Monday, April 29, 2013

Forces of Geek "A History of Sc-i-Fi Column" - Pt VI

The fine folks over at Forces of Geek have allowed me the space and time to ramble on about the history of science fiction cinema.  These bi-weekly columns, will make an attempt, however feeble, at discussing the history of this often chided cinematic genre.  From its birth to the latest CGI box office hits, I will take a look at the films that have filled the genre, as well as their literary influences and TV offshoots.  In this episode, my sixth in the series, I take a look at some alien invasion films from the year 1951, one of the early years of the decade that what would become known as the hey day of sci-fi cinema.

Read my column, "1951: The Year Worlds Collided and the Earth Stood Still," at Forces of Geek.

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

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Battle Royale #13: Battle of the Big Boys (The Results)

The biggest battle of 'em all is finally over, and we have ourselves a winner.  But which one of our mighty combatants, the great ape King Kong or the atomic dinosaur Godzilla, is that winner?  Well, let me tell ya, though I am sure even the least astute viewer will be able to figure said victor out by just peering over an inch or two, and looking at the great poster specially made for a 2000 screening of the original 1933 film at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema - but I digress.  For the longest time, this looked like a runaway victory for King Kong (the eventual winner in the one and only cinematic battle these two giants ever had, in the 1962 film, appropriately titled King Kong vs. Godzilla), who at one time even sported an eleven vote lead, but as the end drew closer and closer, so did good ole 'Zilla, at one point coming to within just two votes of his mammalian opponent, but alas, Kong would never relinquish the lead, and poor Godzilla never could quite catch up.  In the end, the great beast who would eventually succumb to the wiles of beauty (though oddly returning in future movies) would win our thirteenth Battle Royale.  With a final tally of 28 votes (or 54% for the more statistically-minded among you) for King Kong to just 24 (or 46%) for his irradiated reptilian brethren, Godzilla, the biggest battle of 'em all has finally come to an end.  Congrats ya big ball of furry angst.

Now, as I am sure even the most basic math skills can easily realize, the 28 Kong votes and 24 'Zilla votes, add up to a grand total of 52 votes cast.  After the 66 votes cast in The Battle of the Hollywood Hoofers (Astaire edging out Kelly by just two votes) and the 64 cast in The Battle of the New Wave (Godard beating compatriot Truffaut by four), the 52 votes cast here are the third best voter turnout we have had in the whole of Battle Royale history.  Still though, I know we can get those numbers up even higher - maybe even into the triple digits like we managed to accomplish with the annual Oscar poll in January and February (almost 200 votes cast there, though it did last a lot longer than the normal two weeks of the typical Battle Royale, and had a more mainstream topic).  So, tell all your friends about the fun to be had, and the pride one can feel in being part of our Battle Royale, and let us get those vote totals up.  And speaking of voting, your next opportunity to do so, will be coming up in just a few days.  On either Tuesday or Wednesday (depending on how busy/lazy I feel), the combatants for Battle Royale #14 will be announced.  These combatants are men of few words but strong morals, and great iconic talent.  Who are they you ask?  Well, be back here on the aforementioned Tuesday or Wednesday, and find out.  In the meantime, there may be a film review or two posted around these parts.  I will leave you with a behind-the-scenes (obviously) shot from the 1962 film, King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Film Review: Joseph Kosinski's Oblivion

Say what you want about Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, better known as Tom Cruise.  Be it oddball Scientologist, loony egomaniac, self-centered media whore, or just plain and simple, a bad actor.  Say what you will, but one thing is for certain, no matter the odds, Cruise's characters will fight to the death - and sometimes beyond - to rescue the damsel in distress or maybe even save the whole freakin' planet.  In this way, Tom Cruise will not let you down, and that is certainly the case in Oblivion.  Weather his heroic character - always running, running, running, though here doing said running via space ships and futuristic motorcycles - actually succeeds in rescuing the damsel in distress, or whether he manages to save the planet from evil other-worlders, I will not say - but it is Tom Cruise after all, so an easy assumption can be made - but he will do his damndest, his Tom Cruiseiest, to do exactly that.

The story of Oblivion is simple, even if it tries to be convoluted for convolution's sake.  We meet our hero, I mean, Jack Harper, who is a technician on a dying Earth, about sixty years after the world fell to alien invaders.  As for backstory, sixty years ago, aliens destroyed our moon, which caused catastrophic earthquakes and tidal waves, followed by an all-out invasion.  We won the war, but in the process, the planet was destroyed by nuclear battle and fall-out.  Jack, along with his communications officer-cum-lover (she's the only game in town, as is he) Victoria, played by English actress Andrea Riseborough, is saddled with the job of guarding the few left vestiges of civilization - ie, the giant machines sucking what is left of Earth's water onto a space station hovering above - from the roaming bands of rebel aliens, until they too can make their way to the rest of Earth's survivors, now supposedly happily roaming around Saturn's largest moon, Titan. 

Of course, as always, there is more than meets the eye here.  Most of the surprise twists and turns - one of which is ridiculously revealed in the trailer - can be seen coming a mile away, but that doesn't stop the film from being a fun adventure romp.  Something akin to the slew of sci-fi films from the 1970's - films like Westworld and Soylant Green or even the Planet of the Apes series - Oblivion keeps the action going, keeps the tension going, keeps the entertainment going, even if it is a rather shallow entertainment, a rather obvious tension, a rather expectant action.   Maybe not a great film, nor is it actually as good as any of those I just compared it too, but it is quite stunning to look at (courtesy of Life of Pi's Oscar winning cinematographer, Claudio Miranda), and it is full of great fun, and a lot of that great fun has to do with the oft-maligned hero figure known as Mr. Tom Cruise.  Keep runnin' Tom, keep runnin'.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Short (short) Break, But I'll Be Back Soon...

Hey, I just thought I would pop in and give ya'll a little what up, what up.  Cause, ya know, I am sure all my so-called peeps are out there wonderin', yo, what up with this guy not postin' anything for nearly a week now!  Well, faithful readers and true believers, not to worry - not to worry.  I have just been a little busy with other things.  You know, like getting screwed out of any LAMMY nominations for the third straight year!!  But I'm not bitter.  No, not me, boy-o!  Seriously though, I was kind of hoping that this year, all the clique-i-ness would be gone, and it would be a fairer fight at the annual LAMMY Awards.  And ya know, it kind of was.  A record amount of new blogs were nominated this year, including ten nominees in the Best Movie Reviewer category (my most desired spot), but even then...nuthin'!  Granted, several of those nominated in my stead are indeed talented writers and such, but a few of 'em..really!?  Oh well, bitterness aside, I am moving on with things.  To be honest, I was hoping, but not expecting anything anyway.  

As for my mini-break here, I will return to posting full-time sometime next week, with reviews of new films such as 42, Oblivion, On the Road, Trance, The Place Beyond the Pines, Reality and Like Someone in Love, as well as a look back at Jurassic Park, a long-promised Blu-Ray Consumer Guide, a few Retro Reviews, a new 10 Best list for Anomalous Material, the latest in my regular series on the History of Sci-Fi Cinema for the fine folks over at Forces of Geek, the third in my look at the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, a brand spankin' new edition of Hollywood Haiku, my take on The Blob (in a beautiful new Criterion BD edition), the results of our Battle Royale of King Kong vs. Godzilla, and an alternate cinematic history look at Star Wars.  Now granted, this isn't all coming up just next week, but over the next several weeks, but you get the drift.  So hold onto your hats, cats and dolls, cause I will see you in the funny papers. Well, I'll see ya here at week sometime.  Until then, here, for no apparent reason other than the obvious, is a picture of Judy Garland receiving a congratulatory kiss from Mickey Rooney upon winning her special Juvenile Oscar for 1939.  Wasn't she just adorable?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Battle Royale #13: Battle of the Big Boys

Welcome to the thirteenth 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.

In the past, our battles have been between actors and directors, dancers and comedy teams, but this time around, we are going for something a little different - and something a lot bigger.  For lucky Battle Royale number thirteen, we are going for two of the biggest stars in movie history.  No, not Ollie Hardy and Fatty Arbuckle.  This time around we are pitting two giants of the silver screen against each other in mortal combat.  Real big giants.  Yes ladies and germs, they did battle only once on the big screen, back in 1962 (as well as a brief battle three years later, in the DC comic, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #84, though for copyright reasons, their names were changed - as well as making a joint appearance in a Peruvian burger commercial), but here they are again for a second epic battle.  You guessed it baby (not that it was a difficult task of guessing, since there is a picture right over there), it is King Kong versus Godzilla.  It's boom time baby!

Kong was born in 1933, in the now classic monster movie by Merian C. Cooper, and Godzilla came about in the self-titled 1954 Japanese film, before becoming Americanized in the 1956 semi-remake.  Throughout cinematic history, both Kong and Godzilla have had numerous filmic incarnations - sequels, spin-offs and remakes galore.  These two movie monster greats can also be found in comicbooks, cartoons and graphic novels, as well as toy lines out the wazoo.  Godzilla even got a Scrappy-Doo-esque little cousin named Godzooky once - but that may not be his most shining hour.  But back to the battle at hand.  Now yes, if one were to compare the size of the atomic-radiated prehistoric dinosaur-esque Godzilla with that of the great ape Kong, Godzilla would be about four or five times bigger than Kong, and therefore the eventual winner (I know, I know, David vs. Goliath, Jack vs. the Giants, etc, but still), but in the 1962 film version, Kong is sized up quite a bit and is therefore the same approximate size as our big freakin' lizard.  In fact, when these two bad ass movie monsters clashed in said 1962 movie, it was Kong who came out the victor, but that doesn't mean he has to here as well - although he still might.  And it is YOU who can decide!!

All you need to do is go on over to the poll - placed conveniently near the top of the sidebar of this very same website - and make your vote heard.  And remember, you can rant and rave about Kong and/or 'Zilla, all you want in the comments section of this post - and please do, because we encourage such antics - but in order for your vote to be counted, you must actually vote in the aforementioned poll near the top of the sidebar.  After that, please feel free to come back here and rant and rave to your heart's delight.  And also, please tell all your friends to get in on the voting fun as well.  Our record voter turnout here in the Battle Royale arena, is just 66 votes - waaaay back in our second battle - but I know we can blow that number out of the proverbial water - maybe even reach triple digits this time around.  Voting will run through midnight EST, the night of April 26th - just over two weeks from the starting time - so get out there and vote vote vote.  The winner will be announced in a post on Saturday, April 27th.  Oh, and by the way, in an attempt to give credit where credit is due, the above artistic rendering of these two giants at battle is by Frank Parr, who's work can be found at Kaijuverse, DeviantART.

Forces of Geek "A History of Sci-Fi Column" - Pt V

The fine folks over at Forces of Geek have allowed me the space and time to ramble on about the history of science fiction cinema.  These bi-weekly columns, will make an attempt, however feeble, at discussing the history of this often chided cinematic genre.  From its birth to the latest CGI box office hits, I will take a look at the films that have filled the genre, as well as their literary influences and TV offshoots.  In this episode, my fifth in the series, I take a look at the a pair of rocket to the moon films from the year 1950 and the beginning of what would become known as the hey day of science fiction cinema.

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

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Film Review: Fede Alvarez' Evil Dead

The promos for the new Evil Dead, read: "The most terrifying film you will ever experience."   I have a few rewrite suggestions.  How about "The most ridiculous film you will ever experience," or "The most boring film you will ever experience," or maybe my favourite, "The most unnecessary film you will ever experience."  Any of these adjectives are better choices than terrifying.  Any of them.  One could also toss in such replacement words as, in alphabetical order, dense, dull, dumb, foolish, futile, half-baked, ill-advised, inane, laughable, ludicrous, mindless, moronic, pointless, slow, sluggish, think and witless, just to give a few basic choices picked from the thesaurus.  Take your pick.  Any of these are better choices than terrifying.  Hell, I saw a rerun of the Golden Girls the other night that was more terrifying than this film.  Granted, Bea Arthur can be quite scary, but that is another story for another day.  Suffice it to say, this new version of the Evil Dead, be it a prequel, a sequel, a remake or a reboot, or whatever the hell it may be, is anything but terrifying.  In fact, it is downright, and dreadfully so, boring as all get out, and is a strong contender for my year end worst of the year list.

Now don't get me wrong, I suppose the thing is a moderately well done film when compared to most of what passes as horror these days, but still, much like those films that pass as horror these days, Alvarez relies way too much on gross out effects (nothing we haven't seen before, and in much more creative ways) and literally buckets and buckets of blood (Alvarez did go old school on the film, and tried to use less CGI and more traditional effects magic) and scenes of what have become known, both favourably and unfavourably, as torture porn, and way too little on sensible storytelling and narrative that does not reek of contrivance and stupidity.   Sure, it's a horror film, and people act stupid in horror films - don't go in the basement/attic, don't walk backwards when there are monsters or madmen in the house, don't split up to cover more ground, don't read aloud satanic passages after you are warned doing so will summon evil spirits from Hell - but the level of stupidity found in this version of the Evil Dead is beyond belief.  But, on the other hand, why worry about such things like sensibility and intelligence when you can just make it rain blood or have someone saw their own fucking arm off?  Really?

Now, how does this new version play into the whole Evil Dead franchise, you may ask.  I'll tell ya, but first a quick primer on all that has come before.  In 1981, after a student film-cum-prototype called Within the Woods, Michigan State lit major and future writer/director Sam Raimi, known by more mainstream audiences as that guy who made the first Spider-Man trilogy, fellow Spartan econ student and soon-t-be producer Robert Tapert, and college dropout-turned actor Bruce Campbell, made the first Evil Dead.  It was followed up in 1987 by Evil Dead II, basically just Raimi remaking and restyling the first film with a slightly larger, though still quite miniscule, budget, and then in 1992 by Army of Darkness, known in some circles as Evil Dead III, which transports Campbell's character Ash, back to Medieval times to fight evil minions known as the Deadites.  These films have quite the cult following, and are quite enjoyable as modern day comic-horror classics.   This new version, produced, not so incidentally by Raimi, Tapert and Campbell, acts as not a sequel or even a remake, but as a separate story involving the same book of evil found and used by Ash and his cohorts in the original films.  To compare this film to the others is just silly, since it cannot honestly hold up to such comparison.  

This film will have a sequel of its own, and, if rumour has it, a Raimi-directed followup to Army of Darkness, and eventually, again, if rumour can be trusted, a seventh Evil Dead film that will tie together Ash's story with that of Mia, from this version.  And what of Mia and her cohorts in this version.  Well, we do get a few fun things, some hidden cookies if you will.  We see a character wearing a Michigan State shirt, in homage to both the first film, and to Raimi's alma mater.  There is a visual reference to Ash's car from the original as well, and in a neat little play on letters, the first letter of each of the five main characters here, David, Eric, Mia, Olivia and Natalie, spell out demon.  Other than these cute little self-referential tidbits though, this new version of an old favourite, is just as drab as drab can be.  Even my quite low expectations going in were not met.  The most terrifying film indeed.  And as for Campbell's involvement (stay after the credits for what is essentially a completely unnecessary cameo, but also probably the best moment of the movie), in a 2011 interview, the man with the chin said of the then-upcoming film, "We are remaking Evil Dead. The script is awesome. The remake's gonna kick some ass.  You have my word."  I think me and Bruce need to have a talk.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Battle Royale #12: Battle of the Foxy Flappers (The Results)

It looks like we have ourselves another runaway victory this time around.  In the twelve Battle Royales that we have had here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World, eight of them were close, to the wire, races - one even ending up in a tie (the one tie being Joan Crawford vs. Bette Davis btw) - but the other four were pretty much runaways (especially that Marx Brothers stomping of The Three Stooges, by a whopping 68% margin).  This particular battle, the Battle of the Foxy Flappers, ended up being the third biggest margin of victory yet.  In the end, it was Lulu kicking the proverbial snot, or to go along with the picture to the right, shooting the heck outta the It Girl.  With a margin of 46%, it was Louis Brooks winning out over Clara Bow.  The final tally, as it were, was our Miss Brooks with 35 votes, or 73%, over little Miss Bow, with just 13 votes, or 27%.  I suppose I should have seen such a walloping coming from the beginning, but for some reason, I thought this one might end up being at least a bit closer than what really happened.  I must say though, that my personal choice of the lovely and talented Miss Louise Brooks, does deserve such a victory.

Well, that's it for this round of Battle Royale.  To take an aside and mention some hopeful news about said Battle Royale - this running feature was submitted for nomination consideration over at the Large Association of Movie Blogs.   Here's hopin' it will actually receive a nomination come next week.  Here's also hopin' that perhaps any of the five eligible possibilities (along with Best Running Feature, I have also submitted for Best Movie Reviewer, Most Knowledgeable, Best Design and Best Blog) will garner a nomination or two - something that I was unable to procure in my first two years of eligibility over at the LAMB.  But I digress.  It was a pretty good turnout this time around, with a total of 48 votes, but I know we can do better baby.  With that said, maybe the next Battle Royale, which will begin in just a few days, and will involve a pair of the biggest combatants yet, will garner many more votes than we saw this time around.  Our record is 66 votes (Astaire vs. Kelly, back in our second battle) but I know we can get that number into the triple digits - and get it, we shall.  So, until Battle Royale #13, up and running in just a few days, have fun.  See ya then.

Friday, April 5, 2013

R.I.P. Roger Ebert (1942 - 2013)

First things first - we lost a great critic and a great human being yesterday, and not to put such a dramatic spin on the whole thing, but the world is a lesser place without him in it.  Now, on with what I thought/think of this great man.  I consider Roger Ebert to be one of the best, and one of my favourite film critics of all-time. When I used to watch Siskel & Ebert back in my younger days, I usually agreed with Gene more often, but almost no one could match Roger for his romantic poeticism toward cinema (possibly only Pauline Kael and Manny Farber). His reviews, both on the show and in the Chicago Sun-Times, led me to many wonderful films I may never have known about back in those pre-internet days, and his highly influential criticism and style of writing, helped to make this youthful cinephile and once-budding film critic, fall even more in love with the movies than I already had been. 

I never met Roger in person, but we had conversed on several occasions through social media, and his wonderful spirit, his unbridled enthusiasm and his endless passion for film and media and culture, and his general optimistic outlook toward life - even while battling cancer - were, and  are, a great boon to anyone who came across him, and he will be sorely missed.  Before sitting down to write this brief look at one of my critical writing idols, I rewatched some of the shows Roger and Gene did back in the day, mostly from the early days of the show in the late 1970's through the mid 1980's (At the Movies first aired in 1986, but Gene and Roger had already made a buzz on PBS's Sneak Previews, beginning in 1975), and it brought back veritable floods of nostalgic feelings.  Like I was living my youth all over again.  Yes, Roger will be missed, and missed by many people, but luckily, we have a lifetime's worth of critical writing, all filled with a genuine love of the cinema, to keep our hearts and minds warm at night. Goodbye Roger, you will be missed.

I would like to close with a cartoon that was published in Roger's so-called rival newspaper, The Chicago Tribune yesterday.  Not to go all cliché on you, and talk about how a picture is worth a thousand words and all, but it does kind of say it all - and much more eloquently than I ever could.  Again, goodbye Roger.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Retro Review: Speed Racer (2008) or, Go Speed Racer, Go - a Go-for-Broke Diatribe in Defense of a Pretty Damn Silly Movie

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.  This piece on the mostly maligned Speed Racer film, has been added to, here and there, before being republished here and now.


Yes, yes, in the past I very well may have kvetched and harrumphed, snorted and grumbled, picked and nit-picked about how movies such as 300, The Matrix and all their CGI-splattered ilk have blurred the line between cinema and video games to such an indistinguishable level as to render the distinction null and void - yet another cog in the dumbing down of society - but can't a guy be a hypocrite every now and then if he so desires?   But I digress.  Hot-wheeling that aforementioned blurred line right into the star-studded, flash-bulbed neo-oblivion is The Wachowskis' Speed Racer, and right there I am, like a bird with a brand new shiny silver dollar pulsating in his beak, praising it for the exact same things I condemned all those other films for being.   Well, ain't I just the little bastard?

In all sincerity though, even though Speed Racer is nothing more than a candy-coated confectionery cookie of a movie, and very possibly the cinematic anti-christ to boot (I think I accused 300 of being the same thing), it is also quite the - dare I say it for fear of sounding the walking cliché - thrill ride motion picture of the Summer.   Pop kitsch and powder-puff pretty - not to mention quite the seizure-inducing spazz-attack of lights action and bang-bang colour - Speed Racer may not be any great revelation in cinema - not the next probing poetry of Pasolini, nor the next Tarkovskian grand guignol - nor is it particularly well-written (all the parts that don't involve racing are as dry as tumbleweed rice cakes), and there are quite a few questionable actions in the film (as there were in the TV series as well - like how does he not recognize Racer X as his own brother - and do not even get me started on the blatant rip-off of Marvel Comics' Cyclops in Racer X's look), but for sheer unadulterated abandon-all-ye-hope fun, it sure is the kook-kook-kookiest, the kick-kick-kickiest, the groove-groove-grooviest of mod movie mayhem.  It is certainly the living end, friends.

Nearly universally panned by my fellow critics (deep deep deep into the red on Metacritic, and squished into oblivion on Rotten Tomatoes), I stand (almost) completely alone atop my wobbly soapbox of indignation as I trumpet the wildly fun qualities of this inexplicably enjoyable mess of a motion picture.   Hypocritically or not, I suppose those things other critics are decrying are the very things this critic is going cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs over.   As opposed to 300, which did have its own uniquely delirious visual audacity to it (I actually enjoyed the visual aspects of that film much more than my constant stabs at it, would leave you to believe), Speed Racer works as pure CGI porn.   The bright primal colours that would make Jean-Luc Godard blush like a little schoolgirl.   The impossibly brazen race tracks criss-crossing like coked-up spider webs against a diamond sky painted just for Lucy.   The Anime-esque characterizations of its picture perfect cast where everyone - and not just Christina Ricci - look like mondo Manga.   The candied pop art Asianess of the whole glittering, shimmering, glimmering shebang in all its glaring, gaudy, greedy good looks.   It all works, despite its many flaws and myriad setbacks, just exactly as it is supposed to work - as a live-action cartoon.

Truth be told, perhaps my enthusiasms are a bit on the wide-eyed innocent side (yeah, I can still be innocent, dammit!), for even though it bubble, bubbles, toil and troubles precariously close to the visual art films of Seijun Suzuki, Takeshi Miike and even Tarantino's bloody Kill Bill concoction, it never really becomes like those films - never delves any deeper than its own metallic surface - but still manages to act as a conduit between the dregs of the genre and its mightily heralded cinematic Silver Surfers.   IMAX-grade bombast one colleague has said.   Sure, it may not be high art - or even middle art - but even this jaded critic, full of a classist snobbery and palpitating pretensions out the proverbial wazoo can still enjoy a five dollar hooker now and again.   And that is precisely what the pedantically popcorny Speed Racer is - a cheap, but very well-dressed, whore of a movie.  It need be nothing more.

[Originally published on 05/18/08 at The Cinematheque]