Thursday, November 29, 2012

Film Review: Robert Zemeckis' Flight

Normally, a film about alcoholism, or any addiction for that matter, must be careful as not to fall easy prey to the inherent cliché that comes with such awkward territory.  More often than not, this very thing will happen, and the film in question will end up as mere preachy, pedantic claptrap, worthy of not much more than one of those afterschool specials of yesteryear.  And to be honest, I would not have expected a filmmaker such as Robert Zemeckis, the man who gave us the ridiculously shallow chestnut dressed in inexplicable well-received and Oscary clothing, Forrest Gump, to be able to maneuver around such a pandering mine field as is the genre, and create something real, something human, but will wonders never cease, because with Flight, his sixteenth film, and first foray into live action in more than a decade, the director manages to not only do that very thing, but also is able to hand over his best damn film, though in a much different manner, since the rubbery brilliance that was Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  Of course, considering many of the rather annoying films the director has made between then and now (Castaway, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol), it would not take much effort to be the best one, but even with that in mind, Zemeckis does a surprisingly good job with this one.  At times, and in certain moments, it almost appears as if this were a film directed by the likes of a Martin Scorsese or a Spike Lee.  But apparently It is indeed Bobby Zemeckis.  Then again, much of the well-deserved accolades must go to Zemeckis' star, Denzel Washington, who hands in his own best performance in many a year.

Washington's proud but emotionally-battered drunk is the type of character, just as is the genre of the film, that can more oft than not be played too broad, and therefore too unrealistic - too cliché if you will.  Washington treads this slippery slope with the kind of expertise the actor put into such performances as Pvt. Trip in Glory, Bleek Gilliam in Mo' Better Blues, Alonzo Harris in Training Day and the title characters in both Malcolm X and The Hurricane.  Here he plays a commercial pilot who heroically crash lands a plane that malfunctions, managing to save almost every soul on board.  It later comes out that he had both alcohol and cocaine in his system when the crash occurred.  The irony being that even though his condition was not the cause of the malfunction, Washington's pilot should not have been in the air under the influence, but at the same time he is heralded as the only pilot who could have successfully pulled off such a landing.  Pulling off their own high wire act, a high wire act such as this, especially inside a potential powder keg of cliché and emotional manipulation, both Zemeckis and Washington come off as doing the seemingly impossible as well.  Granted, that aforementioned emotional manipulation does rear its so-called ugly head now and again - especially in the needlessly tacked on last ten minutes or so - but it is mostly kept in bay by Washington's head-on performance and, believe it or not, Zemeckis' pin point direction.  Hats off to ya.

Film Review: Ben Affleck's Argo

From the opening 1970's era Warner Brothers logo, complete with age-appropriate scratches, to the quite tense, but awfully contrived climactic finish (from what I have read on the subject, the real story is far less exciting, so one supposes a bit of dramatic license is allowed, even preferred here), Ben Affleck's Argo shows itself as something out of time, perhaps even out of rhythm with what we perceive as a modern day action film.  This is not meant as a bust on the film at all (well, maybe that contrived jab) but rather giving it its due as something that plays out, not as some flashy, CGI-addled actioner of this ADD-diagnosed post-millennial period - something that replaces story with spectacle - but as something from a better time.  A better time in both cinema and society alike.  A time when the director, not the producer, was king - god even in some cases.

Argo is reminiscent of a director-driven time when the art that went up on the screen was more important than the dollars that went in the pocket.  Well, okay, the dollars have always been important, even from the beginnings of what we call cinema, but you know what I mean.  It was a time of artistic sensibilities that ran through cinema from the collapse of the old studio system and its tired production code in the early to mid sixties through the waning days of the director-god and the birth of the franchise film full of all its critic-proofing marketing, when the studios knew it took little effort to make a blockbuster, in the early eighties.  Much the same way as Tomas Alfredson did last year with the similarly set Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Affleck brings that feeling back in spades with Argo.  This is not only a film set in the latter days of this period (1979-80 to be precise) but it plays out as if were really made in that time as well.

As for the film itself, the acting is top notch - Affleck, a rather underrated actor as it is, gives one of his best performances - and the tension is, as they say, palpable.  Granted, the screenplay often gets a bit hokey, and as I mentioned earlier, the ending is quite contrived, but the way Affleck lets things play out, it seems to work, even over the hokier moments.  Affleck's directorial debut, the sadly overlooked Gone Baby Gone, really had no major problems to speak of.  In fact it was one of the best first films of its generation.  The actor/director seemed to have the same problems as he does in Argo, with his second film as a director, The Town.  There were moments in that film that shot shivers across the back of cinema, but there was an overabundant share of contrivance there as well - especially in the pandering finale that almost made this critic forget all the good things that abounded in the film.  Now the problems here are mere minor scratches compared to the ending of The Town, and as I said, a bit of dramatic license never hurt anyone.  The runway chase scene may have been a bit much, but otherwise this is a finely tuned machine that makes one long for the pre-franchise days of cinematic yore that were the seventies.  We at least get a taste of that here - and kudos should go to Mr. Affleck for making that so.

Monday, November 26, 2012

My Quest to See the 1000 Greatest Films: #950 Thru #979

Here is a look at the latest thirty films in my Quest to See the 1000 Greatest Films.  These thirty films were seen between Oct. 17th and Nov. 23rd.  A complete look at my quest can be viewed HERE.

Jacques Becker's immensely enjoyable Casque d'Or (#950), featuring the always wonderful and always alluring Simone Signoret, is hands down one of the best French films of its day.  Becker was always an auteur with a kind of straight forward artistic sense, and that mood creates here a tense and quite enthralling tragic love story.  Next up on our quest is one of five Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart westerns on the list - and the third one for me personally (numbers four and five are coming up a little on further down this very page).  The 1950 classic, Winchester '73 (#951), was the first of this vaunted director/actor collaboration.  My favourite is still The Naked Spur, but all five are quite good, and this one is highlighted not only by yet another great performance from James Stewart (my favourite actor of all-time if you want the truth) but also from Shelly Winters, John McIntire and a rather slimy Dan Duryea - as well as a young Rock Hudson as an Indian.  Which brings us to another 1950 classic.  Jules Dassin's own 1950 classic, Night and the City (#952) - a noirish tale of a good-for-nothing con-man played with rugged chutzpah by one of the legendary tough guys of old Hollywood, Richard Widmark.  We also get to see Gene Tierney in a rather thankless role, but hey, at least we get to see Gene Tierney.  Next up is Federico Fellini's 1965 film, Juliet of the Spirits (#953).  When I first starting broadening my horizons and got into foreign film, Fellini was one of my earliest sojourns.  Over the years, his legend has fallen a bit in my mind.  I am still a fan of his (though my argument that perhaps I, Vitelloni is a better film than 8 1/2 tends to piss off some purists) but just not as strongly as twenty years ago.  As for this particular film, all I can really say is - it is not one of my favourites.

The next two films I know I must have seen as a kid (and many parts were vaguely familiar) but just to make sure, I watched them, or rather maybe rewatched them, for my quest.  They are Top Hat (#954) and Swing Time (#955).  So, in other words, I had myself an Astaire/Rogers double feature.  A Pretty snazzy one at that.  I have always been a sucker for an old fashioned musical, and the fluidity of Fred and Ginger on those collective dance floors makes that suckerdom all the more powerful.  Pure class baby, pure class.  And speaking of double features, I decided to clear the rest of the Mann/Stewart westerns out while I was at it.  1952's Bend of the River (#956) and 1954's The Far Country (#957) complete the set of five on my quest.  All five films are moody and acerbic, with many Freudian drippings.  I would say The Far Country is now my third favourite (after The Naked Spur and The Man from Laramie - the latter I saw in a double feature with Mann's non-Stewartian Man of the West at Film Forum a few years back for my birthday gift to myself) followed by Bend of the River and finally, the aforementioned Winchester '73.  All quite good, all deserving of inclusion here and all would easily make my own Top 50 Westerns list - a list that I will probably compile early next year sometime, right here on this very site.  But I digress.  Next up in the ole quest is Heimat (#958), a sixteenish houred German snoozefest.  Okay, it really wasn't that bad, but it sure ain't no Berlin Alexanderplatz - and that is a film I really am not all that fond of either, so...  But again, I digress.  Kenji Mizoguchi's Princess Yang Kwei Fei (#959) is a visually beautiful film.  Story-wise it somewhat lacks, but damn it looks good.  Then again, it is Mizoguchi (the equal to Ozu any day), so that visual beauty should go without saying.  Again, lesser Mizoguchi is still better than most.

Just two years ago, I could, and somewhat shamefully so I might add, claim that I had never seen a Douglas Sirk film.  Luckily this shameful lack of cinematic knowledge has since been remedied.  Now I consider myself a die hard Sirkophile, and proudly include the German-born, American auteur in my ten favourite directors.  The Tarnished Angels (#960) may not be Magnificent Obsession or All That Heaven Allows or Written on the Wind or my favourite, Imitation of Life (gee, I love a lot of Sirk films, don't I?), but it is a damn fine movie, and very Sirkian indeed.  Based on Faulkner's relatively overlooked novel Pylon, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack (can we say Written on the Wind redux?) are all quite spectacular.  Have I mentioned how much I love Sirk?  I have?  Oh well, there it is again.  Next up is another film that deserves inclusion here, and will be included on my own top 1000 when I compile said list after completion of my quest in December.  That film is Jean-Pierre Melville's Les Enfants Terribles (#961).  Now sitting atop my favourite Melville's (knocking Le Samourai down to number two), this film, based on the writings of Cocteau, is just simply beautiful.  In both its moody visuals and its even moodier performances, the film is just gorgeous.  Enough gushing though, let us move on.  Roman Polanski's 1976 film, The Tenant (#962), seems a bit too much like the director is trying to recreate both Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby in one fell swoop.  I mean, it isn't a bad movie, and Polanski is fun to watch as an actor (especially in drag), but I wouldn't put it on my list.  Meanwhile we have Angel Face (#963), Otto Preminger doing Marlene Dietrich (or is that the other way around).  I tend to, of course, prefer Dietrich's work with von Sternberg, but this one is fun too.

Now up, is the last of the so-called experimental films on the list.  This one, Jean Cocteau's 1930 film, The Blood of the Poet (#964), which is less experimental than say Brakhage or Jacobs, and therefore much more tolerable to this noted experimental cinema hater.  Actually, this first of a trilogy based upon the Orpheus cycle (only two of the tree films are on the list), has more than its share of moments.  Granted, they are mostly surreal moments, and my tolerance for surrealism is not all that much higher than my aforementioned tolerance for experimental cinema, but still, there are some moments.  But that is all.  Which brings us to David Lean's Doctor Zhivago (#965).  Wow, I almost fell asleep just typing the title out.  I don't think I can go on about this one.  Yep, almost fell asleep again just thinking about it.  I mean really, how dreadfully boring do you have to be, to be David Lean's most boring film?  This is the man who made The Bridge on the River Kwai for crying out loud!  But we better move on before we all fall asleep thinking of this film.  Luckily, next up, we have a much much better film to keep us awake.  It is the 1971 action/gangster thriller Get Carter (#966).  It is not so much the film, nor Mike Hodges' direction, as it is the central performance of Michael Caine, that makes Get Carter as enjoyable as it most certainly is.  I dare ya to try and fall asleep during Get Carter, bitches!  Next we have another one of the longer list entries - Dekalog (#967).  Created as a ten part TV series by Polish auteur Krzystof Kieslowski, and meant to show the ten commandments (sort of) in filmic form, Dekalog (or Decalogue if you prefer), is some pretty powerful stuff.  Of course some segments are better than others, and I would say my favourites are parts five and six, both of which were expanded into full length features under the titles of A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love respectively. 

Now we come to one of the most fun films on the list, and a film that upon seeing it, was quickly inserted into my Favourite Films of All-Time list (the first film since seeing Seventh Heaven back in early September, that has been added to said list).   It is that legendary cult classic from Russ Meyer (and one of Quentin Tarantino's all-time faves - and possibly a film he may remake at some point), Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (#968).  Many may blow it off as mere camp and/or schlock - and perhaps it is indeed that - but it is so much more.  Well, at least inside my warped cranium it is so much more.  I mean, c'mon - hot, trampy girls kicking big time ass - what's not to love?  I am sure, QT had this movie in mind while he was filming Death Proof.  Like I said - fun.  ow budget as hell, but quite fun indeed.  Which brings us to another low budget auteur, though not one that goes in for the schlock of Meyer's work.  How's that for a segue?  Anyway, next we have that granddaddy of indie cinema, John Cassavetes and his penultimate film, Love Streams (#969). I like most of Cassavetes' films, including this one, but sometimes these films get on  my nerves, with the constant use of adlibbing and experimental acting techniques.  Sure, this can be fun at times, but after a while it just drags on and becomes annoying.  This style of improvisation works best in a film like Opening Night, but is bit annoying here.  Still though, I wouldn't kick this film out of bed for eating crackers as they say.  At one point (the list is updated every year) John Ford was the king of the list.  The latest update placed Fritz Lang at the top, with sixteen films on the list, one more than Ford (a real battle of the eye-patched auteurs), but that doesn't mean it isn't a daunting task to see all fifteen films by Ford.  But what a fun daunting task it most certainly is.  When I began my quest four years ago, I had already seen 425 films on the list (the annual updates did make my quest countdown fluctuate every now and then) and seven of those were John Ford films.  Well, now here we are eight films later and I have seen the final Ford film on the list - on my quest.  That film is the 1949 western (of course) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (#970) - and I would call it one of the better Ford's I have seen.  And now, since I have checked the great Ford off the list, and since I do love making lists, this is the perfect time to rank these fifteen films (all of which I like to varying degrees) in order of preference - so here we go.

1) The Searchers (of course)
2) My Darling Clementine
3) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
4) Stagecoach
5) Seven Women
6) The Informer
7) The Quiet Man
8) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
9) The Sun Shines Bright
10) Young Mr. Lincoln
11) The Grapes of Wrath
12) Rio Grande
13) How Green Was My Valley
14) Wagon Master
15) They Were Expendable

As a sidenote, I would include five non list Ford films onto this list.  The Iron Horse, The Lost Patrol, The Hurricane, Tobacco Road (which used to be on the list) and Mister Roberts all deserve inclusion.  The Lost Patrol and The Hurricane would make my top ten Ford films of all-time, knocking out The Sun Shines Bright and Young Mr. Lincoln.  Of course, considering Ford, when including his early silent shorts, has 140 films in his filmography, there are still over a hundred Ford films to be seen by yours truly.  Only time will tell on those.

According to the masters of The List (ie. the fine folks over at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?), said list includes a total of 493 films from North America and 409 films from Europe, leaving just a puny 98 films to represent the rest of the world.  So, with that being the case, next up are some rarities - a pair of Asian films.  The first, from Taiwan, is Hou Hsiao-hsien's A Time to Live and a Time to Die (#971) and the second, from Japan (which, along with India, I am guessing a good chunk of those aforementioned 98 come from), is Nagisa Oshima's The Ceremony (#972).  The former is what one would call a typical Hou film - dry and seemingly rigid, but with a fluidity that keeps it going - while the latter is a bracing, assertive piece of new wave modernism, that can be called typical Oshima.  The only difference being, that I tend to prefer typical Oshima over typical Hou.  I much prefer Hou's more recent fare (from Flowers of Shanghai on), so this one did not do much for me.  The Oshima though is right up there with the auteur's sixties and seventies fare, which fits right in with me, in opposition to my rather recent statement about Hou, preferring his earlier stuff rather than later.  For our next three films we travel back to that place with 409 films included - Europe.  In fact let us narrow it down even further and travel to France.  First we have Claude Chabrol's Le Boucher (#973), followed by Alain Resnais' Muriel (#974) and then Luis Buñuel's The Phantom of Liberty (#975).  Both Chabrol and Resnais are hit and miss with me, and both of these are a bit more miss than hit, and when it comes to Buñuel, give me his Spanish/Mexican period over his later French stuff any day.  Granted, none of these three films are what I would consider bad filmmaking, but none of them are films I would include in such a list as this either.  I do like the poster for the Buñuel though, as can certainly be ascertained by mere look.  Anyway, we have four more films to include in this penultimate batch of quest films - and, as has not been the case with these last three, they are all films I enjoyed thoroughly.

The great Howard Hawks once mad a film called Rio Bravo.  This 1959 classic western is one of my all-time favourite films.  Apparently the director liked it as well, since he kept going back to that same well.   Then again, maybe he did not like it and that is why he tried to remake it twice in the waning years of his long career.  The first of these remakes is our next film - El Dorado (#976).  The second remake, Rio Lobo, Hawks' final film, is not on the list, and being one of the director's worst films, nor should it be.  El Dorado though, is a film that surely deserves inclusion here.  Granted, it's no Rio Bravo, but then not many things are.  Incidentally, this is my next to last Hawks list film to see.  The last one, along with another list, this time of all eleven Hawks films on the list, will be coming up shortly.  But first we come to the final De Palma on the list.  De Palma is a filmmaker that I only just recently began getting into.  Now, as with seeing or re-seeing the films of Scorsese, Kubrick, Nick Ray and Powell/Pressburger, I have tried to watch as many of De Palma's films up on the big screen of the cinema my lovely wife and I run together.  With films like The Phantom of the Paradise, Dressed to Kill, his Scarface remake and my favourite, Blow Out (all four of which I just saw for the first time in the past year - and all of them on that aforementioned big screen), I could not help but start digging the guy I have always blown off as nothing more than a mere Hitchcock wannabe.  Carrie (#977) only adds to that newly found admiration.  Getting to see it on the big screen just added to that.  Next we have a film simply called If... (#978).  Made by Lindsay Anderson in 1968, and starring Malcolm McDowell as the rabble-rousing boarding school agitator Mick Travis, the film is a satiric look on English public schools and the then modern day society of the UK.  Quite intriguing this film most certainly is.  Strangely enough, it made me wish I had gone to boarding school.  Oh well.

Anyway, that brings us to the final film in this batch.  Hatari! (#979) is the final Howard Hawks film to be seen in my quest.  Of the eleven Hawks films on the list, I had already seen all but three.  This 1962 film, a loose retelling of the director's own 1939 film Only Angels Have Wings, is the story of an international group of wild game hunters, catching African animals for zoos.  It is both action-packed and quite funny - including John Wayne doing screwball comedy.  As far as Hawks goes - and I consider the great man to be one of the five best directors of all-time - this would probably land somewhere in the middle of the guy's oeuvre.  Considering said oeuvre has very few true duds, this assessment is pretty favourable.  Now since this is the last Hawks on the list, and since I already did it with John Ford above, here is a list of the eleven Hawks on the list, in order of preference - and, of course, there's not a bad apple in the bushel.

1) His Girl Friday
2) Rio Bravo
3) The Big Sleep
4) Bringing Up Baby
5) Only Angels Have Wings
6) To Have and Have Not
7) Red River
8) Scarface
9) Hatari!
10) Gentleman Prefer Blondes
11) El Dorado

The first three on this list can be found on my Favourite Films list.  The next two came really close to making that list.  As for the Hawks that are not on this list, I would include such films as The Dawn Patrol, The Criminal Code, Twentieth Century, Air Force, Land of the Pharaohs (yeah, that's right) and one of his mostly forgotten silents, Fig Leaves.  But that is something for another day - which will happen when I release my own Top 1000 early next year.  So that brings us to the end of this batch.  The next batch will include films #980 through #999, which will be followed by one final piece on the last film in My Quest (which will be Chaplin's Limelight, watched on that aforementioned big screen) and a final wrap up, as well as a look into what is next for me and my then completed quest.  Possibly a book.  Well, okay, definitely a book, but we'll talk about that later.  See ya on the flip side.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Film Review: Steven Spielberg's Lincoln

The aptly titled Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg's twenty-ninth feature film, is not a bio-pic so much as the story of a great man's tragic final months.  A great man accomplishing great things in the midst of the greatest of adversity.  Spielberg's film does not cover the early days of the man who would become our sixteenth president.  We do not see the deeds and actions that made the great man so great.  We do not see the tragedy of early lost love.  We do not see the growth of a boy into manhood.  We do not see the young Lincoln as lawyer or debater or resistant politician.  We do not see the first harrowing term that included the start of a war that would take more American lives than any other in history and the debilitating loss of a child in the dark night of the White House.  We do not see that man - that Abraham Lincoln.  What we first see is the man that was born out of these tragedies.  The Lincoln we get here is a man worn down by war and rhetoric and great great loss but also a man who has risen above such things, to fight the good fight, the fight others cannot fight, to become the legendary heroic figure we were all taught about in school.  What we get here is the Lincoln that has gone down in history as arguably - or possibly unarguably - the greatest president this great nation has ever seen.

What we also get here is one of the greatest performances of one of the greatest men, by one of the greatest actors working today.  Daniel Day-Lewis' brilliant, almost dead-ringer portrayal of the first Republican president (back in the day when it was the Republicans who wanted social change and equal rights for all, and the Democrats were the stalwart voice of intolerance - oh how things have changed) should not come as much of a surprise, considering all the virtuoso performances that line the actor's resumé like gold records (and a pair of gold Oscars) on the wall.  What does come as a bit of a surprise is the subtle grace with which Day-Lewis uses to portray the former president.  Known in recent years for more oft than not going well over the top in his portrayals (and this is not meant as a diss of any sort, for roles such as The Gangs of New York's Bill the Butcher or Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood would not have worked as well as they did otherwise) it is a more inconspicuous, more subtly suggestive performance that Day-Lewis hands in here.  A performance that is not so much Daniel Day-Lewis being a version of Daniel Day-Lewis (which he does so well) but a performance that makes us forget just who is behind that iconic beard and stovepipe hat.  A performance that gives us not an actor playing a president, but a performance that gives us the president himself.  A performance that is so penetrating as to make us forget Daniel Day-Lewis and make us see only Abraham Lincoln.  And also a performance that could very well win that oh so hidden portrayal a third to go with those aforementioned pair of past gold Oscars.

But it is not just Day-Lewis who brings it home daringly yet quietly.  Spielberg, and please pardon the reference to a different president, also speaks softly and carries a big stick here.   LIncoln is the director's most grounded film.  This critic has always been much more of a fan of Spielberg's so-called popcorn flicks than the director's more serious-minded fare.  Give me giddy excitement of Jaws or Raiders or Jurassic Park over the cloying, manipulative, heavy-handed likes of The Color Purple or last year's dreadfully-played War Horse any day.  Even something like the almost universally-beloved Schindler's List has its pandering faults.  In the director's more action-oriented hits, this directorial fault is overshadowed by the inherent swashbuckling aura, but in his more dramatic films, this fault stands out like a blinding beacon in the night.  Fortunately for we the viewers, and perhaps for Spielberg as well, that glaring fault line barely rears its ugly head in Lincoln.  Yes, the film ends about five minutes too late, as instead of closing on the president leaving the White House for his infamous date with destiny at Ford's Theater, the director drags it out to show weeping and screaming at his death.  I mean, I do not think anyone need say spoiler alert here, we all know how this story ends, there is no need to drag it out - but alas, poor Spielberg, he did it anyway.  Now granted, this five or six minute faux pas is but a minor criticism considering the 137 or so minutes that precede it is some of the best work Spielberg has done in years.  The fact that when the film eventually comes down to that historic House vote to end slavery, there is enough tension palpitating through the theater, even though we all know damn well how the vote ends (I mean, spoiler alert if I must, but yes, slavery is indeed abolished), to make one shudder in the very face of history being made.  That is how you direct a movie.

As for the rest of the film, and there is a surprising amount of time where Day-Lewis' fateful Commander-in-Chief is merely a peripheral figure in the guts of the film, the act of voting on and passing the 13th amendment to abolish slavery, it too is held aloft rather mightily.  Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and sometimes adversary to President Lincoln, as well as the man who, second only to the president, was the most fervent guiding force in the abolishment of slavery, is dead-on in his performance as well - and probably headed toward his own Academy Award nomination.  Then we have Sally Field as First Lady, or Madame President as she snidely informs Representative Stevens of what she is to be called, Mary Todd Lincoln.  At first glance one could call her performance a bit in the over-the-top realm (a certain someone I know went as far as to compare said performance to the screechings of a howler monkey), especially when side-by-side with Day-Lewis' subtle nuances, but considering the history of one of the most flamboyant (and dare I say a bit insane) first ladies in history, such a portrayal hits the proverbial nail on its own proverbial head.  And I suppose we should tack her on for an Oscar nomination as well.  In the end though, the film comes down to how well  Spielberg has filmed it (saturated lighting, a smoothly moving camera and low-key editing give the film an almost seamless look and feel) and how well Day-Lewis has become Abraham Lincoln (and it too is seamless), and in these aspects, despite those last few minutes of audience pandering, Lincoln, though ultimately maybe not the masterpiece some are touting, is indeed a success.  A historic success.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Anomalous Material Feature: 10 Best James Bond Films

It has been quite a while (four and a half months for those keeping score at home), but here we are once again true believers, with my latest 10 best feature written for the fine folks over at Anomalous Material.  For those of you not in the know, those same said fine folks have given me a (possibly foolish on their behalf) regular gig as feature writer.  It is a series of top ten lists on all kinds of various cinematic subjects - and anyone who knows me at all can surely attest to how perfectly suited I am to such an endeavor (yes I am a  list nerd).  This newest feature, my twenty-ninth such feature, is a special edition to coincide with the release of Skyfall, the twenty-third official James Bond film (twenty-fifth if you count the unofficial ones, and twenty-sixth if you add the fifties BBC version).  This time around we take a look at the ten best James Bond films, so here you go.

Read my feature article, "10 Best James Bond Films" at Anomalous Material.

Once you read my 10 Best list, you will see that one of these guys below, and I think you know which one, is my favourite - and that two of them do not even make an appearance on the list at all.   Of course you can always check out my review of the aforementioned twenty-third official Bond entry HERE, and also get a peek at my ranking of all twenty-three films.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Retro Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

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 Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, here is a look back at a film that...well, let's just say it's not one of the director's best, which is made even more disappointing by the fact that the first three films in the series were some of the director's best.  Anyway, here it is.


When you have a film series as iconic as Indiana Jones, there is bound to be a sense of apprehension when it comes to the latest installment.   Put that together with the nineteen year gap since the last film and the idea of a sixty-five year old action-adventure hero bull-whipping his way around the Amazon rain forest, and no matter how giddy one may be at the mention of this long-awaited sequel-to-a-sequel-to-a-sequel - and some are quite giddy indeed - there is still quite the powerful sense of trepidation that creeps along the ole cerebral cortex.   Can Spielberg pull it off after all these years?   Can Harrison Ford do the same?   Will it be, like the second (or is it first?) trilogy of Star Wars films, nothing more than a ridiculed shadow of its true self?   Will they be able to get back that old-time movie magic one more time after such a long wait or will this be the death knell for the coolest archeology professor to ever strap on a whip and fedora?

I can tell you this for sure - I left the screening humming John Williams' iconic (there's that word again) theme music and am even doing it now, a day later, as I write these words.   What does that mean?   Well I suppose it means that old-time movie magic is still there, but unfortunately it seems rather old and tired this time around, almost as if no one - director and stars both - is really trying all that hard.   I suppose the humming is more nostalgia than zest for the new.    Granted, no one would rightfully expect the latest to be able to stand up to the original Raiders of the Lost Ark (renamed Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark for DVD release) with its original bravura and Ford's Bogart meets Errol Flynn chutzpah - especially since neither Temple of Doom nor The Last Crusade could do so in their time (without a near twenty year gap) - but I suppose I was hoping for something a bit, I don't know, a bit more.

Perhaps, as I stated earlier, Crystal Skull is a bit on the tired side (though the sexagenarian Indy does still get around with quite the florid mix of machismo and aloofness) and sometimes feeling as if everyone is just phoning in their lines, this fourth (and last? - doubtful considering the obvious foreshadowing of a new Shia LeBeouf-helmed future franchise) Indiana Jones flick does have its moments.   Unfortunately these moments (an army ant feast du jour, LeBeouf and an army of CGI monkeys Tarzanning their way through the Amazon, a nuke-thumped refrigerator catapult) never give the kick one would hope for in such a movie.   The suspension of disbelief is there as always in the genre, but the danger we are meant to perceive for the characters is not.  

Ford, though aging quite Hollywood star-like, seems as if he just wants to go home to his waifish girlfriend and his trillion acre Wyoming ranch, while Karen Allen, whom the years have not been so good to, has no other purpose it would seem than to smile adoringly at the fedora-topped adventurer that got away and all the while Shia LeBeouf, who seems quite the dynamo when contrasted with the rest of the listless cast, is merely the triflist of sidekicks as Indy's heir apparent.   Then we have Cate Blanchett as the most mildly inoffensive (and quite unintimidating) villain Indy has yet to come up against.   Looking completely lost in her dominatrix bob and bondage and quipping in silly borscht-accented coyisms, one hopes her paycheck is substantial enough here to finance her in doing about a baker's dozen more I'm Not There's.

Much has been said of Spielberg's lack of soul as a filmmaker (much of it by this very critic) but this is the kind of mega-mastondonic movie where the auteur - and sans soul or not, Spielberg is surely one of - can shine his movie-making lights upon.   Where other filmmakers of his generation (Scorsese, Coppola, Cimino, Bogdanovich, Rafelson) studied Renoir and Chaplin, Welles and Griffith, Powell and Minnelli, Spielberg was busy building then blowing up toy trains in his basement and filming it all on his Super-8 camera.   Perhaps this doesn't make for a filmmaker capable of Raging Bull or The Godfather but it does make for quite the old-timey pulp genre smoke and mirrors illusionist that Spielberg has become.   Much like his vaunted Cecil B. DeMille, Spielberg is more showman than filmmaker, and it shows here.

Though he has done better (Jaws, the original Raiders, Jurassic Park, Minority Report, the oft-maligned and somewhat flawed War of the Worlds and even my own secret shame guilty pleasure 1941) and he has done quite worse (Always, the dreadful Hook and his dismantling of Kubrick's A.I.) I suppose, even with its flaws (some of them quite glaring) and that nagging sensation that the title sounds a bit too much like a never-completed Hardy Boys Mystery, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - the fourth installment in the series - manages to wallop a few popcorn punches during its 124 minute running time.   Too bad those punches seem pulled throughout.

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 05/21/2008]

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Battle Royale #8: Battle of Comic Mayhem

Welcome to the eighth 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.

Hey faithful readers and true believers, Battle Royale has returned with an all new no holds barred fantasy fisticuffs showdown.  This time around, instead of pitting just one against one, as we have in the first seven Battle Royale's, we are going three (or four) on three (or four, five or even six).  This time around, you are asked to choose between the two preeminent comedy teams of classic Hollywood.  Will your love for The Three Stooges win out or will your love for The Marx Brothers claim victory.  It is all up to you.  These are the two most famous (three or more member) comedy teams in classic movie history (sorry Monty Python gang, but we are going classic here and you are a bit too on the new side for such an honour) but these are also two comedy teams that, I believe, have very different fan bases.  While the Marx Brothers were usually more cerebral, the Stooges tended to go more for the gut - though the brothers' Marx had no problem going low either.  I myself have always been more of a Marx guy than a Stooge guy but don't let that influence your decision.  As if.  But I digress.

The Stooges began their career in 1925 as part of a vaudeville act known as Ted Healy and His Stooges.  This original act consisted of brothers Moe and Shemp Howard and fellow comic Larry Fine.  After Shemp's departure in 1932, younger brother Curly joined the group, and in 1934, the three comics broke free of Healy (apparently the relationship had always been rather tempestuous), renamed themselves The Three Stooges, and began a career all of their own.  In 1946, Curly suffered a stroke and Shemp was brought back in to replace him.  This was meant as just a temporary situation but after Curly died in 1950, big brother Shemp stayed on until his own death in 1955.  This brought aboard comic Joe Besser as Shemp's replacement, but this would only last four years before Besser was in turn replaced by Curly-Joe DeRita who stayed with the group until the end in 1971.  That was the year that Larry suffered a stroke.  Fellow comic Emil Sitka was asked to come aboard as a replacement, but these plans never came to fruition.  In 1975 Larry Fine passed away, followed by best friend Moe Howard a few months later.  But the Three Stooges will live in film history forever.

The Marx Brothers meanwhile began their stage career as teenagers way back in 1905.  Eventually all five brothers would be in the act - older brothers Leonard (Chico) and Arthur (Harpo), middle brother Julius (Groucho), and little brothers Milton (Gummo) and, once Gummo left for World War I, Herbert (Zeppo).  Gummo would never rejoin the act (he hated performing) and the other four brothers would move from stage to screen with the film The Cocoanuts in 1929.  Zeppo would only last for five films before he too quit (it's never any fun as the straight man in an act of insanity) and joined his brother Gummo in one of the most successful talent agencies in Hollywood history.  The apocryphal tale of Lana Turner being discovered at the counter of a drug store was hyped to the high hills by her agent Zeppo Marx.  Meanwhile, the remaining three brothers, Groucho, Harpo and Chico, would go on to add to their legendary status until they called it quits as an act after the dismal 1949 film Love Happy.  Groucho always considered their penultimate film, A Night in Casablanca, to be their final film, conveniently erasing the other one from his memory.  Groucho of course, went on to great success on that burgeoning medium known as television.  Chico would pass away in 1961, followed by Harpo in 1964.  Groucho would pass in 1977, with Gummo following a few months later.  Zeppo, the baby, would pass away in 1979.  But, like the Stooges above, The Marx Brothers will live forever in cinematic history.

So the decision is yours oh faithful readers and true believers.  The Three Stooges or The Marx Brothers.  All you need do is go on over to the poll (found conveniently near the top of the sidebar) and vote your collective little hearts out.  And please remember that one must go over to the poll to have one's vote counted.  You can babble away in the comments section all you want (and that is certainly something I encourage, as we never get enough feedback around these parts) but to have your vote count, you must click on your choice in the poll.  And also, please go and tell all your friends to vote as well.  Our biggest voter turnout since starting the Battle Royale series has been just 66 votes.  I know we can get that number to a cool one hundred before it is all said and done and the proverbial smoke does its proverbial clearing.  The voting period will last only until December 1st, so get out there and vote people.

Film Review: Cloud Atlas

I went into Cloud Atlas, co-directed by Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski, not sure what to expect.  On the one hand, Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run was one of the more intriguing films of the 1990's, and his oft-overlooked Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a film that deserves much more recognition than it initially received.  On the other hand, I never have gotten the allure of the Wachowski's Matrix series, and Tom Hanks is the kind of creature that just epitomizes middlebrow Hollywood.  As for the novel itself, written by David Mitchell and often referred to as unfilmable, I must admit to having never read it, but the premise sounds intriguing, and the potential to create a most strange and unusual motion picture epic is indeed ingrained inside this so-called unfilmable work.  Putting all this together, I had low expectations but high hopes going in.  Coming out, I was forced to resign myself to the sad fact that my hopes had been dashed even if my expectations were indeed met.  No, the film is not terrible by any means, but it is just as far from brilliant as it is from terrible.  Even with its inherent great potential, Cloud Atlas ends up being that aforementioned very epitome of middlebrow Hollywood.

The film, as is the book, is six stories in one.   Taking place through the ages, from the South Pacific of 1849 to Cambridge, England and Edinburgh, Scotland in 1936 to 1973 San Francisco to the modern day UK to Neo Seoul in the year 2144 to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii in a time called 106 winters after "The Fall" (identified as 2321), the filmmakers (Tykwer taking three stories and the Wachowski's taking the other three) shoot back and forth between these six tales with an unbridled ferocity that may leave many moviegoers clamoring for the lobby (I myself welcome the insanity of non-linear storytelling), and will only end up leaving those filmgoers with sturdier compositions (the back and forth settles down into a respectable non-linear sense about twenty minutes in) wanting the more that the unique premise had promised them.  To befuddle the non sturdy moviegoers even more, the main cast, which includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, James D'Arcy, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Wishaw, Keith David, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon and Hugo Weaving, all play multiple parts, sometimes of different genders and/or races.  The latter becoming a stick in the craw of many advocate groups, which is understandable because Hugo Weaving as a Korean man is even creepier than Hugo Weaving as an enormous Nurse Ratched character.  None of this though really gives or takes much to or from the film (and it should give a lot to it), as no matter how mind-blowing the three directors want to be - and I am sure they want to be greatly so - the end result is inevitably disappointment in what could have been and what should have been.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Jean Seberg - A Poem On Her Birthday

This poem was originally written and published last year to honour Miss Jean Seberg.  Now, to celebrate the 74th anniversary of the birth of this beautiful yet tragic figure from film history, I present it to you again.

An angel of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées

A killer, a maid, a reluctant gun moll
Her hair shorn for God and King and Jean-Luc

A delicate finger, gliding across once quivering lips
A creature of ravishing innocence, fair complextion

Gravitas in soulful, mourning eyes
Alive with the thrill of concluded death

This blessed child of Hollywood, Preminger's paramour
Turned toward the ancient eyes of Gaul

Blue jeans, milk shakes, thick red steaks
An American girl, gone to the wonders

A panther in a jaguar's body, a little girl lost
Lithe, she would purr with beatific ambiguity

Her look spoke with poetry, not prose
Her eyes open with the state of longing

Her cheeks, her breasts beneath hidden yellow
Heaving to the time of change, a rebirth

Lost in time, she spoke of voices
In the shadows of the bedrooms of kings

Hello sadness, her youth lost in a car
Heavenly tresses bound her to Earth

Mad men would condemn her
She could no longer live with her nerves

This angel of La plus belle avenue du monde
The chestnut trees wrap their arms about her

As saintly as her armoured maid of childhood
As born unto a star of despair, broken dreams

The flesh of her body, tender, hot to the touch
The flames of eternal lips, she stares at us

A messenger of the creation, she breathes
her tongue embroiled in the lies of truth

Desire has no meaning, no quarter
Faith in the vessel of behaviour

She would hold light to a candle
Dangle her eyes in frenzied apprehension

Her eyes, her touch, her chin, her toes
A striped dress of betrayal, sacrifice

A dalliance with a star, her director
Her legs rushing down her avenue

New York Herald Tribune
New York Herald Tribune

The voice of God, a sweet sad sigh
She stares into the camera, eyes wet

A look of immeasurable sadness
Gone is the toothy smirk of youth

Even in her own youth, faded dreams
She stares into the camera, lips drawn

A lost angel of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées

Monday, November 12, 2012

My Quest to See the 1000 Greatest Films: #920 Thru #949

Here is a look at the latest thirty films in my Quest to See the 1000 Greatest Films.  These thirty films were seen between Sept. 25th and Oct. 16th.  A complete look at my quest can be viewed HERE.

So I sat down to watch Elem Klimov's 1985 Russian war film Come and See (#920) with not much anticipation in my cinephiliac heart.  I had heard so much about it in my filmic corner of the world, but still had no real desire to see the damn thing.  An overblown foreign prestige piece and nothing more I thought.  I thought wrong.  A brilliantly and subversively harrowing drama (with moments of uncomfortable comedy) that, as they are prone to say (whomever they may be) blew me away.  Something grand scale but done in a very intimate style, a la Tarkovsky at his less grandiose moments.  And speaking of grandiose, Michael Mann's 1995 crime near masterpiece, Heat (#921), the film that finally put Pacino and De Niro face to face for the first, and by far the best time, is another film that blew me away - but this time I was rather expecting such a reaction.  I love nearly everything Mann does (save for the rather overrated Last of the Mohicans - though a second viewing on that one could change one's mind considering one's love for all other things Mannish) so it came as no surprise that when I finally got around to seeing the film (seventeen years after its initial release!!?) that I enjoyed every aspect of it, from Mann's dizzying camera to the bravura performances of Pacino and De Niro, to Mann's bluntly vague morality.  But I digress from all this Mann love, and move on to yet another film that one could easily describe as blown away worthy - Jacques Becker's 1960 prison film Le Trou (#922).   The director's final film (he died never seeing its release), and probably my favourite of the auteur's oeuvre, mixes the strangest concoction of awkward comedy and intense drama, but then again, the film is French.

Next up is what I believe to be the one and only Turkish film on the list - Yilmaz Güney's 1982 film Yol (#923).  It had its moments but we should probably move on out of fear of falling asleep at all those non-moment moments.  And speaking of falling asleep, next up is the sixteen plus hour German mini-series turned theatrical golliwog, Berlin Alexanderplatz (#924). Now Fassbinder is definitely a take him or leave him type of filmmaker for me (other than Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant and The Marriage of Maria Braun, they all seem to blend together) and there are definite ups and downs to this epic viewing, but overall this critic was not overly impressed.  This critic was impressed by the next film on his quest.  Akira Kurosawa's twenty-third film, Red Beard (#925), starts off quietly and rises crescendo-like into one of the better works in the auteur's oeuvre.  Turning back to the boredom side of things, Jean-Luc Godard's Sauve qui Peut (la vie) (#926) from 1980 is just godawful - and I say that as a lover of Godard's early work.  In the eight year period from Breathless through Week-end, JLG directed no less than fifteen great works, several of which could even be called masterpieces.  Since 1967, the auteur has given us nothing more than a sprinkling of good films (though none of them great) amongst a filmography of pompous, self-righteous claptrap.  This film is definitely part of the latter group.  Which, non-sequitor notwithstanding, brings us back to R.W. Fassbinder and his penultimate film Veronika Voss (#927).  I suppose I would put this unique film, shot in black and white and made to resemble some sort of film noir/melodrama melange, in the aforementioned take him category.

Next up is a sequel that is really a remake.  Yeah, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II (#928) made the list, even though the original Evil Dead did not, so I finally got around to seeing the damn thing.  Pretty neat actually.  Fun, campy stuff indeed, and even though I probably would not include it in my own top 1000, I can see why, unlike several films mentioned above, it is here.  Then we have The Hart of London (#929), a 1970 experimental film from Jack Chambers.  I think everyone here knows my thoughts on experimental cinema, and if you do not, you will be reminded about it later on down the page.  For now let's just move on to The Devil is a Woman (#930).  Let's see, Josef von Sternberg and Marle Dietrich.  How can you go wrong?  You can't!  Okay, this isn't the pair at their best, but even lesser Dietrich/von Sternberg is better than the best of many others.  So there!  Meanwhile, Antonioni's La Notte (#931) is a fun movie.  Well, as fun as any Antonioni film can be that is.  Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (#932) is an even funner movie - and Sam Peckinpah films are nothing if not fun.  Bloody and oft times demented, but definitely fun.  Fellini's Il Bidone (#933) is kind of fun as well, but on a lesser scale.  Did that sound patronizing?  Oh well, it wasn't meant to sound that way.  As for the film that beat Citizen Kane for the Oscar, John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (#934), it actually ain't half bad.  I am usually averse to Best Picture winners (more oft than not they are mediocre works when compared to the films they beat out for such an award) and I would certainly not call Ford's Welsh drama a worthy alternative to Kane, but I did find myself enjoying it much more than I expected. 

Which brings us to Ken Jacobs' Star Spangled to Death (#935).  As I alluded to above, all my regulars (those faithful readers and true believers out there - and you know of whom I speak) know full well my utter disdain for at least 80% of all so-called experimental cinema.  Most of it is nothing but sound and fury, signifying nothing (yeah, I just used Shakespeare to diss experimental cinema) and I just do not get so many people's love for it.  I will certainly never understand the love for someone like Brakhage.  Really!?  But I digress, for we are here to discuss a film by Ken Jacobs and not to pick apart the folderol that is the cinema of Brakhage.  Well this one is most certainly not what we will come to call "Brakhage Bad."  A look at imagery throughout the twentieth century, Jacobs puts together a halfway intriguing collage of film.  Granted, the only interesting elements are the clips of old film (Dick Powell singing about the National Recovery Administration, old school animation from the likes of genius animator Ub Iwerks) while the rest (fellow avant-garder Jack Smith and his gang, various protest marches) is mere fiddle faddle that could have just as easily been fiddle faddled right onto the cutting room floor.  One of the best films of the year and decade some say.  Balderdash! So there.

I first saw part one of Abbas Kiarostami's Koker Trilogy, Where is the Friend's Home? about eleven years ago.  For some reason or other, it took me until just recently to finish the damn trilogy.  Part two, Life, and Nothing More... (#936), and the finale, Through the Olive Trees (#937) take the idea of the first film and twist them around in the oh so special way that Kiarostami pulls off so often.  What is real and what is not is a question (or two) that the Iranian auteur puts into most of his films, and throughout the second and third parts of this trilogy, he is near top form in such divisive antics.  And speaking of divisive antics, I successfully spent the first forty-five years of my life keeping away from The Sound of Music (#938), but this list, and my quest, has brought that all to a devastating crash ending.  But I figured, since I knew it was inevitable, and at some point I was going to have to cave in and watch the fucking thing, why not do it on the big screen.  So I invited a friend (her all-time favourite movie!?), her eleven year old daughter (according to her mum, her all-time most desired to see film!?), and her special edition bluray to the cinema, and we projected up n the big screen.  Incidentally, the aforementioned eleven year old wasn't all that much a fan afterwards.  Meanwhile, my lovely wife, having seen the film in her childhood, refused to be any part of any of this.  Anyway, for all the gruff I give to the film, I suppose it wasn't really all that bad.  Far from great, but not life-ending like I expected.  I will still have to cleanse my musical palette though - a thing that will happen just a few more entries down.

Werner Herzog's 1982 film Fitzcarraldo (#939) has always been just off my radar, but it took until now to see it.  My thoughts?  It is a movie that has the great Klaus Kinski, more than appropriately batshitcrazy, a few drunken Peruvian sailors, and a slew of wouldbe cannibal tribesmen, dragging a a steamship over a mountain, all in order to harvest rubber so he can get enough money to build an opera house in the South American jungle.  How can that not be something fun to watch!?  And while we are talking about things to watch, John Ford is always a good choice.   His inherently tragic WWII film, They Were Expendable (#940), is one of those films.  Granted, it is probably more lesser Ford than many others, but as they say, even lesser Ford, yada yada yada.  Next up though, is that special film, that special latter day musical that helped a certain someone (me, for those keeping score) cleanse his musical palette of a film such as The Sound of Music a few days earlier.  That film is Bob Fosse's acerbic 1979 musical All That Jazz (#941).  My personal tastes in the musical genre tend to lean toward either the early Busby Berkeley days of the precode era or that so-called genre heyday of the late 1940's and early 1950's (eg. Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, The Bandwagon).  I am usually less than enthusiastic toward the overblown musicals of the 1960's and the resurgence of sorts in the 1970's.  All That Jazz, along with Fosse's own Caberet a few years earlier, is definitely an exception to that rule.  Arrogant when in needs to be, tender when it calls for it, toe-tapping throughout, All That Jazz is probably the last great musical America has seen.  Some would claim another resurgence took place about a decade ago with films like Moulin Rouge and the Oscar winning Chicago, but the latter is highly overrated and the former is a whole other creature to contend with.  No, I believe All That Jazz is the last truly great musical - as well as a film that will almost assuredly make my own top 1000 when I compile such a list when my quest is over.

And now to somewhat dash through the next eight films so we can sew this baby up and go home til next we meet.  Joseph Mankiewicz's 1949 classic, A Letter to Three Wives (#942), has several wonderful performances, most notably Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell, but still manages to end up as a rather lackluster film overall.  Truffaut's The Woman Next Door (#943), the auteur's penultimate work, is one of those films whose intensity just keeps building and building until it finally bursts in the final climactic moments.  Probably the Frenchman's most passionate film.  Next up is the Michael Caine/Sean Connery fun fest, The Man Who Would be King (#944).  The storyline is okay, but it is the antics of Caine and Connery that make the film fly.  Next we have yet another John Ford - the penultimate Ford in my quest by the way.   Again, it is what one may call lesser Ford, but again, whatever Wagon Master (#945) may be, lesser Ford is still better than most others better films.   Which brings us to Robert Rossen's iconic Paul Newman film, The Hustler (#946).  I saw the sequel, Martin Scorsese's 1986 film The Color of Money, in theaters upon its initial release, but just saw the original a few weeks ago.  Easily one of the better American films of its day.  Nothing more need be said.  The next film on the list is from the man you love to hate.  Erich von Stroheim's Foolish Wives (#947) may not be Greed, but it sure is fun, and pretty much all of that fun is due to Herr Stroheim as both director and actor.  Next we have the 1968 Latin America doc The Hour of the Furnaces (#948).  It is long and at times it is tedious.  Still some interesting ideas within that long and tedious film.  And that brings us to the last film in this thirty-film batch - and it is from one of the greatest directors of all-time.  Jean Renoir's 1931 La Chienne (#949), the director's second sound film, is one of the earliest examples of the greatness that would be Jean Renoir.  And that brings us to the end of this batch of films.  Just fifty more to go and my quest will have been completed.  Meanwhile, I am getting a little behind in my writing of said films - I just hit #978 tonight - so the next batch of films will probably be posted quite soon after this one.  See you for the next thirty in no time at all.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Battle Royale #7: Battle of the New Wave (The Results)

We had ourselves a little technical trouble this time around, which is why the poll widget looks a bit different than in past days, and is why we extended the voting period by a week, but everything is back on track now, and we are finally ready to declare ourselves a winner - even if CNN still isn't ready to call Florida.  That latter bit was a rather topical election joke that may or may not stand the test of time.  Anyway, onto the results.

For this round, you were asked to make your decision between the duo known as the vanguard of the French New wave.  Did your vote go to François Truffaut, or are you more of a Jean-Luc Godard kind of person?  Well, as has been the case in every Battle Royale so far, it was a close race from beginning to end, appearing to maybe coming down to a veritable photo finish, but then some last minute precincts came in (another topical election reference that will probably bewilder future readers), and one candidate shot out in front - and stayed there.  That candidate was, and still is, Monsieur Jean-Luc Godard.  With a final tally of 34 to 30 (or 53% to 47% for the statistically-minded among us) the man who directed Breathless beat out the guy who wrote Breathless (and directed a few films as well).  My own vote, as one should already have figured out by looking at the avatar/profile pic I use everywhere, went to our eventual winner (based solely on the auteur's first decade - do not get me started on what the director has become lately) but this was a tougher decision than I expected it to be.  When I wore a younger man's clothes (wow, did I just quote Billy Joel!?) I was much more a fan of the films of Godard over Truffaut, but as I grow (and in theory, mature?) I see that gap between the director's getting smaller and smaller.  Perhaps someday, maybe someday soon, the gap will cease to exist, and after a crossing of the streams, said gap will go in the other direction.  Anyway, for now I am still on the Godard side of things, but who knows what the future will bring.  So there you go.  

In other news, our total vote count this time around, for those who do not care to do the math, was 64 - just two votes shy of the Battle Royale record of 66 held by the classic Astaire/Kelly bout.  I know we can beat those numbers next time around.  Let's shoot for triple digits, shall we?  Yes we shall.  Anyway, that aforementioned next time around will be coming around in just a few days, and this time it's going to be more than just one on one.  Perhaps it will end up being three on three (or four).  See ya soon.  And congratulations to M. Godard, here pictured with muse and wife Anna Karina.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Film Review: Sam Mendes' Skyfall

I suppose every red blooded American boy or Union Jack flying British lad has a sort of man love for the high-flying, death-defying exploits of James Bond and his 007 adventures tucked away somewhere in his DNA.  The chase scenes that range from car to train to motorcycle to construction equipment to speed boat to alpine skiing; the beautiful and often exotic women that have peppered the series with their Bond girl goodness; the fun and always dangerous doodads and gadgets from Department Q; the explosive, cliffhangery moments made true courtesy of whichever particular maniacal villain was cast as Bond's ultimately defeated foe.  Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Bond film series, the second most successful franchise in film history (Harry Potter being the first for those who need to know just everything) and the fifty-ninth anniversary if one were so inclined to venture back to Ian Fleming's original literary creation of the iconic spy with a license to kill, Skyfall, incidentally the twenty-third film in the official canon (just to toss another big number your way), should keep much of that man love seething around in a young boy's heart.

Now I must admit, red blooded American boy or not, that I have never been the most overzealous of a Bond fan.  To be honest, I can take him or leave him really.   But even with this being so, there is inherent fun to be had in the Bond series, and said series has handed us a few very good, perhaps even great romps (most notably Goldfinger, Thunderball and Dr. No, all more than incidentally featuring Sean Connery as our intrepid hero, as well as George Lazenby's one hit wonder, On Her Majesty's Secret Service) amongst a slew of films that are, for the most part (and I am sure all the Bond purists out there will scoff at such an indictment), completely and utterly interchangeable.  Now, of course, no one is trying to reinvent the so-called wheel with each successive film, so much as merely adding (or in the worst case scenarios of films like those two most often maligned installments, Octopussy and A View to A Kill, vainly attempting to) just another cog to the factory farm industry known as James Bond, so one should not really expect something truly great, truly magnificent out of such a series.  One should just sit back and let the damn things do what they do best, even in the lesser chapters of the series, which is to get every red blooded American boy and Union Jack waving British lad (and all their ladies and lasses too I suppose) onto the edge of their seats in mindless but totally enjoyable explosive fun.

When they rebooted the series (again!) in 2006, with Daniel Craig becoming the sixth official Commander Bond and after a quartet of well received but extremely interchangeable, even by Bond standards, films starring Pierce Brosnan (no fault of the actor by the way), this edge of your seat, explosive fun, is just what was re-injected into the veins of the overblown and ultimately sagging series.  The first of these films, Casino Royale, can be proudly included in that upper echelon of Bond films listed earlier, while the second, Quantum of Solace can be inserted somewhere just above those worst case scenario mentions above.  With Skyfall, Craig's third excursion as the world's most famous spy (doesn't the fame kind of preclude the idea of a secret agent?  But that is another argument for another day), that so-called magic is back.  I would not classify this new installment with the aforementioned upper echelon, but it certainly comes a lot closer to those films than that batch of rather ugly worst case scenario films that can be extended to included things like Moonraker and License to Kill.  Is this because of Sam Mendes' direction?  Maybe the suave gravitas of a relatively uncheeky, but still quite charming Craig.  Perhaps it is due to the stunning cinematography of Roger Deakins whose credit I must admit came as a surprise to this usually well-informed critic.  Maybe it is all of these things...and perhaps more.

Of course, all hype and wonderment aside, it could always be the hilariously perverse performance of Javier Bardem as not only one of the best Bond villains to come down the pike in a long long time (at least as good as Mads Mikkelsen in Casino Royale and Christopher Walken in the otherwise quite atrocious A View to a Kill, and possibly the best since Blofeld took his last breath), but also a real live candidate, though a dark horse indeed, to become the first acting nominee from a Bond film.  No matter the Bond (Craig is second to Connery, third to he and Moore if one picks and chooses their Moores), no matter the Bond girl (sadly, 28 Days Later alum Naomie Harris and French actress Bérénice Marlohe are given very little to do here), no matter the theme (done well here by the throatier Shirley Bassey-esque Adele) a Bond film is only as good as its villain - and that works in favour of Skyfall.  By the time we get to the Scotland-set climax (funny enough, Fleming never bothered to give his creation much of a backstory until You Only Live Twice, the last novel published during the author's lifetime and the first one to be written after the screen debut of Dr. No, which went over so well with Fleming, that he gave his spy Sean Connery's ancestral background) we are completely swept away in the tense grandeur that is James Bond at, if not his best, at least his most entertaining - if one can even differentiate between the two.  Overall, this installment would make a list of my personal ten favourites (if I were to make such a list) and is a welcome addition to the uneven collection that is the world of James Bond.

And since there was mention above of my favourite Bond films, here is a list of all twenty-three official EON productions, in order from best to worst.  The Mason-Dixon as it were, is somewhere between numbers fourteen and fifteen.  Notice of course, the heavy Connery-laden top five.

1) Goldfinger
2) Thunderball
3) On Her Majesty's Secret Service
4) Dr. No
5) From Russia With Love
6) Casino Royal
7) The Spy Who Loved Me
8) You Only Live Twice
9) Skyfall
10) Live and Let Die
11) Diamonds are Forever
12) Goldeneye
13) The Man With the Golden Gun
14) The Living Daylights
15) For Your Eyes Only
16) A View to a Kill - its ridiculousness is almost winning
17) License to Kill
18) Tomorrow Never Dies
19) The World is Not Enough
20) Moonraker
21) Quantum of Solace
22) Die Another Day
23) Octopussy

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Film Review: The Man With the Iron Fists

After seeing the Quentin Tarantino-produced, RZA and Eli Roth-written and RZA-directed grindhouse martial arts film The Man With the Iron Fists, I can say without a doubt that it is neither any better, nor is it any worse than I expected.  Taking off from the classic Shaw Brothers martial arts films, RZA and crew give their film a decidedly up-to-date feel, replete with a soundtrack featuring RZA, Wiz Khalifa, The Black Keys, Kanye West, and several of the director's old Wu-Tang Clan cronies, but in the end it just seems all a bit too rushed, all a bit too hurried through, for with which to have any real fun.  Sad really, because it is one of those films that, under the right circumstances, could have been a real brouhaha blast of a good time.

Now the film isn't a total failure.  It does have its share of moments mind you.  Russell Crowe's antics as the wonderfully named Jack Knife, the apparent love child of the man with no name and Hattori Hanzo, is one of these said highlights.  Kill Bill alum Lucy Liu as Madame Blossom, kick-ass head of the town brothel, is another.  Former MMA and WWE champ David Bautista as a metallic-bodied assassin (think Peter Rasputin in 1840's China - the true nerds in the crowd know of what I speak), who will inevitable come down to a final showdown with the titular hero, is the other.  But even these three are left wanting as they have too little to do in a film that is otherwise overstuffed with overused cliche's and mediocre, been-there done-that kind of fight sequences that are not bad per se, but just sadly ordinary.  And do not get me started on RZA's performance as escaped slave turned blacksmith turned reluctant hero.  A performance so laden with his thick ghetto accent that it reminds one of Harvey Kietel's Brooklynese turn as Judas Iscariot in Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ.

I am sure with Tarantino's name prominently displayed where everyone can see it like a latter day Grindhouse-loving Frank Capra, many may have gone into this with what can only be called inevitably crushed high hopes.  As I lead with, I was not so foolish as to expect Kill Bill 3, or even anything in the ballpark of something like From Dusk Till Dawn, Machete or even something akin to The Raid: Redemption, so I was not as disappointed as many others most assuredly were upon leaving their respective theaters.  But still, even with a handful of pretty spectacular looking moments, the film is ultimately a disappointment.  As if RZA really has no direction in his direction, the film rushes through the story with an unnecessary breakneck speed - not because the film is trying to be non-stop action but because the film really has no idea where it is going.  But then, one really should not expect anything more than what one gets with this film.  Good thing I did not.