Thursday, February 28, 2013

Forces of Geek "A History of Sci-Fi Cinema" Column - Part II

The fine folks over at Forces of Geek have allowed me the space and time to ramble on about the history of science fiction cinema.  These bi-weekly columns, will make an attempt, however feeble, at discussing the history of this often chided cinematic genre.  From its birth to the latest CGI box office hits, I will take a look at the films that have filled the genre, as well as their literary influences and TV offshoots.  In this episode, the second in the series, I take a look at some of the very first feature length sci-fi- films from around the globe, as well as the stop-motion dinosaur classic The Lost World.

Read my column, "From Mad Scientists to Modern Day Dinosaurs," at Forces of Geek.

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

Film Review: Cate Shortland's Lore

Perhaps there is something about the nation's semi-isolation from the rest of the world.  Maybe it is the stigma of once being a penal colony, and thus outside of the mainstream world.  Maybe it has something to do with an upside down hemisphere, where Winter is Summer, and Summer, Winter, and the toilets flush counter-clockwise.  Okay, maybe not, but there is no doubt that the cinema of Australia has an, for lack of a better term, otherworldliness to it.  Sure, you have your occasional Crocodile Dundees and Yahoo Seriouses, but when one takes a look at the more artistic side of the cinema of Oz, films such as Peter Weir's classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout (yeah, I know, an English filmmaker, but filmed in, and about Australia), or more modern filmmakers like Ray Lawrence and New Zealander ex-pat Jane Campion, one sees a cinema that is seemingly not of this world.  One also sees this in Cate Shortland's 2004 directorial debut, Somersault, and one surely sees it again, in her long-awaited follow-up, Lore.

Then again, Lore is of a different world.  Moving from the often sad, but ultimately hopeful contemporary New South Wales of Somersault to the harrowing devastation that was the German countryside during the days following the death of Adolph Hitler, Lore tells the story of a young girl and her four siblings, making their way to their grandmother's house, after their parents are arrested for being proud members of the Nazi party.  Though taking place in the Germany of May 1945, Lore is still very much an Australian film by its otherworldly nature, but then this nature fits perfectly with the lost, unraveling world that is said Germany of May 1945.  We watch as the blonde and blue-eyed Lore, and her equally Arian siblings, sister Liesel, twin brothers, and baby brother in tow, team up with a Jewish teen named Thomas, and trek some 500+ miles, to escape the allied forces that have taken over their country at the end of the war, and we watch as their world - the only world they know - collapses around them, thus becoming the aforementioned feeling of being in or on a whole other world, an alien world.

And it also acts as another world for this critic as well.  Where most movies based on or around a subject such as this, act as either condemnations of the Holocaust or all-out war films. full of death, destruction and the harrowing sights and sounds of the time, Lore plays at a quiet, almost beautiful in its style, sullen look at five children, who through no fault of their own, are suddenly enemies - prisoners even - in their own country.  This is not the story of cold-blooded Nazi's or heroic American or Russian soldiers.  It is not a film of espionage or intrigue - no action-filled scenes of war.  No, this is the story of children lost in a world they no longer know or understand, and the way Shortland portrays that - with the help of star Saskia Rosendahl, who will annihilate you with her tragic portrayal - creates a whole other world.  A world where suddenly, Lore and her siblings are completely lost.  Their Fuhrer is dead and gone, the so-called enemy - and by her viewpoint, the Americans, Russians and British are invaders - are all over.  Shortland's fractured narrative, and visual wariness, bring this strange tale to an almost emotionally and spiritually claustrophobic level.  Another world indeed.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Oh Yeah, The Oscars...

So, the Oscars are over for another year.  Affleck won, so did DDL, J-Law, Hathaway and Waltz.  Oh yeah, and Ang Lee too.  His record now is two Best Director Oscars and zero Best Picture wins.  Tarantino won his second Oscar as well, and that's just alright with me.  J-Law fell, and Wolverine (and Brad Cooper) came to her rescue.  Seth MacFarlane apparently (just judging from Facebook and Twitter) pissed some people off.  Sang a song about boobs, mocked women for never letting anything go, and told an off-colour joke about George Clooney and a nine year old - sorta.  People really need to get over themselves.  Pull that enormous stick out of their collective asses and realize these are just jokes.  Oh yeah, and there was the Onion tweet.  Okay, perhaps not the smartest move, considering how overly sensitive people are these days, but again, just a fucking joke people.  And then you have those offended that our First Lady was involved in the proceedings, but those are just the crazy right-wingers, and they're mostly a bunch of cunts anyway.  See what I did there?  Anyway, I digress. Ya know, my one friend says I do nothing but digress in my writing, but what the hell does he know!?  But anyway, I digress.  Again, see what I did there.  As I was getting to earlier, I enjoyed MacFarlane as host, but what do I know, I still think that Oprah, Uma bit that Letterman did was heeelarious.  Anyway, digressing once again, I got 18 right in my predictions.  If I listened to my heart and picked Christoph Waltz to win, I would have tied my record of 19, but alas, I did not.  Well that's it for the Oscars - and for 2012 - let us move on to bigger and better things, ya bunch of dirty cunts.  Ha, I kid.  Love ya all.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

My Final Oscar Predictions!!

Just a day to go until we find out just how many of the below twenty-four predictions I will get right.  My record is nineteen (accomplished in '08, '09 and just last year).  I am reaching for twenty this year, but considering how things have gone (who did not think Affleck was a lock for a Director nomination?), this may not be that year.  Then again, stay positive and all that, so on with the show.  Here are my predictions for the Academy Awards.

Best Picture - Argo

Thanks to Ben Affleck's notorious snub in the Director category, Argo has become the far and away frontrunner - sapping the momentum away from former frontrunner, Lincoln.  I mean, it isn't necessarily a lock - Lincoln could still win, and even Silver Linings could sneak in (not really) - but it is a pretty safe bet, so I am going with it.  Still would love to see Django be the shock of the evening though.  Maybe Zero Dark Thirty even.  Yeah, right.

Best Director - Steven Spielberg for Lincoln

Yeah, yeah, Ben Affleck was snubbed.  I think we all know that by now.  I have even mentioned it three times already.  Does he deserve the Oscar?  No, he does not.  Personally I am not a big fan of Argo (my least favourite Affleck-directed film), but I do see why everyone is up in arms and all that, since the film is up (and winning) for Best pic.  But, since write-in votes will not be counted (according to Academy rules), this award is going to Mr. Spielberg - for the third fucking time.  I really don't think he deserves it either, but that doesn't change my opinion on him winning.  Sure, Lee, or even Russell could sneak in, or Haneke could surprise (if there is going to be a big upset, it is going to be here), but the safe money is on Spielberg.  My personal nominees would have been Tarantino, Bigelow, PT Anderson, Bela Tarr and Cronenberg - but that's just me.

Best Actor - Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

Personally my vote would go to the unwinnable Joaquin Phoenix, but there is no way in hell DDL is not winning his unprecedented third Best Actor Oscar.  The actor, one of my faves, has been in better films than the achingly over-praised Lincoln, but still...yeah, he's winning.

Best Actress - Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

Basically a two-way race between Lawrence and Chastain (my vote going to the latter), it could sensibly go either way, but in the end, I think the controversy over 0D30 will be too much, and J-Law will win.  Then again, Emmanuelle Riva's name could be called out.  No really, it could.

Best Supporting Actor - Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook

This category, along with Adapted Screenplay, was the toughest for me to narrow down.  Basically a three-way race between De Niro, Tommy-Lee Jones and Christoph Waltz.  Most precognitors are going with Tommy-Lee, and up until last week, I had been as well.  In the end though, I think the twenty-one year gap between nominations, and thirty-two since he last won, will give it to Bobby D - even if the role is less than Oscar worthy.

Best Supporting Actress - Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables

I know, if I applied the same logic as I did just above, then Sally Field, who was last nominated (and won) twenty-eight years ago, should be my pick, but this is one of those so-called sure bets.  You know, like the sure bet of Ben Affleck's Oscar nomination for Best Direc...oh,  But yeah, Annie is winning this one.

Best Original Screenplay - Tarantino for Django Unchained
Best Adapted Screenplay - Chris Terrio for Argo

Damn, these are really tough this year.  Both of these are legitimate three-way races.  The WGA's went to Terrio for Adapted and Zero Dark Thirty's Mark Boal for Original, and those are probably the safe bets, but as you see, I only went with one of these.  My heart still can not, not vote for QT.  We'll see.

Best Animated Feature - Wreck-It Ralph
Best Documentary Feature - Searching for Sugar Man
Best Foreign-Language Film - Amour

More often than not, Animated Feature is a foregone conclusion.  This year, not so much.  Even with a Pixar nominee in the bunch.  With that said, I am going with my personal favourite.  Doc Feature is a bit of a foregone conclusion (everyone loves Sugar Man), but How To Survive a Plague, could sneak in.  As far as those foregone conclusions go, Foreign-Language Film is the one to go with - and so is Amour.

As for the rest:
Best Cinematography - Life of Pi
Best Film Editing - Argo
Best Production Design - Anna Karenina
Best Costume Design - Anna Karenina 
Best Hair and Make-Up - The Hobbit
Best Original Score - Life of Pi
Best Original Song - Skyfall
Best Sound Mixing - Les Misérables
Best Sound Editing - Zero Dark Thirty
Best Visual Effects - Life of Pi
Best Documentary Short - Open Heart
Best Short Film (Animation) - Paperman
Best Short Film (Live Action) - Curfew

So there ya go kiddies.  Be back Monday with a round-up and letchya know if I reached my goal of twenty or not.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Who You Think SHOULD Win The Oscar!!

Well, well, well.  Lookie here.  It appears to be time to announce the final results in this year's Oscar Poll.  You were asked to decide which of the nine nominated films most deserves to win the Oscar for Best Picture - and answer it you most certainly did.  In fact, you did it with a quite incredible 195 votes cast - 123 more than last year.  Yeah, that's right!

Last year, The Tree of Life ran away with the whole shebang, garnering a whopping 43%.  This year, things were a bit more spread out, but we still had a rather decisive victory in the end.  Django Unchained, the latest film from Quentin Tarantino (and my favourite film of the year, nominated or not), led from day one, never relinquishing its lead, and actually sported a nine vote lead at one point. In the end, with a grand total of 42 votes, or 22% for the statistically-inclined, it beat out its nearest competitor by seven votes.  And speaking of that nearest competitor, it was Michael Haneke's Amour that finished second, with 35 votes, or 18%.  And that was pretty much the whole race, as third place was another ten votes from Amour, and never really challenged the second place film at all.

But, to get through the other seven films in the race, here we go.  Third place went to Zero Dark Thirty (my second favourite of the pack), grabbing 25 votes, or 13%.  Fourth place ended up as a tie between the two films that have battled for frontrunner status in the actual Oscar race.  Argo and Lincoln each received 20 votes, or 10%.  Meanwhile, there was another tie for sixth place.  Les Misérables and Beasts of the Southern Wild both nabbed 16 votes, or 8%.   Then we have Silver Linings Playbook (my least favourite of the bunch), coming in at eighth place, with 12 votes, or 6%, and bringing up the rear ('cause someone has to) is poor ole Life of Pi, with just 9 votes, or a mere 5%.  Poor little Pi.

Well, there ya go.  Now all that's left is to actually hand out the Oscars.  I will be back tomorrow with my predictions for Oscar night.  After that, I will be busily preparing for our 4th Annual Midtown Cinema Red Carpet Oscar Party - where there may or may not be some tweeting about said show.  And then, we'll see you back here on Monday with a whole big freakin' round-up.  Until then, see ya in the funny papers.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Film Review: John Moore's A Good Day to Die Hard

Perhaps director John Moore and screenwriter Skip Woods should have been made to sit down and watch the original Die Hard before making this, the fifth installment in the franchise.   One would assume that if they did not already make such a decision on their own, they would have invariably been told to do such a thing, but judging from the outcome of A Good Day to Die Hard, this must not have been the case.  Surely, if they had done this, they would have seen how to write and direct a damn good action flick, and would have come up with something a whole hell of a lot better than what I unfortunately had to be witness to up on that big screen the other day.  And, while we are at it, perhaps we should also sit Bruce Willis down and remind him of the inherent fun that is Die Hard - because I think he may have forgotten lo these past two decades plus.

Sure, A Good Day to Die Hard (great title though) isn't Steven Seagal bad.  It isn't Van Damme bad.  It certainly isn't Sylvester Stallone in Cobra bad.  This movie isn't exactly bad per se, just godawfully mediocre - which may be an even worse crime.  The first Die Hard, made back in 1988, and starring a wisecracking TV star with a receding hairline and really no movie experience under his belt, was a surprise hit - and one of my all-time favourite action movies.  Quick-witted and very funny, Willis changed the face of the action star.  No longer did he need to be a muscleheaded barbarian or a monosyllabic goon.  Now he could be cocky and snarky.  Now he could be the underdog that makes good by intelligence, and perhaps a lot of sheer luck.  Now he could be Bruce Willis as John McClain in Die Hard.   Since then, there has been a slew of cheap knock-offs, including the sequels themselves - none of which has ever been able to match wits with the original thing.  And also since then, Willis has become a superstar and has appeared in numerous good films, with numerous good performances.  Just this past year, Willis was just fine in Looper.  But here and now?  Um...

As I said, it's not like Willis can't make a bad picture a little better by his mere presence alone.  The second, third and even fourth Die Hard films are proof of that.  Red, a mediocre film indeed, is more proof of that, but then he had a lot of help with that one.  Here though, it doesn't even look like the actor is trying.  Is he phoning it in for a paycheck?  Perhaps.  Granted, he gets no real help here.  He doesn't have the magic of a villain like Hans Gruber, played with a melancholy maniacal glee by Alan Rickman in the first Die Hard, nor does he have the likes of a Malkovich or a Mirren to help him make a bad film better, as he did in Red.  Nope, it's basically just Bruce Willis, alone in the wilderness out there, surrounded by no one capable of helping make this bad movie any better.  My advice?  Skip this film altogether and go home and watch the original Die Hard on your TV.  Everything will surely be better.  Couldn't get much worse.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

My 10 Favourite Things About Michael Lehmann's Heathers

It has been a long time since I have posted one of "My Favourite Things" posts (nearly an entire year ago), so now is a good time to bring said recurring feature back into the fold - and what better film, than the cultish stylings of Heathers.  For the uninitiated, Heathers is the story of a cliquish trio of elitist high school juniors, all named Heather, and their more sensitive friend, Veronica, who teams up with bad boy new student, J.D., to save the school from the evil that were the Heathers.  It was the breakthrough film for both Winona Ryder and Christian Slater - and Shannon Doherty as well.  I remember, when I first saw the film, back in March of 1989, I thought it to be great fun - and a crush on Winona Ryder started as well.  I used to own the film on VHS (remember those) and watched it many a time throughout the early 1990's.

I am not sure whatever happened to that VHS copy (got lost during one of the many moves I went through throughout my twenties, I am sure) but apparently, I ended up forgetting all about the film, and for one reason or another, I had not seen the it in probably eighteen years or so.  That is, until just last month when I saw it on Netflix Instant, and could not resist hitting play.  After watching it, at the age of 45 - as opposed to 21, when I first saw the thing - I found that I was still a fan.  Perhaps now for more nostalgic reasons as well as just plain and simple entertainment.  Easily one of the best films of 1988 - the year it first opened, not going wider until early 1989 - the film manages to hold up ratehr well.  With all this said, let us take a look at my ten favourite things about the film - numbered from 1 to 10, but listed in no particular order really.  Oh, and as always, there be spoilers ahead, so if that is something that will bother you, consider ye self warned.

1) The Film's Own Unique Language - Granted, the quirky inclusive language of the world of Heathers, a language that was only spoken outside of the film as a way to copy the characters, not as the way anyone really talked, was probably just as stupid sounding to the generation before us, as Diablo Cody's ridiculous sounding teen-speak dialogue from Juno, was to me, and the rest of my Gen X compatriots, but that doesn't mean it wasn't great fun to hear.  From "Did you have a brain tumour for breakfast" to "J.D.'s "Colour me impressed" to Heather Chandler's sarcastic quips "Transfer to Washington. Transfer to Jefferson. No one at Westerberg is going to let you play their reindeer games"and "You were nothing before you met me. You were playing Barbies with Betty Finn. You were a Bluebird. You were a Brownie. You were a Girl Scout Cookie." to the most fun, and most famous lines, "What's your damage, Heather?" and "Fuck me gently with a chainsaw."  No one really ever spoke that way, but that is part of the fun that is the artificiality of cinema - the most beautiful fraud in the world, if you will.

2) Whatever Will Be...Redux - Director Michael Lehmann tried to get Doris Day's original version of Que Sera Sera, but the actress/singer would not allow something of her's to be used in an R-rated film.  So, Lehmann replaced her version with not one, but two other covers.  The film's opening credits, played over a rather vicious game of croquet, hand us a melodic version by Syd Straw, why we get Sly and the Family Stone's cover over the closing credits.  We also get the song Teenage Suicide (Don't Do It), written and performed by the fictional band, Big Fun (actually record producer Don Dixon and friends), but it is Que Sera Sera that makes the soundtrack what it is.

3) An Ode to Stanley Kubrick - Originally, screenwriter Daniel Waters had wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct his film.  Originally it was also supposed to be a three hour long movie spectacle, but more on that a little further down the page.  Director Lehmann did a fine job though, and even did manage to make it look like a Kubrick film - or at least like a Kubrickesque film.  Whether this was on purpose or not, who knows, but the film definitely has qualities of both Kubrick, and to some extent, Godard as well, and even though Waters' desired three hour script was never filmed, he did get to have the certain look he did desire.

4) Winona Ryder, Once Upon a Time - There was a time in my film watching life, basically the time running from Heathers to Francis Coppola's Dracula, four years later, that I thought Winona Ryder was the be all and end all of what hot celebs were supposed to be - smart, talented and sexy.  And in interviews, I found out we liked a lot of the same books and movies and music.  This early crush, starting when she was seventeen and I was twenty-one (which is weird, because my celebrity tastes have usually run toward slightly older women), ended when I realized that her acting really was not all that up to snuff.  Sure, she was still attractive and intelligent, but after a slate of cinematic mediocrity, the potential talent had seemingly died off, and therefore, so did the crush.  Still though, after seeing her surprisingly great turn in 2010's Black Swan, not to mention her portrayal of Spock's Earthly mom in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot, maybe I was wrong all these years. Whatever the case, when Heathers came out, as well as things like Mermaids and 1969 and Edward Scissorhands and Night on Earth and the aforementioned Dracula, she was the so-called thing.

5) Regular or BQ?  BQ! - I had never had corn nuts before Heathers came out, but afterward, they were my favourite new snack.  Yeah, maybe this shows how susceptible I am to movie marketing (to quote Carrie Fisher, "I don't want my life to imitate art, I want it to be art") but I did enjoy them.  Gotta say, I haven't had a corn nut in probably a decade plus now, but after writing this, I will probably go out and get some tonight.  Of course, hopefully my experience later tonight won't be like the one poor Heather Chandler had after eating hers.  Of course she had help from J.D.'s liquid drainer concoction, in her murder-cum-suicide.  Oh the humanity.

6) Westerburg High and Archie Comics - One thing I always love in movies is references to other films, or other pop culture stuff.  It makes the film seem more like it is part of something bigger, more all-consuming.  References here include everything from the name of the high school being Westerburg High (one of Winona's favourite bands at the time was the Paul Westerburg-led Replacements) to the cops being named Milner and McCord (after Martin Milner and Kent McCord of Adam-12 fame) to friends Veronica Sawyer and Betty Finn being named after Archie's two dreamgirls in Archie Comics.

7) Christian Slater - You're Not a Rebel, You're a Psycho - Bard Pitt had originally tried out for the role of psycho killer J.D., but he was turned away for being too "nice" to play the part.  I wonder if those who turned Pitt away, ever caught his 1993 film Kalifornia?  Oh well, I digress.  Christian Slater got the role, and to this day, it is probably his best performance - or at least his most fun looking.  Usually thought of as kind of a joke around my house (I have liked him a few other times as well), Slater actually does a bang-up job with his fucked-up teenage rebel-cum-psycho.  A fucked-up teenage rebel-cum-psycho that the actor fashioned after Jack Nicholson.

8) Cool Guys Like You Out of My Life - When the end finally comes, and J.D. is blown to bits by his own bomb, Veronica is left a charred, smouldering mess in front of the school - but it is here that she makes her final stand, and decides to take back the school from the inherent poison that is the Heathers.  And even Martha Dunnstock, nee Dumptruck, gets to smile.  But one still must ask oneself, is this really the ending Daniel Waters wanted?  We are getting to that.  Be patient for fuck's sake.  First we must move on to some rather sad news.

9) When Life Imitates Art - Now this particular item is not necessarily something I like, but it is still something quite intriguing, and needs to be mentioned.  Two stars of the movie died at an early age: Jeremy Applegate (Peter Dawson, whose character prays he will never commit suicide) committed suicide with a shotgun on March 23, 2000, and Kim Walker (Heather Chandler, who had the line "Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?") died of a brain tumor on March 6, 2001.  Sad but true facts of life after Westerburg High.

10) Daniel Waters Had a Dream - As I spoke of earlier, screenwriter Dan Waters had originally planned a three hour movie, and with Stanley Kubrick at the helm.  The original screenplay had a different ending too.  Veronica kills J.D. by shooting him, and then straps the bomb to herself, blowing up as J.D. does in the filmed ending - leaving a suicide note in her locker.  The movie then closes with a creepy (one would assume) prom sequence set in Heaven - J.D. says earlier in the film, that the only place everyone will truly get along is in Heaven.  The prom begins with students dancing within their appropriate cliques, then switching partners in odd pairings, like heads dancing with Heathers and one of the murdered jocks getting his prom picture taken with a tipped cow.  The punch being served at the prom is the drain cleaner used in the Heather Chandler's murder scene, and Martha Dunnstock is singing onstage as the entertainment for the evening. This was what Waters had wanted for his film, but the studio thought it was too dark for the target teenage crowd and opted for a lighter ending.  Oh the humanity.

Well, that's it for my look at Heathers - a film from my distant past that has been reborn upon recent re-viewing.  Hopefully - well I definitely plan on it - there won't be such a long gap between this and my next "My Favourite Things" post, as there was between the last two. In fact, there may be another one coming up just next month - and it may or may not have a little something to do with ectoplasmic slime, Ray Parker, Jr. and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.  So, who ya gonna call?  See ya, as the kids are saying these days, in the funny papers.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Film Review: Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End

From the director who gave us the Phantasm series and the enigmatic Bubba Ho-Tep, comes yet another strange creature of a film.  John Dies at the End, adapted from the novel of the same name by David Wong, is a horror-comedy that is part Kafka, part Evil Dead, part Cronenberg (the earlier stuff), and part "Naked Lunch".   These things all rolled together make for a fun film - perhaps not a great film, or even an overly good one, but still a fun film.  I know, I know, damning with faint praise and all that, but hey, what can a guy do?  The film is silly and stupid, but in that good kind of way, often associated with the likes of earlier Sam Raimi, whose films are obviously a big influence on Coscarelli's film, but the film is also quite one-note, and such a one-trick pony show as this cannot expect to survive 99 minutes of itself.  

The film stars Chase Williamson, in his feature debut, as David Wong, and Rob Mayes as John Cheese, which incidentally are the nom de plumes of Jason Pargin, writer of the book and senior editor at, and fellow internet writer and old school chum, Mack Leighty.  They are sort of a slackerish duo of supernatural detectives, here pitted against demons from another dimension.  All this is fine and dandy, and a whole lot of fun when it wants to be, but the film often just sags, and therefore saps the inherent fun out of the whole shebang.  Then again, we go into such a film as John Dies at the End - a title that may or may not hold true by the way - not with whims of cinematic glory, hoping and praying for a new classic, but with giddy anticipation of something akin to the great fun that was the even sillier and even stupider (yeah, I know) Bubba Ho-Tep.  We do get the latter part, in part, but is that enough to save the film?  I would have to say, with honest-to-goodness sincerity, that the answer to that question is a big, maybe.  Perhaps?  Kinda?  Yeah, right.

Sure, the film never makes one feel like a daffodil or anything like that, but it does have some rather fun moments interspersed within its walls.  Moments like a faux Rastafarian telling fortunes for beers at a kegger before literally losing his head, or a giant spider/crab-like creature that can only be seen through one's peripheral vision, and that sufficiently freaks the fuck out of newspaperman Paul Giamatti, an actor often found in bizarro worlds such as this, or a festooning swarm of, um, of whatever that festooning swarm is of, or a talking and driving dog, or a frozen meat-creation that looks like a butcher shop exploded all over one of William S. Burroughs' mugwumps.  Okay, perhaps I did enjoy the film more than I thought I had.  Like I said, it may be far from perfect, but at least it is fun, even if that fun is sapped out long before the ending where John may or may not, die.  But then, there sure is a lot worse out there in movie land.  Again, with the damning with faint praise crap.  Oh well.

Film Review: Daniel Schechter's Supporting Characters

I must admit that I was not expecting to like Supporting Characters all that much.  Hovering perhaps just a foot or two this side of the Mumblecore demarcation line - even starring Mumblecore stalwart Alex Karpovsky - Daniel Schechter's bromance-cum-old school conversational comedy, a la Woody Allen and/or Albert Brooks, perhaps even Paul Mazursky, caught this critic way off guard.  Granted, it may not be the greatest film since that proverbial sliced bread, but what it is, is a smartly written, wryly acted comedy, that pulls no punches and plays out as a witty and articulate indie film - something not often seen in this day and age of creatures such as the offensively over-rated Bridesmaids and the just plain offensiveness of things like Jack and Jill and whatever other dick-joke-and-fart-filled Adam Sandler thing that came out recently.  Something not often seen indeed.

Starring the aforementioned Mr. Karpovsky and Tarik Lowe, as a pair of film editors working on what appears to be a low budget New York-based film (the budget of this film came in at right around the whoppingly low figure of fifty grand), Supporting Characters is both a quaint look at the film industry, albeit inside the realms of the off-off-off Hollywood kind, but real enough to even be peppered with insider-speak just to make it all the more cinema-geeky for those of us who love such things, and a somewhat biting, but never cliché, take on love and friendships.  Shot on digital video, which gives it more a TV feel than a movie feel (yeah, yeah, I know, TV is great these days, and more than able to compete with cinema, but it is still different - for now), the film is purposefully small - in both stature and storytelling - and this is what gives it its offbeat charm.  A big budget version, with maybe Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller, would of course, never work, but as a small film like this, it is pulled off with a realistic, humanity that would be lacking in most (but not all, mind you) Hollywood vehicles.

Now don't get me wrong, I love the artificiality of cinema more than most people, and the fantastical dialogue in the films of directors such as Tarantino or De Palma or Martin Scorsese - all more cinematic pretension and art-for-art's sake beauty than how anyone really talks - but reality-for reality's-sake can be a refreshing turn of events at times, and the conversations in this film, between Karpovsky and Lowe, come off as real conversations, as if these two men are really truly friends and are actually having real conversations about real life, sometimes in a realistic passive-aggressive manner, that Schechter's camera just happens to catch on, on digital video.  Never trying to go into realms the writer/director (and the screenplay is co-written with second lead, Lowe) may not know, or that may be over his artistic head - i.e. the aforementioned artificiality of Tarantino, De Palma and Scorsese - Supporting Characters comes off as a quirky, but not quirky in that annoying Little Miss Sunshine-y way, little indie film about two friends and the trials and tribulations of working in, and working around the foibles and egos of actors and directors and such, the film industry.  Now, with word, true or not, that Schechter is at work on Quentin Tarantino's supposed Jackie Brown prequel (at work as what, I am not sure, unless he is helming the project and QT is merely a producer), we may just get to see what he can do with something unlike he has ever worked on before.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Film Review: Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects

As we were leaving the theater, after a screening of Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects, my wife turned to me and said that Soderbergh sure knows how to make a creepy movie, even if nothing really creepy happens.  Can't really argue with that.  Though nothing overly creepy happens in the film, save for perhaps one sudden act of violence - the way Soderbergh moves his camera, the music choices he makes, or perhaps the lack of music in some cases, the way he choreographs a scene to make it more intense than it otherwise would be, all make for something on the level of a modern day Hitchcockian thriller - something that the great master of suspense would make if he were alive and kicking and making motion pictures still.  A film that, with very little really, grabs a hold of you and squeezes tighter and tighter with each and every plot twist and turn - and turnaround.  Squeezes you, that is, until Soderbergh thrusts forward, what I thought to be a cop-out twist ending - but more on that later.

According to Soderbergh, Side Effects is to be his final theatrical release.  After the HBO airing of his Liberace biopic sometime this year, the director claims he will retire - to concentrate more on his painting.  Now since first making this rather bold proclamation, the prolific and esoteric filmmaker, has back-tracked just a bit, now claiming it will probably be more a sabbatical than a retirement, which is a relief to this long-time Soderbergh fan.  Whatever the case may be, whether this is his theatrical swan song or not, Soderbergh has created yet another unique piece in the divergent puzzle that is the auteur's oeuvre.  Playing at peculiar obscurities (Kafka, Full Frontal), flashy popcorn flicks (Out of Sight, the Ocean's films), convoluted actualities (Traffic, Che), formal biopics (Erin Brockovich), bizarre docudramas (King of the Hill, The Informant!), cinematic performance pieces (the Spaulding Grey films, Grey's Anatomy, And Everything's Going Fine), action (Haywire), sci-fi (Solaris), gangster films (The Limey), and a few films that act as a miscellaneous category (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience).   Soderbergh is probably the most eclectic, the most enigmatic director since Howard Hawks was last behind the camera, so if this were to be his final film, he is appropriately going out on a film that is unlike anything he has done before.

From the trailer, it appeared that Side Effects was going to be nothing more than a retread of the director's 2011 biohorror thriller Contagion - one of the few Soderbergh films I am not a fan of - but, save for a frantic Jude Law appearing in both, this film is really nothing like that film.   Starring Rooney Mara as a depressed and supposedly suicidal young woman, and Law as the psychiatrist who takes her on as a patient after a failed suicide attempt, the film is actually less about the titular side effects that cause even more havoc in this woman's already precarious life, and more about the things people will do when they are backed into a corner by the actions they have taken, or the actions they have thrust upon them.  It is about the lengths some will go to to, in order to escape the things they have done.    Not to give too much away - we want to keep Soderbergh's aforementioned twists and turns intact for their full narrative impact - Law's rather arrogant psychiatrist, while working on the side as a tester for a pharmaceutical company, prescribes questionable drugs to his new patient, which leads to tragic circumstances.  It is these tragic circumstances that lead to both Law's doctor and Mara's patient starting to frantically search for a solution out of their quandaries.  Both Law and, especially Mara (proving her kick-ass performance in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was not a fluke), give strong performances here, as does Catherine Zeta-Jones in a supporting role, but it is Soderbergh and his ability to put, as my wife alluded to upon leaving the theater, the creepy into the story, that makes this film as palpable as it is.

But then we get to the final act of the film, and the unraveling of a perfectly thrilling thriller.  Again, not to give anything away, Soderbergh builds a suspenseful narrative through his story (script by Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote The Informant! and Contagion) and his editing and his actor's work, and then hands us one of the cheapest, cop-out endings in a long long time.  Okay, maybe the ending here isn't to the ridiculous level of an M. Night Shyamalan film, but it still was bad enough - silly enough even - to warrant an upset grimace from this critic - not to mention an unverbalized WTF when it all came down.  The ending may not have ruined the entire experience for me, but it was certainly enough to make me wonder what Soderbergh was thinking.  Trite and quite unworthy of a Soderbergh-helmed film, this ending - which incidentally takes the whole idea of delving into the misuse and misdiagnosis of psychotropic drugs, and tosses it out the proverbial window - is pure let down, after watching a wonderful, and suspenseful - and creepy, of course - lead-up to such an ending.  That being said, I hope this ending, save for the eventually released HBO Liberace thing (with Michael Douglas, no less), isn't really the last taste we will get of the "retiring" director.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Forces of Geek "A History of Sci-Fi Cinema" Column

The fine folks over at Forces of Geek have allowed me the space and time to ramble on about the history of science fiction cinema.  These bi-weekly columns, will make an attempt, however feeble, at discussing the history of this often chided cinematic genre.  From its birth to the latest CGI box office hits, I will take a look at the films that have filled the genre, as well as their literary influences and TV offshoots.  In this episode, my first in the series, I take a look at the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Welles, and how they influenced the genre, and Georges Méliès, and how he helped shape said genre.

Read my column, "The Magic of Méliès and the Birth of a Genre," at Forces of Geek.

Anomalous Material Feature: 10 Best Tim Burton Films

Here we are once again true believers, with my latest 10 best feature written for the fine folks over at Anomalous Material.  For those of you not in the know, those same said fine folks have given me a (possibly foolish on their behalf) regular gig as feature writer.  It is a series of top ten lists on all kinds of various cinematic subjects - and anyone who knows me at all can surely attest to how perfectly suited I am to such an endeavor (yes I am a  list nerd).  This newest feature, my thirty-second such endeavor, takes a look at the films of one, Mr. Timothy Burton.  From the macabre to the downright silly, here are my choices for the ten best Tim Burton films. Just go take a look for yourself.

Since six of the films on this list involve Johnny Depp and/or Helena Bonham-Carter (Burton's work wife and real wife, respectively), I suppose I should toss out this nice little pic of the threesome below.  So here ya go.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

My 25 Favourite Classics Seen for the First Time in 2012

Since I had fun doing "It" last year, I thought I would do "It" again this year.  What is "It" you ask?  Well, my funny classic film loving valentines, I will tell you.  "It" is a list of my favourite classic films - but just those classics seen by yours truly, for the first time this past calendar year.  And believe me, even though I celebrated my 45th birthday last year, there were still plenty of classics this old cinephile had yet to see - and some of these were quite good.  Quite good indeed.  So good actually, that the top ten on this list have all been added to my Favourite Films of All-Time list.  Before we get into "It," please allow me to mention one simple ground rule.  In order to make this list, said film must, of course be something I had not seen prior to 2012 (duh!), but said film must also be something I consider a classic.  In other words, it must have been made prior to 1960.  I know, I know, that leaves out some fun, let us call them, semi-classics, that I saw for the first time last year - films such as John Frankenheimer's Seconds or John Ford's 7 Women or Howard Hawks' Hatari! or John Huston's The Misfits or Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! - but hey, we must draw the line somewhere, mustn't we?  Anyway, on with the show.

1. Gun Crazy - Joseph H. Lewis' 1950 genre classic's got everything.  John Dall acting the tough guy, Peggy Cummins rockin' both a pre-Bonnie and Clyde beret and the hottest cowgirl outfit in cinema, and the most fun time to be had in the genre.  All this and an adventurous, rum tum tugger of a crime spree story to boot - and no one was complaining about gun violence after the damn movie.  Well, maybe they were, but still - a fun fun movie indeed.

2. Smiles of a Summer Night - Bergman was one of my first loves when I first started getting into art film around seventeen or so, but for one reason or another, it took me another twenty-seven years to finally see this, one of the Swedish auteur's most acclaimed films.  Now that I finally have, it ranks number two, behind just The Seventh Seal, as my favourite Bergman.  Who knew the guy could be so funny?

3. Gilda - When Rita Hayworth, that titular gold-digging hussy of Charlie Vidor's film, first comes on the screen, her auburn locks (even in black and white) flowing through the air in brazen abandonment, poor hapless Glenn Ford is lost forever.  And guess what?  So are we.

4. Seventh Heaven - I first fell in love with Janet Gaynor in Sunrise.  This film sealed the deal.  Tiny and insecure, but plucky and determined, Gaynor's waifish wanton women here - a little girl lost really - is an amazing performance, and it, along with the aforementioned Sunrise, and her performance in Street Angel (a film that almost made this list), garnered her the very first Academy Award for Best Actress.  Oh yeah, Charles Farrell is in here too.

5. Limelight - This was the final film on my quest to see the 1000 greatest films, and what a way to go out.  Chaplin at his most resplendent.  A tragic tale - Chaplinesque tragic one might even say - that will rip out your heart and then make you laugh at the still beating thing in your hand, before finally ruining you.  Who could ask for anything more.

6. Black Orpheus - A French film made in Brazil, at the height of Carnivale, that happens to be a gorgeous - one could even say succulent, if one were so inclined - piece of cinema.  Taking on the Orphic myth, director Marcel Camus, makes a haunting (excuse me for the rather cliché term) film that is equal parts harrowing and beautiful.  I must admit, I do love a tragic love story, and they do not get much more tragic than this one.

7. Samson and Delilah - Many would claim that a film such as this, with its almost camp feel, would fall under the umbrella of guilty pleasures - but I feel no guilt from any film that I happen to like, so I suppose guiltless pleasures would be as close as we get.  Granted, the film is quite silly at times - between DeMille, Mature and Lamarr, how could it not be - but the film is also a brazen take on sexuality in a time when the production code would not allow a brazen take on sexuality - and between DeMille, Mature and Lamarr, how could it not be.

8. The White Hell of Pitz Palu - I went through a German mountain film period early last year (yeah, you read that right), and I watched all I could get my grubby little hands on.  This one, directed by G.W. Pabst and Arnold Fanck, and starring future infamous filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, is the best of the bunch.  And getting to watch it on the big screen, it felt almost as if I were right up there on that mountain with Leni and the gang.

9. Safe in Hell - As soon as I watched this Wild Bill Wellman-directed film, it automatically became my favourite Pre-Code film.  Sexy Dorothy Mackaill's audacious performance as a fallen woman, hiding from an abusive ex-boyfriend/trick, is one of the best of the day.  In fact, I would say, that a film such as Safe in Hell, is the whole reason the Pre-Code days are so popular with we cinephiles.

10. The Indian Epic - Cheating and including two films in one - The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, make up this two part epic from Fritz Lang, made upon his return home to Germany - this amazing work - Lang's Best!! - was a huge treat to see up on the big screen.  From the underground chases to Debra Paget's oh so lovely snake dance (good thing Lang had left Hollywood, because he would have never gotten that past the Production code, even in 1959). This is the tenth of ten films that I saw for the first time last year, all of whom made my All-Time Favourite Films list.

11. Sawdust and Tinsel - I guess I just cannot stay away from Ingmar Bergman (he is one of only two directors, with two films on this list) these days. Actually, it is a re-love of Bergman, as I had sort of set the director to the side for many years - but now, thanks to this film in particular (seen on New Year's Day 2012), the love is back.

12. The Jungle Book - No, not the 1967 Disney animated film, though that is one of my favourite Disney's, but the 1942 version, directed by Zoltan Korda and starring the enigmatic Sabu.  Beautiful and colourful - Technicolorful to be exact, and that is always the best kind - it is filled with great make-believe grandeur, and who doesn't like that?

13. Louisiana Story - I first heard of this little known film, when I was looking first looking through the Sight & Sound decennial film polls.   This film, directed by Robert J. Flaherty, the man who gave us Nanook of the North, was ranked number five in their first poll back in 1952.  By 1962, the film had dropped off, never to be heard from again - at least on the S&S lists.  Granted, the film may be somewhat manipulative, as it was commissioned by Standard Oil, but there is no denying its visual and narrative beauty.

14. Les Enfants Terribles - This 1950 Jean-Pierre Mellville film, based on the 1929 Jean Cocteau novel, and probably a strong influence on Bernardo Bertolucci's 2003 film, The Dreamers, was a film I honestly was not expecting much out of, when I first saw it.  I'm not sure why, but for some reason, I just wasn't expecting much at all.   Needless to say, I kinda fell in love with this tragic-laced film, hence its inclusion here.

15. Under Capricorn - When cinephiles and scholars talk about the films of Alfred Hitchcock, this 1949 effort, is rarely even mentioned.  But, this oft-maligned, or even worse, oft-forgotten film, though not your typical Hitchcock fare, is an endlessly intriguing film.  That, and the fact that Ingrid Bergman hands in one of her finest performances here, makes Under Capricorn something that should indeed, be spoken of when discussing the films of Sir Hitchcock.

16. Zazie dans le Metro - This absurdly heeelarious French comedy, at first disguises itself as a possible coming of age tale, but eventually explodes into a screwballesque comedy of insanity - replete with visual gags and the most precocious of all cinematic urchins.  Watching it on the big screen, the small crowd gathered, laughed, as they say, our asses off.

17. Mother India - A succulent, metaphorical account of the historical changes in 20th Century India, all done as a strange Hindi epic melodrama.  Probably now my third or fourth favourite Indian film. Star - and Indian legend - Nargis, plays the role of Indian everywoman, everymother.  Her performance is quite astounding indeed, and the film itself looks like some sort of hybrid of Douglas Sirk and Powell/Pressburger.  Beautiful.

18. I Know Where I'm Going! - Between 1943 and 1948, the filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, made an almost unprecedented six full-blown masterpieces in a row.  This one, the last one I had still to see, is number four in this streak, and is a romantic work of great power - even by Powell/Pressburger standards.

19. Que Viva Mexico! - I know we are all supposed to go all Lady Gaga and Baby Goo Goo over Eisenstein and all his Soviet montage buddies, especially the ever-canonical Battleship Potemkin, but I must admit, I think I may just enjoy this never finished Mexican docu-travelogue creature more than any of those early silent Soviet pieces.  The film's strange feel and odd editing choices (many made by co-director, Grigori Aleksandrov, long after Eisenstein's death) make it the most unique of the director's works - and probably the most interesting.

20. People on Sunday - An intriguing 1930 German silent film, that plays as part doc, part drama.  The film is most notable for its crew.  Directed by Curt and Robert Siodmak, produced by Edgar G. Ulmer, photographed by Fred Zinnemann, and written by Billy Wilder.  How's that for a who's who of future directors? 

21. Woman in the Moon - The second film on this list by Fritz Lang (third if one were to count his two-part Indian Epic as two separate films) and a surprisingly enjoyable work.  I say surprising, not because Lang is usually untalented, but because when talk of the director's oeuvre comes around, this film is more oft than not, sorely left out of the conversation.  I personally, like it more than any of Lang's silents, save for Metropolis.  So there!

22. The Docks of New York - A Pre-Pre-Code film by Josef von Sternberg.  Silent and tragic.  Above, I stated how much I love a good tragic romance story (a love that can be attested to by the fact that at least a dozen of the films on this list, could easily fit into such a category) and this one has romantic tragedy in spades, brother.  And some stellar performances from George Bancroft, Betty Compson and  Baclonova.

23. Triumph of the Will - Many call Leni Riefenstahl, at best, a fascist sympathizer, and at worst, a Nazi.  Whether this is true or not, and the romantic in me likes to think that the filmmaker was just trying to make great art, not sinister politics, this film is a goddamn thing of beauty.  A goddamn thing of beauty.

24. Los Olvidados - Luis Buñuel is really a hit or miss kinda guy for me.  I am not a fan of his early surrealist stuff, nor his later return to France works, but I love his Spanish and Mexican periods, which, I suppose, means I love this film.  Well, I do indeed.  It reminds me of the style of art film that I first fell in love with when I was still just a budding young cinephile.  

25. On the Town - I am really surprised I never saw this one before, though parts did seem familiar, so perhaps I did once see it on TV as a kid, but here it is now - and watching this fun musical up on the big screen as I did, was an especially big treat.  Seriously, how can you not just love a film that sings about people riding around in a hole in the ground.

Others that didn't make the final grade, but are still worthy of mention (in no particular order, mind you): The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Hallelujah, Night and the City, Le Corbeau, Letter from an Unknown Woman, The French Can-Can, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Odd Man Out, Street Angel, Orpheus, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, The Golden Coach, Casque d'Or, Tarnished Angels, The Small Back Room, Le Jour Se Lève, Olympia, Holy Mountain, Elephant Boy, Suspense and Les Enfants du Paradis.

Well, that's about it for now.     See ya on the flip side.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Film Review: Seth Gordon's Identity Thief

Yes, eternal straight man, Jason Bateman, and his latest comic foil, the ofttimes exasperating. but almost always funny Melissa McCarthy, do whatever they can to elevate the rather mediocre material they are given to work with here, but in the end, it is basically all for naught, because their film, Identity Thief, ends up a silly mess - and not in the good way.  Full of cheap gags and tired old jokes (is there anything here that we have not already seen a thousand times over in the hundreds of films just like this one that have permeated cinema for as long as anyone can remember - or at least since the cheapness of the 1980's first came upon us?). Identity Thief, is not saved by its stars, who, incidentally, both deserve much better.

The story of a loud and foulmouthed lifetime crook, who looks to be a cross between Mimi from The Drew Carey Show and some sort of caricature out of a nightmarish, Pepto-Bismol-coloured white girl version of a Tyler Perry movie - the titular identity thief - and the hapless sap that she takes advantage of, Seth Gordon's film opens up as if we might actually be going somewhere, but we quickly find out that no, we really aren't going anywhere at all.  Well, unless you count the same old cheap comedy road I mentioned in my opening salvo, then yes, we are going somewhere indeed.  All this is a shame, because both Bateman, and especially McCarthy, should be good in these roles, and they are actually good in these roles, despite of, or perhaps, in spite of, the roles being saddled down in the same old tricks and tropes of everything from Road Trip to Due Date to Little Miss Sunshine to National Lampoon's Vacation.  Not to say that such a scenario cannot work well, for we have films like Midnight Run, and yes, even the aforementioned Vacation (but not its myriad of sequels), but here there is nothing new, nothing fresh, nothing that makes us sit up and say, "hey, that's an interesting twist."  Just nothing.

Gordon's last film, 2011's Horrible Bosses, also starring Mr. Bateman, in yet another hapless straight man role (a thankless job really, but the guy is quite good at it, and in certain venues - Arrested Development comes immediately to mind - it works with flying colours), was a surprisingly wry comedy.  Kind of screwball, done right - a thing that happens very rarely these days.  This is just yet another reason to feel disappointment with Identity Thief.  This film should have been better - and most likely could have been with a little work.  But alas, even the funny moments in the film - and don't get me wrong, there are funny moments shoved in here at places - never live up to the talent that is wasted up there on the screen.  McCarthy, who is great on Mike & Molly (the comedic actresses most laid back, most realistic role), and who can easily ratchet it up to eleven when need be (her role in Bridesmaids, a film I absolutely loathed by the way, proves what kind of comedic hills and valleys she can traverse), and who is not merely a tractor-sized hippo, as the pugnacious Rex Reed has so infamously more than alluded to, has the potential to be one of the best comic actors working today - if given the right material.  Sadly enough, Identity Thief, though with potential, just doesn't seem to be that material.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Film Review: Miguel Gomes' Tabu

Take a little David Lynch, toss in some Luis Buñuel, spice with a bit of Herzog, and flavour with a dash of his fellow countryman, Manoel di Oliveira, and you have Miguel Gomes' Tabu.  But don't get me wrong, for even though one can easily see traces of influence from all of these directors in Gomes' work, the Portuguese filmmaker more than stands on his own two cinematic feet in this beautiful and lyrical film.  Divided into two parts ("Paradise Lost" and "Paradise"), Tabu is the story of Aurora, an emotionally troubled elderly woman living in modern day Lisbon, and, in flashback, the tale of a young Aurora and her love affair that, if we are given to believing Gomes' flights of fancy, pretty much caused the downfall of colonialism in Africa.  But more than anything, this film is about love, about beauty, about the Bohemian sensibilities of these ideas, and the way they are ripped asunder, leaving us basically as a shell of a human being.  Uplifting, huh?

Shot in grippingly sharp black and white, and paying homage to F.W. Murnau's 1931 film of the same name (it too is divided into "Paradise" and "Paradise Lost"), Gomes first gives us a seemingly mundane modern day existence - a sort of cinema of endurance-esque take - and then, in the second half, he lets us all see the beauty, the love, the romantic idealism that, sadly, leads to such a mundane existence.  This feeling is beautifully captured - both visually (a shivering innocence can be found in the work of cinematographer Rui Poças) and in the acting (Ana Moreira and Laura Soveral, as the two ages of Aurora, are quite resplendent) - and the film is equal parts lustful and harrowing - sometimes with these two particulars encompassing the same space and time even.  What I am trying to say here, is that Tabu is a romantically induced tragedy, shot in the most succulent cinematic manner.  In other words, what cinema is all about.  The film's detractors have complained about Gomes not taking a serious enough stance on colonialism, and this attitude comes mainly from, instead of the director showing the darkness of war and revolution, he shows the darkness of love lost forever.  The actors show the range of emotion in their eyes, in their movements, in their bodies.  Cinema is meant to entertain, but it is also meant to show the utter beauty in everything as well - even if that beauty acts as tragedy, as it does not only here, but in much of classical literature and art - and that is exactly what Gomes does in Tabu.

Friday, February 8, 2013

LAMB Devours the Oscars: A Look at the Best Director Nominees

Well, here we are again kiddies.  That time of year where the fine folks over at the LAMB (The Large Association of Movie Blogs, for the initiated amongst you) take volunteers to write about the Oscars.  After writing on the Doc Shorts in 2011, and Art Direction last year, I find myself assigned to the Best Director category this time around - my first choice actually.  With that said, let us now delve into, what is probably the most controversial category this year.

By now, anyone who is anyone has heard of the great snub handed to both Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck.  I can understand, but not agree on one snub, while not understanding but totally agreeing on the other.  Bigelow, not getting nominated for the brilliantly brazen Zero Dark Thirty, is a real shame.  If I had a ballot, she would surely make my top five, but, in a way, her snub is understandable.  First, she is a woman in the manly world of Hollywood.  Yeah, she is the only woman to ever win the Best Director Oscar - for the Hurt Locker in case you didn't already know - but Hollywood is very much a boy's club.  Very much a boy's club indeed.  There is also the whole controversy over the film and its showing of American torture techniques.  I say get over it people, but I am sure this was a factor in her snub as well.

As for Affleck's snub, this is much more questionable a thing.  Affleck is loved in the industry.  His film Argo, though political as well, is set far enough in the past, as to not offend too many people.   This, and the fact that he has won pretty much every award for directing that has been given out this awards season.  I know I, along with just about every other Oscar postulater on the web, had Affleck  listed as a lock to get a nomination.  It was surely the biggest snub of this Oscar year.  Making it even more noticeable, is the fact that the Director's Guild nominated Affleck, Bigelow, Spielberg, Ang Lee and Tom Hooper, and then only gave Oscar nods to two of these (Spielberg and Lee), and then had the audacity to name Affleck the winner!?  Putting aside that the DGA and the director's branch of the Academy are extremely similar in their membership make-up, and therefore should nominate basically the same group of people, this is just crazy.  Then again, even though I like Affleck, and am a big fan of his first two films as director, I was not overly impressed with Argo myself, so Affleck not getting nominated is not that big of a deal to me.

Of course, all this snubbing and controversy has probably assured Argo the Best Picture Oscar - just for spite alone, if for no other reason.   And to answer any possible questions about the possibility of a write-in vote campaign, it is not going to happen.  Such a thing was once allowed, but after Hal Mohr "stole" the Best Cinematography Oscar, via a write-in campaign, back in 1935, the Academy changed the rules and disallowed any future write-in winners.  There have been a couple times in Oscar history when the subject has again been breached - most recently in 1988, when Michael Moore's Roger and Me failed to get a nomination for Best Documentary, and in 2008, when The Dark Knight was supposedly snubbed, the latter of which caused the Academy to up the ante to ten nominees for Best picture.  But no, it will not happen this year, as no write-in vote will be counted.  Perhaps we can all hope for a last minute reprieve (though not a big Argo fan, after all this craziness, even I want the guy to win now) but otherwise...not happening.  But enough of all this woulda coulda shoulda nonsense.  We are here to discuss the five nominees that are actually nominated.

Let's start out with the three nominees that really have no shot in Hell of winning come February 24th.  This, of course, is said with just a bit of trepidation, since I was so sure Affleck would get nominated back on January 9th, but here we go anyway.  First up, we have a pair of first time nominees.  Benh Zeitlin for his directorial debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and legendary world master, Michael Haneke, for his harrowing Amour.  Zeitlin's film has some beautiful moments in it - and it did make my Best of 2012 list (coming in at no. 20) - but neither he, nor his film, are likely to win here.  The nomination is his real award.  As for Haneke, he is one of those rarities - a Best Director nominee for a foreign-language film.  It has happened just twenty-one times in the Academy's eighty-five year history, most recently, before this year, was in 2007.  The two-time Palme d'Or winner (for The White Ribbon in 2009, and Amour this past year) finally joins that club this year.

Haneke, who incidentally is just the fifth Austrian-born nominee in this category (the others being Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Fred Zinnemann and Josef von Sternberg) and the first to be nominated for a film actually made in Austria (the other nominees were all already working in Hollywood when they were nominated), will surely win an Oscar on February 24th.  Amour will win Best Foreign-Language (he says with such confidence) and that Oscar will go to Haneke, but for Best Director, it is highly unlikely.  Then again, a surprise victory for Haneke is probably more likely (however miniscule a chance it is) than a victory for David O. Russell.  Sure, his film, Silver Linings Playbook, is up for eight Oscars (including one in each of the four acting categories - last done by Reds in 1981), and for a short moment in time, it was seen as a possible frontrunner for Best Picture (a long gone moment by now), but it just doesn't seem like that important of a picture to give the Oscar too.  Of course, don't tell that to star Jennifer Lawrence, who is probably going to beat out the much more deserving Jessica Chastain in the Best Actress category.  Russell, who was nominated once before, for 2010's The Fighter, is another one of those, like Haneke and Zeitlin, where the nomination is the award.  Still, it would be fun to hear Haneke's name called on Oscar night.  Maybe that would make Lars von Trier a sudden frontrunner for next year's awards.  Maybe not.  Anyway, let's get to the two nominees, that could actually win this bitch.

I suppose conventional wisdom would say that Steven Spielberg is the most likely to win (unless the Academy board of Governors come through on that last-minute stay of execution on Affleck and his write-in votes) but we should not count out Ang Lee just yet.  Until recently, and the snub factor for Argo's eventual win (and Affleck, being a producer on the film, will still receive an Oscar if it wins BP), Spielberg's Lincoln has been the frontrunner for the top prize, and that is likely to transfer over to a Best Director Oscar - Spielberg's third, if it does indeed happen.  But then you have Ang Lee and the seeming love for Life of Pi - nominated for eleven Oscars, second only to Lincoln's twelve.  Granted, Pi will most likely win a couple tech awards (Art Direction the most likely of these), but this love could transfer to a Best Director award as well.  Funny enough, both Spielberg and Lee have won Oscars, while their respective films did not.  Spielberg won Best Director in 1998, while his Saving Private Ryan was beaten out by Shakespeare in Love for the top prize.  Meanwhile, Lee took home the Oscar in 2005, for Brokeback Mountain, while the godawful Crash inexplicably took home Best Picture.  Barring a surprise victory by Haneke (seriously, I would love this to happen), this scenario will happen again this year for one of these two directors.

So, who do I think will win?  Right now I am leaning ever-so-slightly toward Ang Lee, but I won't be making my final Oscar predictions until the night before the Oscars, so who knows who I will eventually mark off on my ballot.   Well, I suppose that is it for now.  Hopefully the fine folks who run the LAMB, like my contribution to their .  Not that I would actually change it if they didn't, but it is nice to please people...sometimes.  Anyway, there ya go.  See ya on the 23rd, with my final Oscar predix.  Well, I'll see you before that, as I will still be posting new reviews and other such fun items, but you know what I mean.

What Film SHOULD Win the Best Picture Oscar?

There has been a lot of talk, in certain circles, about which film is going to walk away with the Oscar.  Will it be Lincoln, or will Argo make a lat minute sneak attack and take home the top gold?  For what it's worth, I believe the latter will end up happening on February 24th.  Director Affleck's snub at the Oscars - while winning pretty much every other award known to humanity - is probably the one defining element that will make such a thing happen.  But then, we are not here to talk about who or what WILL win the Oscar, but instead, who or what SHOULD win the damn thing.  And this is your chance to say so.

I first opened this poll the day of the Oscar nominations announcement, and so far 136 votes have been cast.  Pretty damn good, if you ask me, but it could be better - which is the exact reason why this post exists.  To let everyone know that it is here, or there, or wherever cyberspace really is.  So get your vote on everyone.  If you were handed an Oscar ballot, who would you pick?  Would it be the thrills of Django or Zero Dark Thirty?  Would it be the heartache of Beasts or Amour?  Would it be the suspense of Argo or the stature of Lincoln?  Would it be spectacle of Les Mis, or Miz, if you prefer?  Would it be the ADD comedy of Silver Linings or the sheer visual audacity of Life of Pi?  Which film would you pick to take home the gold?  

All you have to do is go on over to the poll - found conveniently near the top of the sidebar of this very site - and choose which of the nine BP nominees is your favourite.  And please remember, feel free to post as many comments as your heart desires (the more, the merrier - we can never have enough comments), but in order for your vote to count, you must click on the actual poll itself.  The poll will go on until Friday, February 22nd, and the final results will be posted right here (same bat channel and all that) on Saturday, February 23rd.  And, incidentally, speaking of the Oscars, my predictions for the big night will be posted early on Sunday, February 24th.  So go vote people - and send everyone you know this way too.  Let's rock the vote!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Film Review: Fisher Stevens' Stand-Up Guys

This film, starring Al Pacino and Christopher Walken as aged ex-small time gangsters, may not have the heft and/or depth of many of these actor's younger day roles, but it still manages to resonate quite strongly at times, making for, if not a powerful film, at least a quaint one.  Granted, Stand-Up Guys, directed by actor-turned-director Fisher Stevens (you know, that guy from Short Circuit that used to be intimate with Michelle Pfieffer), is not what one would call especially creative in any particular way, but Pacino, with his over-the-top chutzpah, and Walken, with his low-key zen-like approach, play off each other quite nicely, and it is in this back-and-forth, where the movie succeeds.

Ostensibly, the film is about small-timer Valentine "my friends call me Val," a man enjoying his first day out of prison in 28 years, and his life-long best friend, Doc, who we learn early on (as early as the trailer actually), has been ordered to kill said best friend.   What we actually get, is basically a hang-out movie, where the fun is in watching Pacino as Val and Walken as Doc, just bantering back and forth, be it dramatically or comedically, even occasionally somewhat poignantly.  Like I said, the movie is not especially imaginative, and nothing really happens that even the most unobservant of moviegoers sees the proverbial mile away, but it is great fun to watch Walken and Pacino play off each others seeming whims.  And about halfway through the film, we get to see Alan Arkin as well, playing another old small timer gangster - the wheel man as it were - n what amounts to a relatively tiny part.  And, incidentally, once you have seen the film, you too will see the irony in my describing Arkin's part as tiny.

There are even the occasional Tarantinoesque moments, like when Walken and Pacino help a woman enact revenge on her assailants, complete with baseball bat and testicle joke.  Hell, Stevens even casts a Tarantino actress, Vanessa Ferlito of Death Proof lap dancing fame, in the vengeful role.  Then you have the ending.  Not to give anything away, but how else could this film end than the way it does.   Overall, perhaps not a great film by any stretch, but still a hell of a lot more entertaining than I ever imagined it could have been.  It's fun to see Pacino and Walken playing these parts, and being allowed the freedom to just throw caution to the wind, so to speak, and do what they do best.   It makes one recall the Pacino of Dog Day Afternoon or the Walken of The Deer Hunter.  Sure, these roles are nowhere near the level of those performances, but when compared to much of what these actors find themselves stuck in lo this past decade or so (perhaps Walken not as noticeably, as he manages to shine through even in lesser films), Stand-Up Guys, even as hokey as it gets near the end, is a welcome respite indeed.