Sunday, February 28, 2010

Tim Burton #5: 'Ed Wood' (1994)

In Burton's canon of well-respected or financially successful films, Ed Wood is the film that feels, on the surface, most like the exception. Firmly rooted in the realm of reality (late studio-era Hollywood) and shot in black-and-white, with an R-rating and without the musical accompaniment of Danny Elfman (all firsts), there appears to be good reason for it.

However, in unraveling the life of Edward D. Wood Jr., Hollywood's most gleeful "schlocketeer" and perpetrator of incomprehensibly low-rent productions, Burton has plugged into his trademark personality in a different sort of way, portraying the life and work of his subject with the same kind of pervasive, absurdist sense of humor that occupies so much of his work. In a way, Edward D. Wood's world of delusion, ineptitude and cheap thrills becomes that surrealist, fantastical arena that Burton so lovingly embraces.

Written by USC graduates Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who were attempting to break out from there designation as writers of strictly family films, Ed Wood was taken over by Burton after a scheduling conflict with Michael Lehman rendered him unavailable. The decision to shoot in black-and-white was frowned upon by Columbia Pictures, who then saw Burton and company jump ship to Disney, where it would be released under the Touchstone banner.

Ed Wood sees Burton working at his most efficient, mature and least indulgent. The humor is biting and sharp, the acting from top-to-bottom is magnificent and the overall result is something that certainly resembles and reveals to be a Tim Burton film, yet is nevertheless more grounded in comparison.

It's hilarious, it's endlessly entertaining and yet, in the end, it's a strange kind of rumination on what it means to be an artist - loyal, dedicated and committed to your vision, whether you're Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick or yes, even Ed Wood.

Invasion of the Bottles

Legendary film composer Miklos Rosza's score for Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1946) utilizes the eerie tones of a theremin to accentuate the downward spiral of Ray Milland's hellish addiction to alcohol.

Of course, it's a sound normally associated with science-fiction films of the 50's and 60's (most people think Bernard Herrmann started the craze in 1951 with The Day the Earth Stood Still), but alas, Rosza is considered the pioneer of the theremin in regards to its implementation in film. He also used it in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), but it wasn't as prominent or as seamless as it is in The Lost Weekend.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tim Burton #4: 'Batman Returns' (1992)

For the sequel to the highly successful Batman, Tim Burton was given the liberty of a demotion of producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters to executive producers. Therefore Burton, who disliked Sam Hamm's original two drafts of the script, commissioned Daniel Waters (Heathers) to re-write Hamm's original story, which consisted of the Penguin and Catwoman vaguely hunting down treasure.

Waters' revision highlighted the scheme of the Penguin to attempt to capitalize on his manufactured pity and run for the Mayor's office, which of course dissolves into a more direct manner of villainy to be resolved at the film's conclusion - an army of penguins, to be exact.

The first misstep contributing to my overall disdain for Batman Returns - which I fully admit is a minority opinion - begins and ends with Bo Welch, who replaces Anton Furst as Gotham City's prime architect. The sets and the design are impressively-scaled and obviously extremely competent, I just don't like them.

Gone are the steamy, art-splattered streets of Furst's Pinewood Studios, only to be replaced by the snowy, wide-open plazas guarded by the conniving towers of business tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). The effect is like stumbling into a crowded FAO Schwarz on Christmas Eve.

And yes, it remains an appropriate design choice given the origins and seasonal attributes associated with its main villain, but when said villain is an unthreatening, uninteresting and pitiful nemesis, it makes it all the more tougher to swallow.

What Batman Returns boils down to is a muddied, motionless affair with well-respected actors hamming it up to dialogue so bad it transcends tongue-in-cheek comic-page jabbering. There are moments when Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman sparks genuine interest in a film that otherwise provides none, but in the end, it proves to be the most tedious and driest of Burton's early films.

Review: 'The Ghost Writer' [B]

Roman Polanski's highly publicized latest film (as a result of his arrest last September) is a smart, no frills political thriller steeped in government conspiracy and wet with the director's unmistakable identity. Based on the Robert Harris novel, The Ghost, the film adaptation plays out predictably like a one-night page-turner, yet demonstrates enough moments of style, wit and sheer control over its material to come out roses in the end.

Essentially a one-man investigative conspiracy potboiler, the lead dog (a hack ghost-writer without a name played by Ewan McGregor) is appointed by a squeaky publishing house (given a face by Timothy Hutton) to continue working on the unfinished memoir of ex-UN Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). The first ghost-writer tragically died, although the events surrounding his death seem awfully suspicious. Who's up for a mystery, huh?

Taking place almost entirely on a sea-side castle of modernity (the Prime Minister's lovely escape palace on a nameless island off the East Coast), the film shares more than one common link between itself and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. Both films are late-career works by legendary filmmakers, they both take place on an island, and they both contain final-act twists which render everything that took place before altered and warped in retrospect.

This kind of rat-in-a-maze thriller (to steal a line from Jackie Earle Haley) definitely shares its foundation with Polanski's own Chinatown, especially in its final moments, although it only seems capable of sufficient imitation opposed to duplication.

It certainly feels wholly competent and perfectly calculated, yet there is an air of falsity and comatose that bubbles to the surface occasionally, resembling the same fallacy as the condemning photographs that our nameless ghost-writer uncovers.

Contrary to Scorsese's film, The Ghost Writer operates on a different level of big-picture politics and global conspiracy, avoiding genre calls and bombastic amplification. It also doesn't really foment the way Shutter Island does, lingering and cultivating in the mind long afterward as something grand and tragic. The Ghost Writer works and it thrills, it just doesn't stimulate.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Swedish 'Tattoo'

Niels Arden Oplev's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Music Box, 03.19.10), based on the best-selling Steig Larsson novel of the same name, has been gathering some buzz over the last week or so.

It's a swedish revenge/mystery thriller that due to its country of origin is garnering comparisons to the now cult favorite vampire film, Let the Right One In. The U.S. seems to be the only remaining territory that it hasn't opened in. I'll be able to see it on March 26th.

Tim Burton #3: 'Edward Scissorhands' (1990)

Following the enormous success of Batman came perhaps Tim Burton's most recognized, synonymous and accessible of his early films. Largely based on the director's own experiences growing up in Burbank, California, Edward Scissorhands is Burton's most personal, heartfelt and singular of achievements.

During pre-production on Beetlejuice, Burton contacted novelist Caroline Thompson (who would go on to write Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas) to adapt Edward Scissorhands for the screen. Although originally intended to be produced at Warner Bros, the studio sold the rights to the film to 20th Century Fox, and thus Scissorhands became Burton's first film under a different studio banner.

Essentially a gothic fairy-tale fused with social satire, the film examines suburban culture and hysteria through the arrival, or rather the discovery of an unfinished experiment - a young man inconveniently conflicted with scissor-blades of various sizes posing as fingers on each hand. (The inventor is played by Vincent Price, a hero to Burton, and thus, Edward).

As inspiration for the story of Edward struggling to face his affliction and find love and companionship. Burton and appointed scribe Caroline Thompson thematically drew upon classic Universal and RKO horror films like King Kong (1933), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Frankenstein (1931) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). From a visual perspective, however, Edward Scissorhands is purely one-of-a-kind.

From the now iconic color palette of Burton's fictionalized suburban neighborhood to the lurking and mysterious mansion on the hill, the film draws upon the director's most obvious visual reference - the contrast of the bold and the pictorial with the pallid, charcoal residue of his characters.

Much like how most of the director's sensibilities and influences on later films can be picked up in Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands is perhaps the quintessential Burton film in this regard - not only for its thematic elements, but in the casting of the tormented, confounded and surprisingly loveable title character.

Johnny Depp was an actor looking for a renewal from his teen-choice persona. Fresh off of roles in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Platoon (1986) and "21 Jump Street," Depp was hand-picked by Burton over A-list stars like Tom Cruise and William Hurt. In preparation, the then 27 year-old actor watched a lot of Charlie Chaplin so that he could gain audience sympathy through simple facial gestures and movements.

And although the film is eventually about the inability of society to understand and accept a seemingly inchoate and lesser individual, Edward Scissorhands is a delightfully compassionate, poignant and optimistic work. It's some kind of strange and daintily-shaped masterwork - finely observed, felt and constructed. Burton's sensitivity and relation to the material enlivens and expands upon his visual awareness instead of the other way around.

A New Nightmare

Courtesy of IMPAwards.

I don't doubt that Jackie Earle Haley will be really good as Freddy Kruger, but you just can't trust anything that Michael Bay or his Platinum Dunes production house puts its name on. I'm still recovering from Friday the 13th.

Plus, Wes Craven's original 1986 Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the few classic slasher films of the late 70's and 80's that really holds up well.

Guess That Screenshot #4

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tim Burton #2: 'Batman' (1989)

Big-budget Hollywood and Tim Burton made a beautiful couple with the genre-defining Batman in 1989. Production on the script dated all the way back to '85, but it wasn't until Sam Hamm's version (written at the behest of Burton himself) coupled with the surprising success of Beetlejuice, that the project was officially green-lit by Warner Bros.

And so Tim Burton and his pale entourage of weirdos invaded Hollywood in the summer of '89 with one of the most iconic and successful comic-book adaptations to date. Batman, although now re-imagined by Christopher Nolan, was and still remains a re-defining film, not only for the superhero genre as a whole, but for Burton himself, who crossed-over into the mega mainstream with relative ease and comfort without losing his vision and his personality.

Working in the realm of grand-scale movie making for the firs time, Burton found periods of the production frustrating and problematic. Filming had to be moved from Los Angeles to London to avoid media attention, Sam Hamm's script underwent constant revisions and producer Jon Peters proved to be an active participant in the day-to-day shoot, even changing the climax behind Burton's back to keep Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) from becoming one of The Jokers' (Jack Nicholson) latest victims.

Regardless of any reported behind-the-scenes turbulence, the film shows no signs of commotion or disarray - in fact, it feels wholly and stylistically like Burton's show from the first frame to the last.

Although Michael Keaton's Batman is tough yet susceptible and Jack Nicholson has fun with his Joker, the real star of the film is the stellar design crew - a seamless and astonishing collaboration between the production, art, make-up and costume departments who bring Gotham City to life using entirely hand-made sets, matte paintings and stop-motion effects. The result is steamy, filthy, glorious Gotham City that not even Christopher Nolan, Wally Pfister and the advantage of cutting-edge visual effects could replicate.

For a 4-month period from '88 to '89, England-based Pinewood Studios was literally transformed into Gotham. Co-creator Bob Kane described his initial feelings towards the design: "I envisaged Gotham the way I see it now at Pinewood. They've got it, every building, every trash can, every brick." At times, the effect of the production exudes the same feeling of and slightly resembles the dystopian streets and skyways of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner - widely regarded as a masterclass in production design.

Anton Furst (production designer on Batman and Full Metal Jacket) described his feelings working with Burton and on designing the city of Gotham: "There was never any problem because we never fought over anything. Texture, attitude and feelings are what [Burton] is a master at." And Danny Elfman, who had to win over some highly skeptical Warner Bros. executives, delivers a flawless, iconic and distinct score - easily on of the greatest feats of his illustrious career.

And although Batman may be light on action and heavy on Prince songs, in regards to translating the atmosphere and the style of comic books to the big screen in an accessible, mass-consumed package - well, no one could say that they've done it much better.

"White Lightning"

I don't much like the musings of New York Observer critic Rex Reed, but his 2.23 review of Kevin Smith's Cop Out, which opens this Friday, is a good temperature check of the kind of critical reactions we're going to see over the next day or so.

Reed's tirades about the state of film criticism and American filmmaking are overly dramatic and banal, but here goes:

"The hack responsible for this miserable dreck is director Kevin Smith, whose writing on other filmx is so filthy it cannot be quoted in the company of anyone who cares about their I.Q. status...and whose zero stalent as a director of such cinematic brain lesions as Clerks, Mallrats, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Zack and Miri Make a Porno has made significant contributions to the dumbing down of America in general and the American movies in particular. It gets even dumber with Cop Out."

"There isn't much to say about a movie this stupid, involving a duo of aging stoners in uniform who patrol Brookyln and Queens and call themselves White Lighning and Black Thunder, and who spend most of their time on suspension without pay for obvious reasons."

" the screening for alleged critics I attended, one lady reviewer old enough to know better went into hysterics every time the cops described in detail their excrement, flatulence and penis size."

"I guess it could be worse. The sleep-inducing Cop Out was originally called A Couple of Dicks, so be grateful for small favors. An even bigger favor would have been burning the negative before it left the lab."

The current tally is at 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, and Armond White isn't even trying to pass it off as some commentary on post-racial America.

In Coens We Trust

I have no doubt that the young Hailee Steinfeld recently cast as the Mattie Ross/Kim Darby character in the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit (Paramount, 12.25.10) will be terrific. Why? I guess its because I just don't think these guys could misfire with a key casting decision like that.

Whether I like or dislike a Coen Brothers' film, I've always thought that they were masters of filling out a cast, everyone from the leads down to the one-shot supporting characters are pitch-perfect. Why should we have any reason to remember the over-the-counter clerks from No Country for Old Men or the Jewish grotesques in A Serious Man?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tim Burton #1: 'Beetlejuice' (1988)

After the critical and financial success of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Burton began working on a script with Sam Hamm for a little project called Batman. But Warner Bros. was only willing to go so far and had yet to greenlight the film's production until the script was finished.

So in limbo, Burton decided to shoot a modestly-budgeted film ($13 million) from an original script by Michael McDowell about a married couple who struggle to deal with the realities of their deaths and the petulant, estranged family who move into their home.

Beetlejuice is essentially Burton's fun-house of horrors and the beginning of the director's fascination with the supernatural, the superhuman and the chimerical. He was perhaps never as kooky, unchained or low-rent and macabre as he was here, and thus the film has a sizeable following and a place in the heart of many.

In essence a ceaseless barrage of stop-motion effects and unfathomable creature designs, it also strongly represents Burton's visual and thematic sensibilities in regards to character alienation and design. It also marks the first great score by Danny Elfman, who is almost as synonymous with the director as his frequent on-screen collaborators, Johnny Depp and his own corpse bride, Helena Bonham Carter.

Additionally, it sets the groundwork for Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder to land roles in Burton's future films, Batman and Edward Scissorhands. Both are simply a joy to watch here - with the latter assuming Burton's fetishistic approach to hairstyling.

Now, Michael McDowell's original script (before going through various rewrites) was apparently far more violent and stern and less of a haunted house. For example, when Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) Maitland drive off of a bride to their deaths, McDowell's script originally provided a very descriptive and real account of the tragedy - in Burton's film, in which a dog is the culprit, the scene is almost comical.

And thus, Beetlejuice took on this farcical, tongue-in-cheek, absurdist sense of humor that would dominate the filmography of Burton for the rest of his career - mixing the ghastly and the ghoulish with fun, almost flippant irony.

But where Beetlejuice feels artistically schlocky in the best Sam Raimi kind of way, it has a strange and unfortunate penchant for over-stepping its boundaries. When a dinner table Harry Belafonte sing-a-long breaks out, it's kinda funny, but when Winona Ryder closes the film by apathetically signing and dancing to "Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora)," well that's just a little more than I can stand.

Lesson Learned

New Shutter Island review. (Well, more of a revision.) That's what I get for punching out a review seconds after I see it.

Tim Burton Retrospective

In anticipation of Alice in Wonderland (Disney, 3.5.10), I've decided to hold a Tim Burton retrospective starting this week and running all the way until the film's release date. I'll start with Beetlejuice and go down the list to Sweeney Todd, and there's no way in hell I'm watching Pee-Wee's Big Adventure again.

(And the Frank Capra marathon is still very much alive and well, but it's slowing to crawl. Expect one a week.)

Make Way

Any Criterion disc of a previously unreleased film is a must-buy for me, especially if it's Leo McCarey's Make Way For Tomorrow (1937) and only $19.99. I'll certainly write about it in the next couple of weeks once I get the chance to sit down and watch it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Nature of Daylight

One of the many delights of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island is the pre-existing musical arrangement compiled by Scorsese and Robbie Robertson, which includes the use of the stunning piece "The Nature of Daylight" by Max Richter.

DiCaprio in 'Shutter Island'

I didn't even mention Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in my review of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. I usually don't like to dwell on performances because a) by the time I see them, the actor/actress in question has already won 15 different critics awards and it's terribly old news and b) directorial ticks and expressions have always been more interesting to me.

Nevertheless, Leonardo DiCaprio gives a performance worth talking about, and especially worth talking about after a second viewing, which as a whole, proves to be a differently rewarding experience itself.

First off, nobody is better at giving off a sense of delusion, confusion or moral turbulence better than DiCaprio, and I don't know any better way to describe the character of Teddy Daniels than as confused or delusional.

And while his squinty-eyed, sour-lemon face is now his go-to breakdown trump card, I think the "revelation" scene at the end of the film is heartbreaking stuff, and on a second viewing, you really notice some devastating facial gestures in his shakedown with Ben Kingsley.

And like the performance, the film as a whole just won't escape my mind. Its portrait of psychological fragility - the difference between man and monster - ringing more and more clearly with each passing moment. I think the more you see it, the more you think about it and the more you digest it, it becomes less and less of the manipulating, peek-a-boo genre trope that so many have denounced it as and more of a really challenging, thoughtful work.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review: 'Shutter Island' [A-]

Martin Scorsese's madhouse mystery is a brooding, bombastic fist-clencher - a genre offering from one of our most prestigious living filmmakers that offers up a serviceable, shifting and involving thriller, technically amplified and accentuated to a pulverizing degree, yet surprisingly laced with meaning and insight that only reveals itself with time and repetition.

For all of its explanatory third act revelations, it remains proudly and engagingly ornate - a smokey work full of style and bare-knuckled moodiness that eventually outworks its deficiencies.

The film begins with a boat emerging from the fog, a detective (Leonardo DiCaprio) is dripping water from his face, pleading with his reflection to "pull yourself together." As the ferry approaches an island, a seemingly endless supply of skulking, strong-jawed security guards greet the detective and his partner (Mark Ruffalo) to the sounds of the deep, probing and conspiring notes of Krzysztof Penderecki's Symphony No. 3. As if you didn't know, something is amok here on Shutter Island.

Like the repeating tones of that particular musical piece (which both opens and closes the film in tidy fashion), Shutter Island relies on similar repetition in order to submit the audience into a state of psychological unrest and disillusionment. Flashbacks and dream sequences (some of them on top of one another) rule the days and sleepless nights of the confounded Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio).

And essentially, Shutter Island turns out to be Scorsese's arsenal of well-oiled gears and gadgets wound up like clockwork to run something seemingly less demanding. Teddy's plight is depicted initially like a B-movie genre trope before subsequent viewings and digesting reveals something heartier - this film isn't about fooling you and holding a carrot in front of your face, it's about the roots of violence, anger and psychological instability. (Not to mention a slight commentary on the condition of post-WWII mental health care.)

For me, Shutter Island is a fully alive and compelling genre piece. It may feel at times like a film that wallows in its own deceptions and technique, trying desperately to surprise the audience, but by the end, it becomes something with more weight, ambiguity and old-fashioned directorial commitment than anything we're likely to see this year. It may not be Scorsese's The Shining - it's too slavish to Dennis Lehane's source novel for that - but after much gestation, I believe it could be the director's greatest work in over two decades.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Frank Capra #8: 'American Madness' (1932)

As Robert Riskin slowly replaced Jo Swerling as the screenwriter du jour at Columbia under Harry Cohn and Frank Capra, it was perhaps as major a contributing factor to the rise of the director from small studio head to Hollywood icon as any.

Riskin co-wrote Capra's previous hit, the newsroom screwballer Platinum Blonde (1931) with Swerling a year prior, but on American Madness, it was Riskin's first solo screenplay for Columbia's most successful director and the beginning of a most noteworthy Hollywood marriage of writer and filmmaker. (The two would clater collaborate on It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, You Can't Take it With You and Meet John Doe.)

But perhpas the biggest achievement of American Madness is its successful merging of topical politics and old-fashioned entertainment - a trademark of Capra's most prestigious efforts.
Shooting on a budget, Madness takes place almost entirely inside a bank, which is owned by Thomas Dixon (Walter Huston) who is no ordinary banker. In the midst of the Depression, Mr. Dixon isn't concerned about profits, but helping keep small businesses afloat by handing out loans that no other man worth his pocketbook would even consider. He's the exception in a time of crisis and misfortune and thus is ripe for the ever optimistic Frank Capra's tale of triumph amidst tragedy.
Riskin's screenplay was evidently inspired by the real-life acts of Bank of America's similar views on taking risks for the greater good during the early years of the Great Depression. But Madness isn't just a bludgeoning of goodwill delivered with studio-age directness and fatigue. Capra, like he did with Platinum Blonde, does a marvelous job of opening up Mr. Dixon's bank, throwing in humor, romance, melodrama, and even crime.

Though plainly exuding political stance, the film thankfully sidesteps optimisic mawkishness by deftly delivering a message movie that doesn't drown in its own politics. Although, perhaps the greatest feat of American Madness is the way it set-up what was to come and the way it would influence the films of Frank Capra throughout the late 30's and 40's.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Guess That Screenshot #3

Projector Failure

I finally got to see Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon today - which I completely dug - but it was in spite of some serious technical issues on the part of the Angelika, one of the three art-house theaters in Dallas.

The movie started on time, previews played nice and fine, audible, discernible, etc. Then the previews ceased and the lights dimmed and thus, the abomination began. The Angelika always plays a slightly amusing pre-show piece about keeping your cell phone turned off, and seeing as how often I see stuff there, I could damn-near recite it to anyone, but I immediately noticed something was off.

The picture was essentially squashed - everything was compressed and compacted like a car at a junkyard - faces disfigured, squatty, oompa-loompa like. Nevertheless, I figured that the pre-show stuff was on a different reel and thus, wouldn't affect the film. I was wrong.

Now, the opening credits to The White Ribbon are white titles on a black background and, like the film itself, they are very deliberate and sterile and long. I couldn't tell if the picture had been corrected, so I waited. The first shot comes into focus and nope, it wasn't fixed. This is a film shot in glorious black-and-white in 1:85 to 1 aspect ratio and what we got was closer to anamorphic 2:75 to 1. It was like the projectionist had it rigged for Ben-Hur or something.

(Here is a replication of pretty much what it looked like):
Now normally when there is a technical problem in a theater, I play the guy who waits for someone else to get up and say something. So I waited a couple minutes, one more minute, another...and...nothing. Nobody batted an eye. So I looked around, got up and told them that there was a problem with the projector in theater #3 and 2-3 minutes later it was fixed. Bravo.
So I practically missed the first 10 minutes, which is a shame, but I got over it. I was just shocked that in a theater full of, say 15-20 people, that nobody noticed that something was off-kilter. Amazing.

Worthington on 'Clash of the Titans'

Courtesy of The Playlist, I think we can all lower our expectations for Louis Letterier's Clash of the Titans (Warner Bros., 04.02.10), seeing as how its star Sam Worthington already has:

"I think this whole movie is pretty ridiculous. It's the fun of it. We're running around with rubber swords and rubber shields with a guy made of wood, jumping out of scorpions covered in goo. I think the whole point of the movie is it's meant to be fun and bombastic, and to take people...I call it a Saturday morning popcorn movie your Dad would have seen."
Of course Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman hated Casablanca, but this doesn't sound too good. Even stars of the films they're in aren't dumb enough to call it "ridiculous" or "Saturday morning cartoon" before it even comes out.

Especially after Warner Bros. made headlines by desperately converting the film from 2D to 3D just two months before its release, even pushing the release date back to get it done.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

No, Not Ghost Rider.

I missed Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeff Wells' rave of Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer last night, but it sure caught me off guard this morning. Polanski's investigative one-man thriller was picked up by Summit a few weeks ago or so in an attempt to cash in on the man's recent headlines, but the consensus is that it's pretty darn good, or in the words of a few, magnificent:

"Roman Polanski's The Ghost a brilliant and masterful adult thriller. I just saw it this evening, and less than ten minutes after it began I knew I was once again in the hands of perhaps the most exacting filmmaker alive today, as sharp as he's ever been. The film is so gloriously not run-of-the-mill-Hollywood I can barely stand it.

"The same calmly intelligent approach to sory - the sharp dialogue, subtle hints and clues, exacting narrative tissue, patient accumulation of facts and intuitions - that characterized Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown are here in abundance."
"The Ghost Writer delivers a kind of heaven that smart moviegoers will flutter over. It has a sense of artified refinement that out Chris Nolan's Chris Nolan."

Of course, it should be noted that Wells is a Polanski apologist through-and-through (even outside the realm of film), but nevertheless, overall response has been greater and friendlier towards The Ghost Writer than to Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. Go figure.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Guess That Screenshot #2

No clues this time.

Martin Scorsese

Rope of Silicon's David Frank posted his top ten Martin Scorsese films this morning, in honor of Shutter Island opening in two days hence. He goes Goodfellas at #1, Bringing Out the Dead at #2 and Taxi Driver #3. His full list is here.

Okay, I'll play along. My Top 5 Scorsese:
1. Raging Bull (1980)
2. Taxi Driver (1976)
3. Goodfellas (1990)
4. The Aviator (2004)
5. Mean Streets (1973)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"It's too bad she won't live..."

There are two reasons why I consider the ending to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) to be among the best. The first reason is that I love film's that end with a door closing - don't know why, it's just a personal thing of mine. (Michael Mann's Public Enemies recently resurrected this fetish of mine.)

The second reason why I dig it is because I love the ambiguous ending that bookmarks the close of one film while suggesting the start of another. When Harrison Ford's Deckard picks up the origami figure, nods his head and then the camera follows him into the elevator, it feels open-ended yet entirely complete and final. I don't want to mistake ambiguous endings that feel resolute for ambiguous endings that leave you hanging and surprised.

My only reservation with these final scene is the superfluous repeating of Edward James Olmos' final line. You'd have to be mentally impaired to not know what the origami figure represents, symbolizes, suggests. It's an "I'm watching you," "I'll give you a head start," kind of thing and the voiceover is unnecessary, but it's just a minor nitpick.

Roger Ebert

Even though I have frequently disagreed with the Chicago-based legend Roger Ebert over the past decade or so, this Chris Jones Esquire piece puts everything in perspective. Ever since being diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, Ebert has been in slow decline - replaced on "At the Movies" by close friends Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott and now barely able to sit through feature-length films or even speak.

The article is humbling, and regardless of my views toward Ebert's writing from time-to-time, it's sad to see one of the top American film critics of the 20th century wilting away.

Polanski's "Ghost"

Roman Polanksi's The Ghost Writer (Summit, 02.19.10) is sure to benefit somewhat from the director's recent headlines when it opens in NY and LA this friday before expanding the following week (on 2.26).

Essentially a one-man investigative conspiracy thriller (think Jack Nicholson in Chinatown), the film has been generally well-received to this point, with Emanuel Levy, Slant's Ed Gonzalez, and Marshall Fine all modestly approving in their remarks:

"Like Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” is based on a popular novel – Robert Harris’ “The Ghost.” Like “Shutter Island,” “Ghost Writer” is set mainly on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. And like Scorsese, Polanski uses solid commercial fiction to make a movie that chills and provokes.

"The Ghost Writer" can be frustrating – because you only know as much as the main character right up until the final scene. And when it all becomes clear, all the jagged edges go away and the film comes into focus as the well-honed thriller it has been all along." Writes Fine.

Emanuel Levy shares similar remarks in his review: "Ghost Writer" is Polanski's first contempo thriller in 22 years, since “Frantic,” in 1988, with Harrison Ford, which was both an artistic and commercial flop. Based on the novel “The Ghost” (a better title) by best-selling author Robert Harris, which won the International Thriller Writers’ Award for best novel of 2008, the scenario is co-penned by Harris and Polanski."

"Despite the various shortcomings of “Ghost Writer” in theme and style, the movie deals with political intrigue, disgraced politicos, and behind-closed-doors machinations, turning it into timely and relevant work. And though the setting is genuinely British, emphasizing how the Brits deal with terrorism vis-à-vis the dubious American ICC jurisdiction, the basic situation could apply to other locales and times."

Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: 'Valentine's Day' [F]

I'll spare everyone the courtesy of a formal review for Garry Marshall's Valentine's Day, which is nothing short of a putrid slop of manure. Unfunny and superfluously overlong, the film is just as sugary, phony, banal and unnecessary as the holiday that it takes its name from.

This is a towering work of vapidity, a celebrity gawking vehicle without an ounce of ingenuity or earnestness in sight. It blatantly confuses embarrassment for humor and the result is an uncomfortable sit - essentially a mix-tape of Hollywood starlets and "Grey's Anatomy" hunks doing stupid things for two hours.

Scene after scene, our broadly sketched characters are put through the wringer of the tough love, lust and unpredictability of Valentine's Day, until they conveniently and unnaturally find their footing, usually in the arms of another similarly minded and love-starved knucklehead. (Although at times, it seems that the singular objective of the film is to embrace interracial romance and teenage sexual abstinence.)

Valentine's Day isn't just a dull, cliched trifle, but an offensively witless and abhorrent package of celebrity starpower. It's the equivalent of getting a giant stuffed bear as a gift (similar to the one that a naive Taylor Swift receives) - it's gaudy and copious, yet insufferably fruitless and a pain to lug around.

The Cheshire Brings Out Burton's Ire

With Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (Disney, 3.05.10) coming out two weeks from Friday, Geoff Butcher of the LA Times' Hero Complex blog is posting a series of Alice-related articles leading up to its release in 18 days. Today's post unveils how Burton's particular vision of the infamous Cheshire Cat taps into the director's own hatred of those fuzzy felines:

"The Ceshire Cat was a character I had a very specific image of and it's because I just have this things about cats...I have this thing with cats. And with the Cheshire Cat it's a love-hate relationship."
Check out the rest of the Alice in Wonderland stories here, including a particularly amusing chat with Burton about the affects of his actress/romantic co-pilot Helena Bonham Carter and her exaggerated features as The Red Queen.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Review: 'The Wolfman' [C]

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and Joe Johnston’s fatally lifeless and unconvincing monster flick, clouded in a stink of post-production woes and extensive delays, bears the evidence of its turbulent journey to the big screen. Rushed, nonsensical and bland, The Wolfman can’t even muster any old-school nostalgia, for it’s decidedly new-school.

Like the film itself, the beast that Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) morphs into under the light of the full moon is freakishly agile and lightning-quick, almost indecipherable – perhaps in an attempt to smudge up the lackluster visual effects.

The scares are tirelessly jumpy, insincere and computer-generated, with the rare moments that rely on simple make-up effects further serving to enforce the idea into my head that director Joe Johnston and his crew should have had the guts to go old-school with this thing and simply give Benicio Del Toro an un-digitized makeover. (Although as I pointed out the other day, he hardly needs one).

The script by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self waddles around in an easy-to-predict mold of disorderly family mystery and perceived vengeance amidst tragedy, but the latter attempts are miserably mismanaged.

Benicio Del Toro is a fine actor in the right setting (Che, 21 Grams), and even with a comical physical resemblance to a real-life wolfman, the 42 year-old Puerto Rican actor is either miscast, under-written, or disinterested. There’s no internal struggle in the character of Lawrence Talbot, no definable catharsis, and absolutely zero believability or credence to his relationship with the widowed Emily Blunt.

On the whole, it's too serious and too monotonous to work as pure genre entertainment, and yet in this attempt at self-seriousness, the film wilts under its own ineptitude. Perhaps by giving Talbot (Del Toro) a background in Shakespearean theater, the filmmakers were attempting to highlight the tragedy of Lawrence Talbot, but the real tragedy here is in the telling – in that regard, The Wolfman is a downright catastrophe.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Ford Blu

I love studio-era Hollywood on Blu-ray, and although John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) was originally distributed by United Artists, it's close enough. Easily a landmark western, not only in Ford's personal canon but in the genre as a whole, Stagecoach is known for its blistering stunt-man extraordinaire climax and as the launching point in the career of John Wayne and his union and partnership with the legendary John Ford.
Criterion releases the DVD and Blu-ray on May 25th. Love the artwork.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Maybe a little powder."

Why even bother with a CG-makeover/transformation of Benicio Del Toro to play The Wolfman? This guy could break into character after a morning cigarette and a case of bedhead. RKO or Universal circa 1940 would have made this guy a horror movie legend.

Movie Weekend: February 12-14, 2010

Three big 3,000+ screen openings this Friday for Valentine's Day weekend - there's something for everyone.

THE WOLFMAN (Universal) [3,222]
Originally scheduled for release last April, Joe Johnston's The Wolfman finally sees the moonlight of day - yeah, I said it. Two delays and 10 months later, the result is an apparently vapid and messy product. It'll still get my money this weekend. 34% RT, 44 Metacritic.

VALENTINE'S DAY (Warner Bros.) [3,665]

More ensemble romance and heartbreak which will undoubtedly bear little resemblance to any relationship on this earth. The effect this film has on our world may be to break up more love birds than it attracts - consider it the worst date ever. Nevertheless, it should open huge. 13% RT, 33 Metacritic.


Based on Rick Riordan's young adult novels, 20th Century Fox made no mistake about their intentions in adapting "Percy Jackson & The Olympians" to the big screen when they hired Chris Columbus (Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone) to tackle the first of five novels, "The Lightning Thief". I'm sure it's decent, but I'm not sure that Fox has a franchise on their hands - smells like The Spiderwick Chronicles. 55% RT, 47 Metacritic.

Sci-Fi of the 00's

I ran into this list of the greatest science-fiction films of the decade, composed by the folks at Sci-Fi Squad, and I found it generally well thought-out and hard to argue with with a few exceptions.

Children of Men, Minority Report, Donnie Darko are no-brainers, musts, but the exclusion of Danny Boyle's Sunshine irks me a little, especially in favor of stuff like Serenity and Timecrimes.

Now everyone and their neighbor knows that Sunshine kind of veers a little off-course in its final act, but it's still a slickly-produced, well-founded and sporadically brilliant end-of-the-world space mission. Plus John Murphy's original score is easily one of the most ingenious, copied, and repeated compositions of the decade - topping his 28 Days Later work.

I can't think of any other potentially worthy sci-fi stuff from the '00-'09 period, any other notable omissions? The list:

Children of Men
Donnie Darko
Minority Report

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Star Trek

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Why are there people like Frank?"

Well, The Mad Hatter correctly guessed the title of the screenshot I posted yesterday. It was from David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), which I re-watched the other night and got an even bigger buzz off of the second time around.

Blue Velvet is a simply-themed yet strangely conceived dreamscape from the mind of David Lynch – primal, dreamy, ethereal, haunting, etc. Beneath its ugly veneer of sexual vulgarities, it's a mush of borderline saccharine statements and obvious symbolism – yet somehow it all works so extremely well.

The fictional town of Pemberton is, with its homely billboard and its neighborly hardware store, a seemingly flawless and idyllic portrait of small-town suburbia, but just like the carnivorous insects gnawing away underneath the pristine and freshly-mowed lawn of the Beaumont household, evil is lurking in Pemberton.
This juxtaposition of light vs. dark, of good vs. evil is present throughout and the clear theme of this mystery-noir. It exists not only in the way that the villainous Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) terrorizes and threatens poor Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and the humble existence of Pemberton itself, but in the flickering of a reoccurring candle flame or in the way the evildoers so gleefully sing the melodies of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams".

Or most of all, in the way that the film balances purity (Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern) with overt evil (Dennis Hopper) and scenes of schmaltzy philosophy with sadistic repugnance.

The key scene between Jeff (MacLachlan) and Sandy (Dern) in the car, in which she describes her regular dream of robins flying in and ridding the world of darkness wouldn’t work outside of the context of the film, it is after all, maudlin and indulgent. But within the context of the film, it absolutely works. (For some unobtainable reason, I love the scene where Kyle MacLachlan cries, "why is there so much trouble in this world?")

And later, when the robin shows up at the end of the film, perched outside the Beaumont kitchen window, an insect clutched in its beak, as obvious and forced as it may be, it too, somehow works – I love it.

This is partly because of the surrealistic and dreary, indelible images of Frederick Elmes’ noir-ish cinematography and Patricia Norris’ production design which turn Dorothy’s red-carpeted apartment (with its long, threatening hallway) into a character unto itself. But anyone familiar with David Lynch can sense the auteur’s overwhelming fingerprints all over this thing and it is his vision that keeps Blue Velvet on track at all times – tense, provocative and lasting.

I don’t know how he did it, but this is one of the finest American films of the past thirty-plus years and in a way, one of the director’s most accessible and personal – a strange world, indeed.

Clash of the Dimensions

The move by Warner Bros. to "demensionalize" Louis Letterier's Clash of the Titans and thus push it back a week, is nothing if not completely desperate. Obviously, it's a direct response to the boffo box-office performance of Avatar, which kicked Sherlock Holmes and The Book of Eli around all winter.

My stance on 3D has always been to use it on certain films in which the viewing experience is enhanced, (i.e. building it from the ground up.) Avatar, despite my reservations for the film itself, implemented the technology beautifully - at times, seamlessly.

But studios throwing out 3D just to do it and doing it just to beef up their returns by preying on uninformed theater-goers expecting something like Avatar is sickening. On a much larger scale, the final two chapters of the Harry Potter saga will also go 3D, in an equally desperate move.

I have yet to see a 3D film in theaters that was originally shot to be projected in two-dimensions, but I can't imagine that it's a pretty sight, not to mention worth the extra $2-4.

Clearly there is a market for 3D, but it exists with the Coraline's and Avatar's of the world - an every 1-2 months kind of thing. I'm worried that more studios will adapt like Warner Bros. and revert to equally (or perhaps exceedingly) desperate measures. Let's hope not.

I'll be seeing Clash of the Titans in 2D, thank you, the way it was meant to be seen.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Thanks to a conveniently spliced youtube video posted by Rich Juzwiak at of all of the greatest mirror-scare scenes of all-time, I was reminded of how much untapped hatred I have towards this occurence.

Surely horror filmmakers know that this is the most convenient, overused and played-out gimmick in the genre, so why do we get 4-5 of these a year? (The Unborn and Orphan come to mind.) Is this like the visual equivalent of the Wilhelm Scream?

Jeff Wells at Hollywood-Elsewhere also took offense, claiming that the grand-daddy of all mirror-shock scenes is the one from Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965), which is absent from the video.

Guess That Movie Screenshot #1

This is my favorite shot from what film? (Highlight clues for help.)
Clue #1: 1986
Clue #2: David Lynch

Monday, February 8, 2010

Soderbergh's "Contagian"

Talk about a prestige project coming out of nowhere. Reports sprouted up today about Steven Soderbergh directing Scott Z. Burns' apparently tremendous Contagian script, with Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Marion Cotillard in talks to star.

According to Variety, Contagian is a split-narrative a la Traffic concerning the outbreak of a deadly disease and is set to begin filming this fall. Burns and Soderbergh, of course, recently teamed up for The Informant!, which starred Matt Damon.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Verhoeven Does Dystopia

I'm a huge fan of Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop (1987), but his similarly arched and stylized Total Recall (1990), which I watched for the first time today, is a bit of a mess - I didn't hate it, but it just doesn't work all that well.

Part of the problem - okay, most of the problem - stems from William Sandell's production design and Erica Edell Phillips' costumes, which render the film disagreeable and blank - a dystopian jazzercise class. For a film set in the future, revolving around artificial dreams and interplanetary travel, there wasn't a set piece (aside from the Mars exteriors) that was visually arresting in any way. Earth is gray and concrete, Mars is slummy and constricted - it's just an ugly movie.

Based on a Philip K. Dick short story, Total Recall, like RoboCop, is about a man who is a product of corporate greed and corruption manipulated to correct a society quickly approaching anarchy. Except Verhoeven, through eruptions of violence and limb displacement, turns his protagonist into a redeemer, not of society's disorder, but the officials (corporate, political or otherwise) responsible for its unruliness.

The difference is that RoboCop makes its political and social jabs concise and clear-headed, and there's real, definable catharsis in the character of Alex Murphy. (Plus a bounty of nice scathing, satirical blows to mass media and consumerism and an added edge of topicality, seeing as how the flailing Detroit depicted here is all too familiar to the one we know now.)

Total Recall ends up being Verhoeven's schlockier, staler companion piece to the superior RoboCop - a fuller and more well-rounded film in every way. The latter's violence is shocking and yet completely earned, whereas Recall's violence (and the film itself) lack a reason to exist, coming off as excessive and repetitious - its like a whore with three boobs.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Embrace the 'Legend'

One of the more interesting failures in Ridley Scott's canon is his follow-up to Blade Runner, the mystical and otherwordly fantasy, Legend (1986). Initially skewered upon its release, it has since found a cult following through a director's-cut DVD which adds 25 minutes to the running-time and includes Jerry Goldsmith's original score.

Essentially, the film is a classical fairy tale - no doubt inspired by the numerous family-friendly medieval fantasies of the early 80's - taking place in a world of unicorns, goblins, elves, fairies and a very evil Lord of Darkness. It takes its plot cues from the classic Disney mold, including a singing princess, a magical forest, squatty comic-relief characters and a complete and utter lack of context and scope. (She's the princess of what, the leaves?)

Tom Cruise plays the whey-faced hero who must enter evil's domain to save the princess and rid the land of darkness (and a shitload of snow). Whatever your thoughts are of the film, Cruise's performance - whimpering and puny - is a career embarrassment, there's no denying it.

Nevertheless, Legend endures because of the aces production design, the art direction, the costumes, the make-up and a strange tone of bleakness amongst the fantastical that perfectly highlights the film's central theme of duality - lightness and darkness (and furthermore, good scenes and bad scenes). Also surpassing tedium is Mia Sara, who plays the harmless and victimized princess in her screen debut.

Legend is certainly a take-it-or-leave-it kind of film, with those willing to submit to its fantastical imagery and classical storytelling reaping the benefits of an exceedingly well-made if meager and fluffy live-action fairy tale.

It's more of a curiosity than a good film, but I found it endearing enough in places to recommend and, dare I say, watch again down the road. What's happening? I'm starting to like it more and more with each passing minute. As Myrna Loy once said in W.S. Van Dyke's The Thin Man, "It's stiffling, but it's so pretty."

'Ondine' Trailer

Neil Jordan's Ondine (Magnolia Pictures, 06.04.10) was certainly one of the most interesting films that played at the Toronto Film Festival last September. It received modest reviews and wallowed around before picking up a distributor last month, but I'm glad to see it did.

Described as an "adult fairy-tale drama," the film chronicles a fisherman (Colin Farell) as he catches a mysterious woman in his nets who at first appears to be dead before magically springing to life.

This trailer doesn't really stir me one way or the other (besides the fact that I love that cloudy, breezy seaport setting) but it looks like it's coming from the right place. Certainly better than The Brave One, no?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Legacy Before Wonderland

I was thinking about skipping Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland in 3D, but I'm really interested in seeing the trailer premiere for Tron: Legacy on the big screen and in three dimensions.

I'm a big dork about the original 1982 Tron, an endearingly dated computer-geek science-fiction fantasy. I love the sound design, the art direction, the light cycles, the disc wars, the villainous Sark, etc. For a 90-minute family friendly film, it draws the viewer deep into its own cyberworld and doesn't speak down. It can be enjoyed as pure entertainment or a Matrix-like excursion, rich in fictional nerd terms and culture.

I don't know if the sequel, Tron: Legacy (Disney, 12.17.10) will be any good, but I'm really, really looking forward to it.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Movie Weekend: February 5th, 2010

Well, it's post-Oscar nominations weekend, which means re-releases and expansions of films looking to cash in on their recent exposure. We do have three new releases, however, including two prototypical February dump-offs and a limited release low-budget horror film.

DEAR JOHN (Sony/Screen Gems) [2,969]

This looks like your standard Nicholas Barfs adaptation - pretty faces, beach setting, oxford shirts. While watching the trailer, it dangerously approaches the flashback scenes of G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra. If only Sienna Miller showed up to fight Amanda Seyfried.

FROM PARIS WITH LOVE (Lionsgate) [2,722]

The only thing that could be worse than a Pierre Morel action film (Taken) is a Pierre Morel action film starring John Travolta. The goatee, the earring, the bald head, the over-cussing - I can't take it.

FROZEN (Anchor Bay) [106]

This low-budget genre film about a trio of snowboarders stranded on a ski slope, battling the elements, debuted at Sundance about a week-and-a-half ago to mixed response. Genre fans are digging it, Jeff Wells thought it was okay, everyone else is unimpressed.