Monday, July 29, 2013

Film Review: Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station

When Hollywood and the mainstream muscle do a film like Fruitvale Station, it is inevitably an emotionally manipulative work that relies on broad strokes and obvious cliche's to blast its point across - something akin to slapping the viewer in the face and screaming "look at this movie and believe what we are telling you!" Sure, the big boys in SoCal can make an entertaining film - one with all the vim and vigor necessary to thrill the masses - and once and a while, they can even pull off a legitimate solid motion picture experience, but when it comes to the kind of story being told in Fruitvale Station, these big boys are woefully lacking in tact and true emotion, and most of all, in humanity.  Luckily for us, Fruitvale Station is not a big Hollywood blockbuster, but rather a small independent film, and a damn solid piece of cinematic work to boot.

Following the real life story of Oscar Grant, a young African American man who was shot and killed by a white transit cop in Oakland's Fruitvale district train station, in the early hours of New Year's Day 2009, first time director Ryan Coogler has given us a brutally honest depiction of the last day in the life of Grant, and unlike most anything put out by the major studios, a film of powerful emotion - a film that will have anyone with a brain or a heart thinking for days afterward.  The film stars former soap actor, and regular on both The Wire and Friday Night Lights, Michael B. Jordan (some might even recall him from the unheralded but surprisingly intriguing 2012 low budget superhero film Chronicle), as the aforementioned ill-fated Oscar, and the actor gives a performance so vibrant, yet so tempered with both humanity and humility, that people are already talking Oscar nomination.  But it is not the inevitable awards this talented young actor may procure come year's end, but the performance he gives here.  We see a young black man torn between two worlds, one of abject poverty and frequent stints in prison, and one of hope and a future with his girlfriend and little daughter, a man trying to do better for himself and those around him, but never does the film, nor Jordan's performance, ever wallow in the obvious cliche's that such a story and such a character more oft than not will do in the movies.  Instead we are given honesty and a real world character, not a movie caricature, and the film is so much better because of it.

Another aspect of the film that makes it feel so real, so honest, is the way Coogler's camera follows Grant and his friends around.  Hand held throughout a majority of the film, the camera doesn't just follow Grant around Oakland during the last few hours of his life, but seems to perform as just another set of eyes in the young man's circle of friends and family, essentially putting us smack dab in the middle of all that is happening, right up to and including the fateful moments on that train platform.  We the viewers feel everything that is happening to Oscar and his friends and family and it becomes more than just a mere movie to us. Along with Jordan's performance we also get Octavia Spencer, one of the producers of the film, handing in a stunning real world performance herself as Oscar's worried, and ultimately defeated mother.And Melonie Diaz, as Oscar's girlfriend and the mother of their little girl, is quite superb as well.  Both of these actresses give tragedy a brand new look, but if one wants to see the real look of tragedy just look at the face of seven year old Ariana Neal, as Oscar's baby girl.  We know the outcome of the film.  We know what is going to happen, and it is this building tension that layers even more onto the film, and makes it work even more brilliantly.

Produced by Forest Whitaker (the man responsible for getting the film financed) and eventually picked up for distribution by Harvey Weinstein, after its premiere at Sundance (an all-out bidding war was happening in Colorado), not to mention an award at Cannes for Best First Film, Fruitvale Station opened this week, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case and the travesty of justice that has been perpetrated, and even though the cases are not the same, they are similar enough to bring yet another level of emotional reactions to the film.  This critic certainly sees several Oscar nominations in the film's not-so-distant future (Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, maybe even Director and Best Picture even) but beyond that, I see an honest portrayal of humanity and the tragic toll that society sometimes has in store.  As they are prone to say, Fruitvale Station is a must see motion picture indeed.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Film Review: James Mangold's The Wolverine

Loosely, and I mean very loosely, based on the 1982 Marvel Comics limited series by Chris Claremont, the man responsible for everything good about the X-Men, and Frank Miller, the man who a few years later would give Batman back his balls in The Dark Knight Returns, one of the finest works in comicdom history, this new revamping of sorts (who wouldn't want something revamped after Origins!?) has a powerful potential, but is never able to cash in on any of that potential.  Taking the most basic structure of the aforementioned 1982 limited series, and inserting most of the correct characters into place, director James Mangold, and his screenwriters Scott Frank and Mark Bomback, pretty much rip to shreds the very comic they claim the film is based upon.  But that ain't even the half of it.

Granted, one expects a bit of retconning when comics go to the big screen (enjoyable films such as X-Men: First Class and last year's The Avengers did more than their share of fucking with continuity) and one must give a bit of leeway when considering such adaptations (think of them as an alternate universe scenario, if you must), but when such adaptations not only rip asunder everything we comicbook fans know and love about these characters, but also turn their films into anything ranging from bad to boring, one must put one's foot down.  Now the character of Wolverine is one of the most archetypal and fascinating ones the superhero world has ever known, and therefore should, in theory make for an interesting read and/or watch.  In 1982, Claremont and Miller's series was groundbreaking.  It was Wolverine's first foray into solo adventuring - long before Marvel decided the character needed to be on every superhero team in existence, and in at least 75% of all Marvel titles (only a slight exaggeration btw) - but what is done to this classic tale of love and honour, revenge and loyalty, is just disheartening to the nth degree.

Yes, Hugh Jackman, reprising the role of Logan, aka the Wolverine, for the fourth time (fifth if one were to count his cameo on First Class) does a bang-up job with what he's got to work with, and yes, model-turned-actress Tao Okamoto, though not the most stellar of thespians, looks appropriately drop-dead breathtaking as Mariko (upon her first appearance in the film, an audible 'wow' came from an audience member somewhere behind me), the love of Logan's life (well, unless you count Jean Grey, but any faithful Marvel acolyte knows that Miss Grey, who appears here in dream form, portrayed by Famke Janssen, goes beyond mere love of anyone's life), and the other model-turned-actress in the film, Rila Fukushima as Yukio, though playing a character whose entire demeanor is turned upside-down here (she's supposed to be a bloodthirsty assassin dammit!), is cute in that sassy, kick-ass fox-you-wish-was-next-door kinda way, but the film is just not able to hold up under its own insipid weight.  And just when one gets to the point where they think that this pointless film cannot possibly get any worse, the third and final act shows up to prove everyone oh so wrong.  Just like they did to the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 earlier this year, the long-running image of the villain, the Silver Samurai, is turned into a joke here, and it just adds to the complete collapse of the an already pretty stupid film come that final act.  Sad really.  

But, all things are not bad, for if you wait for a few more minutes after the end credits begin to roll, you will be rewarded with a damn fun teaser for next year's X-Men: Days of Future Past epic mutant event, featuring a pair of everyone's favourite mutants.  The fact that this ninety second clip is, by far, the best thing about this movie, is a bit sad if you let yourself think about it.  Another thing that we should probably not allow outrselves to think about (but, hey, I'm bringing it up anyway) is the sad fact of what this film shoulda, coulda, and woulda been if Darren Aronofsky hadn't bowed out before filming began.  Just imagine what such an inventive auteur would have brought to the table.  Actually, let's not think about that, it is only going to piss us off that it never happened.  Let's just look forward to Days of Future Past, and a hope that the X-films will get back on track.  And hey, where the hell is our Gambit movie anyway!?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Battle Royale #16: Battle of the Sensitive Studs (The Results)

Welly well well my ladies and germs, here we are at the end of another Battle Royale, and therefore, here we are at another Battle Royale victory dance.  The guy dancing this time, you ask?  Well, in the Battle of the Sensitive Studs, where we pitted Paul Newman against Steve McQueen, the spoils go to Pa Newman himself.  With a final tally of 15 to 9, or 63% to 38% (wait a minute, that doesn't add up - nice work, Newman beat out McQueen, and so congrats to Mr. Newman, and better luck next time to Mr. McQueen.  But then again, I am not actually here to talk about Newman versus McQueen (sorry guys - don't hate me), but instead, about the pitifully low voter turnout this time around.  With just 24 votes cast (and two of those were me, casting my vote on two different servers) this has been the lowest turnout yet, and really none of the voter turnout has been all that spectacular.  I guess, with the exception of the handful of regular voters, Battle Royale is basically a big ole bust.  With that in mind, I am placing a hold on any and all future Battle Royales here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World.  It is sad to say, but it just doesn't seem to be worth the time and effort one puts into such things. Who knows though, with enough public feedback, perhaps Battle Royale will return one day, but considering hardly anyone cares enough to vote, I doubt the feedback will amount to even Bogie's proverbial hill of beans.  It has been a great, if not discouraging, run through the first sixteen Battle Royales, and I hope to do it again someday, but for now...c'est la vie, as they say.  But remember, my reviews and other such things will continue uninterrupted, so there's always that.  

Friday, July 19, 2013

Film Review: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's This is the End

When I first heard of this film, the idea of watching a veritable who's who of lame Judd Apatow stoner comedies come together and do battle against the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, no matter how much I have liked many of these actors outside of the sheltered, bullying world of Apatow comedies, was certainly nothing that appealed to this critic.  Yeah yeah, I know, Freaks and Geeks was a great show, and anyone who knows me knows full well that it sits as one of my all-time faves.  And yes, I know, James Franco, Seth Rogen, and Jonah Hill have all done work that makes me want to watch them again and again - especially Franco.  But hey, judging from most of Judd Apatow's past work, This is the End is not a movie I would likely watch.  Then something happened.  I found out that the aforementioned Mr. Apatow, the man who squandered a once promising past with silly, sexist, bathroom humoured fodder, has absolutely nothing whatsoever, save for being friends with the majority of the cast, to do with This is the End.  Well boys, colour me re-interested, and pencil me back in.

Actually, the real kicker for me was when I realized that Rogen, Franco, Hill et al, were all playing themselves, or at least close versions of themselves.  Basically, the story is thus - Jay Baruchel comes to L.A. to visit his best bud Rogen, and during his visit, the duo attend a party at James Franco's house, filled with a slew of Rogen's and Franco's pals, from Jason Segel to Craig Robinson to Dave Krumhotlz to Martin Starr to the aforementioned Jonah Hill to Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Emma Watson, Aziz Ansari, Paul Rudd, Rhianna, and even Michael Cera, playing a (probably) dead-on little prick version of himself.  Let's face it, the little bastard is the new Andy Dick, and we all know it, but hey, I digress.  As I was saying, Rogen and Baruchel go to James Franco's party in the Hollywood Hills, and that is when all hell (literally all Hell!) breaks loose and the rapture happens.  After a slew of horrible deaths (this is the moment when Cera shines, and shows his total douchebagery comeuppance), Rogen, Franco, Baruchel, Robinson and Hill, along with Danny McBride who apparently crashed Franco's party and passed out in Franco's bathtub, altogether missing the apocalypse, are left alone to survive the now demon-infested Hell-on-Earth scenario.  Party on dudes.

Granted, there is bathroom humour in here (a generational thing I believe - and I do not mind the occasional dick joke, just do not make the whole film that Judd), and this is not what one could or should ever call a classy kind of comedy, but all-in-all, for what it is, the film works.  Written and directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the film is quite funny at times, a few times, downright heee-larious, and everyone does their appropriate share.  I was especially surprised with McBride's performance, for he is an actor I have never been able to like all that much, but here he changes my attitude a bit.  In the end, This is the End is basically just a bunch of stoner acting buddies getting together and making a movie (not unlike the drinking buddy Rat Pack some fifty years ago), and it appears as if they are enjoying the hell out of themselves making the damn thing, and I must say, first impressions aside, I had a hell of a time watching the damn thing.  Granted, I am looking forward more to that other end of the world(ish) comedy coming from Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nicky Frost, later this year, but this one will more than do for an appetizer to the (smarter set) main course of The World's End coming in a month's time. This will do for now, pig.  Oh yeah, and watch out for a fun cameo near the end of the film, from an actor who you might not expect to show up here, playing a part that shows just how un-diva-like this particular actor happens to be.  But basically, just have fun.  It sure as hell looks like Rogen and his buds did.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Film Review: Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim

Most of what you would call, your monster movies, have a set pattern.  The first third of the film establishes characters, and lets you in on who's who.  After that, we get the onslaught of monsters, be they a giant ape from a mysterious island, a fire-breathing irradiated giant lizard stomping through Tokyo, or any other kind of gigantic, mutated creature from ants to moths to the dinos of Jurassic Park.  Well, apparently Mr. del Toro ain't havin' none of that, for he starts his film out with one of his monsters taking down the Golden Gate at about minute two (maybe even one and a half).  You see, Guillermo del Toro, though paying great respect to the Kaiju genre as a whole, was never trying for your typical monster movie, or some extension of such a thing.  No sirree, del Toro wanted to capture the artistry, the poetry of the monster movie.  Del Toro wanted to make a living, breathing Kaiju movie, but one with a humanistic approach to its storytelling.  What del Toro got was exactly that - a movie which in its awe-inspiring look and feel, captures not only a great respect to all the Kaiju that have come before it, but also something relate-able, something filled with humanity, but not in a way that diminishes the story, or makes its characters act out in any ridiculous way.  

The film, starting at a high pace, and only getting higher and higher and higher as the film moves along, is the story of a world partially destroyed by giant monsters from another dimension, and the Jaegers, giant metal monsters that the world creates in order to stop the real monsters, the real Kaiju.  But perhaps I should, as an explanatory note to the uninitiated amongst my readers (and I cannot fathom that there are really any such uninitiated among you), talk a bit about just what the hell is a Kaiju movie anyway.  Basically, Kaiju, a Japanese word best translated as 'Strange creature' but having been co-opted into anything describing a giant monster, is what Godzilla is, or Mothra, or Rodan, or Gamera, or even Ultron.  All of these strange creatures are inspirations to del Toro's Pacific Rim, but del Toro, is not just paying homage to the genre.  The director has said,  "I didn't want to be postmodern or referential, or just belong to a genre. I really wanted to create something new, something madly in love with those things. I tried to bring epic beauty to it, and drama and operatic grandeur."  Del Toro has based his film's look just as much on the Kaiju of the past, as he has on the art world of the past.  Using such disparate works as Goya's The Colossus and Hokusai's ancient woodcarving, The Great Wave of Kanagawa as a visual basis for his film, del Toro has paved his own way, and has created a genuine kick-ass monster movie, a Kaiju movie if you will, with an artistic bent, and the proverbial heart of gold.

Del Toro, always a director with a sense of dangerous artistic style (I mean c'mon, just take a look at Cronos or The Devil's Backbone or the Hellboy films, hell, just look at Pan's Labyrinth!) imbues his film with a brilliant, and darly sinister look.  Never a big fan of CGI, I was still blown away by the effects put forth by del Toiro's FX team and all the folks at ILM, and it is this dystopian realism (think Blade Runner meets Godzilla) that makes Pacific Rim such a deep and resonating film, especially for a Summer blockbuster.  The cast, led by Charlie Hunnam as a bad boy pilot, Oscar nominee for 2006's Babel, Rinko Kikuchi as his co-pilot (the Jaegers are manned by two pilots, sharing a neural connection), The Wire's Idris Elba as their commanding officer, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Charlie Day, stealing every scene he is in, as a Kaiju groupie-cum-scientist, are all a blast to watch, but let's face it, it is the monsters and the action we are here for, and del Toro (a pacifist making damn sure he never actually glorifies the action in the way someone like Michael Bay does) gives us those monsters and action in proverbial spades, and at the same time manages to make us emotionally bleed as well with a series of flashback scenes involving a toddler version of Kikuchi's character that will seriously devastate you with their imminent horror and poetic beauty.   A fun, exciting, adrenaline-pumping sci-fi spectacle of a movie, that is easily one of the best Summer blockbusters in years.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Film Review: Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger

Ya know, despite the slew (and I do mean slew) of vicious, biting reviews railing against the film, and despite my own aversions to seeing the film after seeing how the trailers made it look like it more than would deserve such aforementioned vicious and biting railings, and despite the fact that Johnny Depp, an actor I once held in high regard, has become nothing more than a one-trick pony joke over the last few years or so, despite all of these things (and quite powerful things indeed), I must admit, and bravely so considering, that I found Gore verbinski's The Lone Ranger to be a surprisingly entertaining piece of moviemaking.  Yeah, I said it, so there!

Okay, okay, maybe I am getting a little too big for my so-called britches, here.  No, this newest version of The Lone Ranger (about as "successful" as that other ode to radio/early television type of movie of recent years, The Green Hornet), is by no means a great, classic-to-be movie.  No, Verbinski's overblown (but I am not saying being overblown is bad, mind you) extravaganza is nowhere near the level of something like Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, a film that Verbinski more than acknowledges on multiple counts, but really, this critic does not understand the level a dissatisfaction heaped upon this movie by every blowhard critic and non-critic out there (forward thinking critics such as Matt Zoller Seitz, who praises the film even more than I do, notwithstanding).  Everything about the film satisfies this critic, forward thinking or not.  It is pure popcorn entertainment that never fails to please, but it is really more than just that.  Yeah, I said that too, so there!

Seriously though, from Verbinski's direction to Depp's Tonto, the film flies with high adventure, in the old school serial/cliffhanger style. Sure, both director and actor were better in the animated Rango, a sort of crafty and sly uncle to this film (a film, that even though animated, was less cartoonish than this film, but again, not necessarily a put down) but this film still had the most basic fundamentals of good, classic storytelling.  Armie Hammer, the heelariously inept Winklevii from The Social Network, is a breath of proverbial fresh air as the titular masked man.  A sort of Cary Grant meets Gary Cooper kinda thing.  Depp is surprisingly good in the role of faithful sidekick-cum-crazed lunatic, especially considering the once seemingly versatile actor now just plays the same character over and over and over again, be it in the form of a vampire, a pirate, a Madd Hatter or even an iconic Native American hero of legend and lore.  Here he channels more along the lines of one of the actor's idol;s, Buster Keaton, and this works wonders for a character that has always been seen as some sort of Injun Stepin Fetchit, here transformed into the strongest character in the whole damn film.

Combine this with an obvious love of the Western and Hollywood history itself from Verbinski (we can see, along with the aforementioned Mr. Leone, such homages to everything from Blazing Saddles to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and Depp and Hammer perfectly playing off of each other's strengths and weaknesses - not to mention Helena Bonham-Carter as a madame with a shotgun for a leg and villain William Fichtner eating another man's heart (a scene that is wonderfully shot) - and even the most jaded of critics and nay-sayers really cannot be so put off by the film that by the time the revered William Tell Overture finally kicks in in the climactic Verbinski more-is-always-more chase scene, and Hammer and Depp (and let us not forget Silver, who often steals the show) kick themselves into high heroic gear, they too are not tapping their feet along with the film.  The Lone Ranger, as loud and as abrasive as it wants to be (and surprisingly deep in a few moments as well) is veritable head and shoulders above what gets by as typical Summer blockbuster movie fare these days.  Naysayers be damned, the movie is fun dammit, so there!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Film Review: Richard Linklater's Before Midnight

Some might say it takes a certain amount of patience to sit through one of Richard Linklater's Before films, be it Before Sunrise or Before Sunset or the latest in the series, Before Midnight, and I suppose that is true when one is talking about the typical multiplexer who cannot keep their attention focused for more than a ten second sound bite, but for those filmgoers who love character driven films with fresh, spontaneous dialogue, combined with a swirling artistic flare with the camera - one so subtle and so smooth that you do not even consciously realize that you are indeed being swirled about artistically - and full of biting sarcasm and snarky wit, as well as old fashioned romance and classic storytelling, then Before Sunrise, Sunset, and now Midnight, are the films for you.  Incidentally, I place myself front and center in that very same category.  The first two films of Linklater's series, released in 1995 and 2004, respectively, were boons of independently-minded cinema, and the Austin auteur's latest is no less so.

Following the story of Jesse and Celine, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, respectively, from their first meeting and night spent together in Vienna in Before Sunrise, to their re-meeting and swirling walks and talks around Paris in Before Sunset, to their now decade-long marriage, turned bitter and jaded by Celine's perfectionist attitude and Jesse's immortal immaturity, in Richard Linklater's latest, now set in the isles of Greece.  Having also been written by both Hawke and Delpy, along with Linklater (their Before Sunset screenplay was nominated for an Oscar even), the ever-evolving story of Celine and Jesse, bores more and more metaphysical fruit with each nine-years-in-the-making follow-up.  From the giddy youth of the first film, to the introspective flirtations of the second, to the descending relational spirals of this latest.  The writing, acting, and direction come together in seemingly perfect synchronicity, and manage to do so with greater depth, and greater narrative pizzazz (even when no pizzazz can be seen by those preferring Michael Bay movies to any type of arthouse fare) with each successive film.

True, these films are not for everyone (what films really are though?), and the strangely antagonistic complaints after the gleefully ambiguous ending of Sunset (an ending I recall my wife and I loving, as others grumbled as the screen faded to black and the cinema lights came up) give credence to such theories, but seriously, for the right person (myself whole-heartedly included) Before Midnight, just like its wordy. witty predecessors, is a deliciously smart and vibrant piece of filmmaking - from every damn angle.  It is sort of American indie cinema's answer to Michael Apted's brilliantly kitschy Up series from the UK.  Just what are these star-crossed lovers up to now?  A sure shot candidate for my eventual year-end top ten list (it currently sits at number two, behind only Park Chan-wook's devilishly brilliant thriller, Stoker), Before Midnight is just pure and simple storytelling brilliance, without ever being either pure or simple.  Yep, now all we need do is wait until 2022, and hope Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke have another one in them.  Of course, even if they do not, this one is a pretty damn nice way to go out.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Battle Royale #16: Battle of the Sensitive Studs

Welcome to the sixteenth 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.

This time around we are tossing two heavy hitting he-men into the metaphorical, cyber-ring, but these are not your typical he-men.  Yeah, these guys could kick anyone's ass on screen (one of 'em kinda did that off-screen as well), and both could dominate any cast, and yes, both of these men were first-class racing champs both on and off screen, but these guys also had something more than just your typical macho attitude.  These guys could bring you to veritable tears with their acting.  These guys were definitely your first class sensitive studs.  But exactly how does one compare such actors as Paul Newman and Steve McQueen?  Like this.

Both actors hail from the Midwest (McQueen from Indiana, Newman from Ohio), and both served stints in the US military (McQueen as a Marine, Newman in the Navy), and both were avid racing enthusiasts and owned a slew of classic cars between them, and eventually, both men starred together in the 1974 disaster flick, The Towering Inferno (a movie which had the two battling producers and each other for top billing), but that is where the similarities end.  While Newman played the intellectual in life, always honing his craft on stage and screen, McQueen was a ruffian, getting into trouble with the law on numerous occasions, from being tossed in the brig while a Marine to having one of the most famous mugshots of any celebrity.  Newman was a man who went to bat for the left on many occasions (the actor says being placed nineteenth on Nixon's enemies list was one of his greatest accomplishments).  McQueen was a man who had problems with drugs and paranoia and the establishment.  But on screen, both actors brought an intense humidity to their respective roles, and both men brought an utter coolness along with that heat.

After several years on the New York stage, Newman made his big screen in 1954, in the infamously derided biblical film, The Silver Chalice (one of my own so-called guilty pleasures - though I feel no guilt whatsoever), and he followed this up with two decades of fabulous, career-building roles in such classic films as The Long, Hot Summer, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Sting.  He would later go on to star in The Verdict and The Color of Money, for which he would finally win his long-overdue Oscar for Best Actor.  Newman also starred in lesser-known, but still great films such as The Left-Handed Gun, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, and Road to Perdition.  Oh yeah, and there's his salad dressing and popcorn too.

Meanwhile, after several stage roles in NYC, and after a move to L.A. and many TV appearances, McQueen made his big screen debut in 1956, in a small uncredited part in Somebody Up There Likes Me (a film starring Paul Newman, no less), and followed that up with his first starring role in The Blob in 1958.  After this McQueen starred in such classics as The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Cincinnati Kid, Nevada Smith, The Sand Pebbles, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, The Getaway, and Papillion.  Due to cancer, McQueen's career never lasted as long as Newman's, but during the height of these two actor's careers (late fifties through the mid-seventies), there was not anyone better at what they did  than either Paul Newman or Steve McQueen - and no one cooler either.  Which brings us to your part in all of this.

All you need do is to go on over to the poll, found conveniently near the top of the sidebar of this very same site, and click on who you think is the greater and/or the cooler of these two legends of the screen - these two sensitive studs.  And remember, you can comment all you wish (and please do comment - we can never have too many of those) but in order for your vote to be counted, you must vote in the actual poll.  After doing that, then you can come back over here and leave all the comments your heart desires.  Who knows, maybe we will get some sort of lively cinematic discussion going.  And also please remember to tell everyone you know to get out the vote as well.  I t would be great to see us reach triple digits this time around.  Voting will go until midnight, EST, the night of Monday, July 22nd (just over two weeks from the starting gate).  The results will be announced the following day.  So get out there and vote vote vote.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Film Review: Shane Carruth's Upstream Color

When Shane Carruth's debut feature, the sci-fi, time travel tale, Primer, was released back in October of 2004, audiences did not know just what to do with the film.  Even though the film won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, and was welcomed with mostly good reviews, the low budget aspect of the film, along with a twisting and turning time travel story that managed to confuse many a filmgoer, ended up being not the smash indie hit it deserved to be, but nothing more than a mere cult-like phenom.  But isn't that good enough?  I recall placing the film in my top ten that year, and giddily awaiting the engineer-turned-filmmaker's follow-up project.  Well, cut to nearly nine years later, and that long-festering giddy anticipation has finally paid off.  The director's Upstream Color is finally here, and not only is the critical praise even heavier this time around (almost universal acclaim from the arthouse critics to even the mainstream media), the questioning sideways glances from an even more confused audience is as high as it has been since Terrence Malick handed us The Tree of Life two years ago.  But then, that is just how this critic likes it.

Now I am not here to defend any choices the director has made, nor to explain what those out of the avant-garde loop do not seem to fathom, no matter how hard they squeeze and strain their grey matter, but simply to let you, my faithful readers, in on just what I thought of this admittedly befuddling filmgoing experience.  I have watched the film twice now, once on DVD and once on the big screen (the film received a semi-simultaneous theatrical, V.O.D. and DVD/BD release earlier this year) and must admit that some aspects of the story still make my head hurt.  But, as I more-than-alluded to before, that is just how I like it.  Basically, to give what I can of this story, the film is about, is about something, isn't it?  The official Sundance synopsis reads as thus:  "Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being—a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives."  This is as good a description as anyone is really going to get, barring any potential, though never truly revealing, spoilers.

Carruth moves his film along with the methodical pace of someone like the aforementioned Mr. Malick.  Slowly but surely releasing bits and pieces of the plot, and letting his audience in on just what the fuck is going on (though never, thankfully, completely so), Carruth's ever-evolving, bewildering narrative, gives this very same audience an almost hallucinatory experience throughout.  Again, that is just how this critic likes it.  The film stars Amy Seimetz (AMC's The Killing) and Carruth himself (he serves as director, writer, producer, actor, cinematographer, editor, composer, casting director, production designer and sound designer - whew!) as the hapless pair of intertwined loners, losing their individual identities and becoming lost in what may or may not be an existence of illusion.  The acting, purposely so one must assume from how other aspects of the film play out, is as methodical as the storytelling, and these two lost souls seem as bewildered as those watching this intriguing, fascinating film.  Sure, most audiences will just not get what is going on here - for they are too ensconced in the mainstream moviemaking world, where everything is choreographed and explained ad nauseam - but for those of us who do get it, even if we really don't "get" it, will be amazed at what Shane Carruth has given us.  Now, hopefully we will not need spend another near decade wallowing in near-forgotten anticipation of what will come next.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

From Park Chan-Wook's US Debut to Charlie Sheen as Charlie Swan: The Cinematic Best and Worst of the First Half of 2013

Here we are mid-way through the cinematic year of 2013 (actually one day past said mid-way point, but hey, yesterday was my birthday, and I had other things to do, so cut me some slack) and time for a round-up of what the year has brought us, cinematically speaking of course, from January first to my birthday yesterday.  In that time period, there have been 64 films released in the good ole USofA that I have seen with my own eyes.  This number is a touch lower than I had originally expected it to be by the mid-way point, but alas, what can ya do.  So, without further ado, here are those 64 films in relative preferential order - and order that could always change before said year is actually up.

The Best (so far) - There are just three films so far with which I would consider adorning my eventual Best of 2013 list.  They are, in chronological order, Park Chan-Wook's titularly-mentioned Hollywood debut, Stoker, Harmony Korine's latest and greatest work of decadent chutzpah, Spring Breakers, a film that probably has a lot more haters than it does champions, and Before Midnight, the third installment in Richard Linklater's "Before Series."  These are the three films that I have said wow too.  These are three films that, barring eight, nine or even ten or more spectacular films in the next six months, will be on that top ten list come January first.  I do not actually see any of these being in that top spot - hello, Wong Kar-Wai's long-awaited new film will hit US shores in August - but they should all be pretty high up there, Stoker may even end up in the number two or three spot when all is said and done, and the proverbial smoke clears.

Almost There - Films such as Terrence Malick's To the Wonder (the minor companion piece to The Tree of Life, you might say), Noah Baumbach's black and white Truffaut homage, Frances Ha (the show stolen by girlfriend, muse, writer, and star Greta Gerwig), Shane Carruth's massively misunderstood Upstream Color (his "yeah, finally" follow-up to 2004's Primer, another film not enough people "got"), Sofia Coppola's acerbic indictment of modern media culture, The Bling Ring (cool and callow as can be), and J.J. Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness (the best mainstream director working today deserves some sort of inclusion here) might end up making the top ten when the times comes, but they are not sure bets by any means.  These films, all very good, though the directors have all done better, are more likely destined  for that extended part of my list, those films ranked from no. 11 through no. 20(ish), that I tag on every year just because I can never get too much of a good thing.  But the top ten, probably not, unless we have a less than expected second half of 2013 - and no, that isn't really a dig on any of these films.  One other film needing mentioned, Mekong Hotel, a 61 minute work from Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, should probably squeeze in here somewhere as well.  It never really got any sort of proper release in the US, but why be such a stickler, it deserves to be here, so here it most certainly is.  Anyway, let us move on.

Runners-Up Material - Every year, after listing my best of the year, a top ten followed by ten or twelve more films that deserve recognition in bold print, I end up without another twenty or so films in that perennial list section known as the runners-up (or honourable mentions if that is more your thing).  This year, I see eleven films (so far) that could likely make such a list.  These films, in no particular order other than the order in which I remember them, are Ginger and Rosa (a film that owes everything to fourteen year old American Elle Fanning's remarkable performance as a seventeen year old Brit), Lore (and Aussie film set in the waning days of WWII Germany), Warm Bodies (a surprisingly enjoyable zombie romcom, a zomcom, if you will), The Last Stand (an equally surprisingly enjoyable Schwarzenegger vehicle that rightfully so, never takes itself too seriously), Wrong (Quentin Dupieux's bizarro world follow-up to that movie about the sentient spree-killing tire), Mud (McConaughey's at it again, but even he is outshone his fifteen year old co-star), Side Effects (Soderbergh lite is still better than many directors at their peak), The Iceman (the film may be typical, but Michael Shannon hands in the single best performance of the year so far, and that has got to count for something), Trance (a moody, mellow-ish, Danny Boyle film, imagine that?), The Angels' Share (Ken Loach playing at light-hearted, well, light-hearted by Ken Loach standards), and finally last year's official Foreign-Language Oscar entry from Norway, Kon-Tiki (nominated for said Oscar, this is old-fashioned storytelling the way it should be).  I can only assume that this list will double by year's end.

Okay, But Not List Worthy - Now we get to those films that I enjoyed in one way or another, and would get an eventual thumbs up if I were one of those who traded in a thumbed ratings system, but are not good enough to latch on to any sort of respectable list.  These films, again in no particular order, are as follows.  Mama (horror done without spectacle), Oblivion (yeah, this Tom Cruise vehicle ain't half bad), All Superheroes Must Die (a D.I.Y. Kick-Ass), Struck by Lightning (cute and catchy), Stand-Up Guys (the chemistry works here), Red Flag (Alex Karpovsky goes inward), War Witch (cliche'd but strongly acted), Yossi (Eytan Fox's sequel to Yossi and Jagger is tragically hopeful), John Dies at the End (in the feel good mood of early Sam Raimi), Supporting Characters (Mumblecore-ish but not too Mumblecore-ish), From Up on Poppy Hill (Miyazaki Junior follows in his papa's anime footsteps), Porfirio (Colombia's answer to the Dardennes), and the latest addition to this camp, World War Z (granted, I expected more, but what I got was rather fun).  But enough of the so-called good, let us move on to what comes next.

Straight-Up Average, Yo - These are those films that have as much going for them as they do against.  Those films that end up with the inevitable sideways thumbs.  In other words, straight-up average, yo!  With little to no fanfare, these films are: Man of Steel (not super), Epic (not epic), 42 (not legendary), Jack the Giant Slayer (not gigantic), The Croods (not crude), Admission (not admissive?), Broken City (not broken enough), No (not no enough), Renoir (not Renoiry enough?), Parker (not parked enough), What Maisie Knew (not knowing), Beautiful Creatures (not beautiful, and not creatury), and The Place Beyond the Pines (not beyond enough).  That last one hurt the most as it was one of the films I was most looking forward to this year.  Ah well, at least it, nor any of these were not actively bad, which brings us to our next category.

Actively Bad - These are those films that , though not the dregs of the year (those bad boys are coming up soon enough though), are to be considered actively bad, and therefore considered actively avoidable.  These ne're-do-wells include films I expected to be good, like Gangster Squad, films I had hoped would be good, like The Great Gatsby and Iron Man 3, and films I just knew were not going to be all that good, but was still secretly hopeful for, The Purge and Identity Thief.  This section also includes several small budget, V.O.D. throw-away doo-hickeys, such as Rubberneck, The Baytown Outlaws, Girls Against Boys, Crawlspace, and The Taste of Money.  And now, onto those aforementioned dregs of the cinematic year.

The Seven Deadly Sins - And finally, here we are at the proverbial bottom of the equally proverbial barrel.  Seven films that should be avoided at any and all costs.  Matching them up with those titular sins, these seven appropriately numbered films are, in no order whatsoever: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (Wrath), Evil Dead (Sloth), Bullet to the Head (Gluttony), Oz the Great and Powerful (envy), After Earth (pride), A Good Day to Die Hard (greed), and A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (lust).  I will leave it up to you to decide why I assigned each sin to each film.  There were a bunch of other obvious candidates for this final category, but since I do not get any sort of paycheck for reviewing these films, there is really no reason to seek out all the possible dregs.

Anyway, that is it for the first half of the year.  For those of you are are a certain type of people, and have actually counted how many films I have listed (c'mon, really!?), and have come up with the answer of 63, one less than what was stated in my opening salvo, the answer to that query is easy.  The 64th film is actually the re-release of Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park in 3D.  But, since it is not really a new movie (the addition of 3D really does nothing for the movie itself), I have not counted it on this list.  If I did, it would be in the top category, as it is one of my favourite films of the 1990's.  But, I digress.  There are some films that have already opened in US theaters, but due to a lack of time recently, or a lack of being able to travel to NY and/or LA at the moment, these films are still as of yet, unseen.  Films such as Almodovar's I'm So Excited, Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love, and even the stoner end-of-the-world comedy, This is the End.  But I have rambled on enough.  Here's to the second half of 2013, and onto bigger and better things.  See ya in da funny papers.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Film Review: Marc Forster's World War Z

Now I have not read Max Brooks' best selling novel upon which this film is based, so I am not among those who are up-in-arms about how drastically the story was changed when going from page to screen - and it was apparently altered quite a bit, from everything I have read and heard on the subject - and because of this, I cannot judge the film as an adaptation, but only as a zombie film, on its own merits.  Doing that very thing, I can say that World War Z, as a zombie film, on its own merits, ain't half bad.  Granted, I had expected more out of the film, but what I got, what we all got, the aforementioned nay-saying source material lovers aside, was a fun Summer blockbustery romp, that may not go down in the annals of film history as one of the apex-setters of its genre, but is surely something with which to waste an afternoon in the dark. 

That being said, I must make one note, repairing a misconception that is only made more evident by that big blaring Z in the title, and was even added to by my own necessitative use of the word in the above opening salvo.  World War Z isn't exactly a zombie film per se.  Yeah, yeah, the Z-word is used more than a few times in the film, and I assume, in the book as well, but this film, this sub-genre if you will, is much more akin to something like 28 Days Later than it is to the likes of George Romero's gut-wrenching oeuvre or AMC's The Walking Dead (best damn show on TV btw).  World War Z is an outbreak movie more than a living dead film, but then there I go again, griping about apples and oranges, when I should just be reviewing the damn movie.  And speaking of that, as an outbreak movie, on its own merits, World War Z is a damn fine romp indeed.  Perhaps not great (the aforementioned 28 Days Later being the apex-setter of that genre) and perhaps lacking the depth of The Walking Dead or the balls-out intensity of Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake, but still a fun film.

As for the acting, there are some fine actors hiding away in this film, but let's face it, this is Brad Pitt's show, and there is nothing wrong with that.  One of the more overlooked actors around (he's too pretty to be truly talented seems to be the general, subconscious response), Pitt is actually quite the chameleon.  From 12 Monkeys and Kalifornia back in his early days, to Moneyball and Inglourios Basterds as of late, Pitt can more than stand his ground with the best working today.  Granted, there really isn't all that much acting needed in a film like World War Z - the CGI-action, sometimes good, ofttimes not so good, is the real star here - but Pitt still gives it what he's got (see Brad run below - run Brad, run), and the grand scale entertainment is let loose.  Even so, the film never quite reaches the heights it is most likely aiming for here.  Apparently Brooks' novel is as much an indictment on government corruption and isolationism as it is on balls-out zombie action, and it would have been nice to see more of that aspect in the screenplay, a screenplay that has been written and rewritten several times, including by Cabin in the Woods' Drew Goddard (he also did a lot of work on Buffy and Lost, if that is your thing) and comicbook writer J. Michael Straczynski (he had a great run on The Amazing Spider-Man and his current recurring book, Ten Grand, currently on sale via Image Comics, is one of the best comics of 2013), but flaws and foibles aside, it is still a more than competent take on the subject matter.  

In fact, flaws and foibles aside once more, there are several moments in the film that can be called rather breathtaking.   From the taking of the walled city of Jerusalem to the airplane ride from hell to the penultimate set piece taking place inside a World Health Organization facility overrun by those damn Z's (the latter is actually some of the best use of subtle intensity on film in a long long time), and even if the film doesn't quite deliver as much as this critic had hoped for, it is still a damn fine piece of popcorn entertainment.  And in the throes of a long hot summer, what more could one ask for?  Okay, that was a rhetorical question, but hey, the film was fun, so who am I to complain?  I'll leave that up to those who have read the book and are crying bloody apocalypse.