Friday, May 31, 2013

My 800th Post or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Become a Kubrick Completist + A Few Other Cinema-Related Ramblings

With the clicking of the publish button in my Blogger editor, I officially hand the world, the 800th post here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World.  So here it is kids.  What d'ya think?  Not impressed yet?  Yeah, neither am I.  In reality, this 800th post hoopla (at least in my mind there is hoopla, but you just wait for the 1000th post, and see what shenanigans happen then), this posting of no real circumstance, is merely just an excuse for me to ramble on  about things I have not rambled on about in previous posts.  So, with that in mind, please allow me to ramble.

First off, as you may have noticed from my not-so-clever title appropriation of Sir Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (really, how many times have I used that in a post title?  This is the third that I can think of, off hand), I have now finally become what one would call a Stanley Kubrick Completist.  I might just put that on a business card ya know.  I am not really sure why it took me so damn long to accomplish this feat.  Kubrick has been my favourite director for quite some time now, and he is the only filmmaker to make my 100 Favourite Films list five times (2001, Clockwork, Killing, Paths of Glory & Lolita), but for some reason, the title of completist has alluded me until just a few days ago.   I have taken to watching and rewatching all the Kubrick's up on the big screen here at the arthouse cinema I run with my lovely wife.  In the last few years, I have seen on that aforementioned big screen, 2001: A Space Odyssey (the first film I owned on DVD and the first I owned on Blu-ray), A Clockwork Orange (having already seen that on 35mm twice in my life), Lolita (the titillation of toenail painting made widescreen), The Killing and The Killer's Kiss (in a blu-ray double feature one morning), and for just the first time this past year, Spartacus (the only Kubrick I am not totally pleased with - sorry Stanley).  I plan on seeing all the Kubrick's this way.   Eyes Wide Shut is next on the docket.

Anyway, this all brings us to a few days ago and me finally sitting down and watching the new(ish) Kino blu-ray of Fear and Desire, the auteur's first feature film.  Again, I am not sure what took me so long, since I have had the damn blu-ray sitting beside the blu-ray player for months now.  Sheeesh.  But I did finally sit down and screen the thing, and even though Kubrick would later claim to hate the film, calling it amateurish (amateur for Kubrick is still better than the so-called pinnacle of many another director), I quite enjoyed the film.  You can see and feel the ideas that would later come to be known as Kubrickian.  With this film, I also watched Kubrick's three early doc shorts - Day of the Fight, Flying Padre and The Seafarers, from 1951, 51 and 53, respectively.  So, in other words, I am now a Stanley Kubrick Completist.  So there!

Now, in other news.  There are a pair of projects that I spouted off about back around the beginning of the year, that have yet to come to fruition.  The first is a thing I am calling, The Great Re-Casting (though a better name may be forthcoming).  It is an alternate cinematic history thing, where I take an established modern day movie, and recast it using (mostly) pre-1965 actors and writers and directors and such.  The first one I did was for a blogathon last year.  I took Pulp Fiction and recast it as several different films - from a pre-code gangster film to a Busby Berkeley musical to a western, a film noir, a screwball comedy, a Universal horror film, a swashbuckling epic, a melodrama where all the roles are gender-reversed, and even a cartoon short.  This piece was one of my favourite things to write, and maybe one of my best and most creative, if I do say so myself.  The whole shebang can be seen right here.  My goal is to do four of these per year, so I suppose I should get to work, huh?   Percolatin' in the ole noggin right now are alt-cin-histories on Dazed and Confused, Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, Jurassic Park, and The Avengers.  Up first though (hopefully by the end of June) will be Star Wars, where we go back to Von Stroheim's silent debacle original version, as well as John Ford's 1940 war film remake, both of which inspired Kurosawa which in turn inspired Lucas.  There will also be a French New Wave one.  Come on, who would not want to see Belmondo, Leaud, and Karina as Han, Luke, and Leia!?  It will all be quite intricate.  To quote John Hammond, we've spared no expense.

My other long-gestating idea is a series on Ingmar Bergman.  It is titled The Bergman Files, and is actually going to be me becoming a Bergman completist.  There we go with that again.  My plan is to watch all the Bergman's I have yet to see, and go back and rewatch those I have, and white a piece on each and every one of them - even the shorts and commercials and docs and yeah, everything.  This project will probably take about three years to complete - if I ever get started on the damn thing.   And speaking of long-range projects, many of you are probably wondering just what happened with My Quest to See the 1000 Greatest Films.  Well, the quest has been completed and I am at work on a book detailing said quest.  It will be part film journal, part film history, and part me rambling on and on and on.  You know, like how I am doing right now.  Anyway, said book will (hopefully) be on bookshelves sometime in 2014.  Wish me luck on the publication end of the whole thing.  Oh, and yeah, I have another project going right now as well.  It is a series of pieces on the Astaire/Rogers musicals.  I have already published the first two - Flying Down to Rio and The Gay Divorcee - and Roberta will be coming in a week or two, followed by the rest throughout the Summer.  Lots of stuff ahead.

Then there is this ditty I posted on Facebook back on February 27th:  Here are 51 randomly selected films, of varying degrees of popularity and cinematic impact, that I have never seen, but that I will finally watch in 2013, in no particular order.....South Pacific, Bus Stop, Peyton Place, Westworld, Down Argentine Way, Cavalcade, Wings, Sergeant York, The Bellboy, The Big Knife, The Sun Also Rises, Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Robe, The Fury, Patton, Death Race 2000, Zardoz, The Brother From Another Planet, Lady of Burlesque, The Sea Hawk, Royal Wedding, The Snake Pit, Battle Royale, One-Eyed Jacks, The Jazz Singer, Murder My Sweet, The Song of Bernadette, Knife in the Water, Red Dust, The Great Ziegfeld, The Life of Emile Zola, Tron, THX-1138, The Longest Day, Around the World in 80 Days, Hello Dolly, Akira, McLintock, Kitty Foyle, the original Imitation of Life, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Fly (1958), The Omega Man, Night Nurse, Flesh and the Devil, The Shooting, Wilder's The Front Page, Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, Our Man Flint and Showgirls.  Since making this rather bold announcement just over three months ago, I have watched exactly four of these films - Akira, Bus Stop, Westworld, and Tron.  Again, perhaps I best be getting my butt in gear and do the things I say I am going to do.  Hell, another seven of these are sitting in various forms of home entertainment, at home as I type these very words.

As always, my Battle Royale is still ongoing (and the latest one can be found conveniently near the top of the sidebar) and my bi-weekly pieces on sci-fi cinema can be found over at Forces of Geek.  An occasional ten best list can also be found at Anomalous Material, though not as frequently as in the past.  10 Best Motorcycle Movies is on the horizon for there.  There will also be some more Retro Reviews coming soon, and of course, new reviews will still keep coming at a steady rate.  Coming soon are reviews of Shane Carruth's stunning Upstream Color, and Abbas Kiarostami's latest, Like Someone in Love, as well as Linklater's Before Midnight, and Susanne Bier's Love is All You Need.  Maybe a mainstream review or two, as well.    Oh yeah, and don't forget to be back for post #1000, coming on or about May 3, 2014.  How's that for a bold prediction!?  But I am sure you will be along for the ride in the meantime.  At least ya better be.  See ya in the funny papers.  I will leave you with a picture of Ingmar Bergman and Bruce the Shark from Jaws.  Why?  Well, why the hell not!? 


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Battle Royale #15: Battle of the Tough Guys

Welcome to the fifteenth Battle Royale here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World.   It is an ongoing series that will pit two classic 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. 

Okay, perhaps using the term tough guys to describe this round's combatants is a bit unfair.  Perhaps it lowers what these two men did in their cinematic careers, to a mere one-dimensional stereotype.  These were more than mere one-dimensional tough guys - much much more.  Edward G. Robinson spoke seven languages, collected art - he even ran an art gallery with Vincent Price for a while - and was a man of great sophistication and taste.  James Cagney, meanwhile, no matter how many thugs and gangsters he would play, always considered himself to be a song and dance man - and even Oscar thought so, since his one and only Best Actor Academy Award was given to him for playing just that, song and dance man extraordinaire, George M. Cohan in 1942's Yankee Doodle Dandy.  Sure, both men grew up on the Lower East Side (Robinson was born in Romania but moved to NYC when he was nine), so they did have a childhood that would likely grow a tough guy or two, but these men were more than just their filmed image - more than just tough guys.  But hey, this is the Battle of the Tough Guys, so let us move on with that in mind.

Both men made their screen breakthroughs in 1931 playing gangsters - Robinson in Little Caesar and Cagney in Public Enemy - and would go onto long and storied careers playing both thugs and gangsters (ie, those aforementioned tough guys) as well as brave and loyal heroes.  Cagney's work in such varied offerings as The Mayor of Hell and White Heat to Man of a Thousand Faces and even A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Robisnon's performances in equally varied films like Tiger Shark and Key Largo to Double Indemnity and Soylent Green, make these two actors Hollywood legends (no doubt about that), but still, it is their tough guy image, their gangster roles, their hoods-with-heart (and sometimes no heart) that these great actors will best be remembered.  It is Robinson asking, "Is this the end of Rico?" and it is Cagney yelling "Made it Ma! Top of the World!"  And now it is your turn to tell the world which one of these Hollywood Tough Guys has made it.  Just go on over to the poll, positioned conveniently near the top of the sidebar, as cast your vote.  And remember, you can spout off all ya want in the comments section of this post (and please do, we like that), but your vote will only be counted if you go to the poll and make your decision.  And also, tell all your friends to vote, so we can get that vote total up to the triple digits.  Voting runs through Midnight EST on the night of Thursday, June 13th, just a little over two weeks from the starting gate, NOW EXTENDED UNTIL THURSDAY, JUNE 27TH AT MIDNIGHT, and the results will be announced and posted the following day.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Film Review: Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby

I can honestly say that I enjoyed Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby as much as I enjoyed Fitzgerald's original novel.  I suppose now would be as good a time as any to let it be known that I really am not much of a fan of Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby.  Granted, the 1922 classic novel is better than 99% of what passes as literature these days, and therefore could be considered a comparative masterpiece, but I just never got what all the hoopla was about.  Yes, it is a moderately entertaining work of fiction - good, but by no means as great as everyone seems to believe it to be - and I suppose belongs in the literary canon, but really, it is not all that people.  And to top things off, the one thing I most liked about the book is something that Luhrmann's adaptation rips to shreds, but more on that in a bit.  Let us first discuss the enigma that is a Baz Luhrmann picture.

Easily described as "not for everyone," the strange and unusual oeuvre that is that of Baz Luhrmann's, is most definitely an acquired taste - and a taste that not everyone will acquire, or even wants to acquire.  Starting his directorial career in 1992, with the bizarro rom-com, Strictly Ballroom, the Aussie auteur followed this up with what this critic considers the best damn adaptation of Romeo and Juliet yet put on film.   Modernizing the style, music and clothes, but keeping Shakespeare's words, Luhrmann's fast-paced, ultra-hip (probably too hip for many purists, as well as many of the more jaded critical set) cinematic spectacle was a big hit (Luhrmann took home Best Director at the Baftas) and gave the public the biggest taste of the director's style yet.  Then came Moulin Rouge in 2001, and Luhrmann took his unique style and exploded it upon the screen.  Moulin Rouge was, and still is, the director's most successful film (nominated for eight Academy Awards, and taking home two Oscars, for, no surprise, Art Direction and Costume Design), and is the best (or wost, depending on your opinion of Mr. Luhrmann and his directorial bent) example of the auteur's distinctive style, and what best makes the man as loved or as hated as he is.

Cut to twelve years later, and kind of tip-toeing past the mildly enjoyable but not greatly enjoyable 2008 film, Australia (the director's one film that seemed to have brought both Luhrmann-lovers and haters together in a common disdain), and here is Luhrmann taking on one of the most beloved books in American literary history (yeah, yeah, we already went over my thoughts on that).  Toning down his usual style (there is not near as much oomph as Moulin Rouge had), we still get what makes Luhrmann so visually transfixing, but we get it inside a film that just isn't all that interesting.  To quote a fellow critical compatriot, Christopher Orr of The Atlantic, said of the film, "When it's entertaining it's not Gatsby, and when it's Gatsby it's not entertaining."   Visually stunning at times, the film just falls flat in everything outside of this stunningness.  Let's face facts, Leo DiCaprio, a capable actor at best, is miscast as Jay Gatsby, while Tobey Maguire as narrator Nick Carraway, is as plainly vanilla as he always is, and Carey Mulligan, easily the most talented of the bunch, is just not right for the part of Daisy Buchanan.  Joel Edgerton is the only one with the right stuff to pull of his performance as Tom, Daisy's philandering hubby.   But it is Mulligan's portrayal of the iconic Daisy, or more appropriately, Luhrmann's narrative rendition of Daisy, that brings us to the part that I am most disturbed with.  

In Fitzgerald's novel, Daisy is a shallow party girl who wants nothing more than to have fun, ultimately at the tragic expense of those who are misguided enough to believe her love for them is real.  In Luhrmann's movie, since the director is so gung-ho about tragic romance,we get a Daisy who does seem to love and have deeper feelings, and when we get to the end, and are left with Maguire speaking Fitzgerald's words on how "Tom and Daisy are capable only of cruelty and destruction; they are kept safe from the consequences of their actions by their fortress of wealth and privilege," a passage that is probably the crux of Fitzgerald's indictment on the societal woes of his time, ends up not making any sense whatsoever in the context of Luhrmann's film.  Yeah, yeah, sure, it's fun to look at and all, but even the tepid waters of Fitzgerald's overrated classic, seem teaming with sharks when compared to Luhrmann's effort here.  The director's unique style could make him something akin to the Busby Berkeley of his day, if only he would stick to the musical genre (a remake of The Golddiggers of 1933 maybe?) and leave things like this (overrated yes, but still with some deeper meanings and ideas) to others.  "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."  This final line of the novel, spoken here by the aforementioned Mr. Vanilla, is something Luhrmann takes, and flies with - only he has no idea what it even means.

Film Review: Gilles Bourdos' Renoir

I do not trust the cinematic taste of anyone who does not include Jean Renoir in their list of the greatest directors.  The cinematic equivalent of Proust in literature or Dylan in music, Renoir modernized film, and helped give birth to a new sensibility in moviemaking.  Known as the patron saint of the French Nouvelle vague, or New Wave if you will, and one of the biggest influences on Italian Neo-Realism, Renoir made everything after him, from Godard and Truffaut to Visconti and Fellini to Scorsese and Resnais, possible.  Granted, there were other contemporaries of Renoir of equal stature and influence - Welles, Lang, Chaplin, Lubitsch and Hitchcock come immediately to mind - but to say Renoir changed the way modern film was made, or at the very least was one of modern cinema's most influential entities, is not just mere hyperbole, it is ground-in-truth fact - and anyone who says otherwise just ain't copacetic in my book.  But then, I am not here to wag on and on about my love and respect for M. Renoir, but instead, to discuss a new biopic about, not just Renoir the younger, but of his father, Pierre-Auguste, as well.

Taking place during the horrors of World World I, though far removed from the front lines, Gilles Bourdos' Renoir, is actually the story of Andrée Heuschling (later Catherine Hessling) who was the beautiful young model of pere Renoir and the later wife of, and actress for, the younger Renoir, and how she was the bridge between generations of great artistic men.  The reason I went all gaga over our intrepid filmmaker in my opening paragraph is due to the fact that I really do not have all that much to say about the film itself.   Neither a great work of art nor a trainwreck of a movie, Bourdos' film is highlighted merely by the look of the film - it's visual cadence, if you will.  Dressed up to look somewhat like an impressionist painting, the film has an inherent beauty in its palette, even if it does not manage to sweep us away with its narrative or acting.  Sure, Michel Bouquet, Claude Chabrol's go-to guy back in the day, does a fine piece of acting as the great impressionist painter, but the other two leads, Vincent Rottiers and Christa Theret, as future director and flame-haired muse, respectively, are painfully boring in the roles.  Mainly just able to look pretty, which for anyone who has ever seen a picture of Jean Renoir knows, that has never really been the case, these two just swoon about in and out of the aforementioned painterly cinematography of Mark Lee Ping Bin of The Flowers of Shanghai and In the Mood For Love fame (he shared credit with Christopher Doyle on the latter).

Never much of a fan of biopics, especially biopics of favourite directors - and yes, I realize this is not technically a biopic of Jean Renoir, the filmmaker, as the film ends a good five years before the great man ever even steps behind a camera, but it is close enough to count here - the film was destined to not exactly float my so-called boat - and float it, it did not.  Better than Richard Linklater's feeble Me and Orson Welles (though the central performance there, by British actor Christian McKay, is dead on perfect) or the equally feeble, though again, well acted, My Week with Marilyn or last year's doubly feeble Hitchcock, Renoir nonetheless never impresses enough to be called something spectacular.  As I said, not a bad film, but certainly nothing great either, and outside of the visual aspects of the film, this film never catches fire as damn well it should.  And, in the end, a mediocre movie is oft times a worse travesty than making a truly terrible picture.  At least when legendary auteur du affreux Ed Wood made one of his monstrosities, there was love behind them - even if it was a tilted, cock-eyed kind of love - but when one makes a middle-of-the-road thing, much like Bourdos has done here, that love seems to be on a break from the relationship.  If anything, this film has made me want to go and rewatch all of Renoir's oeuvre - not that such a thing would take much of a push - or maybe check out pere Renoir's work at the closest museum.


Film Review: Danny Boyle's Trance

Trance, Danny Boyle's tenth film as director, is one of those movies where you are never quite sure who to trust and who not to trust, even after the end credits roll.  To some, judging from initial reaction to the film, this style of storytelling can be quite annoying, but to this critic, it is almost like that proverbial manna from the proverbial heavens.  Of course, judging from reactions to all of Boyle's oeuvre, the director is one of those people who can be quite annoying to many as well.  On this, I am apt to at least partially agree - god, the overzealous award-baiting of the ultimately mediocre Slumdog Millionaire is enough to rile any critical feathers - but when Boyle is on, he is fucking on - and with Trance, he is fucking on as all hell.

With a marketing campaign that relies heavily on those who liked Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, and 28 Days Later (the only three of Boyle's films mentioned in the trailer), while ignoring the director's big Oscar winning film, the aforementioned over-praised mainstreamy Slumdog, Trance is the kind of film that flies under the radar, only to be thought of as a sort of cult classic a decade or two down the line.  Okay, maybe it won't get the cult status that something like 28 Days or Trainspotting have gotten (Trance, though quite enjoyable, is still not on the level of those films), but the movie does have that kind of vibe.  Unsure of who is doing what to whom, and who is playing whom, Boyle's tale of art thieves, the amnesiac man who holds the secret of where the stolen art is, and the psychotherapist/hypnotist who can bring it all out in bloody, gory, and surprising time, is a thoroughly intriguing film, from innocent start to batshitcrazy finale.

Helping to make this film as intriguing as it happens to be (Boyle's auteurist's touch does do visual wonders though) is the cast.  Led by James McAvoy as our intrepid amnesiac antagonist, Rosario Dawson as the hypnotist with a secret, and French bad boy Vincent Cassel as the art thief with the most charmingly dangerous attitude, the film, and in turn, it's characters, play fast and loud with the rules of narrative storytelling, and even though it is nothing ground-breaking and/or Earth-shattering, it is easily one of the most intriguing, one of the most multi-leveled films of this year.  And then, when we get to the end - that aforementioned batshitcrazy finale - and we find out who is who and what is what, and who did what to whom - and granted, Trance may not be as convoluted as say, The Big Sleep, or something akin to that - those of us who are not annoyed by such cinematic antics, are left with a feeling of giddy inclusion with the characters we have just come to love and hate and love and hate all over again.  It really is a fun and twisty ride.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Forces of Geek "A History of Sci-Fi Cinema" - Pt VIII

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 eighth in the series, I take a look at the year 1953, a year with some of the very best sci-fi films, and one of the very very worst films, of any genre and of any time, ever made.

Read my column, "1953: Invaders From Mars, War of the Worlds & One of the Worst Films Ever Made," at Forces of Geek.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Battle Royale #14: Battle of the Laconic Leading Men (The Results)

So, we have a battle of two of the greatest leading men in cinematic history, and can only convince 32 people to decide between them?  Crazy, I tell ya, crazy.  Well, anyway, after our second lowest voter turnout in Battle Royale history, we do have a winner to announce between the battle between laconic leading men, Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck.  And that winner is, with a difference of just two votes, 17 to 15, or 53% to 47% for the stats nerds in the crowd, Mr. Frank James Cooper, better known as Gary Cooper.  Yes folks, it looks like Sergeant York is slightly more popular than Atticus Finch. Lou Gehrig over Captain Ahab.  Jimmy Ringo beaten down by Link Jones.  But yeah, it was pretty damn close - just the way we like it here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World - and therefore, a true battle.  A true Battle Royale.  Then again, the voter turnout would make this an even better thing.  With each Battle Royale, I wish and hope to get those voting numbers into the triple digits, but it has yet to happen.  With a career best of 66 votes (waaay back in Battle Royale #2) and a career low of 28, it just seems like the idea of such an ongoing contest is something unwanted by most people out there.  You would think there would be enough classic cinema fans out there in cyberland to make this kind of thing a big success, but alas, it does not seem to be.  But enough bellyachin', we have another Battle Royale to prepare for in just a few days, and this one is going to be a tough one...a tough guy one in fact.  See ya in a few days with the battlin' combatants - and maybe this time more people will care about the whole shebang.


Monday, May 20, 2013

Guest Review: Carter Liotta Looks at Val Lewton - Part I

The following is the first in a series of guest reviews by my good friend, Carter Liotta.  Mild mannered eye doctor during the day, and ravenous cinephile at night, Liotta, whose writing, digital videos and pithiness can be found at his delightfully droll Wordpress sight, takes a look at the works of legendary film producer Val Lewton.  We here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World (which means, me) are glad to have him aboard.  Enjoy.

*************

Cat People (1942)

In 1942, the studio heads at RKO gave Val Lewton his first title to turn into a movie,  Cat People.  On a budget of $150,000 and with no-name actors, what could have become a display of sub-par special effects and bad makeup instead was turned into a taut, psychological drama by Lewton and his team.

Written by DeWitt Bodeen, and directed by Jacques Tourneur, Cat People follows the Lewton formula for which his other movies would become known: two scenes of implied, questionable horror, one scene of actual, graphic horror, cut, wrap, print.  Lewton’s sense of terror dealt with the unseen and the unknown – the feeling of being followed, or the sense of being watched, rather than the blood and gore of slasher films, or the terrifying monsters of Universal Studios.  Indeed the first half of Cat People could easily be mistaken for a relationship drama.

We are introduced to Irena (Simone Simon), an immigrant from Serbia, and Oliver (Kent Smith), the architect that meets her at the Central Park Zoo in front of the panther cage and decides to court her.  By the time their first date ends, she has dramatically recounted cultural lore: the village she left behind was filled with Satanists who ran to the hills when King John brought Christianity to Serbia. Allegedly, there are still descendants of these Satanists who, provoked by anger or sex or jealousy, turn into giant panthers.  

Irena believes that she may be one of these “cat people,” but Oliver assures her that the lore is poppycock and marries her.  Fearing demonic transition, Irena refuses to kiss her husband, much less consummate the marriage, and Oliver, thinking that his wife is crazy, seeks advice from a psychiatrist (Tom Conway) as well as his co-worker, Alice (Jane Randolph).  When Irena learns that Oliver is seeking counsel and emotional support from another woman, she begins to spy, and is piqued by jealousy.

It is during the third quarter of the movie that it launches into horror.  Neither Oliver nor Alice believe that Irena can really turn into a cat.  But why does Jane feel she is being stalked?  Did the wind rattle the bushes, or was something there?  Are the shadows in the indoor swimming area a giant cat, or a trick of the eye and reflections of the water?  Moreover, Irena has the keys to the panther cage at the zoo – so if it is a cat, is it the zoo panther, or Irena?

Beyond the obvious plot, are the movie’s subtexts – Irena’s shame of sex and emotion brought on by the religion of her youth, further given life by Simone Simon’s cold, detached performance.

Cat People was lensed by Nicholas Musuranca, who, with Jacques Tourneur went on to make Out of the Past, a noir masterpiece.  Like a great noir, the movie is as much about fog and shadows, sharp angles and high contrast black-and-white, as it is about the actual plot devices.  Cat People is also about sound, be it the clicking of shoes on pavement or the echoing of screams in an indoor pool.  Sound is cheap on a low budget, and John Cass, an A+ Foley artist working for RKO’s B-movie department, provides terrifying ambiance.

Of note: The luxurious apartment in which Irena lives was the mansion set constructed for Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. Cat People cost $134,000 to make, and grossed $4 million, while Ambersons cost $850,000 and lost $620,000.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Film Review: J.J. Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness

"Space: the final frontier."  It has been nearly 47 years since those words were first uttered on prime time television.  Now being a spry youth of just 45, I was not yet around to hear these iconic words when they were first spoken, but I can sure as hell call myself a trekker from way back, as I grew up on reruns of the show in the 1970's, and am thrilled by the new places and old glories J.J. Abrams has taken good ole NCC 1701.

Only running a mere three seasons, or just 79 episodes, before being canceled by NBC for lack of ratings (a move that looks quite silly in retrospect), the iconic Star Trek spawned an animated series, four spin-offs, several web series, including a new one making its debut later this month, twelve movies (six original series, four Next Generation, and now two in J.J. Abrams' reboot run) and a veritable slew of toys, games and other sundry items.  When Abrams came out with his aforementioned reboot in 2009, many die-hard fans were skeptical (downright vicious even), but once seeing the film, at least this die-hard fan was amazed.  Somehow Abrams, a guy who has admitted to having never been much of a fan of the original series (blasphemy, I know), managed to put together a film that could satisfy both the fanboys and those without much Trek knowledge.  I believe I myself may have even called it the best of the, then eleven, Trek films (I know, blasphemy again), and even had the audacity to include it in my top ten for the year.  Now cut to four years later, and Abrams has managed to pull it off again.  Granted, perhaps not to the extent he did it in 2009, but the director has indeed made a most enjoyable film - even with what some might call (but not this critic) a rather dubious last act.

Like the eponymously titled 2009 film, Star Trek Into Darkness holds true to the Trek of old - Abrams keeps on Trekkin', if you will - while also giving us a taste of the bold and the new.  From Spock and Uhura's strange bedfellow coupling (hot and heavy as a Pon Farr Summer) and a climactic chase scene on and over the streets of San Francisco to Chris Pine's snarky Shatneresque smile and the return, however brief, of Leonard Nimoy's iconic pointy-eared logician, Abrams' film still plays at crossing from one beloved universe into a new one, boldly going where...well, you know the rest.  And yes, Abrams' wonderfully decisive lens flares are here as well.  Now if we could only get some Klingon action.  The screenplay, written by Abrams' 2009 screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, this time joined by Abrams' old Lost buddy, Damon Linelof, is at times quaint and adoring, while also managing a sort of edge, even with some rather cornbally - though Trek-appropriate cornbally - dialogue mixed in.

What is most important is that in between the space tragedy and f/x spectacle (and those effects are quite spectacular by the by), we get a humour that hearkens back to the original series.  Pine and Zachory Quinto, as the younger Kirk and Spock (32 and 35 respectively, both actors are about the same age as Shatner and Nimoy, both 35 at the time, when they first played the roles) have a great chemistry on screen - a chemistry that also hearkens back to the original series.  Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, Zoe Saldana as Lt. Uhura, Simon Pegg as Lt. Commander Montgomery Scott (he is marvelous in the role actually), John Cho as Lt. Sulu and Anton Yelchin as Ensign Chekov, all returning from Abrams' opening reboot, are all form-fitting in their respective roles as well.  We even get a glimpse of the Klingons, but only a glimpse.  Seriously J.J., we want more Klingons.

And speaking of villains, this one has a doozy - even if it is not the Klingons.  This, by the way, is where you avert your eyes for fear of having things revealed that you may not wish revealed - though to be honest, none of it is really all that much of a surprise.  The doozy of a villain of whom I speak, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, the English actor with the great name and the even greater voice, and his performance as old foe returneth, that old s.o.b., Khan Noonien Singh, is pitch perfect.  First seen in the 1967 original series episode, "Space Seed", and then encountered again in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (played by Ricardo Montalbán in both excursions), the character is a superstrong human with murder in his eyes and revenge on his tongue, and Cumberbatch brings the old villain back to glorious, menacing life here.  He may not be as flamboyant as Montalbán was, but then Ricardo was quite the drama queen, wasn't he?

Now there are a few of my fellow critical compatriots, who have complained about what Abrams does with the character and where he takes the film in its final act.  Some more critical than I have gone so far as to call this final act a cheat and a rip-off, and even plagiarism, which is just ridiculous, and I don't believe that for a second.  Not to give anything away, but Abrams, instead of creating something truly new (as he did in 2009), revisits many of the aspects of The Wrath of Khan, sometimes changing who does what and what happens to whom (in the whole character dynamic, what happens does make sense though), perhaps revisiting some aspects a bit too much and a bit too closely for this to be anything truly new and boldly refreshing for some, but I must admit, when a certain character does a certain thing which I was wondering if this certain character was going to do, it was quite a thrill - and I may actually have done an inadvertent fist pump to myself when this thing did happen.

Sure, Into Darkness may not have flipped my switch quite the same way the bold, new Abrams' first Trek did - an iconic thing in the making there - though it is only lesser by a minute amount, and it most certainly is still a damn entertaining piece of space adventure, and its final shot leads one to believe - to hope even - there is more to come, even if J.J. is heading off to the Star Wars universe soon, to deal with Wookiees and space pirates and Jedi Knights, and may not do the next Trek, if there is indeed a next Trek (no one has directed more than two Trek films btw).  I suppose, in the whole pantheon of Trek, I would place this nugget neatly in at fifth place amongst the twelve theatrical films.  Perhaps not up there with Abrams' first go-around, nor with Wrath of Khan, Voyage Home or the original, often overlooked, 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but good enough to be on par with Search for Spock and Generations, and surely above the rest.  But I am nerding out now, so I shall digress.

From a purely cinematic standpoint, much like the oft-mentioned here 2009 edition, Into Darkness is a boon for both the faithful and the virgins.  No, you need not know anything about the Prime Directive, or that Carol Marcus and Jim Kirk will eventually have a child together (at least in the so-called Prime Universe they do), or how a warp drive works or get the little references (Tribbles AND Harry Mudd) or feel a nostalgic pang for the lovable gruff of Bones McCoy or the cocksure flabbergasting of Scotty, or why it is such a nerdgasm to have that aforementioned certain character do that certain thing, to truly enjoy this film (nerding out again!).  Sure, it helps to know the mythos of this world, but it is not necessary - and that is how J.J. Abrams makes peace in the chaotic universe of Star Trek, and perhaps in his upcoming rebooting of that other Star-related franchise as well.  To steal and paraphrase a line from you-know-who (both Prime and New Universe versions), may this series truly live long and prosper.  Now really, let's bring on the Klingons.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Retro Review: J.J. Abram's Star Trek (2009)

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.  With the release of Star Trek Into Darkness, I figured this was as good a time as any to look back at J.J. Abram's first rebooting of the Trek Universe.  On a side note, if someone were to ask me to name the best review I have ever written, I believe I would have to go with the one you are about to read - so we have that going for it as well.  Enjoy.  My review of Star Trek Into Darkness will be up and running either Thursday or Friday.

*************

Forty-three years after Gene Roddenberry first boldly went where no one had gone before and thirty years after the first cinematic endeavor and twenty-two years after the coming of the next generation and seven years after the last movie attempt (and at least fifteen years after anyone really cared anymore), Star Trek has been reborn - or should I say, rebooted.

Daring us to once again boldly go, while at the same time tagging us with the bold statement that this was no longer our father's Star Trek (or in the case of us "older folks" who grew up with the original series - "our" Star Trek), TV wunderkind J.J. Abrams, probably the best mainstream director working today, has managed the seemingly impossible.   He has made a Star Trek so ingrained with four plus decades of sci-fi mythology as to please even the most discerning of die-hard Trekkers (even those still living in their parent's basement at near middle age - their own phasers set on stun) while at the same time keeping it youthful enough, modern enough, to bring aboard those legions of novice Starfleet cadets that the franchise is in so desperate need of gaining.  Abrams, just like a young and cocky James Tiberius Kirk, has beaten the unbeatable Kobayashi Maru - and he only cheated a little.   How's that for a reference sure to confound all those aforementioned neophyte cadets yet thrill the legions of Trek nerds I boldly announce myself as completely in tune with?
 
Using the time-tested (pun very much intended) Trek standby (re: cheat) of time travel to create what is in essence an alternate reality Star Trek, Abrams comes aboard, as brash and full of bravado as Chris Pine's newly retooled rebel without a cause, Kirk himself, with not just a beloved sci-fi universe rolled out in front of him, but with the suave beauty of a clean slate to boldly go wherever he damn well pleases - and boldly he does indeed go.  Abrams (born mere months before the original series first flew into living rooms across America) can have his space cake and eat it to - and blow it up if he wants (which he does in part).   Just like Roddenberry back in '66, it lays at his feet for him to do with whatever he so desires.  After seeing the finished product, this self admitted Star Trek nerd can safely say he believes that Roddenberry is looking down from his resting place amongst the stars with a happy heart - or at least he damn well should be, because Abrams has created a loving tribute to the universe that Roddenberry created oh those forty plus years ago.

The story begins, as always, in the heat of battle.   A federation ship is being attacked by Nero, a renegade Romulan looking more like a Maori beyond Thunderdome than the traditional Romulan of Trek lore.  When the ship's captain is summoned over to the Romulan's obvious deathtrap, he places a young officer by the name of George Kirk in command.   To make a long story short, Kirk goes down with his ship after making sure the crew, along with his giving-birth-right-now wife and their fresh-faced new son, one James Tiberius Kirk, are shuttled off to safety.  It is pure space opera and it works on just that level.  After this we get backstories and character introductions (and even get to see cadet Kirk's tryst with a green-skinned alien) and finally just why that damned Nero is so pissed off at the federation - and especially Spock.  We even get allusions to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when Nero screeches Spock!!! into the otherwise soundproof environs of space just as Shatner's Kirk yelled Khan!!!.  It's just as cheesy and just as fun.   Pauline Kael once wrote of the second Trek movie that it was "wonderful dumb fun" and this is certainly no different - and I too, just like the late Miss Kael, mean that with the utmost sincerity and adoration.

And the new cast, the veritable nexus of chat room speculation and argumentative controversy ever since Abrams' revamping plans began to first unfold, works as well.   Chris Pine as the iconic Captain Kirk is a twenty-something horndog roustabout who joins Starfleet more out of spite or on a dare than out of any sense of duty.  The perpetually brooding Zachary Quinto plays the even more iconic Mr. Spock with a Vulcan calmness just this side of emotional eruption.  He looks so much like Nimoy one must wonder if he wasn't born to play the part.  Karl Urban, in one of the most dead reckoning impersonations in the group, plays Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy with the same bug-eyed curmudgeonry as DeForest Kelly's original grizzled anti-social country doctor with a taste for bourbon and a definitive distaste for space travel.  Then there is Simon Pegg doing Scotty in high brogue as only a comic actor can and should do him.  My one major criticism of the film is there is not enough Scotty (he doesn't even make an appearance until around minute 85 or 90).  We also get Zoe Saldana as the smokin' hot Uhura in retro mini skirt and gogo boots (she really doesn't have much else to do), John Cho (Harold, sans Kumar) as the helmsman Sulu, Anton Yelchin as a seventeen year old Pavel Chekov, with a major case of 23rd century ADD, Bruce Greenwood as the ill-fated Captain Christopher Pike, Ben Cross and Winona Ryder as Spock's star-crossed parents, Eric Bana as the aforementioned Khan-esque Nero and even Tyler Perry as a Starfleet Admiral (luckily not trying to be "very funny").

All the favorite characters are here (but where are Nurse Chapel and Yeoman Rand?) fulfilling their duty as newly appointed icons, replete with all the old standard lines that have become part of sci-fi lore, but still, as always, this is the Kirk and Spock show.  Philosophically set against each other - Kirk and Spock, body and mind - we watch the beginnings of an eternal struggle put to rest by the almost symbiotic way these two opposite reactions work together toward the same goal.  Both are great in the parts but it is Pine who has the decidedly tougher mountain to climb.   Pine has to channel the bravura of Shatner's Kirk but also avoid falling into the drama queen over excess of Shatner the actor.  A friend describes Shatner lovingly (sort of) as that embarrassing uncle who tries to get you to fish around in his pocket for a present.   Shatner's presence, bloated jackass or not (and don't get me wrong, I loved him in the original role), will always be there and yet Pine manages to parlay only the good into his transformation into Captain James T. Kirk.

Yet, the old school Trekker in me (I was just two years old when the original series was canceled due to low ratings!? but grew up on the seventies reruns) cannot help but keep returning to Leonard Nimoy's Spock Prime.   More than just a glorified cameo, Spock Prime, who's inadvertent delineation of the known timeline which flips everything on its head is the nadir of the film's story, is the very heart and soul of the new Star Trek.  Watching Nimoy back where he belongs and obviously loving every moment of his trek back home (pun intended again) is like once again seeing that beloved childhood friend you never even realized you missed like crazy but who has been in the back of your mind for years and years and years.  Just as Nimoy has gone home again (and who said you couldn't?) so to has this once, and always, impressionable perpetual youth.

Forty-three years of pop culture references - from South Park and Family Guy to Galaxy Quest, SNL and even That 70's Show - and the franchise of Star Trek, with its phasers and communicators and its "beam me up Scotty" apocryphals, is still alive.  Perhaps it has been on life support for a while now - kept alive long after any real interest in the later spin-offs and elongated episodic cinematic endeavors has gone as kaput as a red-shirted ensign on a landing party - but no matter how sick it may have become, the imagery has never died.  It is this very pop culture and all the mythos and iconography which surrounds it that makes Abrams reboot work as well as it does.  His sleek new look that never takes away from the now-retro original series is a pitch-perfect melange of old and new sensibilities.  My critical half (aka my pretentious half) is inline with my nerd half and I too can have my cake and eat it as well.

In the final scene, when everyone is on the bridge in those iconic (and somewhat cooler) original episode uniforms - I actually got chills (god, I am a nerd!!!) and Pine's subtle Shatneresque smirk and slap on Bones' shoulder and the way he sits in that captain's chair, legs crossed a la Shatner, along with the obvious love and care in giving us Nimoy's Spock "Prime", shows that though this is not our father's Star Trek and is definitely boldly going where no one has gone before, it would and could still hold high reverence for all that had come before it.  The mythology is still there and yet, like Zefram Cochrane making first contact, Abrams brings new life to this long dead Phoenix and we realize we can boldly go anywhere from here.  What more could we ever ask for?  Now bring on the Klingons.  Live long and prosper. 

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 05/09/09]


Monday, May 13, 2013

Film Review: Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach, the Brooklyn-born writer/director of such arthouse hits as Kicking and Screaming, Margot at the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale, is at it again.  This time around he is joined by muse/girlfriend Greta Gerwig (last seen, Baumbach-wise, in the director's last effort, Greenberg) as co-screenwriter and star.  The film, done in crisp black and white (actually shot in colour and, in the most anti-Ted Turner style, transferred into monochrome) and shot on a minimal budget in and around Brooklyn, is the story of a twentysomething New York dancer - or perhaps we should say, wannabe dancer - who is semi-abandoned by her BFF when a better apartment in Tribeca comes up.  The film follows the intrepid Frances, as played quite instinctively by Ms. Gerwig (she did create the character after all), as she hops from apartment to apartment, straining to move on from her slackeresque past and into an uncertain future.  Both whimsical and jaded, and at times quite brilliant, Frances Ha is the kind of arthouse film that many would, and many indeed have, called pretentious.

Now the term pretentious has been used to describe Baumbach and his work since pretty much the beginning, but such a term is merely an angry tool used by those critics, and so-called average filmgoers, who do not fully understand what the writer and/or director is going for.  Much like how the Republicans have turned the word Liberal into a dirty word, critics with little to no knowledge of what cinema is all about, have taken the term pretentious - which granted does not shine the greatest of lights on its intended subject to begin with - and use it to describe anything that potentially goes over their head - anything that is too arty for their sensibilities.  In other words, the cinema of, among others, Noah Baumbach.  Now I realize Frances Ha, with its lackadaisical take on being young in the big city (damn hipster whipper-snappers I can hear them yelping now) or its monochromatic artistic affectations (artsy-fartsy they complain), or its constant allusions to the French New Wave, is not a film for everyone (but then what film is) and one could easily, and bluntly describe it as Woody Allen makes a Mumblecore homage to François Truffaut, which of course would throw off most of these aforementioned shoot-from-the-hip critics, as well as most of your multiplex denizens, but those who toss the film off as mere pretentious arthouse gobbely-gook, are missing out on what is, for all intents and purposes, a rather brilliantly quaint film.

My second favourite Baumbach, following just The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha can be seen as the most Trauffaut influenced film yet by the director who has already been influenced by Truffaut more than any other American director working today.  The indie auteur freely and happily admits such a connection, such an influence, but he need not have to do this since it is oh so obvious to anyone who has seen a Truffaut film.  Aside from the occasional Truffaut poster popping up in the background, or namedropping someone like Jean-Pierre Léaud (as well as Proust for the true Francophile), the film just feels like something the Nouvelle auteur would have made in his hey day.  One can also see allusions to Truffaut's comrade-in-cinematic-arms Godard as well - from strategically-placed fedoras and purposely-placed shots where one is surprised to not see the film's characters break into a spontaneous rendition of the Madison, all the way to Gerwig playing Anna Karina to Baumbach's Godard - but the film, no matter how many so-called homage moments spring up (post-new waver Leos Carax is referenced as well), is pure Baumbach - for better or for worse, depending on your opinion of the director in general (one twat of a critic even went so far as to say that he wished the director's mother had decided on an abortion) - but here it is a less bitter Baumbach that we saw in films like Squid and Margot.

This kindler, gentler - but still quite acerbic when need be - Baumbach is most likely due to the influence of Gerwig, the cutest thing going these days.   The lovely and talented Miss Gerwig is an actor full of vim and vigor, and one not afraid to take chance after chance after chance.   From her early days of being the one-time princess of the Mumblecore movement, to her fumbled foray into mainstream Tinsel Town (and no, the awfulness of the 2011 Arthur remake had nothing to do with our Greta), to her often misunderstood brilliance in such little films as Damsels in Distress and Lola Versus, to her inevitable turn with Woody Allen (seriously, what idiot would choose the bland Ellen Page over Gerwig in any movie!??), right up to her work with her significant other here in this film, Gerwig is like a goddamn sunbeam to cinema - and I mean that in the most positive, goddamn life-affirming way possible.  Seriously though, Gerwig is the most positive of actors, while also seeming real and sincere unique, and even comically dark at times.  She is somebody who, when asked at the post New York Film Festival screening Q&A why she acts the way she acts, referenced Johnny Cash on when he said he plays guitar "this way" because he knows no other.  Perhaps this is the reason Baumbach makes films in the way he does - he knows no other way.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Film Review: Terrence Malick's To the Wonder

I do not trust the cinematic tastes of anyone who does not include Terrence Malick in their list of the best directors working today, but let's face facts, the masses, the typical multiplex moviegoers, do not "get" Terrence Malick, and they most likely never will.  Malick, who's first feature, 1973's Badlands, was a pretty straightforward story of love and lust and spree-killing, has become more and more esoteric over the years, and in turn less and less linear, and moving gleefully further and further away from traditional narrative storytelling.  From the melodic Days of Heaven in 1978 to the fragmented narrative of The Thin Red Line in 1998 to the other-worldliness of 2005's The New World to the enigmatic bravado of The Tree of Life two years ago, the auteur has become more and more out of touch with those aforementioned multiplex masses, but at the same time, he has become more and more in tune with those of a more artistic, a more cinematic bent.  If you happen to be one of those who hated The Tree of Life - and sadly enough, there are a lot of you out there - then you will probably dislike the director's latest film, To the Wonder, just as rabidly, but for those who consider The Tree of Life to be a masterpiece - just like this critic does - then To the Wonder, though not quite as spectacular, as eye-popping a creature as the former film, is just your proverbial cup of tea, and not to sound too condescending and/or film snobbish, but it is really this group of cinephiles for whom I write this review.  Others be damned, because to paraphrase Truffaut's exclamations about those who did not like Nick Ray's Johnny Guitar, if one does not appreciate Malick, then one does not understand cinema.

To do what one might call a film review proper, I am told one must give a brief, non-spoiler-riddled synopsis of said film.  I personally, have never adhered to such a proper way of doing things, and oft times skip the plot altogether, moving onto and discussing the feel, mood and/or look of the film instead.  Some readers - probably those who do not "get" Malick, if we are being honest - may take issue to such an approach, but that has never bothered me.  With a film like To the Wonder though, none of this ever comes into play, as we are critiquing a film that really has no plot proper, nor any kind of reasonably sufficient way of synopsisizing such a non-plot.  Basically, we have art-for-art's-sake, and even though that may not be enough for all those aforementioned mainstream moviegoers, it is truly cinema at its purest, most unadulterated form.  Once you let the film pour over you, as if you are lying on the beach and the waves are Malick's cinematic tendrils, lapping across your body and your mind, the film becomes something akin to a dream.  Such a description may seem rather cliché - and I suppose, worded that way, it is quite cliché - but it is nonetheless as accurate a statement as any made on or about the film - or for that matter, Malick's entire oeuvre.  Malick's films defy description - another cliché perhaps - and therefore are perfect to use as a discussion of pure filmmaking - which I suppose, we should get along to now.

Basically, to give whatever description I can, the film is about life and love and god and salvation.  Vague enough for ya?  Good.  Seriously though, To the Wonder, much in the same way most of Malick's films have, delves into the meanings of life, and who or what is god, and how or why we need to be saved or redeemed or whatever some religions call such a thing.  If you are looking for deep and philosophical discussions and pontificating diatribes on these subjects, you are not about to find that in Malick.  What you will find is thought and conceptual ideas, a visual feel for the holy and the spiritual, what you will find is the metaphysical and the metaphorical.   Sure, you will see Ben Affleck, fresh off his Oscar night winnings, and you will see Javier Bardem and Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams, but you will not really see Ben Affleck and the others, for they are merely playing pieces for Malick to place where he wishes.  Pawns for the director's will, you might say.  Affleck, ostensibly the star of the film, has maybe thirty or forty lines of dialogue, many of which are trailed off to a whisper half way through.  This is not a Ben Affleck film, this is a Terrence Malick film, and that shows in the lack of obvious structure, making way for an abstract expressionistic hand instead.  The film may not say much to those dumbed-down masses that thrive on reality TV and pop music, but for those that can see the supposedly unseeable - wow.  Wow indeed.

Granted, To the Wonder may not be to the level of brilliance that The Tree of Life exuded.  Along with Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life is one of Malick's true masterpieces, and even though I would not use such a word when describing the auteur's other four films - mainly because I wish not to toss around such a word willy-nilly until it loses all its inherent power - To the Wonder is still a quite brilliant visual and aural essay on god and salvation.   When The Tree of Life came out, flocks of mainstream audiences rushed for the exit doors, unable to deal with or understand the visions that were coming out of Malick's camera-mind, his Kino-eye, if you will - so much so that many theaters had to post warnings claiming that no refunds would be issued for not liking (nee, understanding) the film.   To the Wonder takes much the same non-linear approach that The Tree of Life did, though perhaps not as excruciating for the average viewer, nor as long, as this film comes in a good forty minutes lighter than the former (and their are no dinosaurs or big bang-esque painterly moments, and therefore receives much the same confused and confusing reaction.  As for this critic, To the Wonder is a beautiful and succulent work of cinematic art, and is highly recommended to any takers who think they are up to such a supposedly daunting task.  And remember, if you do not like or understand Malick, then you do not understand cinema.  

I would like to end this review with a quote from someone who understood cinema to the greatest of degrees.  Roger Ebert has always been one of my favourite critics, and the one man I would always go to when wanting to know about a particular film, or even cinema as a whole.  Although I never had the honour of meeting the man, I was lucky enough to have several correspondences with him in the final few years of his life.  To the Wonder was the last film review Roger Ebert ever wrote, handing it three and a half stars out of four.  It was published just a few days after his passing.   To the Wonder is a particularly difficult film to sum up in a few words - and I know I did not accomplish that here in my review of many words - but I think Ebert did it better than anyone else.  Roger said of the film, "A more conventional film would have assigned a plot to these characters and made their motivations more clear. Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision."  I could not have said it any better myself.


Friday, May 10, 2013

Pennlive Go Watch This: Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus

Well kids, it looks like I have another new gig.  This time it is a monthly-ish (?) piece for the fine folks over at Pennlive, a local news and entertainment website.  These are mainly just little fluff pieces, nothing in depth at all, but as they say, a byline is a byline.  But seriously folks, Go Watch This is a series that is meant to have local film knowledgeable peeps take a look at lesser known films - at least lesser known by mainstream standards - and tell the less film knowledgeable peeps why they need to, um...go watch this.  My first piece for the series is on Marcel Camus' beautiful 1959 film, Black Orpheus.  Coincidentally (not really), Black Orpheus also happens to be playing on May 18th and 19th at Midtown Cinema (the art house cinema my lovely wife and I run, for those not in the know), so it acts as a plug as well.  Anyway, go to the link below and check it out, as thee kids are saying.  My next one will be in June sometime.

Read my article on Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus at Pennlive's Go Watch This.


Forces of Geek "A History of Sci-Fi Cinema" - Pt VII

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 seventh in the series, I take a look at the cheap films and super TV from the year 1952, one of the early years of the decade that what would become known as the hey day of sci-fi cinema.

Read my column, "1952: The Year of the Slave Girl and the Man of Steel on TV," at Forces of Geek.

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

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Guest Review: Carter Liotta Looks at Val Lewton - Introduction

The following is the introduction to a series of guest reviews by my good friend, Carter Liotta.  Mild mannered eye doctor in the daylight, and ravenous cinephile at night, Liotta, whose writing, digital videos and pithiness can be found at his delightfully droll Wordpress sight, takes a look at the works of legendary film producer Val Lewton.  We here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World (which means, me) are glad to have him aboard.  Enjoy.

*************

Val Lewton: Movie Producer

In 1941, RKO Radio Pictures was struggling.  The studio, famous for releases like King Kong,  was being run into the ground by studio president George G. Schaefer.  Schaefer’s goal had become producing “quality movies at a premium prices,” and its relationship with auteur Orson Wells had buried the studio $2 million in the red at a time when a half-million dollar return was considered a good year.  By 1942, a full shakeup was in order.  Schaefer resigned, and many RKO employees who were not fired or did not seek jobs elsewhere were demoted to RKO’s B-movie unit. 

Charles Koerner was hired to replace Schaefer, and made an immediate decision regarding the studio, embodied in his motto: "entertainment, not genius." It was Koerner who, observing the huge profits that Universal Studios was making with monster movies, made the decision to hire a young assistant producer away from David O. Selznick to head up the B-Unit Horror division at RKO.  His name was Val Lewton.

The rules of the game were simple: Lewton world be paid $250 a week to produce movies that cost less than $150,000.  They would each be less than 75 minutes long, to play the bottom half of a double feature.  Finally, Lewton would be given a title that had been market-tested, and would have to conjure a movie based on the title alone.  What he did with the title was up to him.

Lewton brought a number of talented people with him, including screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, who also worked for David O. Selznick.  The two would often screen dozens of monster movies from other studios, long into the night, with the intention of "eliminating as many cliches of the genre as possible."

In addition to Bodeen, Lewton hired director Jacques Tourneur, with whom he worked on the second unit of Selznick's A Tale of Two Cities.  Lewton also gave RKO soundman, and later West Side Story director, Robert Wise, his first break at the helm.

Shooting schedules were generally under a month - some as few as 18 days.  Lewton, in spite of a limited budget, used the resources at RKO to their fullest extent.  He frequently utilized sets already built for other movies, took advantage of RKO's vast prop department, integrated stock footage from other films, and had the luck of working with talented editors and Foley artists who previously worked with Orson Welles and on expensive productions.

Charles Koerner died in 1946, forcing an upheaval at RKO and the shattering of Lewton's department.  Lewton worked the major studios until his own death in 1951.  Lewton's most famous body of work were his RKO productions between 1942-1946, and in the coming weeks, I will review the films found in The Val Lewton Horror Collection:

  • Cat People
  • The Curse of the Cat People
  • I Walked with a Zombie
  • The Body Snatcher
  • Isle of the Dead
  • Bedlam
  • The Leopard Man
  • The Ghost Ship
  • The Seventh Victim
My hope is to re-introduce the movies of a man who did great things on film with virtually no budget.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Film Review: Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines

At two hours and twenty minutes, many would say that The Place Beyond the Pines is too long, and even though I am not one of those many, I would say that the film does seem like two films for the price of one.  One film stars Ryan Gosling and the other stars Bradley Cooper.  The trailer shows a film that stars both Gosling and Cooper, but in reality, they share just one scene together, and even that lasts less than thirty seconds.  Otherwise, we get a Ryan Gosling film, blended together with a Bradley Cooper film, and it isn't necessarily too long, but it does drag at times, most notably when Gosling isn't around, and we are left with the solid but still quite bland Cooper to try to liven things up - a thing the actor has never been able to do all that well in past movies, and is made even more glaring when placed in a film with an exciting actor like the Gos-man, even if they do not share the screen much.  In this way, the film suffers some, but the film's main problem is the rather cliche'd narrative that never really goes anywhere unexpected, instead just telling an obvious story in the most obvious way.

Directed by Derek Cianfrance, the man who gave us the intensely emotional relationship killer, Blue Valentine a few years ago (also starring Mr. Gosling, along with Michele Williams, in what were probably the two best performances of 2010), this new film never delves as deep, never goes as far, never sinks its teeth in as viciously as the director's debut film, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the films one biggest, most glaring problem.  Sure, Bradley Cooper may be a boring actor, and it shows here, but it is the typical storyline, the pedestrian narrative, the sheepish screenplay dressed in wolfish clothing, that makes the film ultimately fail.  Basically, the film is the story of Gosling's motorcycle stunt driver turned bank robber and the effect his life has on Cooper's hero cop turned slimy politician, and the ramifications both men and their actions have on their sons.  With twists and turns throughout (most of them obvious, at least one a real surprise), Cianfrance's film plays at being a taut thriller - and at times, it does manage at least a bit of that desired tautness - but never comes through as anything much at all. 

Granted, the film is certainly not what one would call a bad movie - it does have the Gos-man after all, and Ray Liotta doing his best Ray Liotta, and Cianfrance does hand us a quite beautiful looking film (cinematographer Sean Bobbitt follows through on the visual promise shown in Steve McQueen's Hunger and Shame and gives hope for the look of Spike Lee's upcoming Oldboy remake), and sometimes this is enough, but here it most certainly is not enough.  A shame really, because Gosling is a fierce actor, and deserves material that challenges that ferocity, and Cooper needs a film that will snap him out of his usual humdrumness, because boring or not, he does have something there, a spark of something, that could make both an intriguing character actor and a dangerously erotic leading man someday (think Matthew McConaughey, and what he has done lately).  Neither actor finds that in The Place Beyond the Pines though, and we as an audience suffer because of it.  A shame really.


Friday, May 3, 2013

Film Review: Shane Black's Iron Man 3

As a comicbook lover from way back, and an Iron Man fan from equally way back - before the Armor Wars, before Demon in a Bottle (and if you do not get those references, you probably shouldn't be reading this) - I really wanted to like this movie.  I really really wanted to like it.  With all my nerdy heart, I wanted to like Iron Man 3.  The first Iron Man, back in 2008, I liked.  I liked a lot.  In fact, until The Avengers came out last year, it was the best damn Marvel Comics adaptation out there.  Then came 2010 and Iron Man 2.  That film was a definite let down.  Granted, it had a lot to live up to, but still, a let down.  So, with the third and final (?) installment in the Iron Man franchise, I was psyched.  I was hyped.  It couldn't be as bad as the second one, right?  It had to be better.  Maybe not Iron Man 1 good, but still, quite good, right?  Right?  So yeah, I really really really wanted to like Iron Man 3.  But alas poor Tony Stark, we knew ye well.

Now don't get me wrong, I am not saying Iron Man 3 is Spider-Man 3 bad, or, god forbid, Fantastic Four (any movie version really) bad, but once again, it is a definite let down.  Sure, the film can be looked at as a technical marvel, and there are several quite stunning set pieces in here, most notably the attack on Stark's home and what is known in the credits as the barrel of monkeys skydiving sequence (done not with CGI, but with a real live skydiving team), but once one gets past the effects and tricks, one is left with a rather boring storyline.  Yes, Robert Downey, Jr., and his inherent snarky charm, manages to save the film from being Spider-Man 3 bad, but even with him, Shane Black's film lacks in the great writing that we saw with the first Iron Man, written by Oscar nominees Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, and Joss Whedon's work on The Avengers.  Even Downey, who is great fun even when he is phoning it in, which he may very well be doing here, can only raise the quality of the film so much.  Sure, it looks spectacular at times, but the real emotion that we saw in the first two films, save for the scenes between Stark and a boy who is helping him, is just not there.

Then, if things weren't already bad enough, we have The Mandarin, or more aptly, some twisted cheap knock-off version of The Mandarin.  For those of you not in the know (the ones who didn't get my Armor Wars and Demon in a Bottle references, but who are still reading along), The Mandarin is Ole Shellhead's arch-enemy from way back in the day.  Making his debut in 1964, in Tales of Suspense #50, just eleven issues after Iron Man made his own debut in said comic, The Mandarin has always been a rather silly villain, as well as kind of a racist stereotype in the day.  Granted, Iron Man has never had the best rogue's gallery to do battle with.  He doesn't have a Dr. Doom or a Magneto, a Green Goblin or a Kingpin.  Iron Man has never had a Loki or a Red Skull to call his arch-nemesis.  The best he got was The Mandarin, though one could make a case for Fin Fang Foom, but maybe that's just me.  Now The Mandarin has been updated in recent years in the comicbook world, and I expected him to get a makeover for the brave new world of superhero movies, I just wasn't prepared for what was done to the guy in Iron Man 3.  

I do not want to give anything away here, but let's just say what was done to The Mandarin is the equivalent of a cop-out.  It is cheap and cheapens the character.  But this is merely me getting all hot and bothered over creative choices I do not agree with (do not get me started on what they did to a lot of The X-Men in their first movie trilogy), the film has more worries than just a nerd getting his panties all in a twist.  Since he has no real rogue's gallery to speak of, the one thing I have always liked about Iron Man is the development of the character.  Seemingly shallow on the outside (the outer shell, you might say), Tony Stark is one of the most complex characters in the Marvel Universe.  This is shown in the comics, especially back in the David Michelinie/Bob Layton run in the late 1970's and early 1980's, and it was shown in the first two entries of this franchise, as well as in Whedon's The Avengers, but we do not get that here - at least not in any substantial amount.  Again, the film is a technical marvel and Downey holds up his end of the bargain, and I am sure to the uninitiated, the film is a fun action-packed crowd-pleaser, but for me, it is merely another mediocre third installment (think X-Men: The Last Stand, The Dark Knight Rises and the aforementioned Spider-Man 3) in a franchise that started out with great fervor.  And I really really did want to like this one.  I really did.