Sunday, September 30, 2012

Film Review: Guillaume Canet's Little White Lies

Originally released in France in October of 2010 - to boffo box office by the way - this quite wonderful little film (a film that some have tossed off as merely a French Big Chill - a line that though somewhat accurate nevertheless sells it very very short) is a film that by all intents and purposes should have gotten a big release here in the states a year ago.  Now of course when I say "big" I mean foreign film big, which I suppose is small by most standards, but you get the picture - the film should have played big here in the US, if not in 2011, when I had the good fortune to catch it on a French DVD release, then at least in early 2012 when one of its cast members, a certain Monsieur Jean Dujardin, was running about Tinsel Town, getting every award possible, from the Golden Globe to the Academy Award to the Nickelodeon Kid's Choice Award.  Okay, the latter one may be a lie, but suffice it to say that timing the US release with such an obvious goldmine time as the post Oscar doldrums, when nothing else of any real matter is ever released and the first Frenchman to take home the Oscar (granted, in a rather small role here) is still fresh in the minds of moviegoers, would have been the way to go.

This of course never happened.  Perhaps due to rights issues, perhaps due to just poor planning, I do not know. Granted, its running time of 154 minutes could be a turn-off for American audiences (though that is still shorter than more than half of the Harry Potter films, and they did not do so poorly) but in every other aspect it just spells big box office.  Of course again, I mean "big" as in foreign film big.  But all this past speculation is now simply null and void, as this past August has finally given us the long-anticipated US release of the film in question, Little White Lies, whose original title is actually Les Petits Mouchoirs, or The Small Handkerchiefs, which in turn stems from the French expression "le mettre dans la poche avec le mouchoir par dessus," meaning literally to hide something beneath your handkerchief, or figuratively as hiding certain things about oneself, and in other words, telling little white lies - which, appropriately enough is exactly what this film is about.  But enough about distribution speculations or running times and the average moviegoer's attention span or the exact meaning of the French title, because we are here not to speculate but to analyze, so that is what we will attempt to do.  Just what is Little White Lies all about anyway?

The film stars some of the bigger (at least in cinephilaic circles) names of French cinema (only two of which are really well-known here) such as Francois Cluzet, Gilles Lellouche, Oscar winner Marion Cotillard and the aforementioned M. Dujardin in basically the role that was almost played by Kevin Costner in the aforementioned The Big Chill, the film, directed by Guillaume Canet who made the thrilling Hitchcockian Tell No One (incidentally featuring the aforementioned M. Cluzet and M. Lellouche), is an interweaving look at a group of Parisian bourgeoisie who spend the summer holiday together while one of their closest friends lies near death back home in Paris.  Full of secrets and more secrets, this close knit group begins to unravel as they each take a look at their lives and their relationships with one another.  The comparison to The Big Chill is inevitable I suppose as the plot lines do diverge quite often and both are a melange of comedy and tragedy and both use music prominently to give an explanation of sorts of the character's emotions and fears, but I think Little White Lies goes deeper and perhaps more daringly into the psyche than the former film did.  But then perhaps that is just this Francophile's rather partisan opinion.

But to compare it once more to The Big Chill, another thing Little White Lies has in common with the 1983 Lawrence Kasden directed Oscar nominee, is a gaggle of stellar performances.  Each and every one in this cast hands in a spectacular performance, highlighted by Cluzet, Lellouche and Cotillard, and it is through these performances, even more so than the directing by Canet (did this avowed auteurist just say that!?) that we get to the real dirt of the character's situations.  Both in how they deal with their individual problems and in how they interact with each other, a thing that varies throughout the film and a thing that can turn like a wildcat without even a moment's notice, as well as how each one copes with the potential loss of a friend.  In Tell No One, Canet weaves a tale with both his camera and his storytelling that plays out like a formalist study on the cinema of Hitchcock and/or Preminger, but here, the writer/director just lets his people go - and go they do.  With comi-tragic persistence, the actors here play out every conceivable aspect of emotional catharsis, and though in many cases, such antics would - and indeed have - produce something that either goes the way of overly dramatic or the way of mediocrity.  Here, though there are sudden bursts of melodrama, it seems to keep an even keel on all things emotional, giving the film a sense of empathy instead of pathos.  Whatever the case, let us just be happy that it has finally gotten its well-deserved US release - even if it hasn't hit it as big as one would have hoped.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Retro Review: Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011)

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 first episode of the J.J. Abrams-produced TV series Revolution making its mark earlier this month, here is a look back at Abrams most recent theatrical foray - and one of the best films of last year.


Imagine a world of youthful memories, evoking a certain place and time of cinematic innocence, now all but lost to future generations, where children played at make-believe in the suburban utopia of woebegone days and the buddings of first love are felt in the small town purity of kids caught somewhere between their first swear word and their first cigarette.  A place where adults were secondary, incidental even, and where monsters and aliens crept into our subconscious only to be made real by those purveyors of the era's newly born summer blockbuster machinations - a place of George Lucas and of Joe Dante and especially of Steven Spielberg.  This place of seeming cinematic incorruptibility, where escapist fare was met with a sense of childlike wonder and the daily box office take was, though assuredly important and quickly becoming moreso, not yet the be all and end all of making movies in Hollywood, is where J.J. Abrams takes us with his deceptively brilliant evocation of a simpler, kinder, more gentle cinematic world in Super 8.

Set in the early summer days of 1979, in an archetypal small town in rural Ohio, Abrams pays the greatest homage to his mentor and master Spielberg (though Spielberg's credit as producer may smack a bit of nepotism in a way) by giving his monster movie an aura of that time when Spielberg was still a filmmaker with heart and soul (a filmmaker evoking his own childhood dream world) while at the same time giving it that more-bang-for-your-buck style that has come to epitomize the directorial signature of Abrams' still young (one could even say still budding) career.  One could even go so far as to call this film an E.T. for a more jaded, more in-your-face and a much faster-paced generation of moviegoers - a less innocent generation of moviegoers if you will.  It is this blend - more sympathetic than Abrams usually makes out and less cloying than Spielberg, even vintage Spielberg can be - that makes the film work as well as it does.

After a brief prologue showing, in a very Spielbergian way appropriately enough, the loss of a wife and mother (a typically seventies factory where a sign stating how many days since their last accident being marked back down to one, a lone child sitting on a swing caressing the locket of his now dead mother) and the almost immediate shattering of the aforementioned cinematic innocence, Abrams sets his story rolling - and roll like proverbial thunder out of the gate it most certainly does.  We are introduced to a group of kids, barely on this side of pubescence, in the process of making a zombie movie (George Romero can be seen as an influence as well), via their titular super 8 camera, complete with the idea of cheap but wholly appropriate special effects (blowing up model trains and filming it on super 8 is pretty much the most accurate way of describing La Spielberg's own filmmaking youth) and stilted but again wholly appropriate acting.  We see these kids filming at a small train depot as a locomotive comes barreling past at a breakneck speed.

Once the train derails in the most spectacular of set pieces (Abrams certainly knows how to make his action go that extra mile) and our inevitable monster is set loose upon this unsuspecting small town America (shown, a la Cloverfield in quick shadowy spurts - making for the tension and inherent danger to be at a peak level throughout), and once the military swoops in and quickly becomes even a possible greater danger than the escaped monster they are not telling anyone about (and no one is digitally replacing guns with flashlights this time around Mr. Spielberg), Abrams movie kicks into high gear and we are shown the director who was only hinted at in the mostly awful Mission Impossible III (important only because it was what first showed what the director was capable of if let loose upon the big big screen of the cinema, with his daring-doo way of choreographing elaborate and convoluted action set pieces) and honed to an audacious bravura in his quite spectacular reboot of the dying Star Trek franchise.   The director who is quickly becoming something of an action-oriented auteur - and a Hell of a lot of fun to watch.

As for the cast, it is mostly populated by the kind of kids one would expect to find in such an homage.  Foremost among these kids are Joe, the town deputy's son and aforementioned lone child lamenting his loss, and Alice, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who seems to be in serious need of redemption from sins she carries with her that are not even her own.  Joe is played with a wide-eyed sense of wonder that does its own evoking of Henry Thomas' Elliott in E.T., by first-time actor Joel Courtney, while Alice is played by the quite disarming Elle Fanning (just thirteen but the veritable veteran of the young cast) whose perfect blend of youthful exuberance and adult-like sensibilities (much like her older sister, the young actress's eyes evoke both a naiveté appropriate to her age and a frank knowingness that belies that very same age) make for the most layered character in the film - and she comes off as any red-blooded young teen boy's fantasy girl hot, sassy and dark, and she can drive a car! (where were the girls like this when I was thirteen!?).  These two young actor's scenes together are the emotional high points of the film.  The way their attraction grows and their playful interacting (Fanning's cute way of stealing a kiss while in zombie make-up) make for the most charming of young romances.

In all reality, it is the simple and unaffected budding romance between Joe and Alice, as well as these kids' tempestuous relationships with their equally bewildered fathers (played by a stoic Kyle Chandler and a pathos-riddled Ron Eldard), and not the monster nor the military, that is the central core of this spiraling, sometimes batshitcrazy movie.  It is this side of Spielberg, the one seemingly long gone these days, that Abrams is paying homage to here, and it is this particular age (this critic turned twelve in the summer of 1979 and therefore am virtually the same age as Super 8's young protagonists) that makes it stick so personally for me - and let's face it, anyone who has ever grown up in the places evoked here and in the early works of that ever-present Mr. Spielberg.  It is also due to this subtle approach to the storytelling aspect of the film that when we finally get to our expected dénouement, it is not the monster Abrams focuses his camera on but the kids - the human aspect of the story.  In a way this ends up as something of a mixed bag of reactions come the fade to black and end credits.

Perhaps those of us looking for nothing more than the perfect action movie kicks will be left feeling a bit (but just a bit) disappointed as the layers of the film are peeled away, revealing each new reveal, albeit each one nestled inside stunning set piece after stunning set piece - and perhaps too those of us looking for pure summer blockbuster chutzpah and a balls out Michael Bay-esque finale that will theoretically leave every quasi-pubescent fanboy with a moist pair of jeans will end up feeling cheated by their own sense of imagined anticipatory self-rhetoric.  I do admit to a feeling of disillusionment once our intrepid monster is fully seen and fully realized and the tension is unwarrantly alleviated and we are left with a let down of sorts.  Perhaps though, what we are left with in this overly sensitized wake (and self-invented sense of moviegoing entitlement) is an emotional heft (and general warm fuzzy feeling - but in a good way) and a childlike fantasy that harkens back to those halcyon days (both cinematically and nostalgically) being evoked by Abrams in his loving homage to his mentor and master.  Perhaps, it is more than a mere monster movie.  Perhaps indeed.

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 06/10/11]

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

NYFF 2012: Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha

My first, and due to scheduling conflicts and travel costs, possibly my only visit to this year's New York Film Festival, was an afternoon press screening of of Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha.  A film that has annoyed as many people as it has impressed.  Here is my take on the whole thing.

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 were 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 used 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 (too, and I hate hate hate this term, 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.  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 - 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, an actress who, when asked at the post 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.

IFC has picked Frances Ha up for US distribution and has set a rather non-committal 2013 release date for the film.  My best guess would be sometime in early Spring.  Whatever the case, a review proper will be coming around whatever that eventual US release date may be.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Battle Royale #6: Battle of the Bitter Sisters

Olivia de Havilland was the first of the sisters to take up acting and make it in show biz, but younger sister Joan Fontaine (legend has it that the mother favoured Olivia and made Joan take a different name) soon would follow.  Apparently, from the very start, these two siblings were rivals.  Stories about Olivia ripping her hand-me-downs so little sis could not wear them are part of this legendary rivalry.  The two sisters were both nominated for an Oscar in 1941, and Joan ended up winning (the only actor in any Hitchcock film to ever take home the award) and legend (again) has it that de Havilland's congratulatory gesture was brushed off by Fontaine as she made her way to the stage.  This action would be repeated in the opposite direction when de Havilland won the first of her two Academy Awards.   Now as far as I know, this rivalry never stooped to any sort of Baby Jane-esque level, but it has lasted until this very day, as Olivia in Paris and Joan in Carmel-by-the-Sea California, 96 and 94 respectively, have reportedly not spoken with each other since 1975 - apparently due to a final riff over their mother's death.  Supposedly Fontaine has an estranged relationship with her children as well, apparently over them keeping in contact with their aunt.  Of course this could all be just tall tales - both ladies have alluded to it originally being a publicity stunt that just went awry - but I believe it to be true - at least at this point.  What may have started as a funny romp, has certainly become a living breathing feud lo these many decades.

But none of this is neither here nor there, because we are not here to debate the facts and figures of such a near-century long rivalry.  No ladies and gentlemen, we are here to vote for which of these battling bitter sisters was the greater actor and/or person. Which one curdled our loins more than the other.  Both are legends of the silver screen with some of the finest performances of the Golden Age of Hollywood under their respective belts.  Both are remarkable actors with accolades out the proverbial wazoos.  Both hold an ideal for physical beauty and both could have easily launched a thousand plus ships in their day.  But which one is the greater, the more talented, the most beautiful?  Which one do you choose oh faithful readers and true believers?  Do you favour the charming de Havilland in all her smouldering swashbuckling goodness, or perhaps it is the brilliant Fontaine and her stunning melodramatic bent that gets your suds all in an uproar.  Whichever the case may be, here is your chance to let everyone know just where you stand on the issue.  Here and now it is your turn to make the decision.  So all you Olivia fans and Fontaine fans get out the vote.  I think this one is bound to be another tight race.  Just go on over to the sidebar poll and choose the classic Hollywood sister that you like the best.  The poll will go on for two weeks before we announce a victor.  And please remember that you can make as many comments here as you wish (and please do - we loooove comments around these parts) but in order for your vote to count, you must vote in the actual poll in the sidebar.  So get over there and vote people.  This may very well be the most important vote you cast this year.  There isn't some other important vote coming around later this year, is there?  Of course not!  Vote vote vote!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Una, Oh Una, Where Have Una Gone? A Quick Look at the Once Remarkable, Now Sadly Forgotten Wonder That Was Una Merkel

The following, rather Proustian-esque paragraph-cum-prose poem and adjoining classic Hollywood photographs, is my humble contribution to the What a Character Blogathon being co-hosted by the lovely folks over at Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula's Cinema Club

Once upon a time lived a girl named Una.  Born at the beginning of a new century, in the wilds of Kentucky, under the free spirited sign of Sagittarius, and in the year of the rambunctious rabbit, young Una (and yes, that is her god-given name), after a time as star Lillian Gish's look-a-like (that's our intrepid little Una blowing around in Sjöström's Wind), would grow into the prattling, sassy, kewpie-dolled second banana of the pre-code age of motion pictures - a girl who took no gruff and gave nothing but - and after turns as Honest Abe's high school sweetheart, Sam Spade's cheeky secretary (no, not that Sam Spade, the first one, the one played by one Mr. Cortez), a spook-scared victim of a whispering bat in a movie that would go on to inspire Bob Kane in his creation of a certain caped crusader, and the smart-mouthed BFF of Jean Harlow in about three dozen films (slight exaggeration), our lovely little Una would costar in the musical 42nd Street, in a role that epitomized what it meant to be Una, in an Una world - the fast-talking dame that hung out with Ginger, before Ginger became Fred and Ginger - before moving onto another two and a half dozen films as Harlow's bewildered bestie (again, a slight exaggeration), as well as doin' some singin' and doin' some dancin', acting the eldest daughter to bank dick W.C. Fields, and getting into a wild west saloon cat fight with Marlene over a pair of her hubby's pants, and surviving a mother's suicide (our Una was in the house but survived when the gas was turned on - her mother did not), before eventually, like bud Blondell, taking on the roles of wild and crazy elder citizens, big-mouthed maids, and even mother to both Debbie Reynolds and Geraldine Page - the latter of which would even get her nominated for one of those oh so coveted golden statuettes - before ending her screen career alongside the King of Rock & Roll (racecar comedy-musical Spinout to be Elvis-specific), and even more eventually falling between those wicked multitudes of cracks in forgotten film history, and becoming what is known today as, nothing, because no one except a faithful few even know who little Una is today, let alone how wonderful she was in so many thankless roles.  Once upon a time lived a girl named Una.

For more info on a girl named Una: Wikipedia and IMDb.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Battle Royale #5: Battle of the Silent Clowns (The Results)

Always a rather hot button topic amongst those who call themselves cinephiles.  There are rabid Keatonites and veracious Chaplin disciples both.  In Bertolucci's 2003 film The Dreamers (one of the ten best films of the last decade incidentally) American Matthew, played by Michael Pitt, and Frenchman Théo, played by Louis Garrel, come to near blows over who was funnier, Chaplin or Keaton.  I tend to take Matthew's side in the argument and favour Chaplin over his so-called arch-rival.  True, Keaton was straight-out funnier - his gags were the best of the silent age - but Chaplin was the better overall filmmaker - able to make you laugh and cry simultaneously.  But then this is just my (not-so-humble) opinion on the subject.  What we are here to do is to announce who you, the adoring public, think the best, the greatest, the funniest, the koo-koo-kookiest of them all.  We are here to announce the winner of Battle Royale #5: Battle of then Silent Clowns - and with very little surprise it was the tightest of races from beginning to end.  But, as in all things competitive, there must be a victor, and that victor is Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin.  With a final tally of 20 to 18 (or 52% to 48% for the statistically-minded amongst us) The Little Tramp did sneak past The Great Stone Face.  There were, incidentally, a few side votes for Harold Lloyd and even good ole Fatty Arbuckle as well.  Anyway, that is it for this, the fifth round of our Battle Royale here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World.  Please be sure to check back in a few days for the announcement of our competitors in round six.  It is sure to be a sisterly, albeit the lifelong sibling rivalry version of said sisterdom, kind of event.  See ya soon.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Film Review: Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master

Many of my fellow critics tend to toss around the term masterpiece like one would toss around the word dude or bro at a frat party.  I on the other hand, tend to reserve such a vaunted term for only the greatest of cinematic endeavors - those films that truly deserve such accolades.  The last time I awarded a film such an honour was about a year and a half ago, when I bestowed such a monicker on Terrence Malick's brilliant The Tree of Life.  Before that, one needs to go back another two years to Quentin Tarantino's 2009 work, Inglourious Basterds.  Before that, one must go back another two years to Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 film There Will Be Blood.  A truly rare thing indeed.  Well now I think it is about time we dusted off that rarely used title and once again bestow said honour upon a new film.  In this case, the masterpiece we speak of, is P. T. Anderson's (there he is again) rather appropriately titled film The Master.

Just the director's sixth film in seventeen years of filmmaking, and his first since the aforementioned 2007's There Will Be Blood, the long awaited and highly anticipated The Master is the the kind of filmmaking that will be looked back upon a hundred, two hundred years from now, as a classic of early twenty-first century cinema.  Wellesian in nature, Fordian in scope and Kubrickian in style, Anderson collects together every aspect of moviemaking, from acting to writing to editing to cinematography, to the sound, look and music of the film, and coheses it all into a mesmerizing picture of hope and faith and the folly of humankind - a sort of, and please pardon the rather cliché sound of the next few words, visual and spectral poetry of storytelling.  Bringing together a real world malaise in the form of Joaquin Phoenix's cragged, simian-like psychotic ex-sailor, and an otherworldy calmness in the form of Philip Seymour Hoffman's cool and collected cult leader, PTA has forged something from air and earth, from fire and water, to create something akin to a fifth and final element - pure imagination, pure cinema.

Now there are those who have opposed such a film.  Those, including a vocally critical Tom Cruise, who worked with Anderson in his Magnolia, take offense to what the film is - supposedly and ostensibly - really all about.  In reality, the film is about a mixed-up ex Navy man named Freddie Quell, played with as much bravura by Phoenix as one can imagine - very probably his single greatest performance to date, and perhaps one of the finest performances in not only the past decade but dare I say in all of film history - who has lost his way in the world until he meets up with a seductively open-armed prophet named Lancaster Dodd, but referred to by most as the titular Master.  The story is loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard and the creation of Scientology, here referred to as The Cause, and this of course is making some people, including many so-called high-falutin' Hollywood types, quite a bit nervous.  Now, Anderson claims this is not the story of Scientology, and even though Hoffman bears a rather striking resemblance to the late Mr. Hubbard, and the chronology of the birth of Hubbard's cultish religion and the events transpiring in the film are pretty much dead on, this is indeed a story about something more universal than one man's quest for answers.  This is the story of lost souls and what gives them hope and what takes that hope away.

Freddie is that human animal, that lost soul, that Dodd rails against but also an animal Dodd needs desperately to save, not for Freddie's sake, but for Dodd's own selfish goals of proving his teachings as the truth.  Meanwhile Dodd represents, and for a time acts as that father/master figure that Freddie so desperately needs and longs for - even if he will never admit that to himself.  These two opposite forces - nature versus nurture if you will - will inevitably undo one another if left to their own devices, and it is Phoenix and Hoffman in their brilliant portrayals (can we say career best) of these lost souls - each one lost in their own unique way and each one both needing the other and brought to their proverbial knees by the other - that make Anderson's already glowing, clamoring creature of a movie (this film works as the inner world yin to PTA's other million-headed beast movie There Will Be Blood's batshitcrazy outer-skinned yang) a near perfect creation.  And on top of these counterintuative and counterbalanced, eternally warring performances, we also get the usually doe-eyed Amy Adams pulling off her own version of visceral attack, using her typical sparkle as rapid cannon fire.  All-in-all, the film is one of the best performed films in a long long while - and Anderson locks his actors into the frame, 70mm or 35mm, with the precision of a surgeon.

As I stated earlier, the film may be disturbing to those of a certain bent, as Anderson cinematically turns L. Ron Hubbard into even more of a false prophet than he is already seen as by most of the thinking world, by more than alluding to the fact that perhaps he, along with his filmic counterpart, Lancaster Dodd, just made it all up as he went along, creating out of his sci-fi-fueled imagination a pseudo-scientific, quasi-religious cult of personality.  Yeah, I can see why his disciples, very much including his celebrity poster boy Cruise, are opposed to such an interpretation - though officially this is not the L. Ron Hubbard story or an expose on Scientology - and would like it to be shot down in flames.  Too bad for them that it is such a work of art that it will most assuredly go into the future canonical annals of cinematic history.  Too bad for them.  The film may also be rather off-putting for that gaggle of so-called average filmgoers who want their entertainment simple, safe and uncluttered, and will most likely be looked upon poorly because of said group's perceived notion of strangeness (a thing many erroneously equate with bad filmmaking), but once again, too bad for them.  Too bad for them indeed.  For the rest of us, it is a welcome boon of creative filmmaking in today's world of simple, safe and uncluttered entertainment.  Thank god for that and thank god for Paul Thomas Anderson.  Take that.

Monday, September 17, 2012

My Quest to See the 1000 Greatest Films: #880 Thru #899

Here is a look at the latest ten films in my Quest to See the 1000 Greatest Films.  These twenty films were seen between July 30 and August 18.  A complete look at my quest can be viewed HERE.

#880 - Being There (1979) - (#504 on TSPDT)  A subtle, seemingly slight (but deceptively so) film that, even with its quiet old world charm, was way ahead of its time in its politically-charged subject matter - and on top of all this, we get to watch Peter Sellers do that thing he do so well.  I would not put this film on my own top 1000, but I bear it no grudge being here - or being there as it were.  See what I did there?

#881 - Henry V (1944) - (#422 on TSPDT)  I tend to be more of a fan of Shakespeare's tragedies and comedies than his histories, and Henry V is no exception, and even though I would not include it on my own top 1000, there is no denying the succulent beauty of Olivier's brightly coloured, intensely performed adaptation.

#882 - Passion (1982) - (#587 on TSPDT)  There was a time in the career of Jean-Luc Godard that one could call him the future of cinema.  The world of film would look a lot different if not for the actions of Godard (and for that matter Truffaut, Rivette and the ilk) and back in the day, films such as Breathless, Band of Outsiders, Contempt, Week-end, Vivre Sa Vie, Pierrot le fou, Alphaville, and a slew of others, were rightly hailed as great works.  Somewhere along the way though, JLG lost that thing he had, and began making repetitive, contrived and pedantic essay-like films that have bored the hell out of this critic.  Passion, though heralded by many (it is on this list after all), is a total mess of a movie, and like most of the ostentatious pieces of pretentious bile the filmmaker has spewed forth since In Praise of Love, JLG/JLG, the ridiculous obnoxiousness of his latest, Film Socialisme), has been shaming the old output of such a grand master auteur for years now.  And this from a guy who considers Godard to be the most influential director of the last fifty years.  Imagine if I wasn't a fan.

#883 - Cool Hand Luke (1967) - (#481 on TSPDT)  How many eggs can you eat?  A classic of what has come to be known as "cool cinema," this film is one of the more fun films of the time period.  Hip and cool (and I mean that in the good way, not the hipster way that such descriptives have been reduced to in this day and age) and with a slew of great performances, this film, one of my favourites of my birth year, is a rip-roarin' good time, punctuated with an inevitable exclamation point of an ending. 

#884/885 - Late Autumn/The End of Summer (1960/61) - (#973/657 on TSPDT)  Back-to-back films by Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu.  Granted, many of Ozu's works, with their similar storylines and equally similar seasonally-titled names, blend in together.  I have never seen one that is poorly done or one that is not beautiful in one way or another (either physically or thematically, ofttimes both) but on the other hand, very few (Tokyo Story, Late Spring, An Autumn Afternoon, Dragnet Girl, I was Born, But...) seem to stick out and have notice taken of them over the others.  I am not saying this as a dis of any kind, and even though I do prefer Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi over Ozu (and consider Naruse a veritable even-steven kind of thing with Ozu), I do tend to get lost in the images that Ozu puts forth in his work - and these two films (his two penultimate films), for better or for worse, are no different.

#886 - Lacombe, Lucian (1974) - (#863 on TSPDT)  With a kind of take him or leave him attitude toward Louis Malle, I went into this film with rather reserved anticipation.  I came out of it with a new respect for a director I once nudged aside as a mere afterthought.  Perhaps this doesn't sway me on others of his oeuvre that I have been rather indifferent toward, but this is a solid work of art indeed - and as far as semi-faint praise goes, my favourite Louis Malle film as well.

#887 - The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) - (#709 on TSPDT)  I am not sure why it has taken me this long to finally see this film - especially considering that Scorsese is one of my all-time favourites - but that is over now.  My eventual reaction?  Less than what I had hoped actually.  Sure, I enjoyed the film - Harvey Keitel as Iscariot is a giddy hoot and a half - and I can see the touches put in with regards to the films of the director's youth (King of Kings, Silver Chalice, Gospel According to St. Matthew, The Robe) but it is certainly not one of Scorsese's best.  Then again, even lesser Scorsese is better than most films out there.  Off the top of my head, my own top 1000 would include at least eight Scorsese works (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Mean Streets, New York New York, King of Comedy, Casino, Cape Fear, maybe Shutter Island, Hugo and Alice Doesn't Live Here) but alas, this one will not make it.

#888 - Bellissima (1951) - (#902 on TSPDT)  Luchino Visconti's third film, and the first that began his exit from typical Italian Neorealism (the splendiferously coloured Senso would come next).  With a comic timing equal to any of the Italian comedies that would burst through over the next few decades, but with a snese of tragedy born of neorealism - not to mention a stellar performance from Anna Magnani (of course) - this is a terrific film and one worth inclusion on the list.

#889 - Le Jour Se Lève (1939) - (#531 on TSPDT)  I preface this by saying I have yet to see Children of Paradise - held off as one of my final five in the quest.  Le Jour Se Lève, along with Port of Shadows, is the best of Marcel Carné.  This film is dark and strangely comic at times, and definitely one that belongs on this list.  I know I am going to include it on my own top 1000 when I make it post-quest.

#890 - Gilda (1946) - (#690 on TSPDT)  It has happened during my quest just five times this year.  First in March with Gun Crazy, then later that same month with Fritz Lang's Indian Epic, then in May with Black Orpheus, July with The Docks of New York, and now a fifth time with Gilda.  What exactly has happened you ask?  A quest film has been added to my all-time 100 Favourite Films list.  Gun Crazy, at #35, is the highest ranked of these five additions, but Gilda is second, coming in at #68.  Sixty-eighth out of the 6000+ films I have seen in my forty-five years is pretty damn good.  Oh yeah, and we get to watch Rita Hayworth and her Hayworthiest.  For more on this wonderful film, check this out: "On Gilda, and How Rita Hayworth Could Redeem my Shawshank Any Time She Wanted (Yeah I Said It, What's It To Ya?)."

#891 - A Place in the Sun (1951) - (#541 on TSPDT)  Oh those eyes.  Those rapturous, breathtaking, sexy eyes that seem to bore a hole right through to your soul - devouring your very essence with their sheer beauty.  Oh yeah, and Elizabeth Taylor's eyes are nice too.  Seriously though, Monty Clift gives one of his best performances here - and that is saying a hell of a lot.  Brooding and romantic and quite tragic - and poor Shelley Winters, the girl should never go near water.

#892 - Spring in a Small Town (1948) - (#445 on TSPDT)  A fascinating classic from the great country of China.  Usually considered the nation's greatest work, this film, which incidentally was blandly remade a few years back, is a powerful and emotional film that surely belongs in the upper realms of melodrama lore.  I would have loved to have seen what someone like Sirk would have done with this - or even Nick Ray - but it does stand on its own, so let us just enjoy the original and leave it at that.

#893 - The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) - (#790 on TSPDT)  There are some really fun moments in this film - the kind of strange, unspoken fun that Buñuel slips into a lot of his work - and though it does not sit as one of my favourite Buñuel's (Viridiana, Los Olvidados, Exterminating Angel, Nazarin, Diary of a Chambermaid, Discreet Charm, Belle de Jour) it is indeed good old fashioned Buñuelian fun.

#894 - Die Nibelungen (1924) - (#900 on TSPDT)  I am not the biggest fan of Lang's silent epics (Metropolis, and to a lesser degree, Destiny aside) instead preferring his days at noir filmmaking (which incidentally should begin with his masterpiece M), but still, there is no denying the man's power at visual storyteling - and this visual bravura is in high gear in this double feature epic.

#895 - Ride the High Country (1962) - (#548 on TSPDT)  Peckinpah's second film, and the one that gave a breakthrough to the director.  I believe it was Bosley Crowther who called the film "a perfectly dandy little western."  Need I say more?  Okay, just one more thing - it is always fun to watch Randolph Scott.  He was the epitome of the struggling gunslinger with an outside steeliness and a heart of gold hidden beneath.

#896 - La Collectionneuse (1967) - (#933 on TSPDT)  One of Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales, and probably my least favourite of the bunch (I have only seen four of them though).  Typical Rohmerian stuff here, and if you are not into said typical Rohmerian stuff (the auteur being my least favourite New Waver, I can take it or leave it myself) then this probably is not the film for you.

#897 - The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) - (#881 on TSPDT)  A bizarre film that plays at the ideas of reality, sometimes resembling the batshitcrazy cinematic artistry of contemporaries like Jodorowsky or Rocha, this war/horror/fantasy/comedy creature is a fun fun film.  One should not be surprised at it being the favourite film of the hallucinatory guitar man Jerry Garcia.

#898 - From Here To Eternity (1953) - (#754 on TSPDT)  Though there are a handful of exceptions (Casablanca, The Godfather, On the Waterfront) the vast majority of Best Picture Oscar winners tend to be of the mediocre variety, and even though this film is filled to the brim with great performances (Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, Oscar winner Frank Sinatra, Ernest Borgnine in a tiny but pivitol role) it never falls any higher than the aforementioned mediocrity.

#899 - Splendor in the Grass (1961) - (#666 on TSPDT)  Moving into the number two spot, behind On the Waterfront, of my favourite Elia Kazan's, this film, in all its overly-melodramatic flair (oh I do love me some overly melodramatic flair!) is a revelation of story, acting and the visual coming into perfect sync with each other.  It is also a film that proves (once again) that Natalie Wood is indeed a great actress, and not the hack moniker that so many critics have thrusted upon her. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Film Review: David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis

Cold, hard and calculating, with a near unbreakable diamond surface, lost emotions bubbling just beneath the alabaster skin, waiting to burst through the flesh in an explosive maniacal fashion not completely unlike some sort of metaphorical grotesquery from Videodrome or The Brood or from another one of the director's earlier more body horror works.  This can describe both Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg's latest film and Robert Pattinson's burning out, billionaire asset manager within said film.    As divisive as any Cronenberg, perhaps even more so, the film is bound to split both critics and viewers into separate widespread and equally brazen camps - those who think the film utter didactic crap, ready fodder for brainless attacks by an uneducated mass market, and those who believe the film an icy stroke of cinematic genius to be thrown hard against the oncoming mass of mainstream mediocrity much like the film's recurring theme of 99%ers diatribically tossing dead rats at soulless white limousines.  Obviously, one can tell this particular critic and viewer finds himself firmly imbedded in the latter camp.  

Either way you look at it, this film, the neuveu-Kubrickian auteur's twentieth feature, an adaptation of Don DeLillo's supposedly unfilmable 2003 novel of the same name, is one for the so-called ages - whatever age that may be.  Ostensibly set around 2000, at the time of the dot com bubble burst, but realistically taking place in what could be today or what could be tomorrow, or even the tomorrow after that - linear thought is not necessarily an important factor in Cronenbergian cinema - we follow cocksure billionaire Eric Packer around an impossibly congested Manhattan, full of rioting anti-corporate types swinging their aforementioned dead rats around town, intermittent sexual encounters and invading financial advisers, an unseen and unknown presidential motorcade blocking streets on a whim, a water main burst, overly insistent yet ineffectual bodyguards, a rap funeral procession, a mysterious but eventually credible lone gunman and the most sexually intoxicating prostate exam ever put on film (one will ask him or herself just what is an asymmetrical prostate) - most of which takes place in the back of an offensively long stretch limo blinged out with its own bar, sonogram machine, computer monitors, multiple TV screens and even a pull out toilet - and all just to get a damn haircut.  

Samantha Morton, as Packer's chief adviser, and one would guess mentor of sorts considering the way her character is positioned and listened to by the seemingly aloof billionaire, says of the riots happening outside the claustrophobic limo, that they are a protest of the future.  This, in part, is what Cronenberg is showing us here - the instability of the future.  The future of 2000 and the future of 2012 and beyond.  Packer's Odyssean traversing of the city (DeLillo's novel, and in turn Cronenberg's film, is of course a modern retelling of the Homeric epic) depicts a day long downward spiral from the veritable top of the world (we keep hearing of a penthouse in the sky and flying planes and devouring the world) to a shithole tenement building near the docks.  The excesses of the rich piled upon themselves to devour not the world, but perhaps Packer himself.  A film for the ages indeed as the economic disaster that was handed down by the administration that was just sleazily taking power at the onset of the book/film's ostensible setting is weighing heavy on lives and heads of state.  A film that shows its viewers - its rapturous watchers - the chaos that ensues when a society is given no boundaries of decency and fair play.  A protest of the future - and of the present - indeed.

Aside from the aforementioned Ms. Morton, we also get one-shot scenes from Juliette Binoche as an art dealer-cum-limo lover, Mathieu Amalric as a goofy pie-in-the-face protester playing at leaping gnome, and Paul Giamatti as the "voice of the little people" - all sharing just one scene a piece with the film's star.  Leaping, sometimes figuratively, oft-times literally, in and out of Packer's limo life.  But the star of the film is indeed Robert "Sparkles" Pattinson.  And it is Pattinson, trying to break away from his Twilight time and prove himself a viable actor, who does more than a bang-up job as our intrepid city traveler - showing us a frozen outer shell that begins to crack under the pressure of what is expected of him and what is actually happening now that he no longer controls the strings.  The cold, systematic way in which Pattinson's lost billionaire, playing at Holden Caulfield's idea of everyone being a phony when in truth he may be the biggest goddamn phony of them all, delivers his lines and meters his cadence may cover up a somewhat weaker actor (we really do not have anything else of substance to compare notes with here) but nevertheless it works here.  Pretty much everything, amidst the chaos of the film's goings-on, works here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Archers and Their Masterpiece, I mean Cinema

The good folks over at The Movie Waffler have posed a question to those of us who care enough to listen.  Which director (or directors in my case) has had the best/most productive run/streak of great films.  Now one could easily make an argument that certain directors have never made a bad film and therefore their entire careers would constitute this run.  But even those directors of whom such a claim could be reasonably made, those with a small enough oeuvre, but a powerful enough one as well, to make such a thing possible, if not probable (Kubrick, Welles, Visconti), have a lesser film or two snuggled away in there to stop any ideas of a perfect game.

Sure, Welles' The Stranger is a very good film, but it is certainly no masterpiece, and therefore would break up any streak that would lead Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons to The Lady From Shanghai and Macbeth.  Now Kubrick, with Lolita, Strangelove, 2001, Clockwork and Barry Lyndon would make a strong case for this theory, but Spartacus at one end and The Shining at the other may say otherwise.  Though, I might be tempted to keep it going through The Shining (unlike many, I quite enjoy that film) as well, but I am here to talk about a different streak, from a different time.  It was the 1940's and the directors were Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known collectively as The Archers.

English born Michael Powell and Hungarian born Emeric Pressburger first came together during the war.  Already semi-established as a director and writer respectively, these two were brought together to work on propaganda films for the British war effort.  Some of these earlier films (Contraband, The 49th Parallel) were Hitchcockian thrillers, and quite good, but still nothing compared to what was about to come.  In my not-so-humble opinion, The Archers have created seven - and I do not throw such a term around willy-nilly - bonafide masterpieces.  Six of which were made successively between 1943 and 1948, and it is these six films, in these six years that we are here to talk about - so please allow me to praise great movies.

Starring Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook and, in three roles, the lovely Deborah Kerr (at the time, Michael Powell's lover), and based, at least in name, on a newspaper comic strip, Colonel Blimp, the first of our run, takes place over a fifty year period in the life of a cocksure British officer and the woman/women (all Kerr) who he can never get out of his mind.  Splendid picture indeed.

A Canterbury Tale is probably the least seen and least known of our six film run.  This haunting, otherworldly film tells the story of a group of wayward pilgrims, played by Sheila Sim, Dennis Price and Sgt. John Sweet, an actual U.S. Army soldier in his one and only screen appearance, in the Kent countryside, which incidentally is beautifully filmed by the great cinematographer Erwin Hillier.

Another otherwordly-style film from The Archers, I Know Where I'm Going stars Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey (and a twelve year old Petula Clark long before she went "Downtown") as a pair of wouldbe lovers trapped by a storm in the highlands of Scotland.  The film's penultimate raging sea scenes and the inevitable finale, make an already great picture into a true blue masterpiece.

Renamed Stairway to Heaven for US release (something that goes against the whole idea of the film never mentioning Heaven or any specific afterlife) A Matter of Life and Death is the magical tale of an RAF pilot and the American woman he falls in love with - after he has supposedly died - is a beautiful film to watch (Earth-bound scenes in Technicolor, After-Life realm in crisp monochrome B&W).   

Black Narcissus, my second favourite Powell/Pressburger, is the haunting story of a group of nuns - headed by the always great Deborah Kerr - temporarily inhabiting a mountaintop nunnery (previously a princely whorehouse) and deals with the ideas of spirituality and the loss of faith.  Archer regular Kathleen Byron, as the bewildered Sister Ruth, is the sexy/creepy highlight of a film already filled to the brim with highlights.

The Red Shoes is not only my favourite Archer's film, but my favourite film of all-time - period.  Starring the beautiful flame-haired ballet star turned actress Moira Shearer as Victoria Page, who lives to dance, and Anton Walbrook and Marius Goring as the men who are splitting her emotions tragically in half.  Shot by Jack Cardiff, one of the finest cinematographers in film history, Martin Scorsese has called this the most beautiful colour film ever made - and who am I to disagree with that.


There you go.  Six films, six years, six masterpieces.  Now one could make an argument that I could go on and add the duo's next film, 1949's The Small Back Room, to this list, but I am going to back off from such a thing since I do not think it quite reaches the heights of these aforementioned six works of art.  As for their next film, The Elusive Pimpernel, I cannot say, as it is a film that, having been in itself rather elusive, I have never seen (believe it or not, there is a Powell/Pressburger that has not been seen by yours truly).  After this, we could add another film to the list (if we were not going for that unbroken thing) in the form of 1950's Gone to Earth, with Jennifer Jones and David Farrar.  This film is that seventh bonafide masterpiece I spoke of in my opening salvo.  But alas, we are going for a streak here, so it will have to just sit and watch its six brethren take their day in the spotlight.  Well, that is it for now folks.  Have a good day.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Film Review: Lawless

One of the most visceral and exuberant films of the last decade is the 2005 John Hillcoat-directed, Nick Cave-written über-bloody Aussie western The Proposition.  The film is certainly not for the more sensitive souls among us, but for those of us who like our action knee-jerk and sanguine, and in the vein of the Old Spaghetti West, then The Proposition is one of the better and more recent go-to-movies out there.  So with a giddy anticipation for the latest John Hillcoat-directed, Nick Cave-written film, this time based around bootleggers, gangsters and crooked cops in the rurals of prohibition-era Virginia, I walked into the screening of Lawless with rather higher-than-average hopes.  Boy was I ever disappointed.

With thoughts of both The Proposition and Hillcoat's intense and demanding 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthey's The Road (screenplay this time around by playwright Joe Panhall) in mind, one must assume that Lawless had some pretty insurmountable steps to climb, and therefore perhaps is being put upon a bit too harshly, but one must also admit that this film, adapted from Matt Bondurant's historical novel-cum-family memoir "The Wettest County in the World," never manages to gather up any of the get-up-and-go attitude that it so desperately needs to succeed in what it is trying to do and become.  Granted, there are a few scenes that come close to matching either the intensity of The Proposition or the dread of The Road - most of which involve either Tom Hardy as man-with-no-name-ish family patriarch Forrest Bondurant or Guy Pearce as foppish yet brutal Special Deputy Charlie Rakes - but none of these ever cohere enough to allow the film to work on such a level.  This is a film that, with its pedigree and with the inherent filmic quality of the story, should be a whole hell of a lot better than it ends up being.

The story follows three bootlegging brothers in Franklin County, Virginia - a place once so known for its moonshine and abundance of mountain-top distilleries that Sherwood Anderson dubbed it the wettest county in the world (hence the title of the book written by the grandson/grand nephew of the aforementioned three bootlegging brothers) - and their run-in with a sadistic U.S. Agent and a big time Chicago mobster named Floyd Banner.  In theory this should be the kind of thing that is just rife for Hillcoat's and Cave's sensually masochistic treatment.  In reality, it just never comes through.  One could say (and many have) that it is the casting of Shia LaBeouf that put a damper on a lot of the so-called evening, but really, the kid does a relatively competent job in his role as the youngest Bondurant brother.  The Transformers star isn't really a bad actor so much as a bad picker of films.   But still, the film never manages to pick up on any of its actors.  Oldman, as the gangster Banner and Jessica Chastain as Hardy's potential love interest, never get anything much to do (talent wasted indeed), Mia Wasikoska, as LaBeouf's wouldbe girl, is allowed better than they, and Hardy and Pearce are both powerful but are both left wanting for more - just as we the audience are.  Pretty sad if you ask me.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Battle Royale #5 - Battle of the Silent Clowns

For our fifth of Battle Royale, we are going to go back to that age-old debate that has been bantered back and forth by cinephiles and film buffs and classic movie lovers for more than eighty years now - Chaplin vs. Keaton.  Granted, this is probably a pretty tired debate by now, but here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World we care not a whit about such things.  We want to, we demand to know who is the greatest - Chaplin or Keaton.  This can stand as the be all and end all of this perennially back-from-the-dead debate.  After this, we will have our definitive answer to the persistent question of Chaplin versus Keaton.  No more will ever need be spoken or written on the subject.  This will be it people.  This will be it.  But I digress.

Yes, there was Harold Lloyd and there was Fatty Arbuckle.  There was Max Linder and there was Laurel and Hardy.  But let's face it, the kings of silent comedy were the Little Tramp and the Great Stone Face.  Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  Both comic actors/writers/directors began their career as children upon the vaudeville stage - Chaplin at five and Keaton at just three - and would eventually become masters of their craft.  Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin (knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975) and Joseph Frank 'Buster' Keaton made some of the best and funniest films of their era.  Granted, Chaplin's era went quite a bit longer, but this has nothing to do with talent or lack thereof.  Personally I have always found Keaton the better gag writer and the straight-out funniest, but Chaplin has always been the better overall filmmaker.  Both The General (Keaton) and City Lights (Chaplin) are amongst my personal favourite films of all-time.  This has always been a rather divisive issue amongst cinephiles, so let the fireworks burst.

Here and now it is your turn to make the decision.  So all you Keaton buffs and Chaplin fans get out the vote.  Just go on over to the sidebar poll and choose the silent clown (and more) that you like the best.  The poll will go on for two weeks before we announce a victor.  And please remember that you can make as many comments here as you wish (and please do) but in order for your vote to count, you must vote in the actual poll.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Film Review: Premium Rush

Remember Quicksilver?  The 1986 Kevin Bacon film about bike messengers?  It was the actor's follow-up to his breakout hit Footloose, and was the first of a series of pretty mediocre films Bacon did over the next decade or so.  Perhaps there were one or two good ones in amongst these duds, but you get the picture.  Now this doesn't mean that I believe Joseph Gordon-Levitt's career is about to take a nosedive and he is going to start to do his generation's versions of She's Having a Baby or Tremors.  I was just wondering if anyone else noticed the similarities in the two films.  No?  It's just me?  Okay, I can live with that.  Really though, the only thing these two films have in common is the fact that both are about a bunch of crazy-ass twentysomething bike messengers with delusions of Evel Knievel-ness.  I suppose comparing them any more deeply would be akin to comparing Tin Cup and Caddyshack because they were both about golf.  Anyway, before we start debating over whether Premium Rush is supposed to be Tin Cup or Caddyshack in this scenario, please allow me to digress.

To be honest, this story of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's jaded, suit-hating law school grad turned NYC bike messenger with a seeming death wish, proudly weaving thru the Manhattan streets with no brakes, who becomes involved in a rather convoluted plot that involves Chinese dissidents, gambling parlours, a crooked cop, a love triangle, a silly NYPD bike cop and ticket with a smiley-face on it and a big-ass price tag, really goes nowhere.  Sure, we track and back track and forward track and then back track some more through the busy and dangerous streets of Manhattan (and seriously, I know much of the film takes place during the so-called rush hour, but still the New York streets in this film seem even more dramatically jam-packed and dangerous than normal) but really never go anywhere.  Then again, even though we seem to go nowhere either physically (from Columbia down to Chinatown) or metaphysically (we know how everything is going to end up here - we're not stupid) we do get an almost non-stop rush, premium or otherwise, from opening salvo to finale.  This must account for something, right?

Really though, Premium Rush, directed by writer-turned-director David Koepp (thanks to his writing Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible and Spider-Man, he is the fourth most successful screenwriter in Hollywood history, but usually a flop when at the actual helm), may be a silly little movie, but thanks to Gordon-Levitt's cocksure charm, and Michael Shannon's typically creepy (but never cheesy) take on the aforementioned bad cop who is hunting our intrepid bike boy through the also-aforementioned busy, dangerous NYC streets,  as well as the near non-stop racing through the city (there are some really good chase scenes here that are kind of reminiscent, if not done with less cinematic flair, of things like The French Connection and Bullitt) make for a fun film, even with such inherent silliness.  I suppose what I am trying to say is that one can enjoy a film, not only in spite of, but even because of its ridiculousness.  And not to sound too condescending (because I am not meaning to be so), but Premium Rush is most certainly one of those films.

Film Review: Hit & Run

When an actor (Dax Shepard) decides to write and co-direct a film, and casts himself, his fiancee (Kristen Bell) and their closest friends (Bradley Cooper, Tom Arnold), it could go one of two ways.  The first, and probably the more likely, is that it ends up being a clusterfuck of a movie that was probably a lot more fun to make than it is to watch.  The second, and probably the trickier of the two outcomes, is to create a solid work that is as much fun to watch as it probably was to make.  Lucky for us, and for Shepard, Bell and the gang, Hit & Run ends up definitely being the latter of these two possibilities.

Granted, it is a rather generic story - man on run from violent past who unwittingly drags his girl into the fray and must prove himself to her and others - and it does have one of the most run of the mill titles out there, but Shepard and Bell and Cooper and even Arnold - sometimes especially Arnold - make the film work on levels it really should have no right working on.  It is an old school action-comedy, that has a look and a feel that makes it act as if it verily sprung forth from the thigh of the Zeus of its genre-specific cinematic past.  No silly souped-up hi-jinx that are usually found in the breed lo these past two decades or so (think of the offal that is spewed forth in such ugly fare as the Bad Boys or Rush Hour films).  With Hit & Run we get just the good old fashioned hi-jinx of films like 48 Hours or the Lethal Weapon films (at least the first two), or maybe even the kind of decades-gone charm seen in films like Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and/or Freebie and the Bean.  What we get is fun.  Pure and simple fun.

Shepard, playing an ex-criminal hiding away in the witness protection program - under the self-chosen name of Charlie Bronson by the way - and Bell, the ooh la la dream girl of the nerd world, as his much smarter girlfriend (the real life couple are engaged and will finally tie the knot once gay marriage is made legal), not surprisingly considering, work perfectly together in that what-is-she-doing-with-that-guy kind of way.  The banter they play at seems real - which of course I am sure much of it is - and never seems like just movie dialogue, which granted works both for and against itself.  Bradley Cooper, as the dreadlocked thug out to kill Shepard's Charlie Bronson, is also quite good.  A scene involving his character beating and humiliating a dog owner for feeding his pit bull cheap dog food, is especially hilarious.  But actually the best thing about the film may be Tom Arnold.  Yeah, you read that correctly.  Arnold, as a more-than-frazzled US marshal, is a comic highlight indeed.  In sum, what I am trying to say is - this is a fun film that, if not a great cinematic work, should not be ignored.  And you get to watch Kristen Bell too.