Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mabrouk El Mechri's "JCVD" (2008)

2008 is beginning to be known as a year of comebacks in film. We’ve already seen Sly Stallone continue his miraculous return to the big screen with the fourth film in the Rambo series. With hype swirling around Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler and a role that allowed Tom Cruise to slip out of the spotlight in Tropic Thunder (that eventually earned him a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor) some big names are back on track. Jean-Claude Van Damme is the latest actor to strike it rich with his comeback vehicle simply titled JCVD.

JCVD, a French film directed by French-Algerian director Mabrouk El Mechri, stars Van Damme playing himself. It is a meta-action doubling as a self-spoof/parody in the vein of Being John Malkovich. Van Damme, who is struggling with his career and unable to raise sufficient funds to pay legal bills for his child custody case, gets confused for a bank robber when he stumbles into the middle of a bank heist.

I’ll be honest. I haven’t seen many Van Damme films. I’ve never been a fan of the Van Damme’s and the Seagal’s of the film industry. If there’s one genre I never got into that would be it. JCVD is a film that succeeds largely due to Van Damme’s inspiring and brutally honest performance. Van Damme even has an emotionally charged eight minute one-take monologue that ignites the film’s third act. The film strays from the ongoing plot and simply puts the viewer face to face with Van Damme himself. This moment in the film is where you realize as the viewer that Van Damme is back. Fan or not, you can’t deny the remarkable achievement he reaches at this moment by reflecting on his past.

JCVD is a fresh, original and cool film. El Mechri, who lists French new wave director Jean-Luc Godard as a major influence, seamlessly ties all the acts together with an irregular narrative complete with flashbacks and “point-of-view” storytelling. This tongue-in-cheek look at international film star is flat out entertaining. All the drama, comedy and action is tied together without a hitch.

There’s not much to say about this one. Whether you’re a fan of Van Damme or not JCVD is worth watching. It surely is one of the surprise success stories of the year. The film won’t sniff any major awards this year but even so, it is an ultimate achievement for Van Damme and the filmmakers. JCVD is brutally honest, enthralling and truly a testament to filmmaking.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon" (2008)

One of the most significant historical events that I never learned enough about in high school was the Watergate scandal and the fallout left upon Richard Nixon. Ron Howard’s new film Frost/Nixon, a film adaptation of the stage play, delves into the now famous interviews between talk show host David Frost and the former president Richard Nixon.

This dramatization of a series of interviews granted to British talk show host David Frost in 1977, three years after Nixon resigned from his presidency, plays like a back and forth cat and mouse thriller and a boxing match rich with suspense. The bizarre thing is that with any knowledge of the subject beforehand the outcome of this bout is already known. While this is true with all history-based films there’s something special about this one in particular.

This isn’t a retelling of a violent war. They are merely a series of interviews. What allows the viewer the ability to fall right into the film, whether they know the outcome or not, are the outstanding performances by the ensemble cast. Frank Langella gives a seemingly uncanny portrayal of Richard Nixon. Langella does something unique with Nixon. He, much like the real Nixon, gave the audience a chance to feel sympathy for him during the interviews. In the end everyone, including himself, is able to see right through this façade of cover-ups. Langella’s performance is an award-deserving three dimensional take on Nixon. From the flawlessly replicated mannerisms to the sulking body posture to the profoundly deep and brooding voice Langella’s portrayal of the former president will be noted come Oscar time.

To applaud only Langella would be to applaud only part of the team. Michael Sheen seamlessly loses himself within this out of place character of a talk show host. Frost was a man that at the time lived for the limelight. He was a man seen as more of an entertainer rather than as an investigative journalist. Sheen portrays both sides of this before and after transformation very well by effortlessly slipping into character.

Supporting performances such as Kevin Bacon’s stern performance as Jack Brennan, one of Nixon’s protective advisors, and Sam Rockwell as the determined James Reston Jr., one of Frost’s main researchers, complete a cast worthy of praise all around.

is a film that flew right past me. Once the film reached the second half, and more importantly the fourth interview, I was locked in my seated position and rarely looked away from the screen. With the aforementioned brilliant and realistic performances coupling with the stark reality of the dialogue the film is as suspenseful as can be. Howard’s directing only adds to the mix as his up close and personal approach during the interviews locks the combatants down right in front of you never letting go until it’s all over. Every emotional portion of dialogue and facial gesture is perfectly captured.

For me to speak on the historical aspects of this riveting film would be for me to go over my head. I prefer to leave the history to those who know it best. What I do know is that Frost/Nixon is one of the more compelling and entertaining films of its kind this year. The script plays like a stage play script with its limited locations and focus on dialogue but none of that does harm to the film. Frost/Nixon will undoubtedly be up for Oscar consideration as far as best picture goes and Frank Langella, who led a strong overall group of actors, will be a heavy favorite to win best actor with his powerful and moving performance that almost made me feel a drop of sympathy for the lonely Richard Nixon.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Steven Wilson - Insurgentes (2008)

Steven Wilson
November 26, 2008

Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson claims his new solo album is “Different from anything I’ve ever done before”, otherwise he wouldn’t have bothered. Insurgentes, Wilson’s first true solo album, is all that and more. Combining his musical past of progressive rock with drone, noise and post-punk shoe gazer music like Joy Division and The Cure, Wilson’s long coming solo project opens up new doors in the musician’s heralded career.

Wilson has done it all in his ever-growing career. He’s seen as one of the progressive rock masterminds of the modern era. He is to Porcupine Tree as Robert Fripp is to King Crimson. Wilson’s career spans the genres as he’s tackled all types of progressive rock with Porcupine Tree, an ambience-flavored type of drone with Bass Communion and an art rock collaboration with Israeli rock star Aviv Geffen. This is why Wilson’s brand new approach to his newest album comes as no surprise to fans.

Insurgentes, as Wilson himself describes the album, is an eclectic mess. It’s the good kind of mess though. It’s the kind of mess that you make but turns out to be a brilliant discovery. Except that Wilson made this diverse collection of sounds on purpose. Wilson recorded Insurgentes over a long period in many different countries. The project spanned from December 2007 to August 2008 as Wilson recorded during his busy schedule wherever he could. In fact, title track “Insurgentes” was recorded in a church in Mexico on a church piano.

The album opens with the harmonious Harmony Korine, a title definitely referencing the art house film director of the same name. This track sets the eternal tone for the album. It’s a true blend of Porcupine Tree-inspired rock with the shoe gazing influence Wilson himself mentioned. The second track on the album, “Abandoner”, introduces the dark, almost horror film soundtrack inspired drone and noise portions of the album. The final minute of the track is a barrage of grinding atonal sounds.

The time and distance spent recording Insurgentes has paid off for Steven Wilson. I was two songs into the album when I picked it as my album of the year. After listening to the full album and the bonus disc I realized I hadn’t jumped the gun too soon. Insurgentes is what music is all about. Wilson experimented with all his influences, abilities and styles to create an album he himself would love to listen to.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Remakes: The Modern Plague

Haven’t people these days heard the saying “Don't fix what's not broken”? Movie executives must turn the music up and jam the earplugs in tight whenever this sentence arises.

On what seems to be a week-by-week basis Hollywood gives the green light to a new remake. While the concept of remaking films is certainly not new, it has become a disturbingly tired and trendy occurrence. No film is safe in this modern era of filmmaking categorized by countless remakes that double as cheap money grabbers. Everything is at the risk of being remade – from science fiction classics such as The Day the Earth Stood Still to smaller films with strong cult followings such as The Crazies.

In the past few months remakes have gone too far. Quarantine attempted to become one of the quickest remakes in recent history as it remade the superior 2007 Spanish film [REC]. This brings up remake type number one. The foreign language film made American. Other countries don’t do this. This type of remake is by far the most pointless of the bunch. 95% of the time the Americanized version of the film is a far inferior film. The horror genre is especially to blame for the recent increase in this. For some unknown reason an inferior version of The Ring just had to be created four years after the initial film was released. Ripping foreign films from the cultures and subtexts they come from spell disaster for the finished American product.

Earlier this month it was announced that Will Smith and Steven Spielberg would be taking part in a remake of the 2003 Korean film Oldboy. Recently, Smith noted that the film wouldn’t be a remake as much as it is a reworking of the original material. Without the success of the initial release Spielberg wouldn’t dare delve into such dicey and taboo material. Oldboy, one of the best films this decade, is one third of director Chan-wook Park’s revenge trilogy. All three films embody a visual style personal to Park and performances that will be remembered for quite some time. Oldboy isn’t exactly a pleasant film. The film is as twisted as they come. I, for one, can’t even begin to envision how household names like Will Smith and Steven Spielberg will even begin to handle the source material.

Not all remakes are bastardized gifts from the devil. John Carpenter’s The Thing is an example of how remakes, if necessary, should be done. Pairing a director like John Carpenter to a project like that is an example of a match made in heaven. Carpenter’s updated version and the original Howard Hawk’s production differ in terms of plot and style. I much prefer remakes that are the new director’s personal vision. Shot by shot remakes are extremely pointless and unnecessary. I still can’t believe someone allowed Gus Van Sant to remake Psycho.

Another type of popular remake is the updating of one of our own classics. As referenced to earlier, The Day the Earth Stood Still remake is being released this December. Rigid and awful as always, Keanu Reeves is set to play the iconic role of Klaatu that Michael Rennie immortalized more than 50 years ago. As if things couldn’t get worse for the project, director Scott Derrickson’s most notable film is The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Oh boy, I can’t wait. Year after year films fall off the never should be remade list.

Searching for a list of film remakes on Wikipedia says it all: “Due to the size of this page, the main listing has been split into two sections”. I’ll give any film a chance. I realize some remakes are the result of a director wanting to pay tribute to one of their favorite films or directors. The best way that can be done is to concoct an original film in the same vein as the directors you were influenced by, not from replicating their style or work.

I’d recommend avoiding most remakes like the plague. If by chance the film you’re going to waste $10 on at the local cinema is a remake you should save your money and support the original. Remakes have the potential of ruining American cinema by sucking all originality out of films. Alright, maybe I’m overreacting a bit, but that doesn’t hide the fact that remakes are awful more often than not. I’d just like Hollywood to slow down a bit. I know it’s hard but put the thoughts of piles of green money aside for a moment and think about what you’re doing to the industry you supposedly love. Each new remake is just another proverbial nail in the coffin of originality.

Director Profile: Lloyd Kaufman

For a little over a month now I’ve been writing about a director I admire and appreciate on a weekly basis. The five directors I’ve chosen to write about so far are filmmakers considered to be geniuses and the cream of the crop within their respective genres. This theme will not change this week.

There’s a phenomenon in film known as the B-movie. That’s capital B for Bad. Although most B-movie’s fit into the exploitation, horror, and science fiction genres, being classified as a B-movie tends to relate to the low budgets used to create the films. These so bad they’re good films typically build up legions of cult followings of diehard fans that allow these low-budget films to be made.

Lloyd Kaufman, an American film director, producer, screenwriter and occasional actor, is the co-founder of Troma Entertainment. Troma, which is considered the longest running independent film studio, is one of the leaders of the modern B-movie. Kaufman and Troma are best known for their absurd, schlocky and gore-filled films that intend to purely entertain, humor, disgust and shock.

Troma and Kaufman’s most well-known film is The Toxic Avenger. In fact, Troma’s current logo features Toxie, the film’s hero. The Toxic Avenger, whose success has spurned out three sequels, an animated cartoon, and a video game, is about Melvin, a stereotypical scrawny nerd who accidentally falls into a bucket of toxic waste. This in turn causes him to mutate and become the Toxic Avenger, intimately known as Toxie. Toxie, with mop in hand, becomes determined to defeat all crime in Tromaville (the fictitious city Troma places most of their films in). While content-wise this might sound a bit absurd, The Toxic Avenger was executed with pure grace and charisma by Kaufman.

To achieve extreme appreciation for what Kaufman and the rest of Troma does one would need to view a couple of their behind the scenes documentaries. While extremely entertaining and funny, the docs do justice to painstaking work the team puts in for one of their films. Nothing seems to ever go right for Kaufman, the actors, the unpaid interns and the rest of the crew hard at work. Even so, the finished products don’t represent the struggles on set. Time after time Kaufman is able to create his newest B-movie masterpiece.

Making a B-movie that is both entertaining and re-watchable is not an easy task. For Troma and Kaufman it has become second nature. They consistently churn out memorable characters, quotable quotes and disgustingly impressive special effects. Take Troma’s newest film Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead for example. Kaufman attempted something different with Poultrygeist. The film blends the classic Troma formula with the musical genre. The new experiment worked perfectly as critics applauded Poultrygeist and fans like me claimed it to be one of Troma’s best films ever, a bold statement considering their long line of work.

It’s hard to promote Troma films to everyone because they aren’t for everyone. They certainly aren’t films I’d want to watch with my parents. If you’re looking to expand your horizons drastically – and I mean drastically – take a trip to Tromaville. Kaufman and Troma have earned my eternal respect. I’ll take this opportunity to rip a page from the Troma handbook. Rather than spending your hard earned cash this holiday season on a piece of junk one of the conglomerates stews together, spend it on one of the little guys. Kaufman and Troma do it for the love of the game, not for all that superficial fame.

Essential viewings: The Toxic Avenger, Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV, Terror Firmer, Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Troma’s War, Trome and Juliet, Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Lloyd Kaufman Defines Media Consolidation

Lloyd Kaufman of Troma's brilliant little speech about media consolidation and such. Take a look, adhere by it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Different Bond is Still a Good Bond

For fans of the 46-year-old James Bond film series the release of a new installment is much more than your average theatrical release, it’s an experience and an event no other film series is able to create. 2006’s Casino Royale, which is seen as a reboot for the longstanding series, cemented Daniel Craig as a more than capable James Bond player and introduced a new gritty tone to the Bond series. Quantum of Solace, the newest addition to the series, looks to pick up right where things left off.

Solace, which is the first direct sequel in the series, has James Bond battling Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), a member of the secret Quantum organization. Greene poses as an environmentalist who is attempting to take control of Bolivia’s water supply.

While it’s surely arguable, the James Bond series is one of cinema’s most storied and legendary film series. Solace is the 22nd “official” Bond film where official means it’s an EON Productions produced James Bond film. The series has seen six different actors play James Bond from the original Sean Connery to the current Daniel Craig. With this kind of extensive past the large fan base of Bond fans, comprised of both diehard and casual fans, always have lofty expectations for each new release. Solace, which is directed by Marc Forster, does as much justice to the Bond series as it needed to do.

Say hello to the new James Bond. This isn’t the gadget-wielding Bond of past. He sure as heck isn’t the same Bond we’ve seen stop evil genius after evil genius from taking over the world. This is a rough, rugged Bond brooding with emotion. While some fans may hold bitter over the change from over-the-top to a realistic and serious tone, it’s time to face the facts and realize there comes a time for change. The new Bond films themselves are highly indicative of modern filmmaking in general. As far as I can tell, change, in this case, is good.

Solace, which is far more action-oriented than Royale, is an exhilarating and fast-paced experience. My only criticism of the action is the way it was handled by director Marc Forster. While the action scenes are not at all poorly thought out or unimpressive they were noticeably disorientating. Each high-octane action sequence is made up of quick cuts and edits, hyper-edits as they call it in the business, leaving the viewer with no sense of the surroundings and at times no clue as to what exactly is happening. On occasion this leaves location unidentifiable and can be extremely distracting. Royale’s parkour-style chase is an example of how to handle things properly. The scaling of the construction site features smoother and longer shots and truly conveys the grand scale of the chase where as Solace’s tight shots and quick edits does little for the action. Action scenes can be intense and exuberating without the camerawork being all over the place and jumpy. That said the action in Solace is still conceptually impressive and ultimately thrilling.

While Solace’s plot won’t particularly amaze it’s still a solid one. Solace is hell-bent on revenge. Both Bond and Bond girl Camille (Olga Kurylenko) are seeking to close the doors on past events. I was very impressed with how this emotion was handled in both characters. In fact, the characters in general were a typically impressive facet of the film. Returning characters Felix Leiter and Mathis were both terrifically handled and make for some of the best Bond-character interaction moments in the film, complete with signature Bond style dialogue. The building relationship with Bond and M (Judi Dench) is absolutely fantastic. Mathieu Amalric is easy dislikeable and despicable as Dominic Greene.

If you find yourself disliking Solace immensely you might be stuck deep in the past. Fact is this isn’t a James Bond film of the past. The main villain doesn’t pet a cat all film nor does he have a pond of man-eating piranhas in an underground lair. Hell he doesn’t even have a bleeding eye like Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. It’s no secret that while Solace isn’t a perfect film it’s a more than acceptable entry into the Bond canon.

If Daniel Craig’s first two films as 007 are any indication of the future Bond fans are in for a treat or two down the line. Solace features tons of action, plenty of thrills and memorable characters. Cynics may call this a very un-Bond-like generic action film. I’ll call it an enthusiastic and bold approach that’s a step in the right direction for this historic and legendary series.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fritz Lang Director Profile (for The Recorder)

Calling Fritz Lang ahead of the game would be quite the understatement. Lang, who began his career during the silent era of 1919, constantly set the bar during the early stages of cinema with his revolutionary films that spanned from fantasy dramas to thrillers to art films.

Lang was a student of the German Expressionism style and it showed in his films. The style is categorized by the use of light versus dark and suffocating interiors and set pieces of an unrealistic nature, as seen in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The plots and stories of German Expressionism typically dealt with oppressive themes such as madness, betrayal or the threat of a higher power. Sometimes the themes would mix with supernatural or mystical elements. This, combined with the sometimes absurd set pieces, created a dreamlike feel for a good number of the Expressionism films. Expressionism is seen as being important for influencing popular genres such as the early horror films and film noir.

Lang’s first masterpiece was his 1922 crime epic Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. Gambler is a four hour silent film that was originally told in two parts. The film is supposedly inspired by Al Capone. Most film historians point out that this depiction of one of film’s first “super-criminals” is foreshadowing Adolf Hitler’s reign of Germany. Dr. Mabuse is a psychologist and uses powers such as hypnotism to become a con artist achieve his evil goals. With enough patience from the viewer, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler is a tremendously sprawling film qualitative of the German Expressionism genre and at the same time a landmark gangster film glimmering with examples of things to come in the future of cinema.

In 1927 Lang created his next classic with Metropolis. This futuristic dystopian focused on the clash between workers and owners in an urban setting of capitalism – a common theme for many films these days. Metropolis was the most expensive film of its time and this was for a good reason. Lang’s lavish special effects still impress to this day. The elaborate settings have links to the German Expressionism Lang began with but are combined with a sense of art deco and contemporary modern art style. Metropolis’ contributions to the science fiction genre are endless. In 2008 a 16mm reduction negative of the original cut of the film was found in a film museum’s archives in Argentina – something which was long considered lost. If you haven’t seen this masterpiece there will be no better time to see it when the entire film is released for the first time ever on DVD and Blu-ray in 2009.

From here Lang went on to create the espionage thriller Spies and the widely considered first ever “serious” science fiction film Woman in the Moon. While both films are huge successes for Lang, I’ll direct most of my attention to Lang’s first “talkie”, his 1931 masterpiece M. M is a film that deals with the then taboo subject of a child murderer. Peter Lorre’s lead performance as Hans Beckert, the murderer, jumpstarted his career and lead to him being given many similar roles as a villainous character. Most of Lang’s achievements with M come from subtleties such as a unique way of capturing the image or the use of whistling in one of the film’s key scenes. M is also seen as a major precursor to the film noir genre America adopted in the 1940s. Most of this inspiration comes from the dark and stylish cinematography Lang utilized to create his atmospheric film.

After Lang left Germany, the country that he fared so well in with his early work, he came to the United States. Lang worked on a variety of types of films including the film noir genre he helped inspire, westerns with Henry Fonda, and war films. Lang is responsible for some of film noir’s greatest films including Scarlet Street, Woman in the Window and The Big Heat. Lang left a legacy of being one of the most inspirational film directors of all time. He left an exhaustive catalogue of work of carefully created films. If you’d like to check out where cinema began and how it grew, examining Lang’s work alone would do you good.

Essential viewings: Destiny, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Metropolis, Spies, M, Fury, The Big Heat, Scarlet Street, Woman in the Window.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Melville’s Films Defined Cool (for The Recorder)

French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s stylish film noirs are the epitome of cool. Melville’s minimalistic films contain cool, calm and suave gangsters, stylized imagery and a strong emphasis on weapons and accessories like hats and jackets.

Melville, who was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach but used the pseudonym Melville in tribute to American author Herman Melville, began in the film industry as an independent director and owner of his own studios. Melville quickly became famous for his tragic film noirs that to this day stand as some of the most influential and revered work within the genre.

The word cool is overused to hell and back these days. Melville’s pulpy films are the truest definition of the word in my opinion. To explain this one would need to bring up examples straight from the films themselves. In Melville’s influential early gangster film Bob le flambeur, which focused on an aging veteran of the crime business, the main character Bob enters a room in which a woman he had interests in was sleeping with another man. In any other film an event like this would create some kind of violent altercation. Rather than stir up trouble, Bob simply tip-toes out of the room in a calm and cool fashion letting things be as they may. It’s this kind of offbeat thinking and dare I say “swagger” that many of the characters in his films can identify with.

The “cool” nature of Melville’s films extends to the style and imagery of the films as well. Le Doulos, which in French slang translates to hat but in the underground world of cops and robbers means the informant, is an example of the perfect use of shadows in film noir. Noir is heavily distinguished by its chiaroscuro – which is the contrast between lights and darks. Le Doulos, which is a French New Wave inspired film noir, features dark shadows so heavy that it feels suffocating upon the viewer and the characters. The visuals are so arresting and gripping that it alone keeps you interested in the film.

Melville’s films also helped breed a crop of “cool” French film stars. Alain Delon was probably the most connected actor with Melville and became one of France’s most popular film stars of the era. Delon can be best thought of as a French version of Humphrey Bogart. Delon is best known for his career-defining performance as hitman Jef Costello in Melville’s masterpiece Le Samourai. Delon’s charismatic acting style went hand in hand with his character that had the Zen-like approach of a samurai. Le Samourai is one of the most influential films of its kind. The character of Jef Costello has been the main influencer for Agent 47 of the popular Hitman games and John Woo’s hitman in his excellent film The Killer. Le Samourai has been described as “a razor-sharp cocktail of 1940s American gangster cinema and 1960s French pop culture” and is the pure film definition of cool.

Jean-Paul Belmondo, one of the most recognized actors of the French New Wave generation, also had a strong film relationship with Melville. He starred in the already mentioned film Le Doulos along with a couple more of Melville’s most popular films. Lino Ventura, another popular French actor, also worked in films with Melville at the helm. The combination of major, suave and charismatic actors and Melville’s ability to create untouchable gangland environments around them made for some of the best crime films ever seen.

While Melville wasn’t strictly about films concerning crime and gangsters as noted by his acclaimed films Army of Shadows and Les Enfants terribles he became popular for his remarkable style of filmmaking and attention to detail with his film noir and French New Wave blended films. Melville used real locations for his films and was one of the first French film directors to do so. His work has influenced modern directors such as Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Jim Jarmusch, and more. In a world where everyone and their mother describes meaningless concepts and ideas as cool, nothing will be cooler to me than a wonderfully shot Alain Delon as hitman Jef Costello in a tan trench coat with his signature brim hat committing one of his well thought out and creatively crafted jobs.

Essential viewings: Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge, Le Doulos, Army of Shadows, Les Enfants terribles, Bob le flambeur, Le Deuxième souffle

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Changeling Captivates From Start to Finish

They say they save the best for last. Such is the case in the film industry. Every year when the air turns cold in our neck of the woods Oscar-worthy films are released into theaters one right after the other. Changeling, one of this season’s earliest contenders, is 78-year-old director Clint Eastwood’s most recent attempt to strike it rich at the Academy Awards.

Changeling is based on the true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a woman who realizes that the boy returned to her is not her missing son. Collins’ missing son ties into the infamous "Wineville Chicken Coop Murders" case. Most of the film focuses on Collins and her attempt to bring the LAPD’s mistakes and corruptions public.

I’ve always been fascinated with time period films of any kind. I admire the hard work put into them by everyone involved from the actors to the director to the set designers. Changeling so easily captures the audience and places them into late 1920’s Los Angeles right from the start. The level of detail instilled by Eastwood is astounding. From cereal boxes to cable trolleys, everything feels authentic. The look and feel of the film is downright professional. This is a top-level production effort from all involved.

As engrossing as the film’s atmosphere is the acting is what carries the film along. Changeling may as well be Angelina Jolie’s coming-out party as a truly respected actress. Her versatility as an actress is shown as she leaps from the stylish 2008 action flick Wanted to this serious and emotionally moving film. Jolie gives a sense of endearment to the character that truly makes the audience care for her struggles. Her performance is powerful and more than just a showcase for a nomination as best actress.

While the spotlight is focused on the dolled up Jolie and her thunderous cries for the return of her real son the rest of the cast is not to be forgotten. Nearly every other performance in Changeling is as convincing as the next. John Malkovich is powerfully influencing as Reverend Gustav Briegleb, the man who spearheaded the fight against the corrupt factions of the police department. Other notable performances include Jeffrey Donovan’s performance as Captain J.J. Jones, leader of the LAPD juvenile department, Amy Ryan’s so good you won’t even recognize her performance as Carol Dexter, a wrongfully imprisoned woman and Jason Butler Harner’s unsettling performance as serial killer Gordon Northcott.

Changeling is as much about theme as it is plot. Eastwood strays from the conventional concept of making the film simply about a grieving mother and police detective work by exploring themes relevant to the time period. In the 1920’s Los Angeles was dominated by men. This only elevates the importance of Collins and the femme-driven battle against the police. The execution of this theme among others all goes hand in hand with Eastwood creating the perfect mood for the film.

Changeling is simply a very well made film. Whether it blows you away or not will depend on your patience. Some will find that it at times is overdramatic and over involving. I, on the other hand, was wrapped up in every minute of the film. I felt that part of the film’s purpose was to slowly and gruelingly detail the plight of Christine Collins dragging the viewer along the ups and downs. Eastwood tells this haunting and sorrowful tale in a way only a veteran like he could. The multi-genre Changeling is emotionally moving, compelling, entertaining and flat out successful as a mystery, thriller, drama and time period piece. This film is not a superficial shot at an Oscar, it’s a well thought out, well crafted and beautifully shot film that captures the audience from beginning to end.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Saw V’s Biggest Trap is Itself

The tagline for Saw V is “You won't believe how it ends”. Halfway through the latest installment of the already abysmal series I didn’t care how it ended, just that it did in fact end and that I wasn’t part of some sick real life Jigsaw trap set in the theater.

This fifth installment of the series of intertwining films follows the continuing endeavors of Agent Strahm and Detective Hoffman. Because the film contains characters, references and flashbacks to the previous films newcomers will feel extremely lost in the twisting plot.

Saw V doesn’t insult your intelligence simply for the fact that it assumes everyone in the theater has no intelligence. While that may be true of some of the people who love this poorly made series of torture/gore-porn, not everyone needs flashback after flashback to understand what is happening with the convoluted and poorly thought out structure. The film has no sense of timing and is oddly paced. Thanks to a lazy script flashbacks intertwine too much with current events and we are shifted back and forth between the newest victims and a mundane detective case. The film has no clear focus on any of the events at hand.

The Saw series has very few redeeming qualities as it is. Many people seem to enjoy seeing the films for the gore and traps. Saw V, which is the first film in the series not directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, features nothing interesting in terms of gore and traps. In comparison to previous Saw films this one is simply weak. The traps, which at one point in the series were at least somewhat cringe-inducing, are rather generically plotted and seem to only be there because they are expected to be. What’s the reason for this? Saw V returns to the ways of the original Saw with a more story driven plot that puts the gore and torture in the backseat. Unfortunately for everyone involved the plot pales in comparison to the original Saw and ends up leading us on an uninteresting, dopey and ultimately meaningless detective plot that leaves you feeling bored and stupid for watching it.

As with all bad films I try to pick at least one thing out of the sloppy mess that I at least somewhat liked. In the Saw series it has always been Tobin Bell’s performance as Jigsaw. He delivers his lines in such a way that it screams cult classic. Unfortunately for Bell he’s constantly surrounded by a bunch of nitwits that can’t utilize what very little they had going for them.

I love blood, guts, and gore as much as the next horror freak does. I just prefer my faux gore to take place in a situation with at least a few drops of creativity behind it. When Saw V tries to be an exploitation film it fails. When Saw V tries to be a moral driven detective thriller like Se7en it fails. Following Agent Strahm location to location is like riding on those retro car rides at amusement parks. You’re destined to reach a certain point and nothing will derail that vehicle. Saw films have always been about suspension of disbelief and right place at the right time but like everything else there’s a limit for the amount of pure chance you jam into your plot.

If there is a god, Saw V would be the nail in the coffin for the overdone series that as this point seems determined to ruin the horror genre for everyone. Considering the fact that the previous four films have grossed $555 million worldwide on a $25 million budget I don’t see Lions Gate slowing down anytime soon. If seeing these films in theaters with your friends has become a yearly October tradition for you don’t let my negative review stop you from doing so this year. Otherwise I recommend staying far away from this absurd, lacking, and forgettable film. Saw V is not a pretty creation. I’m just thankful that it did eventually end.

10/29/08 Issue of the CCSU Recorder

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bava's Style Endlessly Influential

If there was one name that should get more respect among today’s mainstream movie going masses it should be versatile Italian director Mario Bava.

Bava is remembered by many as one of the premier names of Italy’s golden age of horror films. Bava is thought of as the godfather of Italian horror films and in general is one of the most influential figures in the history of films.

Bava’s directorial debut was the dark 1960 film Black Sunday. This gothic horror masterpiece, which centers on a vengeful witch returning from the grave, is a prime example of Bava’s directing characteristics. Bava utilized imagery like no other did. Black Sunday, which was slightly ahead of its time with its graphic nature and stark portrayal of events, gives viewers a glimpse of the kind of immersive artistry Bava would introduce with his signature lighting style in his later color films.

In terms of influence, Black Sunday kicked off the series of gothic films that would soon follow. Bava’s next significant film, the 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much, helped create a new genre. Giallo, which indicates mystery and crime fiction in Italy’s culture, literally translates to “yellow” in Italian. This unique genre stemmed from cheap paperback books with yellow covers that were typically mystery/crime pulp novels that included elements of eroticism and horror. Bava was the first to translate this material to the screen with The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

Giallo films have many distinctive qualities. The plots in giallo films were typically of a whodunit nature and featured many twists and turns along the way. Giallo never ended simple or as expected. Strong visual elements of giallo are drawn out murder sequences and stylish camerawork of said killings. For example, many murder scenes would only show a part of the killer, such as his or her hands. With this synecdoche approach introduced by Bava giallo films became a style of its own.

A key visual image of giallo films would be introduced in Bava’s next film, the colorful Blood and Black Lace. This 1964 film introduced the symbolic image of the identity concealed killer wearing black leather gloves while holding his or her weapon of choice. This became emblematic throughout the frenzy of giallo films that would be released in the 1960s and 1970s. Bava biographer Tim Lucas notes Blood and Black Lace as “one of the most influential thrillers ever made” and as “the first authentic body count movie”. Lucas also noted that the film inspired such directors as future giallo master Dario Argento to Martin Scorsese.

Bava’s wickedly morbid 1971 giallo Bay of Blood remains to be one of the most important and influential horror films ever created. While Blood and Black Lace certainly was a stepping stone for the slasher genre that America would soon start to adore, Bay of Blood is what really started the phase of “body count” films in the 1980s. Iconic horror franchises like Friday the 13th drew a lot from this early slasher. Friday the 13th: Part 2 lifted two kill scenes directly from Bava’s film. Bava’s Bay of Blood, which is a film bent on money, greed and murder, was one of the first films to set up murders the way slashers do today and perfected the giallo genre Bava helped create

Bava’s unprecedented style of lighting and using color effectively in films was unmatched at the time and has been used as inspiration by many. To explain Bava’s use of color in words would be difficult. The gleaming fluorescent lights strategically placed around the set differentiate location from location. A dark, gloomy alley may be shot with a tone of blue while a room in a fancy Italian villa may be bright red. While not every Bava film had perfect narrative, every messy plot Bava presented was more than made up for with his brilliant and influential visuals. Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver has hints of this visual style. Argento would nearly perfect the technique in what I consider to be one of the best horror films ever in Suspiria.

Bava was not limited to horror. The versatile director dipped his toes into the comic book genre with his 1968 film Danger: Diabolik. This film brought adult tones to comic book films as it featured on the suave and skilled thief Diabolik. Bava was also no stranger to the vikings. In 1961 he directed the epic Erik the Conqueror. While the subject matter differs from the likes of his horror films, he applied his signature lighting style to them all the same giving Diabolik that pure 60s feeling and Conqueror a fantasy, dream like feeling.

Whether Bava was creating scares in the horror genre, stylishly murdering people in his giallo films or stepping into the crime, viking, western, or sci-fi genres he always brought his own unique sense of style and supreme creativity to the table. A friend of mine who doesn’t look too favorably upon horror films once asked me to name a few horror films that are artistically well done. My immediate reply was any horror film by the godfather of Italian horror, Mario Bava. They don’t make them like he did anymore.

Essential viewings: Black Sunday, Bay of Blood, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Black Sabbath, Kill, Baby…Kill!, Danger: Diabolik, Blood and Black Lace, Rabid Dogs

Dassin Overcame All Obstacles (for The Recorder)

When communism was a threat to the United States in the 1950’s one of the outcomes was the Hollywood blacklist. The list consisted of actors, directors, producers, screenwriters, and other U.S. entertainers that were barred from work in the U.S. due to their suspected associations to the American Communist Party.

One name that stands out to me among the accused is film director Jules Dassin. Dassin, born in Middletown, CT, was forced to leave the U.S. in 1950 when he was accused of being tied to communism. Dassin was only briefly associated with the communist party in America but left in 1939.

Before Dassin was forced out of America he made his early mark on film. I consider Dassin’s stretch of four films in four years to be one of the most impressive bodies of work in the film noir genre. From 1947 to 1950 Dassin created four pictures worthy of extreme critical acclaim. “Brute Force”, the 1947 prison film noir drama set the bar for prison films. This tense, shocking and suffocated drama that starred Burt Lancaster plays heavy on emotion. Films like “The Shawshank Redemption” that our modern society celebrates undoubtedly learned a lot from Dassin’s landmark film.

In 1948 Dassin brought film noir right to the streets of New York City with “The Naked City”. It was one of the first police dramas or film noirs shot on location in New York City leading to its extreme authenticity and lending to the film’s almost documentary-like style. The film also features one of the most clever film noir voiceovers. Dassin employs a unique third person voiceover that acts like the king of the city, talking to all characters involved. “City” is truly a testament to New York and an absolutely stunning time capsule of the era.

The final two American films made by Dassin were “Thieves’ Highway” and the film noir “Night and the City”. This may sound strange but “Highway” is the most intense film about apple hauling and dealing you’ll ever see. On the inside of “Highway” is a dark and grim world, far darker than one might imagine considering the subject matter. “Night and the City”, on the other hand, is a film noir set in London. Much like “Naked City”, Dassin filmed this one on location as well. The film follows around an ambitious small time gangster trying to rise to the top of the crime syndicate. The lead is played by Richard Widmark and is one of the greatest performances in his heralded career as he perfectly plays the clever and scheming gangster.

When Dassin was forced to flee to France following “Night and the City” he didn’t stop creating gems. Five years after “Night and the City”, Dassin made what many agree to be his masterpiece, the heist film noir “Rififi”. “Rififi” is best remembered for its legendary heist scene. It is a 32 minute scene without a single line of dialogue. To this day it still holds up among the tensest of all heist scenes. Dassin’s technique was highly influential and has been mimicked many times.

Jules Dassin is a truly remarkable figure who overcame everything that was thrown at him. When America forced him out he went to France and created a masterpiece. When he left Italy as an “undesirable” he went to Greece and became an icon. While I express the most interest in the five films of his I mentioned, his later works such as “Never on Sunday” and “Topkapi” are not to be ignored. Dassin’s life is an admirable one and his hard work should be seen and appreciated by all.

Bergman: The Best Ever (for The Recorder)

Take the following statement only as the humble opinion of this writer – Ingmar Bergman is the greatest director in the history of film.

Bergman, who directed a total of 62 films, primarily focused his efforts on exploring the human condition. In other words his films are simply about human nature. Bergman often delved deep into the sensitive themes of mortality, loneliness, love, faith and other humanity driven subjects.

While many of Bergman’s films depicted dark subject matter in bleak fashion, Bergman was never afraid of adding a little comedy to the mix. My personal favorite film from the Swedish born director, his 1957 masterpiece “The Seventh Seal”, is a perfect example of this technique. “The Seventh Seal” is set during medieval times and follows Knight Antonius Block on a journey home from the Crusades across plague ridden land. Block comes face to face with death, who takes on a form of its own as a ghastly man in a black hooded robe. Block, going head on with his fate, challenges Death to a game of chess that spans the entire film and puts his life up as the stake of the game.

Depressing, no? While the film is a look at the existential fear of death and how humans confront it, you’ll find yourself laughing at it far more than you might expect. Bergman’s intentionally well-placed light humor alternates brilliantly with his darkest and soberest of scenes. The film, which is brought to life by realistic imagery and setting, leans away from the humor as it reaches its legendary conclusion. Nonetheless, it’s a perfect example of Bergman’s unique and distinctive style that places him amongst the greatest of auteurs.

Ingmar Bergman was once quoted saying that it is far more important to him that viewers feel his films rather than understand them. While Bergman’s films are packed full of meaning that can be discussed and theorized about endlessly , it’s the emotion that he packs into his films that hooks me in. Bergman’s 1972 film “Cries and Whispers”, a film about two sisters watching over their other sister on her deathbed, is still to this day one of the most intense and startling films I’ve ever seen. As much as I love horror films I’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful that have startled me the way Bergman’s impactful films do.

The influence of Ingmar Bergman is relatively endless. Whether it’s the direct inspiration for Wes Craven’s famous exploitation film “The Last House on the Left” or Woody Allen deeming him as one of the greatest artists ever, Bergman is seen worldwide as one of the most important figures in the development of the medium of film. Those patient enough to watch one of his films will find gold at the end of Bergman’s very bleak rainbows.

Essential viewings: The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, Hour of the Wolf, Cries and Whispers, Fanny & Alexander, Through a Glass Darkly

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Body of Lies" More Conventional Than Remarkable

Anytime acclaimed director Ridley Scott teams up with A-list actors it’s worth keeping on eye on. Such is the case with Scott’s new film, “Body of Lies”, which has Scott working with Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio to tackle the modern espionage and terrorism genre.

Based on David Ignatius’ 2007 novel of the same name, “Lies” follows covert CIA operative Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) and his work in Jordan trying to track down known terrorist mastermind Al-Saleem. With the help of stay-at-home boss Ed Hoffman (Crowe), Ferris devises a plan to locate Al-Saleem. Ferris is also assisted by Chief of Jordanian Intelligence Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) who’s cultural differences with Ferris and Hoffman threatens the operation.

While the concept behind “Lies” is rather fresh, this spy-game thriller turns up more conventional than remarkable. Don’t get me wrong though, “Lies” is a very interesting, convincing and engaging film with an at least mostly plausible story. Scott’s veteran presence shows off in the film as everything is very polished and technically well done. Being the landmark reaching director Scott has been in the past sets the expectations bar that much higher. “Lies” is not a masterpiece and groundbreaking reworking of the espionage genre much like the films “Blade Runner” and “Alien” revolutionized the science fiction genre more than 25 years ago, but it’s still a solid film.

What kept the film a notch above average for me were the great performances by DiCaprio and Crowe. DiCaprio, the true lead in the film, plays the on the rise CIA agent very well. This performance is another sign of his maturation as an actor that has been shown over the past few years. Crowe gives life to what otherwise would be a prototypical military executive slouch of a character. Although the two mostly interact via cell phone I felt their relationship was a strong point for an otherwise average script. It’s not a relationship of stark nature that will make you ponder for days, but it’s an enjoyable one to follow as plans unravel and everything gets laid out on the table.

As I mentioned before, “Lies” places more into the conventional field. The main problem for me was that the film never got gritty or deep enough. Sure, there’s violence in the form of explosions, torture, and weapon play in addition to a whole lot of tension filled danger, but not enough for the subject matter. In the end the screenplay by William Monahan doesn’t dig far enough into terrorist activity and only gives a partial look at the behind the scenes of both the CIA and the terrorist groups. The lens seemed primarily focused on DiCaprio and Crowe, which is no problem at all considering their excellent performances, but more might have been achieved by expanding a bit with the rest of the characters. For example, DiCaprio’s love interest Aisha was a cookie cutter version of what she should have been. The character simply comes off as something placed into the film to serve as a plot device.

Outside of a few flaws, the film simply works as a whole. “Lies” consistently looks great as Scott’s experience took over and helped the steady shot nature of the film. The inevitable shaky cam syndrome shown in a lot of modern war and action films is kept to the extreme minimum which works wonders for this thriller. In addition to the technical merits, “Lies” is decently paced. Scott provides a good combination of excellent drama, smooth dialogue and intense action scenes.

While “Lies” won’t be mentioned much come Oscar season, it’s still a solid entry into the espionage genre. The on-the-ground spy play is very fun to watch and could serve as a good basis for future espionage films. If Monahan’s script had scratched a little deeper more could have been achieved considering the films superb presentation. Regardless, “Body of Lies” is worth your time if you find the genre interesting or simply enjoy watching two actors put forth terrific performances.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

“Quarantine” Simply a Solid Copycat

If you walk into “Quarantine” and have no clue that it’s a remake of the 2007 Spanish horror film “Rec” I would excuse your shortcomings just this once. “Rec” has never officially been released in America theatrically or on DVD. It’s a shame, too, since “Rec” is one of the best and scariest horror films of the last 20 years.

When I first heard that “Rec” was already being remade (the film was released on Nov. 23 of 2007 in Spain) I almost couldn’t believe it. Do these quick buck making film producers really think Americans are that stupid? Are we that stupid? Are we unable to coherently watch a film and read subtitles at the same time? I’ll speak only for myself in saying that I have no trouble doing two things with my brain at once. Instead of simply bringing the masterpiece that “Rec” is overseas to American audiences, director John Erick Dowdle decided to Americanize the film by shifting location to Los Angeles and wiping the subtitles clean off the bottom of the screen.
“Quarantine” follows news reporter Angela Vidal and her cameraman Scott on their overnight coverage of the local fire department. A routine medical call finds them trapped inside an apartment building where a deadly and vicious infection is spreading.

As a whole, “Quarantine” is largely identical to “Rec”. Many scenes and lines of dialogue were indeed lifted straight from the Spanish film. Nonetheless, Dowdle adds enough of his own moments to give the film his own touch and its own identity. The question is, is it a good identity?

The first immediate comparison between “Quarantine” and “Rec” is in the acting. Jennifer Carpenter’s performance as reporter Angela Vidal pales in comparison to Manuela Velasco’s convincing performance in the original. Instead of coming off as a true reporter, Carpenter’s giggly character just reminds me that I’m watching a film with a few bad actors. It doesn’t help the viewer get captured in the intended realism of the film. This holds steady when the terror and intensity get turned up a few notches. Carpenter’s overacting is among the worst I’ve seen in a long time. I understand she is supposed to be freaked out, a damsel in distress of sorts, but she’s so incredibly bad at it. She single handedly tries to kill all the suspense the film has.

Luckily for Dowdle, he is able to overcome Carpenter’s plague of bad acting. Much like the original, “Quarantine” is intense, frantic, claustrophobic and filled with creepy atmospheric tone. In particular, the film’s final act is an all out visceral assault of non stop action. One problem for Dowdle that spawns from said intensity is his poor handling of shaky cam. As with any first person film, when things get crazy things get shaky. The duo of directors behind “Rec” were able to absolutely perfect the technique. Dowdle on the other hand seemed to be all over the place with unstable camerawork.

With these complaints and my “remakes are bad” sentiments you might think I’m saying “Quarantine” is a poor film. It’s not. As a piece of art, it lacks some creativity due to its carbon copy style. As entertainment, it’s a very enjoyable ride of terror. If your thing is gore, they’ve got it. If your thing is jumpy scares, they’ve got it. What they don’t have is an improvement over the masterful “Rec”.

That said, I highly recommend to anyone looking to see a horror film in theaters this Halloween that isn’t the fifth installment of “Saw” to see “Quarantine” as you would be hard pressed to find something better. Fans of “Rec” should still be able to enjoy the remake but won’t find it as great as they’ll be able to foresee almost every shock moment and will easily be able to nitpick the film to death. Dowdle avoids reaching the level of complete American stupidity like most directors of horror remakes do and is able to craft a tense and satisfying copycat of a brilliant foreign masterpiece that is better than most modern American horror films.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Not Perfect, St. Anna Still Captivates

This past summer Spike Lee promoted his new World War II epic Miracle at St. Anna by criticizing director Clint Eastwood on his Iwo Jima film Flags of our Father for not having a single black actor on screen. Lee, known for his films dealing with controversial issues in society, was quoted saying “That was his version. The negro soldier did not exist. I have a different version.”

St. Anna follows four soldiers of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division. After saving a young Italian boy they come to a small Tuscany village where they hold up while waiting for orders from headquarters. The film’s story is inspired by the 1944 Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre.

St. Anna opens with a bang of intrigue and a sharp indication of Spike Lee’s message. The film begins in 1980’s New York. Hector Negron is seen watching the Duke, John Wayne, in an old black and white war movie. The only problem for Negron is there’s really nothing black about it. The next day, while working at the post office, Negron kills a man in cold blood. Soon after, police stumble upon the missing sculpted head from the Ponte Santa Trinita in Florence, which acts as the framing device for the rest of the story.

Ultimately this film is hurt by the over involving script. James McBride’s script of his own novel contains too much focus on too many characters. Not only does this film put the spotlight on the four soldiers and the young boy but also on the Italian partisan group, family relations in the Tuscan village, and so on and so forth. Running at 160 minutes, a film with as many characters and subplots as this one can’t help from meandering through.

Despite these imperfections, St. Anna is still a very powerful, emotional, and jointed film. Even when I was taken away from the main story, I never felt too disconnected. I’d rather have too much to care for than too little. Lee’s ability as a true and brilliant artist is shown throughout. There are a plethora of stunning scenes that come to life thanks to smart dialogue, great cinematography, and vibrant atmospheres. A few of the combat scenes are very jolting and powerful. While they may not rival the likes of Saving Private Ryan they do impress enough.

St. Anna has a clear message about the prejudice against blacks in the war. Lee’s attempt to convey this message, while noble, was a disappointment. At times the message becomes stereotypical, overbearing and too obvious. Alternatively, there are scenes that effectively and powerfully represent the message. Lee’s handling of the issue is average.

Miracle at St. Anna is a solid film that features a lot but can’t really master much of what it has. The essence of war, much like the other themes of romance, loyalty, brotherhood, and betrayal is there but not perfected. The film is too epic for its own good as the encompassing script is simply in too many places at the same time. The ending is poorly handled and it feels like Lee never reaches his ultimate point. The acting is average as no one stands out in the crowd and no one falls far below par.

Despite this, Spike Lee’s ambitious effort is to be recognized. His artistry saves this film from becoming a muddled mess many directors would allow it to be. A great story is being told and there are enough intriguing and captivating moments in this film that make it very enjoyable to watch.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Subpar Script Hurts Lakeview Terrace

Let’s face it; the next door neighbor from hell routine has played itself out in film, television, and everyday life. Lakeview Terrace is director Neil LaBute’s attempt to reenergize the concept by throwing handfuls of social commentary of the racist fashion into the mix.

In this dramatic thriller, Samuel L. Jackson plays single father and L.A.P.D. officer Abel Turner who just can’t get over the fact that his new neighbors Chris and Lisa Mattson, played by Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington, are an interracial couple. Taking things into his own hands, Turner terrorizes the couple in an attempt to push them out of the neighborhood.

Lakeview Terrace never really crosses the threshold into being the shocking film about racism that it so desperately tries to be. Held back by a PG-13 rating and a script that is both lazy and subpar, director Neil LaBute is only really able to touch the tip of the iceberg on the subject. The film tends to slowly move along with both subtle and obvious racist comments here and there from antagonist Abel Turner which generates some sort of retaliatory response from the neighbors. Rarely does the film ever delve deep into anything of substance as it merely stays on the surface as a preachy yet shallow representation of our culture’s problems. None of the characters are truly developed leaving no one to sincerely care for. This is a major problem for a film of such sensitive material.

As the film progresses towards the climax and conclusion the script reaches a heightened level of senseless stupidity and absurdity. All in one fell swoop everything the film had going for it, which wasn’t much, as a completely serious and believable film is gone. Thanks to one unnecessary plot movement the story runs into a brick wall and falls flat on its face during its most tense moments. Terrace runs at a long 110 minutes yet it still feels like it was wrapped up all too suddenly and in the most ridiculous way.

All is not for lost though. Samuel L. Jackson is perfectly casted as Abel Turner. Jackson’s signature rip roaring and biting dialectic style returns along with his ever so intimidating glares. He adds more to this lackluster script than anything else in the film does. Fans of Samuel L. Jackson will enjoy his performance and it makes the viewing of this film at least worth something. The film also has enough thrilling and entertaining moments, albeit most of the times less than spectacular, to keep the viewer watching.

Lakeview Terrace is a film with an identity crisis. It moves from serious drama to ridiculous cookie cutter thriller with a B-movie feel. It never reaches the level it desires in terms of shock and its exploitative juices never get flowing. To his credit, Neil LaBute did what he could with a bad script and regains some credit after his horrendous debacle with his 2006 remake of The Wicker Man which turned into an unintentional comedy.

Terrace is better off staying away from unless you simply can’t get enough of Samuel L. Jackson. Nothing outside of him works that well in this film and it all comes crashing down before it ends. This film does nothing other films about racial tension haven’t already done better. If you are curious at all about this film save your money and time for now and wait until it hits DVD.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Burn After Reading: When Idiots Collide

When you win four Academy Awards, one being best picture, you are given the tough task at following this up with another successful film. Joel and Ethan Coen are the latest receivers of this inevitable task after their 2007 film No Country for Old Men became an instant classic. To answer this call, the Coens did a complete 180 and menacingly drove a star studded vehicle that includes George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, and Frances McDormand and created a completely original, clever, and unique black comedy/spy thriller with Burn After Reading.

Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who just quit his job after being demoted. His wife, Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), is cheating on Osbourne with a Treasury agent played by George Clooney and decides to look into divorce. Katie copies all of Osbourne’s personal information, including his memoirs, at the discretion of her divorce lawyer. When this disk of personal and classified information winds up in the hands of Hardbodies employees Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) they decide to blackmail Osbourne and hold the disk for ransom.

The Coen brothers have been known to be able to sublimely integrate comedy into both ridiculous situations and dark, serious material as seen in their most well known films such as The Big Lebowski and Fargo. Burn takes the cake in the ridiculous department of Coen brother films. This winding, intricate and almost meaningless plot of blackmail and spy play all comes together in the most hilarious and remarkable way. In true Coen fashion each character is as unique and memorable as the next is. George Clooney and Brad Pitt lead the way with their dueling boneheaded and idiotic performances that truly let them exercise their comedic talents. John Malkovich is thunderous while Tilda Swinton is stern yet funny and Frances McDormand is as likeable as a stupid person can be. This star studded cast lives up to their names.

What the Coen brothers did here deserves to be recognized. They took some of the biggest stars in Hollywood and put them into an insane screwball comedy as goofy as one will find. Burn goes to the extremes in both comedy and violence and may end up surprising many viewers. The actors let loose and do a brilliant job as they make fun of their personas on screen. The Coens also tap into American issues and fads such as online dating, plastic surgery, self image, obsessive workouts, and paranoia and sardonically mocks each and every one of them.

Only the Coen brothers could direct and create this lunacy and do it so well. The two of them have such a knack for being able to write and create these unique, stylish and memorable films like no one else. For many fans of the Coen brothers this film will be a delight. It’s a laugh out loud, sarcastic, smart, and brutally witty film. On the other hand, this offbeat style of filmmaking may disappoint the average moviegoer. Where this film ranks among the Coen’s films boils down to personal taste. I had a blast getting wrapped up in this idiotic intelligence tale that almost has no intelligence at all. Burn After Reading is the most brilliant film about idiots you’ll see for some time.


Friday, August 22, 2008

Orson Welles' "F For Fake" (1974)

F For Fake is an absolutely mesmerizing documentary about forgeries and fakes. No one has had this much fun playing with an audience as Orson Welles seems to do so here. His presence is overwhelming and commanding as he narrates this fascinating tale . He has tricks of his own up his sleeve to go along with the forgeries he discusses: Elmyr who forges paintings, and Clifford Irving who forged Howard Hughes' biography, and Oja Kodar, among other things. This is one of the most fascinating documentaries you will ever watch. The editing is sublime. It's a prime example of how we can be edited into believing whatever. F For Fake is loads of fun and can be argued as Orson Welles' greatest work of film. If you want to be dazzled, check this one out.


Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (2007)

Right from the start of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly you can just tell that it's going to be a special film. Diving Bell is the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of Elle, and his struggle to come back and communicate from a stroke that left all but he left eye paralyzed. This fascinating and heart warming story is wonderfully acted by Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, and the rest of the cast. I give a special nod to one of my favorite actors, Max von Sydow, who gives all out emotional performance as Jean-Do's father. Max proves he still has what he had during his Bergman days as he reprises all the emotion he always was able to portray.

That connects me beautifully to my next positive comment on this film. Julian Schnabel is a special director. If this film is any indication, he's going to be huge. I couldn't help but feel like I WAS watching one of the classic Ingmar Bergman films that are simply about people in strife and their relationships. Schnabel creatively shoots a lot of this film out of Jean-Do's left eye which gives it a signature touch. I felt Schnabel wonderfully handled how he delved into Jean-Do's past life giving us a little background about him, his current and former lovers, and his relationship with his father and his children. Everyone was as developed as they needed to be.

All in all, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is one of the best films of 2007 and shouldn't be missed by everyone. If you have a heart, you'll be moved by this film. It captivated me and it should do no less to you. A must see.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" (1957)

Ingmar Bergman is one of the greatest storytellers in the history of film. With The Seventh Seal, Bergman creates an allegory for death by putting Knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) head to head with Death in a game of chess. The symbolic nature of this game is relevant to the time period the film is set in. It's medieval Sweden, after a war, where the country is being ravaged by some sort of plague. In the opening scene we meet Block and Death for the first time. Death had chosen it to be the knight's time but Block doesn't show any sign of fearing such a thing. This, in a nutshell, is what this film is about. In the simplest point it, to me, is a film about the confrontation and the realization of death along with the acceptance, avoidance, fear and occurrence of death. The knight's journey from place to place portrays these types of things. For example, he encounters a woman who believes she has seen the devil and the men who think she is a witch. Panic and fear has spread across the land and everyone has their own way of dealing with it.

Part of this film's success is the realistic and convincing setting Ingmar Bergman creates. I actually felt like I was taking a journey along with Antonius Block and the others he encounter during the medieval time period. One of the most stunning scenes that I can attribute to this realistic feeling is the scene where the traveling players have their performance interrupted by a parade of religious leaders and people that seem to be dying of the spreading illness or are suspected of being "witches" or the like. The culmination of the sights and sounds of this scene left me with a downright chill. From this scene to the absolutely stunning and also chilling final shots, this film is jam packed of beautiful photography.

The strange thing about this film is that for a film so filled with the thought of death there is a fair amount of humor. This can be credited to the comic relief characters and plot situations such as the blacksmith's wife running off with one of the performers, only for them to meet up later on. Every actor and actress adds their own strengths to this film making for one of the most well acted films out there. I've always loved Max von Sydow's performance as the knight Antonius Block the most. He is, after all, the central focus.

In short, Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal is a masterpiece of cinema. It is my favorite film of all time. It's mostly dark, moody, terrifying, extremely powerful, and full of meaning. It's the type of film you sit down to watch and are just left in awe of every time you see it. Everything, and I mean everything, is expertly done by Bergman. I always note how his films leave me as unsettled as any horror movie (or any film for that matter). His sense of direction was unrivaled. He's the greatest director of all time in my book.


Samuel Fuller's "Pickup on South Street" (1959)

Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street is a gritty anti-communist film noir starring Richard Widmark as Skip McCoy, a petty thief who is fresh out of jail. When Skip nabs something from the wrong purse, he gets himself into an ordeal he just wasn't looking for. McCoy soon becomes involved with a police investigation of an international problem concerning communist activity. Samuel Fuller makes a statement here. He places this low life thief, brilliant played by Richard Widmark, as someone who is better than our Russian foes. That's at least the feeling I got from time to time.

Widmark's performance is the highlight of this film in my opinion. He's always great in whatever he does and this role was absolutely no different. This one places into the evil, creepy category for him once again. His performances are things that can simply lift a poor or weak storied film and make it something different. Luckily, Fuller has a fine story to back Widmark up with. The film is rather short so pacing is quick and kept up. Decisions are made fast and often.

Overall, Pickup on South Street is worth seeing as a film noir and time piece. It's a good realization of the kind of scare our country had in earlier years. I personally really enjoy that aspect of film. It's what makes them so timeless so very often. This is just a darn good film.


Elia Kazan's "Panic in the Streets" (1950)

Panic in the Streets is an ambitious film noir from acclaimed director Elia Kazan. At heart, this film is more than noir. It touches upon the distinct genres of the classic paranoia, disaster, and epidemic films. When a man that is carrying a form of the plague is killed, health worker Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) and police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) have the dubious task of tracking down the man (or men) who killed him in 48 hours. Kazan captures this films tension almost perfectly. There's a sense of heated tension between the new partners Reed and Warren, for example. Thanks to Richard Widmark's great performance it comes off as convincing as can be. Tension is evident everywhere in the film. From Reed's own home to the low life thugs like Blackie (Jack Palance) who are dealing with their own problems thanks to the plague. This, in my opinion, helps the viewer become far more entangled in the sprawling story and process. There's a lot going on here making for a roller coaster detective thrill ride.

Panic in the Streets is a one of a kind film noir. Set in New Orleans and using a fair share of amateur actors that were New Orleans natives, Panic in the Streets has a sense of unrivaled realism. Kazan masterfully lays out the story in front of your eyes. This is the first Kazan film I have seen and even on the first viewing I can tell he knows exactly what he wanted and what he was doing. I've always loved film noir and have always loved films that deal with a group of people (or a city) dealing with some sort of threat of an epidemic or disaster. I always think that it's interesting to see how different people react and deal with a situation. This is greatly touched upon within the film. The mayor worries about his reputation the immediate population while Reed worries about the country, and on a larger scale, the world. The combination of these two genres with Richard Widmark leading the way on screen was essentially heaven to me. Whether Widmark is playing one of the most evil villains of all time (Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death) or a health worker trying to essentially save a city and the country, he always plays it with an edge, and it's no different this time. It's a must see for all fans of film alike.


Friday, July 18, 2008

Guillermo del Toro's "Hellboy 2: The Golden Army" (2008)

In the hands of someone other than Guillermo del Toro, the Hellboy franchise could possibly have been a complete disaster. Thanks to del Toro's ability to beautifully capture the mythical and fantasy aspects of the Hellboy universe, we are treated to a sequel that improves upon the first film.

Visually, Hellboy 2 wins. This film comes to life on the big screen. This sequel takes on more of a grand "epic" scale in comparison to the first one. There are larger battles and del Toro does them justice. He has a knack for such creativity and as far as the visuals go, I was not disappointed. The monsters and mythical creatures were so brilliantly created. Whether they were his own creations or concepts taken from the comic books, I don't know, but either way, they came out stunning.

The one area that I was disappointed in was the story. I felt it was lacking a lot. The whole Golden Army concept was a neat idea that I wish was expanded on more. In my opinion, it seemed as if all the major key plot turns and outcomes came too quickly and too easily. The ending felt rather forced and unfortunately very expected. While it's hard to knock a film in this genre too hard for plot woes, the fact that it was indeed del Toro who wrote the script leaves me doing so. After being stunned by both The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, I was expecting a little more. Do not worry though, these complaints are about all I could find to be even close to being wrong with the film. They don't take away from any of the fun of the film.

Ron Perlman is excellent once again as Hellboy. The rest of the cast is as good as they need to be. The real stars here are Red himself and the visual feast. It's a treat to see on the big screen. The film is all around fun and entertaining and one of the better summer films, so far.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

"The Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell" (2006)

Next stop: 2097. The Threshold of Hell. The Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell is a wildly creative and original post apocalyptic film. The first film that popped to mind when I saw the trailer for this film was Six String Samurai, with less sword play. They both feature the same kind of theme of old America is gone and a new land is being born. They both have main characters wearing suits. They both are about journeys. The resemblances could go on. Whether that film was an inspiration for the film makers here or not, I couldn't tell you. Here you'll find zany character after zany character combined with clever and funny dialogue and entertaining fighting and gore.

The viewer follows Tex Kennedy, great great (and so on) grandson of John F. Kennedy. Along with his two robot pals, Quincy and Yul, and the sometimes trusty Cannibal Sue, Tex is out on a mission to restore rightful power the young New America. This journey won't be any typical journey. There's a whole lot of fun to be had with this film. It's on a low scale and rather ingeniously made. It has b-movie qualities which give it a rather warm feeling. From start to finish, this film entertains. The filmmakers did a fine job convincing me that America was truly gone. The film plays out like a "twisted History Channel documentary" with a narrator and clips of "historians" who help tell the story of Tex Kennedy and his pals.

Some of the most entertaining scenes in this film come with the character interactions. For example, you've got the great grandsons of Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy meeting in a jail cell. I could go on and on about many of the films characters but I think you should get the point. This film has finally hit DVD thanks to National Lampoon picking up it's rights. Don't let that fool you though, this film is much, much better than the crap they actually create. It's creative, witty, and certainly NOT the worst thing God ever puked up!


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Timur Bekmambetov's "Wanted" (2008)

Wanted is a fast paced action film that should please any summer movie goer. Timur Bekmambetov, director of the two Russian vampire films Night Watch and Day Watch, is a visionary artist when it comes to his films. Even the subtitles for the region one DVD release of Night Watch were stylish. Wanted is no different. Right from the beginning of this film the viewer automatically knows what kind of film this film thinks it is. What kind is that, you might ask? A fun one, and not a very serious one at that.

There's a sarcastic tone from our main character Wes right from the start that carries heavy throughout most of the film. He's a down and out guy who has not much going for him. His girlfriend cheats on him with his best friend, he hates his job, and he hates his boss. When Fox finds him things change. He is inducted into the Fraternity, a group of secret assassin's. After training him, he sets out on his mission to avenge his dads death. Revenge remains the main theme for the rest of the film and is what carries the action on and on. I will stop there with the plot details. This film has a very legitimate twist or two. Normally, you might not see such a change in story. Things might typically be more streamlined, but this was not the case. The ending left me happy and I hope it does for you. I was prepared for the worst, most typical action film conclusion and admittedly got the complete opposite.

Another aspect of this high octane action film that is different from some others of the like is that the acting is actually pretty solid. James McAvoy is a rising star as shown in Atonement and other previous work. Here he shows his versatility as an action hero. I really enjoyed his voice over. I found the humor to my liking. Angelina Jolie doesn't need to do much to appear in place in a film like this. You might find yourself starring at her too much. Morgan Freeman, in a rather non Morgan Freeman like role, is wonderful. These performances help keep this from being too mindless, which is sometimes a good thing.

I've heard people complain about the story in this film. I can't understand this complaint at all. Perhaps for someone like me, a fan of classic film noir, the plot stands out a little more. I personally love the whole secret group of hit man concept. Thinking back on it more now, this film carries a few elements of noir. Fox, in her role, is a classic femme fatale. A few of the other male characters are rather ambiguous in terms of motives. I'm getting way ahead of myself here but I'm essentially trying to explain why I think I enjoyed the plot. It wasn't confusing, anyone who says that didn't pass 5th grade yet. It was simple, added great motivation for the characters, and provided great action. Upon leaving my theater I heard one person say "that was retarded" or something of that nature. Anyone who thinks Wanted is retarded might actually be retarded themselves. Alright, that's mean, but seriously? If you go into Wanted thinking it's going to be something it isn't, you need to start thinking more. If you watch the first 20 minutes of this film and still think it is what it isn't, you might be brain dead. There is absolutely no reason as to why a person can't enjoy Wanted.

Wanted is a satisfying release in the midst of terrible summer blockbusters. Every summer we get a handful of quality action and big budget films and Wanted appears to be the first of them in the dog days of summer 2008. Grab a friend and go check this film out in theaters before it's too late, as the experience does it justice.


Antonia Bird's "Ravenous" (1999)

Ravenous is one of the most underrated gems in the horror genre. Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle both give outstanding performances in this cannibal film laced with gore and black comedy alike.

I think what really made this film work was the simple premise combined with a very interesting cast of characters that were created by a very strong cast, especially for a film of this type. Robert Carlyle's performance is very convincing whichever way you look at it. People who've seen the film will know what I mean when I say that. Guy Pearce is given a sort of quiet, timid role for most of the film as he plays just that type of solider. He backed down in the face of the enemy but managed to cross enemy lines and take control of their post by pure chance. Of course, that was then, and this is now. He can't stand the site of blood, and that won't come in handy in his upcoming endeavors with cannibalism.

Ravenous is a gory film that succeeds in all it tries to do. It's a seriously funny film, to be honest. You must check this gem out when you get the chance!


Sam Raimi's "Darkman" (1990)

Before raking in the cash with the Spider-Man franchise, Sam Raimi directed Darkman, a stepping stone to his current success. While I won't argue whether the Spider-Man films are good or not, I will say I don't really enjoy them that much. In fact, most super hero films, outside of a few of the Batman film, don't leave me wanting more. Darkman, on the other hand, surely does.

Sam Raimi made this original super hero film at the height of his early success. It was after the cult classic schlock films Evil Dead I and II and before the third installment in the series, the more comedic Army of Darkness. Raimi took this notable success and translated to a different genre, and succeeded.

As the title of the film suggests, Darkman is dark. Although this film has it's rather cheesy moments, the story of Darkman and how he came to be is still a rather grim one. Dr. Peyton Westlake's studies of synthetic skin are interrupted when Robert G. Durant and his gang trash his lab and torture him in the search for a paper that contains information that could hurt him and his boss. When Durant finds what he wants, he leaves Westlake for certain death in a fiery explosion. Unfortunately for Durant, Westlake survives and returns to society with a vengeance.

Liam Neeson is just fine as Dr. Peyton Westlake. He has the perfect touch of humor that lends to the cheesy-ness of this film. For example, the carnival scene comes to mind. "Take the fucking elephant!" will never be forgotten by me. I know everyone would have loved Bruce Campbell to play Darkman as he was originally supposed to, but hey, life's not fair. We can't hate on Liam for that, he did a fine job. Larry Drake's portrayal of Durant is so god damn evil. Colin Friels' played the cackling Louis Strack perfectly in my opinion. He had the menacing "I BUILT IT ALL" attitude down pat. These performances really helped the film achieve what it wanted. It makes the revenge theme of the film so much sweeter.

As I mentioned before, this film is a little cheesy. I personally think it could work better 100% serious, but that's okay with me. I'm a fan of serious, non serious, whatever. It's all good to me, I just think that a dark tale like this could be handled much more effectively without all that. Overall, Darkman is a solid film with an original super hero that is well worth watching. Enjoy Sam Raimi and his signature film making outside of the possessed woods and before Spider-Man