Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Film Review: God Bless America

With a tagline of "Taking out the trash, one jerk at a time" and a premise that blends Taxi Driver with Natural Born Killers, God Bless America should be a very dangerous film.  This Bobcat Goldthwait directed satire, the comic's fifth directorial effort, could have and definitely should have been much darker, much more subversive that it ends up being - though it is indeed far from light and fluffy as well - but there is still a lot of giddy, gruesome fun to be had.  Well, if you happen to be a jaded and bitter, modern pop culture weary, stupidity intolerant creature like me, then yes, there is quite a bit of giddy, gruesome fun to be had indeed.  If you are one of those who Goldthwait's film mocks - and you fans of The Jersey Shore know who you are, and should be ashamed of yourselves - then the film will probably not bring you much joy.  But then what the hell do these aforementioned cultural misanthropes know about joy anyway?

The ironically named God Bless America, is the story of Frank, a poor middle class schmuck, who after getting fired from his dead-end cubicled office job, is shut out of his spoiled brat daughter's life, and is told he has a tumor with only a little time left to live, decides to go on a murder spree rampage, by killing all those who he considers deserve to die.  Teaming up with loner teenager Roxy, Frank leaves his shitty life behind and begins gunning down everyone from reality TV stars to Glenn Beck-esque right wing hate mongers to child molesters to gossip giddy paparazzi to bible thumping gay bashing ministers and tea party idiots to a cocksure Simon Cowell-like creature to a group of people who will just not shut up in a movie theater.  Now I must admit to having had fantasies of this ilk in my life.  Perhaps not killing any of these people per se (though what happens in a fantasy, stays in a fantasy), but standing up to the utter stupidity and ignorance of humanity in one way or another.  Of course with those theater patrons who just will not shut off their phones and/or their mouths, there is a catharsis in watching their fate here - even in light of recent tragedies.  This is just a movie after all, and should not be blamed for the actions of the sick and twisted in society.

Now Goldthwait, who like me, brings his frustrations toward modern society to a boil in his writing, does hold back somewhat here, bringing his characters and their situations to the precipice of bad taste, before reeling them back in before it is too late.  This is something akin to narrative cowardice.  Playing at dark humour, as Goldthwait does rather well - films like Shakes the Clown, Sleeping Dogs Lie and World's Greatest Dad are too often overlooked pieces of societal satire that never quite go the brave distance - God Bless America seems like it wants to be that film that not only stirs the pot of both decency and controversy, but pours it over its enemy's heads in some sort of maniacal medieval maneuver.  And there are moments in this film that it does just that, and even though they never go as far as they should, or perhaps as far as I wish they would, it is still quite a twisted delight to see mini-Kardashians and blowhard Republinuts get what's coming to them.  And Joel Murray, baby brother of Bill and Brian-Doyle, as sad sack Frank and Tara Lynne Barr as the precocious Roxy, make for a rather fun modern day Bonnie and Clyde - or is that Mickey and Mallory.  Yes, this is not a film for all - all you TMZ fans out there need not apply - but it does have its fun satirical moments in spite of its lack of balls out craziness it deserves to have.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Recasting Pulp Fiction: A Special What If? Edition

There is a new blogathon in town folks.  It is co-hosted by the fine folks at In the Mood and Frankly, My Dear, and it is called The Great Recasting.  The object of the game is simple.  Take a post-1965 movie and recast it using a pre-1965 genre, director and actors.  Well, me being me (and anyone who knows me should not be at all surprised), I of course chose Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film, Pulp Fiction.  And again, me being me (and again, no friend nor acquaintance would be surprised), I have decided to go way overboard in my participation in said blogathon. 

After choosing Pulp Fiction for my film, I was trying to decide what classic genre to place its characters in.  Film Noir of course, immediately sprung to mind.  But what about Precode Gangster Film?  Or maybe a Swashbuckling Epic?  How about a Classic Melodrama, or a 1930's Screwball Comedy?  Maybe a Musical, but which kind?  A Precode Busby Berkeley Musical or an MGM Musical Extravaganza?  How about a Classic Western, or even a Universal Horror Film?  Maybe a Classic work of Animation?  Then I thought to myself - why not all of them?  So, without further ado, here is my quite overboard contribution to The Great Recasting Blogathon.  Pulp Fiction in ten genres or less.  Well, okay, ten genres exactly.  But first (okay, with a little bit of ado) I suppose I should give a quick synopses of Pulp Fiction, just in case there is anyone out there yet unfamiliar with the film.

Pulp Fiction (as is):
Tarantino's film revolves around some small time hoods in L.A..  We have mob enforcer's Vincent Vega, played by John Travolta and Jules Winnfield, played by Samuel L. Jackson.  These men work for Marsellus Wallace, played by Ving Rhames.  Then we have Mia Wallace, played by Tarantino stalwart Uma Thurman.  Mia is the boss's wife.  At one point, Vincent is asked by Marsellus, to take his wife out for a night on the town.  This shows the trust Marsellus has in Vincent, as he trusts his wife with him.  Vincent and Mia head to Jack Rabbit Slim's, a 50's diner, where they participate in a dance contest.  We later see Mia and Vincent with the trophy, but there is a strong possibilty they stole said trophy after losing the contest.  These are gangsters after all.  Of course things go quite awry when Mia finds Vincent's heroin, and and decides to snort it, inducing her to O.D..  Vincent, in quite the understandable panic, rushes Mia to his dealer's house so they can inject her with adrenaline, thus reviving her.  The dealer, Lance, is played by Eric Stoltz, while his wife Jody is played by Rosanna Arquette.  

The second main storyline in this circular narrative, involves a boxer named Butch Coolidge, played by Bruce Willis.  Butch is supposed to take a dive in the fight but decides not to, and instead bets everything he has on himself to win, and then make a run out of town with his girlfriend Fabienne, played by Portuguese actress Maria de Medieros.  Of course this angers the man who told him to take the dive, a certain Marsellus Wallace.  There is a whole quite disturbing set of scenes at this point, that would not have made it past the production code back in old Hollywood, not even in the precode days, so we won't even bother mentioning them here.  Let's just say, Butch and Marsellus come to an understanding and Butch leaves town with Fabienne.  This segment of the film also brings on a flashback to Butch's childhood, where a friend of his war dead father, a Captain Koons, played by the always fun Christopher Walken, hands down the gold watch Butch's daddy had made him promise to bring back to the states.  Let's just not mention where Captain Koons happened to hide this watch when captured.

We next see Vincent and Jules, after accidentally shooting an informant in the head, at Jimmie's house, hiding out.  Jimmie is played by the writer and director himself, Quentin Tarantino.  Jimmie, a suburban squarish type, happens to be related to Marsellus Wallace, but is not a bit happy with these thugs being in his house - with a dead body and blood-soaked car.  But not to worry, for Marsellus has called in the Wolf, aka Winston Wolfe, played by the great Harvey Keitel, a fixer-of-problems kind of guy.  Our film then ends where it began.  In a cylindrical narrative we go back to the opening scene where we find a pair of cheaply dressed robbers, calling each other Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, played respectively by Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer, who decide to rob the diner that Vincent and Jules happen to be eating in.  Big mistake guys.   Anyway, this is Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, and this is the film that we are going to toss into the Way Back Machine and see what comes up in our night of ten genres.

Pre-Code Gangster Film:
It is the hey day of the early sound period in Hollywood and Warner Brothers, with its flair for dangerous subjects, is at the top of its game.  Just two years before the Hays Office implemented the  production code that would put a veritable stop to even the slightest allusions toward sex and violence (other than those that studio directors will become extremely adept at sneaking into their pictures), William Wellman, fresh off The Public Enemy, one of the defining films of the new gangster genre, has created yet another subversive precode crime masterpiece.  1932's Pulp Fiction, in all its pulpy goodness, stars that king of the genre, James Cagney as mob thug Vincent Vega, turning this character into an icon of the genre.  Along with partner Jules Winnfield, played by the always great but often overlooked George Raft, these tough-as-nails mob enforcers work for the king of the underworld, the megalomaniac Marsellus Wallace, here portrayed by Edward G. Robinson, in one the actor's greatest performances.

The highlight of this classic precode film though, may very well be Jean Harlow as Mia Wallace, decked out in her slinky silver dress and winning that dance contest by sheer sexiness alone.  But then, things go downhill fast when Harlow's original blonde bombshell gets into Vincent's stash and falls unconscious.  But Harlow's Mrs. Mia Wallace is saved by drug dealer Lance, played by Edward Woods (the "other" guy from Wellman's The Public Enemy), assisted by his wife Jody, played by Mae Clarke (but this time not getting a grapefruit shoved in her face).  But even as a near O.D. case, Harlow still looks as good as anyone has the right to look.  Of course, when it came to how things went behind the scenes, Harlow acted the prima donna, was rumoured to be having an affair with Wellman, and was just using the role to help her status in negotiations with MGM.  But damn, she looked good in the slinky silver dress.

Then we have the storyline of bum pugilist Butchie Coolidge, played by Pre-Code stalwart tough guy Lyle Talbot.  Talbot's down and out fighter decides to not take the dive he is ordered to take, and instead takes Marsellus Wallace's money and runs off with his exotic girlfriend Fabienne, here played by the sexy and talented Ann Dvorak, an actress who's insistence on not playing the studio game, resulted in a shortened career and an almost unknown legacy.   Bad career move Ann, and overall bad idea Butchie.  But after some pretty shady stuff taking place between Butch, Marsellus and a couple of quite unfortunate small time hoods, played by C. Henry Gordon and Osgood Perkins, Butch goes his own way.  The highlight of this segment of the film is the cameo appearance of The Man You Love to Hate, Erich von Stroheim, as Captain Koons, delivering the gold watch to a young Butchie.  Von Stroheim wasn't really a member of this genre, but when Warner's found out he needed the work, and would do it for cheap, it was an obvious choice.

We then head back to Cagney and Raft.  After accidentally killing one of their informants, Jules and Vincent must take shelter in the suburban home of Marsellus's cousin Jimmie's house.  Jimmie, played by the chameleonic Paul Muni, fresh off his performance as the villainous Tony Camonte in Howard Hawks' Scarface (from mob psycho to nebbishy bumpkin in back-to-back films), is not happy, but his fears subside when his cousin sends in the Wolf to make everything better.  The Wolf, aka Mr. Fix-It, is played by the booming Wallace Beery, who comes in and makes everything right again.  This leaves Jules and Vincent free to head out for some morning R and R at the diner.  This is where Cagney and Raft come up against the wouldbe robbers Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, here played by Chester Morris and Joan Blondell.   The film was a big hit for Warner Bros. and became one of the seminal works of the genre.  Sadly, the production code would come into effect less than two years later, and much of the violence and sexual innuendo found in this classic would, for the next two and a half decades, be a thing of the past.

Busby Berkeley Musical:
Choreographer extraordinaire Busby Berkeley had a pretty amazing string of stunning musicals throughout the thirties, and 1933's Pulp Fiction was one of the best.   Co-directed by Berkeley and Mervyn LeRoy (LeRoy handling the non-musical segments of the film), this beautiful musical, full of the outlandishly elaborate musical numbers that made Berkeley a legend, stars heartthrob Dick Powell as hoodlum Vincent Vega and the smooth and sophisticated Adolphe Menjou as his mob partner Jules Winnfield.  Their opening numbers, "Royale with Cheese" and "Ezekial 25:17" were big hits.  But probably the showiest number of all is the one that pairs Powell with his regular leading lady, Ruby Keeler as Mia Wallace, the mob boss's young wife.  As the stage widens to a seemingly impossible width, and these two young and beautiful stars sing and dance to the classic Cole Porter tune "Jack Rabbit Slim", and the chorus girls encircle them like a never-ending parade of pomp and circumstance, it is surely a sight to see.

The film also stars Warner Baxter as mob boss Marsellus Wallace.  Baxter doesn't do any real singing or dancing here, save for a few lines half-sung in the number "Zed's Dead Baby", but he is large and in charge and that is all that matters.  We get some dramatic moments between Baxter and the buff George Brent as boxer Butch Coolidge.  The film also stars Bebe Daniels as Butch's girlfriend Fabienne.  These three belt out the aforementioned "Zed's Dead Baby", which may not have the chutzpah of many of the other songs in the film, but has always been a fan favourite.  A number that does seem to raise the roof, especially in Berkeley's unique overwhelming theatrical style, is the Harry Warren/Al Dubin number "You Send a Shot of Adrenalin Through My Heart."  This number is sung by Powell and Keeler, and semi-sung by comic relief Frank McHugh and Una Merkel as Lance and Jody.    Another great musical number is performed by Busby Berkeley himself.  Playing Captain Koons, Berkeley dances his way through the classic number "Gold Watch," an enormously extravagant number involving a seeming endless cavalcade of chorus girls and dancing hunks.

Powell and Menjou bring the rather racy song "Dead Minstrel Storage" (in the retroactively racist black-faced manner of the times) to vibrant life.  Assisted by fun-loving but nervous Guy Kibbee as poor schmucky Jimmie, and an especially sleazy, but lovably so, Hugh Herbert as Winston Wolfe, the number may have its bad taste mojo in overload (and has been edited out of some home video versions of the film), but it sure was a crowd pleaser at the time.  The finale of the film is highlighted by three co-existing musical numbers that go back and forth and back again.  The first is the rousing  "Everybody be Cool, This is a Robbery," sung by Ned Sparks and Ginger Rogers as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny.  The second is "I Just Don't Dig on Swine" performed by Powell and Menjou, and the third is Menjou's solo number, the show-stopping "Bad Mother F***er."  The film was ranked 13th on the AFI's list of the greatest movie musicals.  A great classic of the genre indeed.

Universal Horror:
I first saw Tod Browning's 1935 horror classic Pulp Fiction on late night TV when I was about ten years old.  I probably shouldn't have been up watching the late show, but there I was, and I gotta tell ya, it scared the hell out of me.  Sure, by today's standards, an old fashioned horror flick like Pulp Fiction may seem rather tame, but to this ten year old's eyes, the images coming off of that tiny television screen at the foot of my childhood bed was simply terrifying.  With Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff as grave robbers Vincent and Jules, and Fay Wray as the mysterious Mia, this age old tale of things that go bump in the night, is a classic of the genre.  I remember it also had the great Charles Laughton as cult leader Marsellus Wallace, Lon Chaney Jr. as the rough-and-tumble Butch, and Julie Adams (remember her in that white bathing suit in The Creature From the Black Lagoon) as the exotic gypsy Fabienne. There was also the slithery John Carradine as creepy henchman Jimmie and Claude Rains as Winston the Werewolf.  I think the creepiest part was when Vincent Price and Maila Nurmi, who would later be known as Vampira, showed up as witch doctors Lance and Jody.  Granted, there was comic relief too, with Abbott and Costello as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, as well as a great, but scary, cameo from the legendary Conrad Veidt as The Man Who Laughs.  It was one of the first horror films I ever saw, and it is still one of my favourites to this day.

1930's Screwball Comedy:
There were many great purveyors of the Screwball genre, and one of the best was Preston Sturges.  The writer's first film as a director, thought to be lost until a dilapidated print was found in a Peruvian monastery back in 2007, and restored to its former glory just this past year to rave reviews and an eventual Criterion release this coming September, was the 1938 comic romp Pulp Fiction.  The film stars Cary Grant as good-hearted thug Vincent and William Powell as the dapper hood Jules.  These two sly gentlemen work for underworld kingpin Marsellus Wallace, played in one of his finest performances, by the great profile himself, John Barrymore.  Katherine Hepburn, whose Bringing Up Baby out the same year has always been considered one of the best films of the genre, plays gun moll Mia Wallace.  And if this isn't already a seeming work of comic genius, the film also has the sadly forgotten Lee Tracy as Butch the Boxer, the great and beautiful Carole Lombard as his girl Fabienne, Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon as cronies Lance and Jody, and the suave Herbert Marshall, playing against type, as the schmucky Jimmie.   With cameo appearance by legends such as W.C. Fields and Mae West as a pair of wouldbe robbers known lovingly as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, The Marx Brothers, sans Zeppo, as the fix-it team of Wolfe Enterprises, and a surprising turn from Charlie Chaplin as Captain Koons, this once forgotten masterpiece of screwball comedy is thankfully finally rescued from the dark nether regions of film history.  I already have my Criterion Bluray on pre-order.

Swashbuckling Epic:
1942's Pulp Fiction, a tale of 18th century pirates, was the ninth and final film Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland would do together.  It was also the last film that Flynn would do with his long time collaborator Michael Curtiz.  This was meant to be the director's thirteenth collaboration with the actor, but midway through production, Curtiz was fired.  So while Curtiz moved on to a little film called Casablanca, Raoul Walsh, who had directed Flynn the previous year in They Died With Their Boots On, and would go on to direct the actor in another six films after this, was hired to finish the project.  Fraught with production woes and back stage bickering (by this time, Flynn and de Havilland, who had never really liked each other in the first place, were barely on speaking terms anymore) the film almost never was.  When it finally came out it was a box office flop.  Even to this day, it is considered one of Flynn and de Havilland's worst films together.  But still, even though it is not the swashbuckliest of films, there is some enjoyment to have in this film that almost never was.  As for the cast, it was Flynn and fellow swashbuckler Tyrone Power as pirates Vincent and Jules, Miss de Havilland as Maid Mia, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as reputable Spanish governor Marsellus the Mighty, Ronald Coleman and Maureen O'Hara as Prince Butch and his fair lady Fabienne, Flynn pal Alan Hale as fellow pirate Jimmie, and the pencil-mustacheoed Basil Rathbone as the sly villain known simply as the Wolf.  There is also Cornell Wilde and Deloris del Rio as rival small time pirates Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan as Lance and Jody, a pair of lovers found on a desert island, and finally, through the magic of special effects and old footage, the legendary late Rudolph Valentino as Captain Koons of the Spanish Navy.

1940's Film Noir:
In this classic noir directed by the great Howard Hawks, a followup to The Big Sleep, we find two hoods going about the daily routine of collecting money for their boss.  Vincent, played by Humphrey Bogart, is a real hard case thug, while Jules, played by Alan Ladd, is the suavest of all gangsters.  Their boss, the powerful and dangerous Marsellus Wallace is played by Edward G. Robinson, reprising the role he made famous fifteen years earlier in William Wellman's Pre-Code crime classic, and in a performance that would nab the actor his first and only Oscar, just beating out favourite Edmund Gwenn as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street.  The film also took home the Oscar for Best Picture and Hawks himself won for Best Director.  But all this success does not preclude the film from having more than its share of controversy, most of which revolved around the casting of smart and sassy heiress/gun moll Mia Wallace.

Bogart of course had wanted his new wife, Lauren Bacall to play the part, but Hawks, out of possible jealousy over the young actress choosing Bogie over him when they made To Have and Have Not together, refused to cast the actress.  Instead Gene Tierney was cast in the role of Mia, and even though she was quite good in the film ("Tierney's overt sexuality excites the very camera itself" New York Times critic Bosley Crowther said of her performance), Bogart was angry at Hawks - a riff that really never came to mending itself.  Lauren Bacall, in a show of inherent class, praised the performance of Tierney, calling it one of the finest of the year.  But enough of all this behind-the-scenes hoopla, we still have a movie to discuss.  Bogart wasn't much of a dancer, basically just standing there and letting Tierney slink about around him, but they took the trophy anyway.  Of course then it all went south as Tierney's Mia drank herself into near oblivion and wandered onto the railroad tracks, being rescued from certain doom by Lance and Jody, a couple of hobos played by Peter Lorre and Peggy Cummins, who in turn are hit and killed by the oncoming train.

The film's real tough guy portion revolves around down-and-out boxer Butch, played by that king of the tough guys, Robert Mitchum.  Mitchum's Butch decides not to take it on the chin, and instead runs off with Marsellus Wallace's money.  This section of the film is highlighted by a monologue by Robinson (the one that probably won him the Oscar), the slinky comehitherness of Veronica Lake's Fabienne, and the appearance of Orson Welles as Captain Koons.  Of course, to make things even better, we can imagine this being the Orson Welles of a decade later, a la the quite corpulent Touch of Evil version.  The film continues with an encounter between Cagney and Ladd's hoods and Bad Luck Jimmie, played by Elisha Cook Jr., and the criminally-minded Big Bad Wolf, played of course, by Sydney Greenstreet, before ending at a roadside diner in a shoot-out between our intrepid crooks and a pair of naive small timers named Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, played here by Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell.  Today, the film is considered one of the hallmarks of the film noir genre.

Classic Melodrama:
This female-centric melodrama decided to go about things a bit differently than those versions of the story that came before it.  Actress turned director Ida Lupino would make her directorial debut with 1949's Pulp Fiction, and to give it the unique twist she thought necessary for the picture, all the male roles would be played by women and all the female roles by men.  And thanks to this reverse casting gimmick, we would see Joan Crawford and Bette Davis together on the silver screen for the first time ever.  With Crawford as Velma Vega and Davis as Jules Winnfield, a pair of hard-as-nails ladies who do not take no for an answer, and the vicious crime lord boss Marsellia Wallace, played here in an Oscar winning performance by the legendary Marlene Dietrich, we see something very rarely seen on the big screen - a women's weepie playing out as a gangster film.  But there is romance as well, as Mel Ferrar, as the wicked Miles Wallace, husband of Marsellia, tries his best to seduce both Velma and Jules.

The film's other big hitter was Barbara Stanwyck as Cool Hand Butchie, the brazen broad with the killer right cross.  Her decision to double cross Marsellia Wallace backfires on her and we get to see Stanny and Marlene go hand to hand combat crazy on each other.  It was heralded (and reproached) as the best cat fight in Hollywood history.  Rumour has it that neither lady held anything back, and many of the bruises were quite real.  Rumours flew in other directions as well, as they always did for both Stanwyck and Dietrich, but who are we to play in idle gossip?  Another intriguing part of this story was the young stud who played Butchie's boy toy.  Though he had appeared, uncredited, in a film the previous year, Pulp Fiction would mark the very first screen credit of the man who would be known as Rock Hudson.  Here the young Rock plays Fabian, young buck lover to Stanwyck's imposing Cool Hand Butchie.  It was a star making turn indeed.  The highlight of this part of the story though, other than Dietrich and Babs going all fists of fury slaphappy crazy, is the cameo appearance of the legendary Gloria Swanson as Captain Koons, a W.A.C. friend of Butchie's mom from the war.  It was this performance that led Billy Wilder to create the role of Norma Desmond for the forgotten actress, for his masterpiece Sunset Blvd.

We also get appearances from Susan Hayward, as a rum runner pal of Velma's, and Charles Boyer as her husband, an ex bootlegger from prohibition days, who is still in the family business.  They help to save Miles' life when he poisoned by an angry Marsellia.  It is after this that Velma and Jules head out to the country to hideout in Marsellia's cousin's farm house.   This cousin, Jillie, played here by the director herself, Ms. Lupino, wants nothing to do with these, as she puts it, "low down bitches" and has to call in the Wolf, played with a perfect blend of charm and sexiness by Joan Fontaine.  The finale of the film, which incidentally displays a hell of a lot of face slapping, even by Crawford and Davis standards, is an all-out brawl at The Cocoanut Grove between Velma and Jules and a pair of small-timers by the names of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny.  Pumpkin is played by femme fatale Gloria Grahame, in one her smaller, but juiciest roles.  Honey Bunny is played by the other unknown future superstar in the cast.  The eighteen year old James Dean had just graduated high school when he was cast in the part of Grahame's young consort (which incidentally was something Grahame was supposedly into, having slept with her thirteen year old step son, only to marry him seven years later).  Dean had just enrolled in Santa Monica College, as a pre-law student, when the film was released.  The thrill of the sudden success made the young man change schools, as he would transfer to UCLA and change his major to drama.

But these stories of up-and-comers Hudson and Dean were nothing when compared to the tabloid escapades of Crawford and Davis and their on-going, never-ending public and private feud.  Both actresses suffered minor injuries on the set, all of them due to one or the other taking offense to something the other said.  But this back-stage in-fighting was nothing (hospital stays would be necessary in the only other film the two rivals did together) when compared to the publicity blitz each attempted, at the expense of the other.  Both Crawford and Davis took out everything from full-page ads in Variety to building-sized billboards and constant TV ads.  But it wasn't the movie they were promoting, but themselves.  As you can see from one of Crawford's Variety ads (above), these were meant to highlight the actress more than the film.  Both actresses did this thing, and both used ever younger photos of themselves.  Crawford actually used one of her flapper pics to advertise the film at one point.  This bitter and quite self-serving attitude did not put either actress in much favour with the powers-that-be at Fox, nor did it make Lupino a fan of either one, refusing to work with either one ever again.  But despite all this, the film received 12 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Screenplay, Supporting Actress for Dietrich (which she won), and Best Actress for both Davis and Crawford (another barrage of attack ads were mounted in what ended up as a lost cause, as both women lost out to Olivia de Havilland for The Heiress).  The big upset was the lack of a Best Director nod for Lupino.  It would still be another twenty-seven years before a woman would be nominated as director - another sixty until a woman would win the award.

Classic Western:
1951's Pulp Fiction was John Ford's 108th film, and his eighth of an eventual sixteen films with his life-long friend John Wayne.  The Duke played gunslinger Vega opposite gunfighting partner Robert Ryan as Jules.  These two rough-and-tumble men's men worked as enforcer's for land baron Marsellus, played with his usual bravura by the great Walter Huston.  But trouble comes when Wayne's gunman-with-a-heart falls for Marsellus' young buxom wife Mia, played by an often scantily clad Jane Russell.  Vega and Mia are found out and almost killed by hired hitman Lance, played by Lee Von Cleef in his film debut.  Lance is accompanied by a thirteen year old girl with one of the quickest draws in the West.  This Lolita-esque darlin' is played by Claudia Cardinale, who would go on to become a sex symbol in Italian cinema in the 1960's.  Marsellus also goes after turncoat Butch, fastest gun West of the Pecos, played here by Randolph Scott, after he steals the baron's gold and heads for Mexico with his whore-turned-wife Fabienne, played by Lupe Vélez,  Vélez, who was originally cast before her suicide in 1944 (the film was held up for seven years in pre-production purgatory), was injected into the film using the few scenes of footage shot before her death.   We also get to see the ubiquitous Walter Brennan as Jimmie, a cousin of the baron's who is unwittingly hiding out the runaway Vega and Mia, along with Jules, until The Wolf, played by the always dangerous Lee Marvin in his film debut, is called in to put an end to Vega and his friends.  Again on the run, Vega, Mia and Jules end up in a saloon in Dodge City.  Here they have a final shoot out with the young, brash Kid Pumpkin, played my Montgomery Clift, and his gal pal Honey Bunny, played by Jennifer Jones.  With a cameo by Roy Rogers as Calvary Captain Koons, this is a classic indeed.

MGM Musical Extravaganza:
Just two years after they made their masterpiece Singin' in the Rain, Stanley Donan and Gene Kelly collaborated once again on a movie musical classic-to-be.  1954's Pulp Fiction, a musical about twenties gangsters, was an all-out musical extravaganza, featuring many of the stars of MGM ("more stars than there are in heaven").  This smash-hit picture features the song-and-dance stylings of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire (in one of just two movies the dance legends made together) as singing and dancing hoods Vinnie and Jules, the heavenly voice of Judy Garland as gun moll Mia, the chutzpah of Frank Sinatra as crime boss Marsellus Wallace, the fleet-footed moves of Danny Kaye as strawweight boxing champion Butch, the sexy, slinky Cyd Charisse as the exotic Fabienne, and the crooning legend of Bing Crosby as The Wolf.  The film is also highlighted by Jules Munshkin and Vera-Ellen as bootleggers Lance and Jodykins, Donald O'Conner and Leslie Caron as dancing bank robbers Pumpkin and Honey Bunny.  For comic relief we get Oscar Levant as the schmuck Jimmie.  And of course, in the cameo of the year, we find Maurice Chevalier as Police Captain Koons.  This second musical version of Pulp Fiction includes, as did the first, the Cole Porter classic "Jack Rabbit Slim", along with brand new toe-tapping hits like "Foot Massage", "A Glass of Beer in Amsterdam", "Fox Force Five", "Catch-Up/Ketchup", "Adrenaline Rush to My Heart", "The Wolf Will Be Here in Ten", "I Want a Pot Belly", and the now classic "Say What Again!"

+ A Cartoon Short:
In keeping with tradition, there was even an animated short film made of Pulp Fiction.  A veritable who's who of animated stars, this short, which incidentally ran prior to 1949's Pulp Fiction, and won an Oscar for Best Short Film that year, features Mickey Mouse as Vincent Vega, Bugs Bunny as Jules Winnfield, Betty Boop as Mia Wallace, Woody Woodpecker as Butch Coolidge, Red Hot Riding Hood as Fabienne, Koko the Clown as Marsellus Wallace, Droopy Dog as Jimmie, Felix the Cat as The Wolf (I suppose the Big Bad Wolf would have been too obvious a choice), Pepe Le Pew and Penelope Pussycat as Lance and Jody, Roger and Jessica Rabbit as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, and Popeye as Captain Koons.  You can find this film as an extra on most of the Pulp Fiction DVDs and Blurays.

Well that is that.  It was a fun endeavor being part of this very creative blogathon, and again I would like to thank Natalie and Rianna for hosting such an event.  I enjoyed greatly going overboard and recasting Pulp Fiction in ten different genres with ten different casts, but even doing that there were favourites left on the proverbial cutting room floor.  I was saddened by not getting to cast such faves as Marilyn Monroe, Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Mary Pickford, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, Miriam Hopkins, Lillian Gish, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, Kay Francis, Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable, Buster Keaton and Dean Martin, but hey, I had to stop myself somewhere.  But do I really have to stop?  I enjoyed doing this alt-history project so much that I am going to incorporate it into my regular shindigs.  Once a month, or once every other month, I will recast a new modern day film with classic stars and directors, though probably not quite as overboard as this time around (perhaps only two or three different versions in future installments).  But still, a regular feature it will be.  See, you have made a monster out of me. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

My Quest to See the 1000 Greatest Films: #840 Thru #859

Here is a look at the latest ten films in my Quest to See the 1000 Greatest Films.  These twenty films were seen between June 20th and July 6th.  A complete look at my quest can be viewed HERE.

#840 - My Night at Maud's (1969) - (#296 on TSPDT)  Topping both Pauline at the Beach and Claire's Knee, this is now my favourite Eric Rohmer film.  The film, one of the auteur's Six Moral Tales, is very French in its cocksure aesthetic and precise yet meandering cadence (and I mean this in the most complimentary manner) and is filled to the veritable brim with all the pretentious things we look for in a film from the nouveau tradition of the Nouvelle Vague - and I mean that in a complimentary manner as well.

#841 - I Was Born, But... (1932) - (#497 on TSPDT)  This can be construed as Ozu's breakout film, as well as a damn fine example at just how funny the director could be.  Ostensibly remade by Ozu himself twenty-seven years later as Good Morning, this early sound work is a heart-warming tale that shows life through the eyes of children.  Now granted, I am not a huge fan of Ozu's work (though a fan I am, I have never truly disliked any of the man's films, but then again, I have never truly loved any of them either), but I can still see this film as an important piece in not only Ozu's oeuvre, but in Japanese cinema as a whole.

#842 - Husbands (1970) (#498 on TSPDT)  Being a Cassavetes film, there is a hell of a lot of improvising in Husbands.  Between Cassavetes stalwarts Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk, and the director/actor himself, we get long scenes of pure stage improvisations.  Some of these work, others just seem to drag on too long - and in a few cases too incoherently.  For the most part I enjoyed the film - these three do work well together - but I can not claim it as one of my favourite Cassavetes.  I actually watched this back to back with the director's follow-up film, Minnie and Moskowitz (featuring Mrs. Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands), a film that is not on the list.  I suppose if I had my druthers, in spite of the scenes that actually work in Husbands, I would kick it off the list and replace it with the aforementioned follow-up.
#843 - Vengeance is Mine (1979)(#692 on TSPDT)  A post Japanese New Wave film that takes the brooding feel of said new wave, and rips it open with sudden violent explosions that were near impossible to create just fifteen years earlier when the wave was still new.  Not a great work of cinema, but a brave one indeed (think Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers).  I suppose this is a film that deserves to be on the list (it would probably just miss out making my own list) if only for its sheer audacity of filmmaking.
#844 - Variety (1925)(#993 on TSPDT)  One of the lesser known works of the movement known as German Expressionist Cinema.  While Lang and Murnau and Pabst and even Robert Weine, get all the critical credit for the movement, E.A. Dupont's film noirish tale of betrayal, should not be forgotten.  Sure, it may not have the heft of a Murnau or the exuberance of a Lang, but this film, from its stunning cinematography (Karl Freund of course) to the central performance from that bulldog Emil Jannings, is still a rather powerful work of art.  Okay, it would not make my list, but hey.

#845 - An Angel at My Table (1990) - (#580 on TSPDT)  I have always loved the way Jane Campion styles her films.  I know it sounds cliché to say such a thing, but they have an other-world quality to them, almost as if they have come from another reality, and this gives them a strange beauty.  Now that I have finally seen her second film, I believe I can count this as my favourite Campion film yet.   Beautiful to look at and ofttimes heartbreaking to watch, the central performance from Kerry Fox is downright brilliant.  And that gigantic red mop of a hairdo is quite sexy to boot.  This film definitely deserves to be on here, and will probably sneak onto my own 1000 greatest list as well.
#846 - Cutter's Way (1981) - (#986 on TSPDT)  Jeff Bridges is always good, but he has such a natural ability, almost as if he is not acting so much as just being, that he doesn't get noticed as often as he damn well should.  Of course, in Cutter's Way, he is actually outshone.  John Heard's batshitcrazy performance is the highlight of the film.  Well that, and Ivan Passer's moody neo-noir setting and oozy-like camera work.  This probably will not make my own 1000 greatest list, but I have no problem with it being on this one.

#847 - L'Amour Fou (1969) - (#951 on TSPDT)  Sometimes I just don't get what Jacques Rivette is trying to do.  I was enthralled with Celine and Julie, and really liked both Duelle and The Nun, as well as some of his more recent work, and Out 1, though quite bloated, certainly has its moments, but this one I just do not get.  Boring beyond belief and really unnecessary in most of its aspects.  Rivette is a fine filmmaker, but sometimes...

#848 - Kameradschaft (1931) - (#852 on TSPDT) This is definitely not one of the highlights of this quest.  This G.W. Pabst film is rather uninteresting and quite lackluster - and from the man who gave us several intriguing films with Louise Brooks around this same time.  In fact, this film was so incredibly uninteresting to me (and it is not necessarily a poorly made film per se) that I do not even have much of anything to say about, for better or for worse.
#849 - Odd Man Out (1947) - (#512 on TSPDT)  Now this is a film that deserves to be on this list.  A stunning film noir from Carol Reed (my second favourite Reed after The Third Man) with shot after shot after shot of sheer cinematic brilliance.  From the race away from the crime scene to James Mason (who hands in yet another spectacular performance here) hallucinating into his beer (classic scene) to that tragic, near perfect finale, it is pure Brit-noir gold.
#850 - Paris, Texas (1984) - (#303 on TSPDT)  Wim Wenders is another one of those hit-or-miss directors for me, though he does hit more often than miss.  This is definitely a hit.  In fact it is my favourite Wenders of all.  Easily one of the finest films of the 1980's (and just missing out on making my newly minted 100 Favourite Films list), this anything-but-typical US road movie (by a German no less) is the kind of small, unassuming film that sneaks up on you and, in the end, kinda blows you away.  The long and harrowing conversation between Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski is especially mind-blowing.  I suppose I don't even have to add that it deserves inclusion on this list - and in spades even.

#851 - Midnight (1939) - (#824 on TSPDT)  This Mitchell Leisen directed modern day (well modern day 1939) adaptation of Cinderella is a rather fun film.  I actually did not expect as much as I got.  Claudette Colbert is simply adorable.  Don Ameche is brusque and full of beans.  And John Barrymore, as Colbert's fairy godmother, is as brilliant and as acerbic as ever.  Definitely a film that deserves to be where it is.
#852 - Down By Law (1986) - (#515 on TSPDT)  When the scene came up with Roberto Benigni chanting "I scream-a. You scream-a. We all scream-a for ice cream-a" and he along with prison cell mates John Laurie and Tom Waits, dance around their cell screaming this mantra over and over again, riling up all the prisoners around them, until the guards are forced to put a stop to it all, I was more than hooked.  The film, probably Jarmusch's best (I still have not seen Mystery Train though), is a hoot and a holler from beginning to end, but that was the scene that nailed my eternal love for this film.  This is another film that just missed out on making my 100 Favourite Films list, and therefore surely deserves to be listed here.
#853 - The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) - (#278 on TSPDT)  This film is rather high up on the list, and many of my fellow critics and cinephiles claim to love this film, but really, I just don't get it.  Yes, it is visually stunning at times (both in a typically naturalist beauty kinda way and a tragic sort of manner) but overall the film just dragged for me - and this coming from a guy who has loved more than his share of slow-moving motion pictures.  Maybe I just wasn't in the mood that night.  Who knows.
#854 - Not Reconciled (1965) - (#707 on TSPDT)  I have never been all that much of a fan of the more experimental bent of cinema and cinephilia, and that opinion/penchant does not really get turned around with this Jean-Marie Straub/Danièle Huillet almost hour long bon mot.  Sure, it is not nearly as annoying as Stan Brakhage, but it is still not my cup of tea.  I suppose that is the best way to describe my feelings for the film - just not my cup of tea.

#855 - The Magnificent Seven (1960) - (#714 on TSPDT)  As I watched this widescreen western (projected on the big screen of my cinema) I kept thinking how familiar it all seemed.  Not because of it being a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, but because I am pretty sure I saw this years ago and just forgot.   So I suppose technically this should have already been checked off the list, but now I will make it official.  Granted, the film does not even come close to matching the frenetic intensity of the Japanese original (but what film really can), but it is still a fun western romp of a movie.
#856 - Our Hitler: A Film From Germany (1978) - (#614 on TSPDT)  A seven hour film about Adolph Hitler, involving puppets?  How could this not be great!?  Seriously, it is a pretty fun film.  One may expect that the silliness of such an endeavor (did I mention the puppets?) mixed with a seemingly excruciating running time (did I mention puppets?) would make for either a bloated mess or the perfect cure for insomnia.  One would be wrong though.  This is a delightful film, even considering the subject matter, that somehow works as an avant-garde piece of pop cinema-cum-creepy docudrama.  Definitely deserves inclusion here.

#857 - Hallelujah! (1929) - (#621 on TSPDT)  This King Vidor directed work was the very first all black production to come out of a major Hollywood studio - MGM in this case.  Telling the story of the wrongs and rights and wrongs again of a young sharecropper who turns to gambling then religion then the wrong woman, Hallelujah! (and the exclamation point is indeed a necessary part of the title) is a musical hoo-hah of a movie, full of great ups and even greater downs.  I do not think it will make my own 1000 list when I compile it, but I can see why it is here.
#858 - Sugar Cane Alley (1983) - (#835 on TSPDT)  A quite harrowing story of Caribbean sugar cane pickers and the sorrow and death that was their everyday lives.  I wasn't expecting much out of this film save for perhaps some haunting imagery, and was quite surprised at how fascinating this story was.  From both a narrative basis (heartbreaking without the oft-clichéd part of the story) and a cinematic one (the cinematography is much like a modern day Tourneur film) Sugar Cane Alley is indeed what one would call a must see - and even though it will probably miss out on my own top 1000 (but probably not by much, and who knows, it may end up making the final cut) it surely makes sense to be on this list.
#859 - Medium Cool (1969) - (#920 on TSPDT)  Definitely a film of its time, this look at the radical aspects of the late 1960's, is a picture that both plays it cool and heats it up.  For some reason, I have always believed this film to be a documentary (still not sure why I always assumed such a thing), and was a bit shocked when a story began to unfold.  But whatever the case, the film is fun and should be right where it is on the list.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Film Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Let's get this out of the way right up front.  The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan's third and final installment of his Dark Knight Trilogy, is a mostly enjoyable film, but even though it is a better film than the cumbersome Batman Begins, the first installment (origin stories are always so difficult)  it never reaches the heights that 2008's The Dark Knight reached - in veritable spades.  Yes, there are some pretty spectacular set pieces here, and the action, though often a bit too similar to its predecessor, rarely fails to titillate, and the acting (Joseph Gordon-Levitt especially shines) is what one would call top-notch for such an endeavor, but still the film falls short of what this critic has called the greatest comic book movie ever made, the aforementioned The Dark Knight.  But even with this being the (probably inevitable) case, there are enough so-called shining moments in this final chapter, enough to overpower the lackluster and rather repetitive side of the film, to make for, if not a great film, at least an enjoyable last hurrah for our intrepid caped crusader.

The storyline, noticeably inspired by Frank Miller's seminal 1986 limited series, "The Dark Knight Returns" (the comic that gave Batman his balls back), picks up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight.  Batman has not been seen since that fateful night where, in order to put an end to organized crime in Gotham City, he took the blame for the crimes of district attorney-turned-super villain Harvey "Two-Face" Dent.  Bruce Wayne, now limping around as a Howard Hughes-esque recluse, and acting the wounded puppy, pining over his dead love, is forced out of retirement by the appearance of a new deadly force in Gotham, a mystery man named Bane.  Wayne/Batman, played here once again by Oscar winner Christian Bale, his voice as raspy as a scary old blues singer, must face his own inner demons before taking on Bane to save Gotham from certain destruction.  But enough of the storytelling.  We do not want to get too far into any spoiler-like territory.  Suffice it to say, we also get Catwoman, played admirably by Anne Hathaway (but hey, she is no Michelle Pfieffer or Julie Newmar even), Commissioner Gordon, played with the usual aplomb of Gary Oldman, butler extraordinaire Alfred Pennyworth, played with the cockeyed verve of Michael Caine, and an array of generic bad guys and underused good guys (give Marion Cotillard and Morgan Freeman more to do dammit!).

But the question still remains, though none of the critic-bashing fanboys out there would say so, of why this film is not as good as it shoulda woulda coulda been.  Where The Dark Knight (not to keep, and possibly unfairly so, comparing the two films) rose above the genre and into realms of noir and revisionist western, playing out as if the cinematic love child of Sam Fuller and Sam Peckinpah, and therefore creating a space outside the realms of most super hero movies, comparable to the best in classic cinema, this new film only plays at the basest of entertainments.  Sure, with its sometimes awe-inspiring special effects and archetypal characterizations, it does this rather well, but don't we deserve more than just that.  Granted, it would be hard to top the last film.  With Heath Ledger as The Joker, who many claim to be the best damn super villain in comic book history (in my opinion he comes second to Magneto, but that is another argument for another day), and who according to the director is not mentioned here out of respect for the late actor, it would seem nearly impossible to recreate such villainous chemistry a second time - and with Bane, Nolan does not manage to do such a thing.  Sure, Tom Hardy, masked for nearly his entire performance, and speaking through a voice modulator to the effect of Sean Connery doing his best Darth Vader, does a more than admirable job with the character, but let's face facts - Bane is no Joker, and Hardy is no Ledger.  But then, this is not the only reason this film stumbles way more often than it should.

Perhaps it is the dragging that accompanies the big chunk of the movie where Batman is, for all intents and purposes, out of the picture.  Perhaps it is Nolan's over-reliance on action above story.  The two sides of this spectrum seamlessly co-inhabited in The Dark Knight but they are separate yet unequal entities here.  Perhaps it is the achingly cliche'd scenes where Christian Bale's broken and battered Bruce Wayne must find his true soul, and therefore the strength to beat the seemingly unbeatable Bane (but this is not to claim Bane is ever truly beaten).  Perhaps it is Nolan's insistence on over-explaining every little detail of his film, a troublesome habit that wrecked the otherwise intriguing Inception.  Perhaps it is the combination of all these filmic attributes that make this film a lesser creature than this critic was hoping for.  But hey, for all these faults, the film isn't really all that bad.  Sure, it lacks in some important departments, and tends to feel unreasonably bloated in its middle parts, but there is still a lot of fun to be had.  Hardy, though not Ledger, has some pretty fun moments here, and the aforementioned Gordon-Levitt, as headstrong do-gooder rookie cop John Blake, is the veritable highlight of the film in many cases.  Not to mention Hathaway in Catwoman's patented form-fitting patent leather skins.  Though she is sadly not really given enough to do, especially considering what a classic and interesting character she happens to be playing.

Then again, perhaps this is just me poo-pooing it for not being another Dark Knight.  On its own it is no better or worse than most of the super hero movies out there these days.  Landing somewhere between The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man (to use two of the most recent entries in the genre), though with a much darker-honed epic feel to it, a thing the film does remarkably well, The Dark Knight Rises certainly has its moments.  One of these moments, and probably the best for all the comic book nerds (myself included) in the audience, is the final fifteen minutes or so, which efficiently wraps up the final segment of The Dark Knight story by tying up loose ends and giving a reasonable sense of closure to the whole shebang.  It is this finale, not to give any spoilers here, that will make any self-respecting fanboy figuratively (and perhaps literally as well) cream in his jeans.  Yeah, perhaps it is not the great and epic thing many of us were hoping for (though I am sure all those cream-jeaned fanboys out there would beg to differ), and maybe we should not have even been expecting such a thing, and yes, perhaps it has its upsetting flaws, but it is still a hell of a fun ride for it's nearly three hour run time - and what more can one ask for.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

My 100 Favourite Films by the Numbers

Well, after many months of promising such a thing to my readers, it is finally here.  My 100 favourite films list is finally complete.  After lengthy self-deliberation and months of listing and relisting and editing and reediting and classifying and reclassifying and procrastinating and reprocrastinating, the list is finally at an even one hundred films.  I am sure I will feel the need to change it at some point (already I am feeling sad for those films that just missed the cut-off point) but alas, the list is up and running, and there it should stay - well at least until I begin to scramble it up a bit in a few months (just can't stay away).  But here and now, today at this moment, the list is what it is.  And speaking of said list, I will not reproduce it in this post (too lengthy and cumbersome), so please go over to My Favourite Films page and peruse these hundred favourites of mine, and then come back here so we can break down the list and have a little deconstruction discussion about the whole shebang.

So let us start with the obvious.  No Citizen Kane is not at the top of the list.  Many claim it to be the greatest film ever made, but I do not make that claim.  Of course, being that I rank it at number five, I suppose I am not that far off the canonical curve.  Then again, though many of my choices are of a more cinephiliac respectability (2001, Seven Samurai, City Lights, The Rules of the Game, Vertigo, The Gold Rush, Breathless, Singin' in the Rain, The Bicycle Thieves, The Seventh Seal, 8½, Casablanca), many of my choices (Assault on Precinct 13, The White Hell of Pitz Palu, Dazed and Confused, Blow Out, Leave Her to Heaven, House, Black Orpheus, I Walked With a Zombie, Cairo Station, A Canterbury Tale, Boogie Nights, Duel in the Sun, Night of the Living Dead, Samson and Delilah, Fritz Lang's Indian Epic) may lean quite a bit away from this so-called canonical curve. 

Then there are the films I have left off the list.  You will not find such usual list fodder as Gone With the Wind, Modern Times, Birth of a Nation, Stagecoach, La Strada, Wild Strawberries, Lawrence of Arabia, An American in Paris or The Godfather (neither 1 nor 2, though 3 would never be expected).  These omissions are not due to my disliking these films (several of them came close to the final cut actually) but just because I had to stop at some point.  And speaking of not stopping, this November will bring a much bigger list.  A Top 1000 List will be compiled in the Fall (after I finish My Quest) and posted right here.  This list, unlike this one, will not be ranked.  Instead it will be a chronological listing of my thousand favourite films.  But not to worry, for this list is not going anywhere, and the two will be companions to one another.  But enough of this incessant babbling.  I am a statistics nerd, so let us look at the stats of the list, shall we.

Before we break down the numbers, please allow me to clarify a few things.  Since one of these break downs will involve the nationality of the films, we should try to make clear just where some films come from.  The most blatant one is the number two film on my list, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The film was financed by MGM but was filmed almost entirely in England.  Some proclaim the film to be a US/UK co-production, which I suppose it is as both the AFI and the BFI claim it as their own, but for all intents and purposes, it is an American film.  Just the opposite can be said of the second highest Kubrick on the list, A Clockwork Orange, for this is most assuredly a British film.  The other film that is questionable is Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus.  Made in Brazil and spoken in Portuguese, with a French director and both French and Italian money, as well as Brazilian, this is quite a mutt of a movie.  It was awarded the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language film, under the auspices of being a French production, so for our purposes here, the film is French.  So, with the sundries out of the way, let us go to the numbers.

Though I have seen and loved many a foreign film in my forty-five years, this list ended up being quite American-heavy.  64 of the 100 films are from the US, including six of the top ten (2001: A Space Odyssey, Psycho, Citizen Kane, Singin' in the Rain, Sunrise and Night of the Hunter).  Of course two of these films were directed by a British born director and a third by a German, so it still has a somewhat international flair.  As for the rest of the world, France came in second with ten films (The Rules of the Game, Breathless, M. Hulot's Holiday, Rififi, The 400 Blows, The Wages of Fear, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Céline and Julie Go Boating, Au hasard Balthazar and the aforementioned Black Orpheus); Britannia came next with eight (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, A Canterbury Tale, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Clockwork Orange, The Third Man, The Thief of Bagdad and Brazil); followed by Italia at six (The Bicycle Thieves, Death in Venice, Viaggio in Italia, Fellini's 8½, L'Avventura and the Spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly); then comes Germany with five (The Blue Angel, The White Hell of Pitz Palu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Last Laugh and Fritz Lang's Indian Epic); we then have Japan with three (Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and the cult film House); Sweden with two (The Seventh Seal and Smiles of a Summer Night); and Hong Kong (In the Mood For Love) and Egypt...yes, Egypt (Cairo Station) with one apiece.

With nary a film from Russia or India (several just missed the final cut), let us move on to each individual decade.  My long-time favourite decade in cinema has been put to the test and has come out a runaway victor.  The 1950's give the list a total of 29 films, the highest one being Singin' in the Rain at number six.  This is followed by the 1940's, with 17 films, the highest is the number one ranked The Red Shoes; then the 1970's, with 14, the highest being Taxi Driver at number 16; and then the 1960's, with 12, with the number two ranked 2001 as its highest representative.  The other decades are in the single digits.  They are, in order, and with their highest member in parentheses, the 1930's with nine (#8. The Rules of the Game); the 1920's (#7. Sunrise) and the 1980's (#33. Brazil) with six each; the 1990's with four (#24. Pulp Fiction); and finally this past decade with three films, Mulholland Dr. its highest at no. 52.  Nothing from our current decade as of yet (The Tree of Life being the closest) and nothing prior to 1920's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.   Yes, that means no Birth of a Nation and no Intolerance.  And for that matter, there is no D.W. Griffith at all.  But that is another story for another paragraph.

Welcome to that paragraph.  Many of the great directors are on the list.  Welles, Hitchcock, Ford, Bergman, Kurosawa, Scorsese, Coppola, Renoir, Lubitsch, Lang, Murnau, Powell and Pressburger.  But there are several somewhat surprising omissions.  As we found out last paragraph, there is no Griffith.  Joining him in absentia are such big names as Tarkovsky, Eisenstein, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Sturges, Capra, Satyajit Ray, Dreyer and Kazan.  Now the latter director did just miss out with his On the Waterfront.  But what of the directors who did make the list?  Well, the big winner ended up being Stanley Kubrick, with a total of five films (2001, A Clockwork Orange, Paths of Glory, The Killing, Lolita) on the list.  Next up is the filmmaking duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger.  They have four films (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, A Canterbury Tale, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) on the list.  And Powell can actually take credit for a fifth film, as he was one of three co-directors (and the most likely guiding voice) on The Thief of Bagdad.  Also with four films (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Raging Bull) is Martin Scorsese.   Several directors have three films on the list.  They are: Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Lady From Shanghai); Billy Wilder (Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot); Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, Rio Bravo, The Big Sleep); and of course Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window).  There are several more with two apiece (Murnau, Tarantino, De Palma, Spielberg, Chaplin, Kurosawa, Bergman, Nick Ray and Woody Allen).  Oddly enough, three of my favourite directors, Renoir, Godard and John Ford only make the list once each.

Anyway, that is the breakdown of my favourite films list.  To toss one final stat in, black and white wins over colour by a score of 52 to 48 (and I have counted The Wizard of Oz as a colour picture).  And (one final final thing) I should probably list those films that just missed making the list, and would therefore be numbers 101 through 113.  This baker's dozen are, in no particular order, Duel in the Sun, On the Waterfront, The River Fuefuki, The Sweet Smell of Success, Electra Glide in Blue, M, In a Lonely Place, Kill Bill (1 and 2), Alphaville, Sawdust and Tinsel, Pick-Up on South Street, Halloween (the original) and Grand Illusion.  As I said earlier, there will be a 1000 films list coming by year's end, so keep an eye out for that.  And if anyone wants to send their own lists along, be it top 10 or 20 or 50 or 100 or whatever, please feel free to put those in the comments section of the actual list page.  That way they can all be in one place for everyone to peruse.  So to quote a certain character from a certain film on the list, "Check ya later."

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Film Review: Savages

If there is one director working in Hollywood today who knows how to turn a good idea into a mess of a movie, it is Oliver Stone.  Yet, if there is one director working in Hollywood today who knows how to take a mess of a movie and turn it into something highly entertaining, it too is Oliver Stone.  And this is just what Savages, Stone's nineteenth directorial feature, is - one highly entertaining mess of a movie.  But what else would one expect from the man who gave us the unduly maligned creamy nastiness of both Natural Born Killers and Alexander?

Ostensibly, Stone's film is about a pair of California beach dudes - the opposites attract archetypes of hard-nosed war vet (Taylor Kitsch, last seen in the highly underrated camp sci-fi creature John Carter) and Buddhist love child (Aaron Johnson, who has played both John Lennon and Kick-Ass, as well as Vronsky in the upcoming Anna Karenina) - who just so happen to grow the best damn weed on the planet, and the Mexican drug cartel that wants to pull a hostile takeover (think the Wal-Mart of drug trafficking).  The film is full of colourful characters and we see a rapid-fire, whirling dervish of a drug war go down between low-lifes and dirt bags and crooked DEA agents, in that always incoherently haphazard Oliver Stone way, with quick cuts and tempo changes and spots of grainy black and white splish-sploshed throughout as if the director were high as a kite and dropped this and that here and there as if he were creating some sort of Jackson Pollack-esque drug doodle of a motion picture.  But then again, what else would one expect from good ole Ollie Stone?

But still, despite the film's glaring gaps of logic and overall sense of not really knowing where the next step will be taken, the film is quite entertaining.  Perhaps a film doesn't necessarily have to make sense (how naive does one need to be to think that saying fuck you to a drug cartel is not going to come back to bitchslap you in the face big time?), nor does it necessarily need to adhere to any sort of logical sensibility (even a suspension of disbelief cannot help to fathom some of the choices and outcomes sprinkled throughout here).  Perhaps a film can just be fun for fun's sake - even when that fun is the typically ultra-violent fun that comes with the best of the director's work (ie, the offensively-battered gratification that comes from the admittedly sick and twisted nuances of  Natural Born Killers).  Perhaps a film can leap around like a meth-addled howler monkey for over two hours, never making any more sense than  only to end on possibly one of the silliest endings this critic has seen in quite a long time (and a Scooby-Doo ending at that!) and still come off as pretty damn fun.

Then again, what a film like this needs is a few likable characters to root root root for, and Savages really has no one like that.  I suppose the closest the film comes to a likable character is Blake Lively's Ophelia (call me O, as I don't like being named after a suicidal Shakespearean character) who claims both our beach-loving pot dealers as the loves of her life.  But then Lively's ability as an actor - and Gossip Girl fluff aside, the actress has an ability that is as mesmerizing as it is surprising - surely helps this one-note character along.  Sure, her character, who happens to have some of the best lines of the film (when explaining the sex between her and Kitsch's Chon character, "I have orgasms.  He has wargasms."  - seriously, I did not make that up), may look to be nothing more than a spoiled slut of a girl - and by her own admission she pretty much says just that - but when compared to her beach blanket boy toys and the varied Mexican stereotypes of the cartel, she is the only character who has any real growth in the film.  Of course one can always get a good time out of Benicio del Toro's psychotic cartel killer and John Travolta's (being soooo John Travolta!) sleazy DEA agent, even if they are playing highly unlikable types. 

I suppose what I am trying to say here is that even though Savages is a mess of a movie (and even by Oliver Stone standards at that) and is certainly not going to be winning any awards for depth or development of story and/or character, not to mention sense of narrative logic (or perhaps even comprehension), it is still a highly entertaining, albeit gruesomely so at times (the film has more than its share of decapitations and torture-induced immolation, though it never even comes close to the cinematically charged giddy violations of NBK), work of Oliver Stone doing just what Oliver Stone does best - pissing off 99% of the movie-going public and shamefully titillating we other 1%.   See, I knew I was part of that 1% after all.

Film Review: Magic Mike

Steven Soderbergh is one of those directors, much like contemporary Richard Linklater or their historical precursor Howard Hawks, that you never know what is coming next.  Jumping all of the cinematic board, from political thriller to revisionist western to literary doo-dad to mainstream pop, Soderbergh has seemingly titillated just about every genre fan out there, from the casual multiplexer to the hardcore cinephile, and everyone in between.  With Magic Mike, the prolific director's twenty-fifth film in just twenty-four years, Soderbergh has created a film that may just titillate both ends of this aforementioned moviegoing spectrum.

Much like the director's other film out this year, Haywire, where the action genre was deconstructed to show its smooth inner workings, Magic Mike, with its male strip club storyline, tears apart the idea of sexuality and masculinity and shows its own bare boned inside stuff.  The film stars Channing Tatum (with roles in both Haywire and the director's upcoming The Bitter Pill, he plays at being Soderbergh's new it boy) as the titular exotic dancer who plays mentor to Alex Pettyfer's young up-and-comer in the Tampa's glitzy, seedy strip club world.  Based in part on Tatum's own early life as a male stripper in the Florida city (with Pettyfer ostensibly playing the real-life Tatum role), we are given a quick glimpse into a world most of us know nothing about, and much like Soderbergh's controversial 2009 film, The Girlfriend Experience, this world of sex is shown in a cool and calculating manner that gives the film an almost analytical style.  Oh yes, there is quite a lot of prerequisite grinding (though no full frontals ladies) but the film is not about stripping so much as it is about coming to terms with your own life and your own limitations and gaining the knowledge and courage to change one's life. 

But as analytical as the film gets - and it never gets to the point of dry dissertation that GFE did (a film about a high end prostitute, in turn played by an actual porn star, that never shows the act of sex?  WTF!?) - there is great fun indeed.  With allusions to Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and in turn Ferarra's Go Go Tales, the stage productions are both elaborate and quite hilarious, and with Soderbergh's beloved red camera weaving its way through the strobed and glittering nightlife, as well as garish and harsh daylights of the Florida town, Magic Mike ends up being a film that will please both that so-called multiplex crowd that would flock to an (inevitable?) Ocean's Fourteen (not to mention the middle age ladies crowd), and all those cinema geeks that are always on the lookout for another Sex, Lies & Videotape.  Of course the highlight of the film comes from Matthew McConaughey, an actor who after years of rom-com purgatory, has suddenly decided he wants to do good movies again (just take a look at the recently released Bernie and the upcoming Killer Joe) and here plays the club's head honcho, almost as if he were a natural extension of David Wooderson from Dazed and Confused.  Alright alright.   In the end, Magic Mike, much like Haywire, is not only one of the most esoteric films of the year, but also one of the best.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Battle Royale #3: Battle of the Tinsel Town Bitches

Welcome to the third Battle Royale here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World.   It is an ongoing series that will pit two cinematic greats against each other - and you can vote for who is the greater by clicking your choice over in the poll at the top of the sidebar.

For our third edition, we are going the bitchy route.  Pitting perennial arch-rivals against each other in what is sure to be the doggiest of dogfights - and these ladies are pit bulls indeed.  In the first corner is Ruth Elizabeth Davis, better known as Bette.  Hailing from Lowell Mass., Bette was a headstrong woman in a male dominated world.  A tireless campaigner of equality for women in Hollywood, co-founder of the Hollywood Canteen and a crusader for the war effort - not to mention, one hell of an actor - Bette was the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  She was winner of two Academy Awards and the first person to receive double digits in nominations.  Of course she was also what one might call a thorn in the proverbial sides of the old studio system, but the thing she hated more than anything else (one presumes here) was the lady standing on the opposite side of our Battle Royale ring.

Born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, the woman better known by her stage name of Joan Crawford, was one of the few women in Hollywood that could match Davis blow for blow in demanding equality for women in the business.  Starting out in flapper roles in the precode days before "graduating" to more prestigious roles - one of which, Mildred Pierce, would win her an Oscar - Joan, like Bette, was also a crusader for the war effort, and she too was a thorn in the sides of the studios.  She was so much a thorn that it pretty much destroyed her career before she pulled herself back up to the top, only to see it collapse once again.  Joan, it would come out much later, was also a thorn in private life.  Not one to win any mother of the year awards (though the stories may be exaggerated for dramatic flair) Joan is now looked upon just as much for her homelife antics (watch out for those wire hangers) as she was for her stellar acting - perhaps, sadly enough, even more so.

Now while Davis' career would slow down in her old age, Crawford's would train wreck by the sad end.  Her final film was the b-horror thing known as Trog.  But it is not necessarily the careers of these two powerful actresses that we are here to discuss today.  It is the tabloid-esque duel in the sun that these two powerful women had going for years.  This historic rivalry would come to a head in the one and only film these two women did together - Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.   The in-fighting on this production was quite legendary.  From Davis kicking Crawford so hard she needed stitches to Crawford putting weights in her clothes for a scene where Davis had to drag her body around, resulting in Davis having back spasms, these two simply hated each other.   Davis even said of her costar, "The best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"  Davis also said of Crawford "I wouldn’t piss on her if she was on fire." Obviously theirs was not a friendly relationship.  Rivals from early on, these actresses competed for many of the same roles, though Davis always considered herself above Joan, calling Crawford a movie star while she herself was the true actor.  Crawford went so far as to attempt a sabotage of the Academy Awards.  When Davis was nominated for Baby Jane and Crawford was not, Joan was furious.  She actually persuaded the other nominated actresses to allow her to accept their Oscar if they could not be there.  When Anne Bancroft was declared the winner for her work in The Miracle Worker, Joan triumphantly pushed her way past Davis saying "Step aside!", and swept onstage to pick up the trophy.  The two rivals were meant to do a follow-up to Baby Jane, called Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, but after a few days, Crawford backed out due to illness.  It is probably a good thing though because one of them may have ended up dead by the end of production.

So whether your choice is Bette Davis, of whom Crawford said, "Bette and I work differently. Bette screams and I knit. While she screamed, I knitted a scarf that stretched clear to Malibu.", or Joan Crawford, of whom Bette quipped, "She has slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie." - it is time to vote for your favourite Tinsel Town Bitch.  You can vote for whom you believe to be the better actor or you can vote for the one you think would win in a fight.  The point is to vote vote vote.  You will have three weeks to get your vote in before we announce the bruised and bloody victor.  And please remember that you can make as many comments below as you wish (and please feel free to do so) but in order for your vote to be counted, you must go and click on your choice in the poll at the top of the sidebar. Allow me to close with yet another Davis quip about Crawford.  This one came shorty after Crawford's death.  "You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good . . . Joan Crawford is dead. Good."  Now get over there and vote.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Retro Review: Alexander (Oliver Stone, 2004)

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.  This particular Retro Review is being released to coincide with the recently released Savages, the latest film from Oliver Stone.

Oliver Stone has always been a director just on the verge of camp.  Not camp in the way that Warhol or John Waters are camp, but in a more pretentious manner - like his films are so visually and technically perfect, it doesn't really matter about integrity or truth or a sense of kinship with his audience.   Stone is an especially audacious über-director full of grandiose ideas and a hyper-sensitive intellectuality, as well as an ability to create moments in cinema that seem simultaneously off-putting and deceptively genius, yet Stone is also a director who has yet to create a truly great film.   A director, like De Palma and Schrader, and Michael Moore to a less dignified manner, who certainly knows how to push his viewer's buttons, but also a director who is gestured away with nary a second thought - even with three Oscars to his credit.

Stone's earlier films (Platoon, Salvador, Wall Street, Talk Radio) were showy promises of an as-yet-unseen greatness - a greatness that he has come close to in his best - but also most pretentious, and most controversial, to date - work, JFK.  And even though his more recent work continues his penchant for serious subject matter, films such as Natural Born Killers and Any Given Sunday, though both extremely entertaining in their own individual ways, dangle precariously close to that proverbial edge of reason and/or taste. Not that any of this is a bad thing of course.  As I stated earlier, Stone has yet to create a truly great film, but to clarify said statement, Stone has also yet to create a bad film either - and his latest epic years-in-the-making death-defying opus, Alexander does not change that status quo one tiny bit.   Or at least I do not think it does.  Let us wait until the end of the review to make that judgment.  But it does  certainly edge him all that much closer to the greatly absurd - and I mean that in the most complimentary way one can mean such a thing.

Visually stunning, yet systematically unengaging enough to not be considered the great feat that it may just be.  Many claim it to be not even a good feat, at least not without some firmly held reservations. Most critics have panned Alexander for not being the grand epic that Stone promised to everyone - an early Christmas present that is non-returnable. What most critics have missed though, is the pure unadulterated guilty-pleasured enjoyment in watching this camp-filled homo-erotic pageant of frilled warriors prancing about like the fourth century bc drama queens they are. If you don't attempt to take this film seriously at all, there is some great joy to be found in its three hour long queerness. Playing like an unedited episode of Queer Eye for the Greek Guy, something that Stone has taken much undeserved harassment for, Alexander rides along with the breakneck speed of an antelope - albeit a rather frantic, possibly meth-addled antelope being chased by predators. Alexander's meandering breakneck pace (not many directors can accomplish that duel feat!) does not do much for the average movie-goer, but watching these warriors elite metomorphosize into some sort of Ancient Greek version of a Bon Jovi cover band - complete with garishly blonde wigs - is still a treat dammit!!

Not much in the way of proper story (not necessarily a bad thing by the way), most of the young King's triumphs are only spoken of after the so-called fact by a bewildered looking Ptolemy, played with equal bewilderment by Sir Anthony Hopkins, and we are left with mostly back-court bickering and longing glances from boy toy Jared Leto, looking less like a warrior and more like an androgynous Persian prostitute, lounging about beneath the long lost Hanging Gardens of Babylon - garbed in silk robes and more eyeliner than Alice Cooper wears.   Alexander like most of Stone's films, is a visual masterpiece that more resembles a great film than actually is a great film.  Only one scene actually - the ten minute red-hazed elephant battle sequence - is worth noting as genuinely great and/or mighty.  But the film, though not great, has much in common with those grandiose Biblical epics of the 1950's (the giddy, campy joys of DeMille's Samson and Delilah or Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharaohs) and is, like those aforementioned epics, still a great experience to behold.

As for the acting (truly an incidental creature in a motion picture such as this) is to be commended.  Colin Farrell, a much more talented actor than usually given credit for being, is a kick and a half as Alexander the Great, even though his Irish brogue falling in and out of time during the movie does distract at times, and Val Kilmer, as Alexander's brutish father, Philip of Macedon, is a one-note one-eyed drunken scream - but whole-heartedly so.  But then it is Angelina Jolie as Alexander's Mother who steals the show from everyone else on screen.  Part gypsy queen, part snake-charmer, part erotically charged vixen, full of wild energy and the mysterious motherly pangs of Jocosta, Jolie goes so far over the top that she may no longer exist, but it is such a delicious over-the-topness, you can't help but love it - if you are willing to let yourself go and remember that Oliver Stone should be seen as a great painter, with great artistic flair and a great eye toward colour and stroke, but who just happens to have no sense of great depth to his works of art.   Then again, who needs great depth when working in such a genre as this?

Granted, Stone's film may be far from great, though never going near far enough in its rendition of an openly bisexual society (even if those damned red-staters say otherwise in the crinkly criticisms), and is probably on its way to a critical Elysian Fields of sorts, but even so, Alexander, the not-so great, but the greatly enjoyable, is still pure camp joy for all, as well as an embarrassingly fun ride to take.   I suppose when all is said and done, flaws and all, Alexander ain't half bad.  In fact, once the smoke and mirrors clear themselves from all the pomp(ous) and circumstance of Stone's moviemaking audacity, his bongo-beating bravura if you will, it may end up being the downright great film we all hoped it would be and were afraid it was not.   Imagine that. 

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 07/25/04]