the film can't stick the landing and a brief, wayward mother-daughter reconciliation spoils the mood. [C+]

Review: Get Low (2010)

I was bit worried going into Aaron Schneider's Get Low, fearing that an onslaught of backwoods schmaltz and old-age remorse would be in order, but for the most part it's a nice, quaint little character piece - not as insufferable as Guy Lodge says and not nearly as stirring as Rex Reed believes.

A film like Get Low is amiable, sweet and gentle and pretty hard to get riled up about either way. It's a modest, nicely-shot period film about forgiveness and tying up loose ends before we go, and despite an inevitably gooey confessional scene, it handles its subject with minimal syrup and butter - or at least less so than expected.

What the film's success boils down to is Robert Duvall's boffo performance as the mysterious hermit Felix, a man confined to his remote home by his past and conveniently gentler than his reputation. As far as male performances go this year, it's hard to find one better, even if the film around it certainly has room for improvement. [B-]

Friday, September 3, 2010

Melts Your Ears

Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West ('68) is that rare movie that I can't get through the first 45 minutes of for the simple reason that it's just too perfect. How can you not want to watch that Henry Fonda intro over and over again, or that pitch-perfect title sequence? Or Claudia Cardinale rolling through Monument Valley?

Classic Rewind: The Desert Song (1953)

This third screen adaptation of Sigmund Romberg's acclaimed operetta was maligned by critics at the time who found Warner Bros. decision to dip into the well yet again, the epitome of beating a dead horse, they thought.

Well if you've never seen the 1929 version or, to a lesser extent the much more topical 1943 version, Bruce Humberstone's The Desert Song ('53) is a valiant Technicolor charmer. Starring Gordon MacRae and Kathryn Grayson and featuring eight of Romberg's classic tunes, the film is a well-sung adventure film - if a tad low on rousing battlefield adventures, there's plenty of stirring in those high-pitched vibrato melodies.

With original book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, the film follows the dual personalities of a milquetoast philosopher and his alter ego as the masked, sword-wielding desert rebel El Khobar (Gordon MacRae).

Using both his tactics on the blazing sands and his more mannered approach inside the castle halls, he attempts to strong-arm the evil Sheik Yusuf (Raymond Massey) from provoking an attack alongside French colonists against the desert Riffs, all while wooing the General's daughter (Kathryn Grayson) and singing his way into her heart.

Musicals highlights include a lovely duet in the moonlit palace garden ("One Alone") and of course, the title tune, "Desert Song". It may not approach the poeticism or widescreen splendor of some of Rodgers & Hammerstein's adaptations, but the songs are brilliant - better, in fact - and the film is a sweet if cloying bit of irresistible. [B-]

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Review: The American (2010)

There's no doubting the calm craft and hushed reserve of Anton Corbijn's The American, a stripped-down anti-thriller that's confidently smooth and pensive - a protracted series of nominal tasks and hitman gloom that relishes in its non-conformity and European small-town demure.

It's an acquired taste, no doubt, and I would imagine most who venture into the theater this weekend will find it a dull, tasteless slog, but those who can appreciate and savor Martin Ruhe's beautiful photography, the brooding introspection and the film's commitment to the bare essentials will find a lot to like.

And yet, as incontrovertibly admirable as it is for its calculated precision and 70's art-house nostalgia, the film is ironically limited by its hoary template and pat, frivolous symbolism that leaves off a slightly bitter aftertaste. (Or, rather simply, it has one too many butterflies.)

Nevertheless, The American is a welcome throwback to the likes of Jean-Pierre Melville and Bernardo Bertolluci that provides the perfect antidote to the glossy, airy spy-thrillers of the humid summer months. [B+]

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"Black Swan" Hits the Lido

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan opened the 67th Venice Film Festival a short while ago and the reactions are mostly appreciative, sometimes glowing, yet undullating (which is probably a good thing if you ask me.)

The psychological ballet-thriller is being compared quite a bit to early Polanksi and Cronenberg fused with The Red Shoes while some critics seems to be turned off by its outlandish, "trashy" elements.

InContention's Guy Lodge raves, giving it an (A-).
Variety's Peter Debruge calls it wicked, sexy and devastating.
Obsessed With Film's Rob Beames is simply over the moon for it.

Meanwhile the wet blanket of the day is Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt, who can't embrace the film's lesser, horror-thriller elements and absurdest punches. And not to show my Aronofsky bias, but I think Honeycutt has proven himself to be untrustworthy from time-to-time and flatly generic.

Also hearing high praise for Natalie Portman (no surprise) and Clint Mansell's original score (really no surprise). Can't wait to see it, more to come from Venice over the next 10 days, stay tuned. If you would like the follow the festival, you're best bet is probably Guy Lodge over at InContention or at his twitter account: