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.