Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Unseen #28: Joe Kidd

Well as more or less every blog except mine has taken the time to note. Clint Eastwood turned 80 this year, continuing his reign as this world’s leading source of awesomeness. I love Clint something fierce so I thought I’d throw in my belated appreciation by writing up one of Clint’s lesser known films, while knocking out another Unseen while I’m at it. (If you really want to see how its done take your spurs over to Agitation Of The Mind.)



Why’d I Buy It? Given to me during the great Insomniac closing of Aught 8.

Why Haven’t I Watched It?: Its one of those movies I’ve caught in bits and pieces over the years without seeing it all the way through. Take that lack of urgency as you will.

How Was It?: Fine.

Joe Kidd is the toughest kind of film to write about as its neither bad enough to get someone real worked up, nor good enough to warrant any kind of defense. Its competent. And that’s about it. Like Two Mules For Sister Sarah (which is a markedly superior film) it just kind of goes through the paces, adding only some vague socialist leanings its afraid to commit to.

The real problem at the heart of Joe Kidd is that it wants to be Bullet For The General and doesn’t have the balls. It’s a film unabashedly on the side of a bunch of poor Mexican immigrants who are being forced off their land by an imperialist American government and total asshole Robert Duvall. Eastwood’s Kidd is introduced as an anti authoritarian bad ass currently in jail for threatening to piss on the courthouse.

So naturally Kidd’s sympathies are with the oppressed natives, and it seems fairly clear that he’ll join up with them, until it turns out that their leader Louis Chamas (John Saxon in brown face with a Frito Bandito accent), is kind of an asshole as well. Torturing one of Kidd’s men and killing his livestock in retaliation for Kidd murdering one of his men. This kind of ambivilance could be confused for depth, but really its just the movie hedging its bets in a very craven way. Not wanting to commit itself to anything that could be construed as anti American. Eastwood joins up with a deliciously evil Robert Duvall, playing just an irredeemable prick, and goes to hunt Chamas down.

The movie has the confused focus and tone of a script that has under gone plenty of rewrites (It should be noted that this script comes before this was endemic so it could just be poor writing). It feels uncannily like the first and third act were written by a different person then the second. Of course Elmore Leonard is the only credited writer on the picture, and as evidenced by Valdez Is Coming, one of my favorite Westerns of all time, he knows how to write a great western. I can't help but be suspicious that someone might have been brought in to reign in some of Leonard's more incendiary stuff .

Of course any film with Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, and John Saxon chewing the same scenery, is not fully devoid of pleasure. And the film does have one legimently great scene. The aforementioned killing of Chalma’s man, which is played out at leisure in a bar, with Clint idly pouring himself a beer whilst propping up a mean looking shotgun in between standoffs. Old hand John Sturges milks it for all it is worth. But there’s a paucity to the rest of the film that’s surprising from Sturges.

Like I said, Joe Kidd isn’t a bad movie. It has its moments and some great lines from auto pilot Clint. Why its down right decent. But its just a modest B movie, which has nothing particular to distinguish it. A film that befits its semi forgotten reputation.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dennis Hopper


What can be said about Dennis Hopper?

Nothing conventional of course. Hopper was not a conventional man, many things but never that.

Let us be frank, Hopper gave some of the worst performances in some of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. He was in the Crow Wicked Prayer, playing a satanic gangster named El Nino, a role that required him to refer to Satan as an “OG Pimp Daddy”. He was in Firestarter 2. He was in American Carol for fuck sakes.

But it’s just this very fact that made Hopper feel so intimate. Some stars are so perfect you never feel attached. Hopper always felt like ours, we’d seen him with his pants down so to speak.

And yet, Hopper also gave some of the best performances in some of the best films I’ve ever seen. To see Hopper connect with a role is to see acting at its finest, an invisible energy that is not something as tawdry as authenticity but something truer.

One of my favorite things about Hopper is the sheer amount of work he did. Its almost impossible to keep it straight. Which means that I’m often surprised and delighted to find Hopper showing up in a piece of work I had no idea he was in. So when he shows up in Cool Hand Luke, or The Trip, or Hang Em High, or True Grit. The experience is always an uncannily friendly one. As though I’ve ran into an old friend under strange and unexpected circumstances. Coupled with the fact that I often times don’t quite recognize Hopper at first glance (The Osterman Weeknend) it becomes even stranger; because he’s older… or younger… You never know what you will see when he walks through the door.

I don’t know what it is that makes me take Hopper’s death so personal. I only know I will miss him terribly, and miss that feeling of him walking on screen. Bringing with him the instantaneous knowledge that the film I was watching was about to get a whole lot more interesting.

I’ve taken the liberty of writing up my five favorite instances where Hopper just brought it. Making the films, and the lives of the film watchers. More complete.


Rumble Fish:

Rumble Fish

“Accute perception can drive you crazy.”

This is, in my opinion Hopper’s most underrated role. Simply put without Hopper this movie doesn’t work. Coppala’s teenage melodrama, a collection of beautiful black and white shots, ridiculous poses, and dreamy elliptical dialouge relies on Hopper for its heart.

He plays his character as a grand ruin of a man. Mickey Rourke in twenty years on without the good sense to die young, all the poetry driven out of him by the world and the bottle.

It’s the way they talk, the way they connect, that makes Dillon’s performance in the film so poignant. The family that’s his that he’ll never had. He’s big, friendly, stupid Irish Setter born into a family of noble wolves. Not grand enough to even be wrecked so terribly as his family.

Hopper’s a wretch, you can nearly smell him. But he has grandeur, and the presence of mind to know how terribly he’s fallen. And in that final tracking shot, where he makes the simple act of wiping his mouth and turning away speak volumes, we watch that one last piece light left in him go out forever.



Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

“Lord show me what I fear. So I don’t fear it no more.”

One of Hopper’s greatest gifts was his ability to simultaneously over and under play a role. I think Hooper’s wonderful mutant of a film showcases this talent best. Hooper’s film is played at level of Grand Guignol to which the term over the top does not quite cover. Hooper’s film and Hopper’s performance are both hysterically funny, but precisely because they never wink (Even the scene in which Hopper takes a few Chainsaw’s for a strenuous test drive in front of a baffled clerk is handled straight).

Hopper brings all the intenisity he can to the part, and when he marches into the Sawyer’s Lair, fearlessly singing “Bringing In The Sheaves.” He has transcended any notion of camp or kitsch, and simply become big enough for such a grand gesture to seem completely natural.



True Romance

"You know I study history."
Sure this is an obvious choice and sure its all too often appreciated for the wrong reason. But it perfectly embodies another aspect of Hopper’s talent. That ability to come in for just a fraction of the time he deserves and invest a character with enough inner life and history and weight to make him unforgettable. The way he reactions to Slater’s words like body blows briefly made Slater look like a credible actor, and that’s something nobody has ever pulled off.



Apocalypse Now


"I'm a small man."

Again Hopper acts as the glue for Coppala’s film (can you imagine his Van Helsing?) Nothing else inspires the same understanding of the stakes at hand as his performance as a man driven round the bend by Kurtz’s vision. Raising the stakes to a battle not just for Sheen’s life, but his soul and sanity as well. For all the vision and startling images and moments in the last third of that film it’s those jumbled snatches of Hopper’s poetry that haunt, “A pair of ragged claws scuttling…”



Blue Velvet


"It's Dark Now"

Of course. The most convincing depiction of evil ever put on film. Fearless is a word too often thrown around like confetti. But Hopper earned it. Again and again and again. He put himself on the line. Every time. And I will sorely miss him.

A Star Is Born



Andrew At Encore Entertainment has asked for entries in a musical blogothon. Coupled with The Self Styled Siren’s excellent write up on the subject of this film’s precurrser, I was more then happy to review A Star Is Born.

A Star Is Born tells a simple story, or a drunken nearly washed up star who takes the time to train a protégé on the way down. Her star begins to rise as he crashes to the bottom. And they have a doomed romance on the way down.

A Star Is Born’s problem is that it peaks in its first fifteen minutes. It’s a stunning scene that threads between off stage and on at a Hollywood benefit. in which a lifetime of resentment finally boils over for James Mason. At his worst Mason coasted by on a sort of bored ultra feyness. At his best, as in here and Bigger Then Life, he has a kind of curdled grandeur to him, turning self destruction to an art. It’s a collage of styles taking both full advantage of Cinemascope’s grandeur and color, while using handle camera’s, lighting, and if my eyes didn’t deceive me even a jump cut or two in a way that’s almost cinema verite. Truth be told, I have purposefully avoided this film, familiar with this sequence through Martin Scorsese’s A Personal Journey Through American Film, and convinced the movie couldn’t live up (ala My Dream Is Yours) and while to a certain extent this is the case, the movie never loses sight of the dark heart and bitter taste of its opening scene.

Its not the type of expirimentation that Cukor is known for, having more often credited to his contemporary Vincent Minnelli. Similar, less successful, experimental scenes run through the film. Such as an abstract production number that looks like Bubsy Berkley via De Stijl (It also features Judy Garland crying “Mammy” backed up but a chorus in black face playing banjos. A sight just as surreal as anything the production design might have to offer.) Cleverly Cukor uses another scene to take the opposite approach, with Garland pantomiming an entire elaborate production number for Mason, alone in her living room.

Cukor was of course one of the most skilled comedy directors of the forties, which in turn makes him one of the most skilled of all time. And he’s able to keep the film from becoming a slog, putting in some deft comic scenes that never feel out of place, including one nice sequence that turns a killer running gag out of the simple phrase, “Glad to have you with us.”

Garland was a little old for the role, but that just adds pathos to the part. Even in something as light as her parts with Mickey Rooney Garland carries with her a certain air of fragile, doomed sadness. In a part as relentlessly melodramatic as A Star Is Born she looks as though she’s performing with a death sentence over her (Did she and Montgomery Clift ever star in a movie together? And if so how was it didn’t open up a rift in the fabric of time and space and consume the Earth in a black hole of infinite sadness when it was released). And Mason matches her beat by beat, clearly showing the good man inside even at his worst.

Oh yeah, there’s music here to. I’ll admit I’ve never payed to much attention to Garland before, ubiquitous as she is. In musicals I’ve always been attracted more to the great dancers then singers, and though Garland could certainly dance she was no Astaire. But the screening of Girl Crazy in Austin that I attended changed my mind to a certain extent. She just has a natural charisma and screen presence, and few know how to use a close up better. Her singing voice like her persona is a beautiful fragile thing.

She, Mason and Cukor turn A Star Is Born into a real rare and wonderful thing, a piece of artifice that unlikely cuts straight to the heart.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tales Of Vesperia



The Tales series, is an anarchistic one. Existing in some parallel universe where the J-RPG didn’t just survive but thrived and evolved. Thoroughly traditional and yet never stale. Its more or less exactly what I want from a video game. It does sadden me, a little, that I get it so seldom outside of this series. In a major ways Video Games have left me behind. It's not something I’m bitter about, I’m not a fanboy sulking “That things were better back in my day.” I’ve played Eternal Sonata, I know how bad RPGs can get when they insist on trotting out the same old shit. The fact is I could have kept up if I wanted to. Which seems to beg a larger question.

It’s not that I don’t like videogames anymore, its just that with the responsibilities of the real world my freetime is limited. So if I have it I’m much more likely to use it to write, watch a movie, or read a book, or gasp go outside, then I am to invest it in something that I know is going to take up forty hours of my time at a minimum. That’s just fact. Tales Of Vesperia took up an astounding (to me) sixty hours of my time and I didn’t even touch the sidequests folks, that’s just the game. When I hear about the scope of something like Fallout 3 or Dragon Age Origins, games where it is literally impossible to see and do everything in them, I feel something close to what I can only term “The screaming meemies”. The days where I could just blithely sign over a weekend to fucking around with some RPG are gone. This isn’t some value judgment about Videogames as art, though I think that issue is more complicated then either side of the argument is willing to concede. It's just where I am right now.

And that’s what makes the Tales games so ideal for the casual gamer. The series plays like it was designed with me in mind. Carefully preserving the tropes I love without simply going through the paces. Basing itself around a battle system that’s intuitive enough to pick up and play, and more importantly remember after a weeklong gap of play time, but rewards both strategy and improvisation. Anime style graphics both detailed yet easy on the eyes. And a story line and characters that if clichéd are at least very well done.

If anything the story is just a touch too ambitious, going for George R. Martin and landing somewhere around Robert Jordan instead. I can’t blame the guys for trying, neigh I applaude it. Its just that there are so many factions and races and ancient technologies, that it becomes frankly tough to remember, or really care just who is manipulating who to what end and why. The game often hinges its plot around characters you met once thirty hours ago who are then revealed to be of great import. It was not at all uncommon for my characters to gasp in shock at some revelation and leave me just wondering “Who?”

Still the way the game tweaks its expectations ever so slightly make things infinitely more rewarding. The traditional J-RPGs are built upon a series of standard tropes; to put it politely. Burning villages, bickering comic relief sidekicks, nihilistic bad guys, evil empires, a surprising amount of sexlessness despite the oft exaggerated female leads (If I had a nickel for every passionate hard fought romance that culminated in a hug I’ve played through I would be a man with a lot of nickels). Vesperia sticks to some of these tropes like holy writ and completely throws away others. And look as rote as this can get, I have an enormous amount of affection for this kind of storytelling. (I’m actually about a quarter of the way through a novel I’ve been playing with that is more or less a direct response to this kind of genre.)

If I can take it a step further, in many ways I feel like Videogames, as philistine as this might sound are the perfect medium for Fantasy. It has the runtime that film doesn’t, allowing you forty hours, at least to invest yourself in the characters and world. And yet delivers information much more efficiently then a book does. Even a work as lively and light on its feet as Brad Sanderson’s Mistwalker can’t help but bog itself down in page after page of descriptive prose to make its world come to life and its rules make sense. In a game you pick up the rules on the fly and the details are for the taking. When you walk in an RPG city from say the poorer theater district to the noble section. You don’t need to be told about the changes in architecture and temperment, and crowdedness and how the buildings get older. You see it. Absorb it unconsciencely, unlike the very conscience way such material is delivered and paradoxically must be delivered for the novel to work.

Still the Tales series always has a skill of paying these standard tropes off, while never quite doing it as your used to, that is nearly Tarantinoesque (in narrative if not artistic terms).

Its just the little details, The Empire in the game isn’t some maniacal evil kingdom that wants to conquer the world, but an organization that has allowed some dark things to fester in its bureaucracy. The person who ends up being the main bad guy isn’t the ten billionth Kefka/Sephiroth rip off you’ve seen but has excellent reasons for doing what he does. The hero is neither a Pollyanna nor a sullen pretty boy, but instead goes so far as to straight up murder a couple of bad guys at a few points, instead of allowing them to live and fighting them at regular intervals in time honored JRPG tradition. AND THE GAME DOESN’T EVEN CONDEM HIM FOR IT.

The games other characters similiarly fit the clichés of the genre pretty much beat by beat and yet have genuine life to them. You have the optimistic ingénue, spunky tomboy, shameless moppet, lazy “old” 28 year old man, etc. etc. But they’re a well written an likable bunch and a pleasure to spend sixty hours with rather then a chore. And its supporting cast is rewardingly weird. I have a particular affection for Yeager, a minor villain who talks like Klaus Nomi, is as crazy as Klaus Kinski, has David Bowie's fashion sense, and kicks ass like Rowdy Roddy Piper. He is thirty one flavors of awesome.

(I Love This Fucking Guy)

Part of the adtvantage of not playing games as regularly anymore means I get to be blown away by things others take for granted. There’s nothing quite like fighting your way from one end of a sewer to another, for about fifteen minutes, then casually look into the background and realize you can see the ladder you climbed down to enter the place, and know if you so desired you could walk back there without so much as a single load time. That’s fucking nuts.

The game does move its battle system from two to 3D. Mostly the change is cosmetic aside from the one on one fighting which becomes much harder for some reason. Still it happens rarely and isn’t a major issue.

The other change the entry makes is jettisoning the epilogue that the last few entry’s have supplied. The Tales series has of late allowed you to explore the world after completing the main game, tying up loose ends at your leisure and embarking on a minor quest or two. Is actually an addition to the traditional RPG that I think really adds to it. Acting as a kind of methadone when you’re not quite ready to leave the world yet. And I was sorry to see it not employed here.

Tales Of Vespiria may not reinvent the wheel but it does give the wheel a thick coat of new polish, and invites you to push the wheel around a bit and remember how awesome it was. It brought back wistful memories of wasted Saturday afternoons, but survived on more then nostalgia (Nostaligia can’t sustain sixty hours. At least not from me.) Simply put it was a lot of fun. And hey isn’t that what games are supposed to be?

The Unseen #27: Last Hurrah For Chivalry

In another attempt to boost this poor anemic column up with some steroids of love, I’m providing a double dose of pimping- er The Unseen.



Why’d I Buy It?: Dragon Dynasty puts out a fine product. They’re maybe the most underrated DVD company today, their prints are superlative, their restoration work admirable, and their discs are usually worth buying for the archival material alone. I love seventies John Woo and wanted to see him get the royal treatment.

Why Haven’t I Watched It?: Well the thing is Last Hurrah For Chivalry isn’t technically a Kung Fu film. It’s a full blown Wu Xia picture, a genre that translates a little less gracefully to western audiences audiences.

Though the genre is broad, the simplest way to describe Wu Xia is it’s a permutation of the martial arts movie in which the pageantry and melodrama matter just as much if not more then the actual martial arts.

I mean listen to that theme music.



If that ain’t the sound of manly tears I don’t know what is.

Its not a bad thing, just disconcerting if you’re not in the mind set. This isn’t even mentioning a slow start, a plot convoluted even by genre standards, and two lead characters, who thanks to the fact that both where the same hyper stylized Wu Xia hair, costumes, sideburns, and eyebrows are just plain difficult to tell apart.

Like I said, none of this is a deal killer in and of itself, but combined its lead to me drifting off in the first half hour of the movie after a long day a whooooolllllleeee bunch of times.

How Was It?: A lot of fun actually. Once one’s expectations are suitably adjusted, Last Hurrah For Chivalry is kind of a blast. Things get off to a good start with the supreme dick of a villain (A blast to watch. A true case of first class mustache twirling, or given the mileu Beard stroking) coming to a wedding of a rival Kung Fu master and starts some shit. Inciting things with a twist that I’m sure is awesome in spite of or because of its blatant misogyny.

Everyone in the school is killed, save the requisite student who survives to vow revenge. If the title, genre, and awesome theme music didn’t tip you off, Last Hurrah For Chivalry is a wildly melodramatic film. In away all John Woo’s films are Wu Xia films. One of the elements that has always set his films apart is the extreme level of emotional masochism in them. The heroes of John Woo films go through torments that Joan Crawford would find too much. Last Hurrah is no exception and the mileage you get out of it will relate directly to the milege you get from shirtless, well muscled, oiled, and weeping Asian men vowing revenge and crying over the corpses of fallen comrades. Which happens to be something I have a high tolerance for.

Don’t judge me.

Its a shame that I didn’t hold on through those opening minutes. Slow as Last Hurrah starts when it does build to its action scenes it does so with gusto.



For fans of this particular school of filmmaking Last Hurrah For Chivalry is something close to a Platonic ideal. It asks for patience. But it rewards it as well.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Good God...



I love this band.

The Unseen #26: Prince Of Darkness

Yes its time yet again for yet another installment of Thing's That Don't Suck's most neglected column, THE UNSEEN (Lightening crash)




(The Poster Is Awesome The Movie Not So Much)


Why’d I Buy It?: John Carpenter. Hollywood Video closing. The Math isn’t hard.

Why Haven’t I Watched It?: The film has the reputation of being John Carpenter’s first major misfire. The first downhill coast on the long sad slope that led to Ghosts On Mars. Sure it has its passionate defenders, but so does In The Mouth Of Madness. A movie which a few effective moments aside is dreadful. I wasn’t looking forward to it.

How Was It?: Not as bad as it could have been and not as good as it should be. While this is certainly more of a film by the John Carpenter who made the films I love, like The Thing (Intruders hiding in the skin of friends), Assault On Precient 13 (Urban Paranoia) and especially They Live (Stylistically, philosophically, and iconagrophy) its still Carpenter’s first slip up. The fact that he was eventually able to get close enough to the finish line for a conditional field goal, does not change the fact that he fumbled the ball quite badly.

The problem of Prince Of Darkness is that it never capitalizes on its potential. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, you can’t make a movie that purports to be about the metaphysical nature of evil and then have most of its runtime feature people in pancake makeup hitting each other with planks. It’s not bad but its sadly the first time that Carpenter’s reach exceeded his grasp. The first time the potential outclasses the execution.

The film follows a group of grad students who are charged with monitering a force in an abandoned church, that seems to be the physical manifestaion of evil, and identifies itself as Satan himself. Its an intriguing concept with all sorts of juicy conflicts between religion and reason, faith and skeptisism, homeless people made of bugs and helpless coeds. With enough high falutin talk about Quantum Physics for a new What The Bleep Do We Know? But its all kind of terribly inert.

This is one of those movies that’s just not well thought through. Take Donald Pleasance’s character, as the priest who is confronted with the fact that everything he believes in is a lie. Lest you think that my religion is getting in the way, I’m not offended by the concepts but by the lazy writing. When Pleasance is forced to face this (after giving impassioned speeches about the limits of reason for most of the move) does he struggle? No. He hears a speech that’s half baked by Dan Brown standards, and gives a philosophical seemingly drunken monolouge that can basically be summed up as “Whelp I’ve devoted my life to a lie. Whoopsie Daisy!!! Wackedy Smackedy DooooooOooo!” And has about the same amount of depth.

There is some things to recommend about Prince Of Darkness. Carpenter has some effecting imagery. Using some simple tricks to show the laws of physics being blasely defied. He also uses a crowd of street people who are being effected by the evil to great effect. Never quite tipping his hands to when they go from “normal” to possessed. There is a great paper to be written about John Carpenter’s use of the disenfranchised as figures of horror. Time and time again he returns to that theme and image, Escape From New York, Assault On Precient 13, and They Live, and he never makes it anything less then some truly creepy and thought provoking stuff. Disturbing on more then one level.

The actors are also thoroughly invested, including Dennis Dunn and Victor Wong returning from Big Trouble In Little China, Donald Pleasance who always does strong work with Carpenter even when the script lets him down here. And a guy who looks disconcertingly like Tom Atkins. And even though the film does not quite achieve its ambitions one cannot fault the film for having them.

Still this film arouses nothing so much as the fervent desire that it was better.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dragon's Forever



While Jackie Chan continues his long slow slide from the man who made The Legend Of Drunken Master and Police Story to the man who made Rush Hour 3, The Spy Next Door and The Karate Kid (BUT HE’S PRACTICING KUNG FU!!!!) its nice once to revisit his older films and remember that there was once a time when a new Jackie Chan movie was a very good thing.

Dragon’s Forever is a show case for Chan at his best, acting as a perfect display for his brand of unfakeable athleticism that never fails to get the jaw dropping. While in some of the lesser Chan film’s, his broad sense of humor can undercut the intensity of his stunts and performances, Dragon’s Forever finds the perfect balance of intensity and levity. The role, though still firmly a good guy, is a bit less noble then the average Jackie Chan character and aside from a few scenes with Hung, never turns into a clown the way Chan is want to do. He’s a full fledged badass in this, and it’s a role that’s satisfying to watch him play.

Directed by veteran Sammo Hung, whose skills in front of the camera (He plays a role here as the “fatty” comic relief) are of much use to him behind it. Hung simply put knows how to shoot action, because he knows how the mechanics of an action scene work inside and out. He puts together some stunning sequences for Dragon’s Forever. Simply some of the best displays Chan ever had for his artistry. Including a climactic fight scene that goes on for nearly half an hour, and features stunts off handedly performed that would serve as the centerpiece of lesser action movies. It rivals even the legendary battle that capped Drunk Master II, for sheer “I can’t believe the human body is capable of such abuse” disbelief.

The film’s story is perfunctory even by Kung Fu standards, involving a battle between a fish farm and a textile mill that’s really a front for a narcotic smuggling triad. There’s a lot of “wacky” highjinks and romantic interludes, where the apathy is almost audible. But there’s also a refreshing lack of homogenization. Say what you will about Dragon’s Forever, and a lot can be said about a film in which Jackie Chan “meets cute” with a girl while defending her rapist in court (This is what I believe is referred to as “Not Cool”).

but it’s a film that a startling specific product of its time and place. Even its tastelessness is appealing because something that can’t be replicated in our increasingly globablized world. Nowadays a Hong Kong Filmmaker would know that there is no way that would play in the American market.

Now yes on the simple level treating rape as somewhat more serious then jay walking, this is perhaps not such a bad thing. But its this same mode of thinking which turns someone who once tore through the cinema, with a grace and joy that seemed nearly supernatural, into a blandly wholesome family entertainer.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Brain Fart

You know what would be a great title for a blog?

"Dr. Pangloss's House Of Horrors."

I would change the name of my blog to this right now, had I not finally built up some small sliver of name recognition with this one.

Think of the cross section of English Lit Nerds and Horror Fans you'd draw in!

I even have a motto for it "Tending our own garden since 2010!" Its gold Jerry Gold!

I'm serious somebody take this I can't bear to see it go to waste.

The 25: Part 10: Dr. Strangelove

(The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)



Kubrick is a director important to the development of any film goer.

More then his supposed coldness and clinical nature I think the thing that bothers people about Kubrick’s films is the fact that he makes art that seems to look back. You judge a Stanley Kubrick movie, but it judges you as well, and each time you square off you’re different, and the film reflects that. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Kubrick is one of the first filmmakers that hardcore cinephiles often come to on their journey. And its not just the fact that he’s well known in the mainstream as a true artist either. That rarest of things a famous intellectual.

His career seems almost purposefully the career of a gatekeeper. Fourteen films. No more no less. You can watch them in a weekend if you want to. Likewise, you would be hard pressed to find a more adult filmmaker then Kubrick, but there are really only four films that contain (explicit) content that could be called objectionable to a child (Clockwork, Full Metal Jacket, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut). And even with as parents as over protective as mine I had seen all those by the age of sixteen.

But Kubrick is there at the start of the dojo to test you. Can you engage a film? Can you be engaged by a film? Do you want to? Is a challenge what you want from your art? Or are you merely a passive observer?

By the end of your time with Kubrick you know.

As a result every Kubrick fan has the films that don’t work for them, for me it’d be the shrill dated Lolita, and the flat depressingly shallow (though stylistically fascinating) The Shining. As well as the films that do; The dreamlike achingly human Eyes Wide Shut, the brutally funny Full Metal Jacket, and 2001 A Space Odyessy, a film often cited as one of the greatest ever made that still underrates it. I’m sure that there are readers aghast at the way I dismissed Lolita and The Shining, the same way I feel when others dismiss Eyes and Full Metal. The point I’m trying to make is that unlike other filmmakers I don’t think there IS a wrong answer to what your favorite Kubrick movie is. They act, at least partially, not as art but psychologically. Moving Rorsarch blots that coax something out in the personality of whomever watches them and forces a reaction.

Still for all his work, and all his rewards there is something about Strangelove, that makes it remain the fundamental Kubrick for me.


In Strangelove, demands the biggest reaction of all. With the gall to present the extinction of our species as the over due punchline to weary joke. Presenting the Cold War as a nightmare mixture of saber rattling, sexual repression, and children playing with matches.

Dr. Strangelove is at its core, about what happens to madness when it becomes institutionalized. When the deaths of tens of millions of people, and indeed the planet, are not the found in the ravings of a demented Colin Clive, but discussed calmly and rationally by a series of army and government bureaucrats. Of course its funny anything this absurd has to be.

For all the talk about how hermetically sealed Kubrick’s films were, Strangelove is downright lively. Deftly juggling its large cast, three main courses of action, and always finding the time for that perfect line, or surface detail to frame it (“Of course I like saying hello Dimitri.”)


Of course much of this spontaneity has be credited to Strangelove’s deft comic cast. Particulary Sterling Hayden in his somewhere beyond deadpan performance as Jack D. Ripper, a man who has decided to start a nuclear holocaust in retaliation for what he believes is a communist plot to make him impotent (“I first became aware of it Mandrake during the physical act of love…”). Matched in Madness by George C. Scott, in what is perhaps his finest hour, as an uber hawk that makes Patton look like a dove and who just can’t wait to get things started. Then there is of course a never better Sellers, whose genius in all three parts, the civilized thoroughly mortified Colonel Mandrake, the in over his head president, and the demented titular doctor. Who ends up inadvertently turning an ecstatic, “Mein Fuehrer I Can WALK” Into the planets epithet.

Slim Pickens also deserves special mention. He tends to get slighted for his performance in this movie, thanks mostly to the never really substantiated rumor that Kubrick never told him he was in a comedy. I always thought this did a great disservice to Pickens (not to mention the ugly undercurrent of “hehe dumb hayseed” the anecdote contains) who proved himself time and time again a good actor and sly comic performer (“HORSES?!?! HORSES are expensive!”). He was more then capable of playing with the big boys, and I find it hard to hear his “Shoot a fella could have a good weekend in Vegas with that stuff.” Not to mention his final orgiastic ride, without believing he was in on the joke.


The film is filled with vast Kubrickian spaces. The war room with its model earth, ominous halo of light, and pinpoint eyes of the venal men taking us to our doom. The military base which uses a giant “Peace Is Our Profession” billboard. As the backdrop for some brutal American on American combat (maybe the only time in Kubrick’s career that he can be accused of being “On the nose.”) Like all of Kubrick’s great spaces they are familiar as they are alien. As mundane and meaningless as OPE POE.

Kubrick is so often derided as a perfectionist, that it is often forgotten how often he achieved perfection. His a oeuvre that does not merely reward repeat viewings, but demands them.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

My Best Post



He Shot Cyrus had the great idea of basing a blogothon around its participant’s proudest posts.

I’ve chosen for mine, the review of Kill Bill Vol. 2 I did in my best of the decade list.

It might seem like an odd choice. After all its hardly my most ambitious post. But its indicative of exactly the type of criticism I want to do for this blog, and marks one of the times that in my humble opinion, I really hit my marks.

Its in depth, but not overlong. Its Conversational but with something to chew on. Slightly academic without feeling like navel gazing. I sum up the appeal of the movie and what I think makes it special. And offer up a counter point to prevalent criticism without coming off as contrarians.

In short, it offers up a thoughtful, thorough consideration of the movie without being a total pain in the ass to read.

Which is kind of what I’m going for here.

…..

And now that that’s over with I’m going to totally rip off er respectfully incorportate something that the incomparable Stacia from She Blogged By Night, to highlight a few blogs that definitely need to be on your to read list if they are not already.

Doniphon’s The Long Voyage Home is the best blog you’re not reading. I’d put him up against the tops of the format, your Glenn Kenny’s and Dennis Cozzalio’s any day of the week. And he will one day be just as popular as them. Doniphon’s taste in subject matter is impeccable. His mode is academic but he’s never simply noodling, his prose style too lucid to allow such laziness. Simply put he is the tops. Next time someone tells you that bloggers don’t put out intellectual content, and are just empty cogs in the hype machine. You tell them to shut their filthy mouth (or don’t) and head over to Long Voyage Home (definitely do).

Neil Fulwood on Agitation Of The Mind. He talks. I listen. End of story. The depth and breadth of his film knowledge is unimpeachable. His writing style witty and considered. His material and view point well considered and literate. but never snobbish. He’s everything you want in a quality film critic.

Dark Night Of The Matinee really doesn’t need my help having just made The Lambies “his bitch”. But he’s still a great reviewer. Thoughtful and not given to hyperbole. Perhaps the best thing about the Hatter is the way he avoids getting swept up in hyperbole positive or negative. He keeps his own council and that makes him valuable.

The Acidemic has always been pretty great. But he’s been putting something (perhaps acid?) in his cornflakes lately that has really kicked him up another notch. Simply put Erich has been kicking ass and taking names in his own inimitable fashion. And we’re all the richer for it.

Franco at The Film Connoisseur. Fun, fearless, great range of film, amazing amount of effort, thought, and time put in to each post. A great blogger who makes full use out of the medium.

JD over at Radiator Heaven, gives well written, well thought out, and (gasp) well researched reviews. He's an excellent writer, who I often think misses out on the credit he deserves because he's solid instead of showy, and is more concerned with writing well then courting contreversy. Mores the pity for him and the gain for us. He's essential.

So check those guys off. I know I’m happier for having them in my blogroll. And I bet you will be too.


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EDIT: Another bit of belated thanks. Though I didn't break into any official nominations for The Lammies. I saw my name in the voted for section of many. I want to thank everyone who took the time to do so. It was very much appreciated.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Revenge Of The Sith

(Sci Fi Drive is doing a Star Wars Blogothon. Which coiencided nicely with my desire to write up one of the episodes that more or less gets taken for granted)




One of my biggest blind spots as a critic is that there’s a certain kind of movie I give a pass to. It has nothing to do with the genre or director, but a very specific set of circumstances. If I get saturated in bad hype for a movie, basted in the intensity of fanboy hatred from weeks and months before I get to see the damn thing, and I get competence instead of dreck, I tend to over praise, leaving me with reviews that often seem silly in hindsight. This is phenomenon I call, somewhat ironically in this case, Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull syndrome.



One of the recipients of this Largess was Revenge Of The Sith. And yet the swift decline in the film’s post release reputation has made me hesitant to revisit it again. People forget that the film’s reviews at the time bordered on glowing. It still maintains an 80 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, even the far less generous Metacritic has the film hovering near seventy. People like Glenn Kenny, Roger Ebert and AO Scott gave it positive reviews. I didn’t just make that up. That shit actually happened.

And yet now barely five years later, hardly anyone makes the effort to differentiate it quality wise from its siblings in the prequels. I had been itching to revisit it when this blogothon gave me the perfect opportunity.

Briefly though I should establish my thoughts as a series as a whole. The original Star Wars is a giddy mashup of a movie both decades ahead and centuries behind the curve. It’s Lucas taking everything he loved about movies, Kurosawa’s samurai’s, John Ford’s Panorama’s, Hawk’s dialogue and the serial’s sense of pacing and putting them all in a single film.

Empire is to my mind even better. A dark brooding epic heroes journey, via film noir, and the final battle between Luke and Vader, resonates as the series’ emotional highpoint even before the famous plot twist.

Jedi has its fair share of problems (Fett’s ignominious end) but also some of the most arresting images and high operatics of the franchise. Despite its flaws it serves as a fitting capstone to a trilogy that still stands as big budget filmmaking at its finest. Ironically for something so huge it’s the fact that Star Wars is so personal that makes it great.

And yet… I’m one of those annoying people who thinks that Star Wars is the worst thing to ever happen to George Lucas as an artist. Now let me be clear, I’m not saying I hate Star Wars, I love Star Wars. Love it. But do you know what I love more? The Filmmaker who made American Grafitti and THX 1138. Now there was a guy with an eye for the poetic image, and an ear for human dialogue and behavior. What was supposed to be a detour, a glorified bit of pre Tarantino postmodern knuckle cracking ended up turning around and eating George Lucas. Forcing him to become a producer and entrepreneur, which was never his talent. This is all a round about way of saying two things 1) If for nothing else I’m glad the Prequel’s put Lucas in the director’s chair again. Because if nothing else they serve as fascinating documents of a artists head space. 2) Star Wars gave us a lot, but it took some things from us as well. And that talented young filmmaker behind those two films was first on the list.



As for the prequels, The Phantom Menace is a mess pure and simple. A film that manages to be worse then its maligned reputation, incompetent on a staggering scale. Managing to turn actors as naturally charismatic as Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Terrence Stamp into wooden boards. Centering itself around a performance by Jake Lloyd that is sinfully bad. And cribbing any interesting images it has from fucking Dinotopia.

Attack Of The Clones is much more of a mixed bag then it gets credit for though. Sure there are plenty of moments that can be described as “Not good.” Including the still mystifying soliloquy where Anakin expresses his love for Padme by describing how she is not like sand (?). But there’s forty percent of a real decent Star Wars movie in there, including the film’s chase through Coruscant one of the best action scenes Lucas ever filmed, Obi Wan’s journey through Camino and his bare knuckle brawl with Jango Fett, John William’s strong score, Christopher Lee’s malevolent turn as Dooku, and most impressively the delirious Coliseum Climax which plays like something Edgar Rice Burroughs would have dreamed up for John Carter Whilst on Mescaline.



While Revenge Of The Sith has its share of clumsy moments; Jones justifiably derided “Nooooooooooo.” Portman’s risible expiration (Robot Chicken said it best “Where did you get your medical degree poetry school?"), and a performance by Hayden Christenson that never rises above sniveling. It remains against the odds, a darkly effective movie, with some of Lucases most affective imagery. Which even in his degraded state is still saying something.

Things get on the right foot with, Lucas basically doing Touch Of Evil in space. Threading through a grand battle, that as a piece of showmanship still impresses, and as a victory lap is positively giddy. Its one of the most arresting shots in the series, not just the prequels and has a sense of scale and real wonder to it that manages not to be just taken for granted the way most empty spectacle is in Blockbusters.

Then we cut to Christenson and McGregor, still as stiff as ever. From a stunning display of visual filmmaking to a lackluster scene of verbal. Its rather typical of the movie. In short, Revenge Of The Sith is at its best when it shuts the fuck up.

Tom Stoppard simply put, did not earn his money on this rewrite. The dialogue is as clunky as ever, and it has the added indignities of dumping threads and themes the prequels had developed to one side (a necessary evil perhaps), to be forgotten or clumsily sown up in the least satisfying way ("An old friend has return- and fuck do you have any idea how much Liam Neeson WANTED for a Cameo?").

The problem was The Prequels has always been with the actors. Simply whether by miscasting or misdirection the actors have never been able to sell the saga the way the original cast was (Ian McDirmand being one clear exception). Christenson and Portman still share the violent anti chemistry they did in Clones (“Hold me like yo-“ you know what making fun of Padme Anika dialogue is like making fun of something an idiot kid wrote. “No… Because I’m so in love… with you…ha….ha….haa”). Portman is in particular poor form, having clearly checked out sometime around seeing the rushes on the first day of Episode 2. Even a more crucial relationship, that of the epic bromance between Obi Wan and Anakin, is also never sufficiently examined. As such the vows and recriminations shouted between them in the duel sound more petulant then grief stricken.

There seem to be only four ways to successfully speak Lucasian dialogue. Believe in it more then he does (Mark Hamill). Ignore him and adlib (Harrison Ford). Invest it with some mutherfucking GRAVITAS! (Alec Guiness). Or get so stoned you don’t know the difference (Carrie Fisher). None of these techniques were apparently used this time out.

Like I said the lone exception here is McDiarmid who just fucking tears into his lines like its Richard the goddamn III. And says the word “Unnatural” better then any man alive, with the possible exception of Tim Curry.

Still even at its weakest Revenge Of The Sith has an imagination and a visual wit far above its two predecessors. The opening action scene has verve and wit of Tex Avery. Playing with Physics both real (The ship beginning to burn in high orbit) and imagined (The Elevator scene). Imaginative even in the small details like the manic robot guards who fight on sans head. Looking like something from Early Jackson (yes I know its twice in two days that I’ve made that comparison).



And I have an odd affection for the much maligned General Grievous. A lanky diseased Proto Vader, with mad Jedi Killing skills. He’s a weird quasi finished design, with a demeanor as threatening as it is pathetic. His big action scene (rumored to be ghost directed by Spielberg and bearing a certain similarity to the unbothered by the rules of reality, action style of Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull) is one of the most headlong rush and inventive choreography of any in the prequel. And it features the awesome use of a running Chicken Iguana I have ever seen. I only regret that Gary Oldman backed out at the last minute. His could have been that perfect bit of sleaze to push The General over the top into greatness.

Visually Lucas is even feeling spry enough to take a jab at Coppala. Mimicking the filmmakers Apocalypse Now Lighting style, staging, and mise en scene to a T in an otherwise rudimentary scene between Yoda and Anakin. A film that Lucas cowrote the first draft of and nearly directed instead of Star Wars. The mind boggles at how irrevocably different in so many ways the world of cinema would be, if he had done so, and tabled his “little space movie”. Its times like this that I wish I could visit that reality, just to see what the fuck it would like.

Whenever the movie goes dialougeless, or near it as in the haunting Order 66 montage, The massacre at the Jedi temple, the majority of the finale duel and the one actual well thought out scene between Adama and Padme. It reaches an operatic height like nothing in the series. A perfect marriage between William’s strong score, and Lucas’s sensous images. Primal images like Anakin standing among a room of the dead starring out into a world of fire. Or the decrepit black cloaked, Palpatine kneeling before the burnt limbless Anakin. Lucas draws on a wide visual vocabulary, cribbing from Dante, Milton, and Michael Powell (There is one shot with framing and motion identical to a shot in Tales Of Hoffman).



Revenge Of The Sith, may not be perfect, but it holds that same ability its predecessors had. That to fire the imagination.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Daybreakers



I didn’t see Daybreakers in theater, even though I usually shell out a couple of bucks to support any original horror film that comes down the pike, in part because of just how intensely I detested the brothers Spierig’s first movie Undead. A lazy prefab would be cult movie in the worst possible way.

Daybreakers isn’t perfect, mostly because it unwisely climaxes in its first ten minutes. A dialogue free eerie tone poem of a world ruled by Vampires. But it’s an ambitious, intense, well acted slice of original horror filmmaking, and should act as catnip to the discerning genre fan.

Ethan Hawke is not what I would call my favorite actor. He always has the same low key reaction to everything, whether it’s the reuniting with his the love of his life, or having Denzel Washington threatening to kill him. He is counter balanced by Willem Dafoe who is quite possibly my favorite working actor and invests Elvis with a cocky swinging dick sensibility, that the Spierig brothers tried for and failed to achieve in Undead (Though he overdoes the “Docs”). Sam Neill also puts in a strong performance in the Danny Huston role, as a corporate CEO amoral even for a vampire.

Spierig brothers have a good sense of geography, composition and know how to build tension in a scene, resulting in bits that should be kind of rote becoming improbably exciting, like an ambush cum car chase which plays with the rules of vampirism in some intriguing ways.

I was impressed that the film got in a few truly rough gore gags. An early scene set during the test of a synthetic blood substitute is worthy of early Peter Jackson. Unlike so many modern American horror films this film is capable of a few nasty surprises that are genuinely nasty and actually do surprise. And thank Christ, unless I missed it there is not so much as a single CGI gore effect in the film. Its all topped off in an ending that is deliciously grim (if on too small a scale to be as effective as it could have been), even if I wasn’t quite sure just what was happening in the final twist.

Things do fall apart somewhat in the last act. Sam Neill’s arc depends on a twist that doesn’t so much break the suspension of disbelief as it ignores it. And more damningly the vampire society that the film so meticulously built goes from “On the Brink of collapse.” To “Collapsed.” More or less off screen. Losing the opportunity to showcase what could have been some biting (whawhawaaaaah) social satire, to a single scene involving an overworked barista, and an execution scene that unsuccessfully walks the fine line between small scale and cheap.

Still despite its flaws Daybreakers is easily my favorite mainstream horror film since The Strangers (Though to be fair I don’t like it nearly as much as that particular title). Though in the end it is perhaps less then the sum of its parts, Daybreakers tries. It is a thoughtful rewarding horror film. It may not be perfect but it’s a whole lot of fun.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Humble Thanks, Hubristic Plans

So if you squint a little over at the twin Followers bars, you’ll note they’ve collectively reached one hundred followers.

I’m really blown away.

Anyone who blogs knows that it’s a bit like playing tennis in a void. You hit the ball, send it sailing past over the vanishing point, and stand there wondering for quite awhile whether you’ve made a complete fool out of yourself.

You might have to wait along while sending out balls in other directions, or in the same one. You hit harder. You try try again.

It’s nothing less then an act of faith.

And then just when you’ve given up, you hear a crack, and that long lost ball comes sailing back at you from some point unknown over the horizon. You are so shocked you don’t know how to react.

I’ve seen that ball fly back at me a hundred times now. And it never gets any less exhilarating.

So thank you. And I mean that as sincerely as I can. Thank you to everyone who has ever taken the time to click that follow button, or leave a comment, or just drop by. I can’t tell you how much it has meant to me. I really can’t.

And now that the humblings out of the way the hubris can begin.

I’m planning a Christopher Nolan Blogothon to run from July 11 to the 17th. Starting with The Following, I will cover every one of his films, culminating with the release of Inception. I hope to get articles from various people and various viewpoints. The articles can cover anything; his career as a whole, a particular film, or just a particular aspect of Nolan.

I know a two month lead time may strike some of you as excessive, but I’m still a relatively small blog and would like to have actual articles to post during the blogothon and have, y’know people actually read them. So I figure with a two month lead people will have time to write some stuff up, set it aside, and get the word out.

As you may recall from my review of The Prestige in which I named it my fourth favorite films of the decade; I think Nolan is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today and utterly unique in his position of power and influence among today’s filmmakers. Are there more interesting filmmakers then Nolan working today? Perhaps. But none with his canvas, and none with his ability to sell a vision as idiosyncratic as his, to a mass audience.

I find him one of the most intriguing filmmakers working today. And with his seventh film his body of work becomes big enough to be looked at as a whole. It seems the perfect time to do it. And I feel like as an event it could be really special.

The only question is, do I have the platform yet?

This is the most ambitious thing I’ve done with this blog. And its entirely possible I’ve bitten off more then I can chew.

As I said, if you clicked that follow button I owe you. Pure and Simple.

But I need to be selfish and ask for your help again. If you have a blog, I’d love for you to participate. If you can’t or aren’t I understand but hope you will post one of my banners anyway. I want to make this work, and with your help I think I can.

"When I started to follow people, specific people, when I selected a person to follow, that's when the trouble started."


"How can I heal if I can't forget?"


"You and I share a secret. We know how easy it is to kill someone. That ultimate taboo. It doesn't exist outside our own minds."


"You traveled the world. Now you must journey inwards. To what you really fear. It's inside you. There is no turning back."


"Mankind's grasp exceeds his imagination."


"You see, their morals, their code, it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these... these civilized people, they'll eat each other."


"What's the most resilient parasite? An Idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules."

...

If you could link your banners to the following URL I'd very much appreciate it.

http://thingthatdontsuck.blogspot.com/2010/05/humble-thanks-hubristic-plans.html

....

Anyway, whether you’ve pressed one of the follow buttons or not. Whether you, took a banner or not. If you’re reading this that means I have only one thing to say to you.

Thank you.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Robin Hood Men In Tights



Its pretty much agreed upon that late period Mel Brooks is a pretty sad thing. And yet, Robin Hood Men In Tights alone among them has a bizarrely affectionate following around film fans my age. It’s a film carried up from the elementary school yard, and chances are if you solemly explain to a twenty something “That if you don’t give no tolls we don’t get no rolls.” You’ll get a smile.

I on the other hand have never had a real like for this film leaving my completely irrational and unexplainable affection for Dracula Dead And Loving It. Shut up. Look there’s this scene where Leslie Nielsen has a dream that he’s free from his vampirific curse. He takes a walk in the park, eats some chicken and drinks some wine; when all of a sudden the laws of his vampirism abruptly and violently reassert themselves. Bursting into flames pathetically clutching his chicken leg and goblet of wine Nielsen delivers what I can only describe as the greatest “Oh Shit” face I’ve ever seen.

But like I said maybe because I saw it past the prime age of eight, maybe because there is only room in my heart for one shitty Mel Brooks movie, I’ve always considered Men In Tights to be Brook’s worst movie.

The film opens with a scene that must rank with Brook’s best for the truly unexpected punchline alone.(“Every time they make a Robin Hood Movie they burn our village down.”) Thankfully before one’s expectations can get too high The movie comes along to help us realize what it does wrong.

Simply put Mel Brooks attempt to appropriate hip hop culture is painfully unfunny. I mean I can’t describe to you the effect that a seventy year old Jewish man’s idea of B-Boys delivering the theme song did to the part of my brain that feels joy and laughter. It beat it with a rubber hose and left it bleed in the corner.

This basically continues throughout the movie. There are a few chuckles, with the amount of gags Brooks throws at the screen there has to be. But the hit to miss ratio is absurdly high. For every feeble joke that gets a half hearted chuckle, like Robin’s blind servant feeling up the Venus DeMilo, weeping that his master has lost his arms in battle, but complementing him on the nice new boobs, there are a dozen that are literal groaners, that make that desperate gag sound like Lubitsch.

Elwes can be a sly comic talent, but this is not his best work. Still he gets a few moments in particularly when his target is Costner’s hamminess. Still for the most part his work is overly broad (even for, y’know Mel Brooks) and he desperately wants to be in on the joke. The great Brooks clowns always where desperate to maintain there dignity in the worst of circumstances, Elwes just wants to look as silly as everyone else.

Of course, the other standout in the cast is the young Dave Chappelle. Unfortunately fans of his later work will find little to love here. He’s young and unconfident and the material that Brooks gives him is just plain weak.

Look if you’ve got a soft spot in your heart for this one, chances are you’ll still enjoy it. Like I said I’m hardly one to throw stones on this account. But if you’re first impression of Robin Hood Men In Tights was less then positive. Its the correct one.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Robin Hood (Disney Version)



Robin Hood is not usually considered one of the crowning achievements of Classic Disney era, to say the least. It was made during the height of the Xerox technique. Which depending on who you ask either was an intriguing permutation that allowed animation to keep the sketchy energy and liveliness of the pencil test, or was the act that began the slow sad decline of not merely animation but Western Civilization itself. And is further more the worst thing that ever happened to anyone ever.

This coupled with its repeat appearances in those infamous Disney recycled animation highlight reels, have led most to dismiss Robin Hood as a lazy film unworthy of consideration.

'
(This will blow your mind)

I have to disagree. While Robin Hood might not have the ambition of Disney’s Renaissance period, or the sheer artistry of the classic age. It instead takes its cue from the lackadaisical score and songs provided by eccentric CW genius/crazy person Roger Miller (Seriously download "What Are These Things (With Big Black Wings)" for the greatest song you never knew you loved), turning in one of the loosest, shaggiest, enjoyable films that the Disney brand has ever had its name on. It might just go through the paces. But it does so with an easy comic grace and aplomb.


The animation is Xerox (In which the pencil cells where photocopied and then colored eliminating the inking once crucial to the process) which as I’ve implied is something of an acquired taste. Still the animation is an effective example of the character based, personality driven animation that Disney made its bones on. From the Sheriff of Nottingham’s redneck waddled, to Hood’s own lithe swashbuckling. Its all backed by the nearly abstract (at times) water color backgrounds that serve as a precursor to Lilo And Stitch and perfectly serve the film’s storybook tone.

After the unremittingly grim revisionism of the Robin And Marian its refreshing to see a movie that so plainly enjoys its story. Early on a young forest creature says “Golly Gee Mr. Robin Hood.” And the film keeps that exact tone throught out. Ironic to as its tone of gentle comic anarchy is much closer to Richard Lester’s nomial style then the afore mentioned film. Though it is somewhat sad that the only actor who has yet to give Errol Flynn a run for his money in the derring do department is a cartoon Fox. The film gives him many moments to show off, until the flaming swashbuckling end that contains more genuine genre excitement then Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves, Robin And Marian, and Ridley Scott’s Big Mistake (I’m assuming), combined.

Most of the film is of course the house Disney style of taking various archetypes and sanding all the rough edges off. But its all charmingly done stuff. And the delectable performance of Peter Ustinov (?!!!?) as Prince John contains a real strange edge to it. Ustinov’s John is something of an underrated comic masterpiece. A brazen mixture of vanity, petulance and what can only be termed some rather serious Freudian Impulses, all delivered with the crack comic timing of a pro.

Looking at Robin Hood now is like picking up a picture book you owned as a child. It may be a bit ragged and torn, and rereading it, it may not quite hold together (With key characters disappearing and reappearing at will it's hardly a model of narrative unity). But it retains the charm of a good story well told. It’s a charming film, and I can’t quite believe that the warmth I still feel from and for it is mere residual nostalgia.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Robin And Marian



(HUGE EFFIN SPOILERS)

Before watching Robin And Marian, there is a question you must ask yourself. Have you ever once said, “Gee the story of Robin Hood is a cracking good adventure but do you know what it lacks? The unremittingly grim depiction of the passage of time before the pathetic double suicide of its heroes.”

More specifically you must ask yourself if you’ve ever particularly wished to see Audrey Hepburn kill herself on screen. There are some things that have such a negative reaction, that no matter how noble the intention shooting them is ill advised. The self inflicted death of the gamine queen is one of those things.

This isn’t to say that Robin And Marian isn’t a well made film. Far from it. It is a very realistic movie, with lots of deglamorized violence and artful cinematography (The film opens with a shot of fruit, before jump cutting to that same fruit spoiled. DEEP!!!) and that tirelessly realistic, yet oddly depopulated look so common to seventies period films not set during World War II. It has a lot to say about myth, and the way it is made and distorts even during its subjects lifetime. It contains two good performances from icons playing icons, and has a heartfelt love story at its center.

It is on the whole a respectable revisionist picture.

And for that very reason, more so then the universally agreed to be terrible Scott and Costner version it made me question why this story ever needed to be revised in the first place. If this is it done well (which it is) why do I feel so dissatisfied by what the story accomplished. Like Peggy Lee I’m left asking “Is that all there is?”

Like I said, the film is well made. Its directed by the able Richard Lester. In what would sadly be the last decent movie he would make. Lester has a striking eye for composition. Framing a scene like an early one where King Richard is tended to by his physician’s in a turnip field in the foreground while a castle burns in the background; like the bastard child of Terry Gilliam and Ingmar Bergman. He also brings his subtle comic wit to bear in scenes such as the one where Robin finds that wall scaling isn’t quite as easy as it used to be. He’s obviously working with limited means, but more often then not he gets the effect he’s going for. And in all fairness far less Monty Python And The Holy Grail quotes went flying through my head then during Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves.

The film is cast with ringers, most notably Richard Harris’s magnificent utter bastard of a Richard The Lionheart, who snacks on his scenery with such unseemly gusto that it’s a shame to see him expire in the first reel. Robert Shaw’s oddly cordial Sheriff Of Nottingham also makes quite an impression. Shaw’s talent was he always allowed you to see his characters thinking. Giving his villains an intellectual edge missing from today’s crop. Ian Holm and Denholm Elliot also make the most out of what they have.

But really the film belongs to its principles. Both acquit themselves admirably. This was made during the height of Connery’s lean days, but you’d never know it watching him. He brings the full of his charisma to bear, and if he can’t quite sell the tragedy that engulfs the film at the end, he makes up for it by overselling the hubris that leads to it. Hepburn is of course radiant and wonderful, adding pathos to the film that it has not necessarily earned.

Robin And Marin is a well meaning film, it is perhaps even a noble one. Still I am not convinced that it is a worthwhile one.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Iron Man 2 (A Brief Non Robin Hood Related Interlude)



I thoroughly enjoyed Iron Man 2. Its been on the receiving end of some negative, oddly petulant reviews. And yet I don’t expect to see as fun and character driven a film in what is looking to be an increasingly dire summer.

Part of it could be that I simply wasn’t as taken with Iron Man as everyone else. My first viewing of the film felt underwhelming, having already rediscovered Robert Downey Jr. in his one two three punch of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, A Scanner Darkly, and Zodiac. It took a few viewings for me to get in tune with the film’s conversational charms. A charm I found all too evident in this new film.

Robert Downey Jr. and Mickey Rourke are both actors I find intrisacly enjoyable to watch (as is Scarlet Johansen for, ahem, different reasons). The parallels between those two careers have been noted already, I will just point out that both where actors I had little interest in until well after their “primes”. Downey’s weight of experience gives him gravitas even when he plays the goofball. He forever seems like someone making up for lost time. Rourke is one of those actors who doesn’t “act” hard but is hard, and I am have convinced that sometime in 2004 he was simply possessed by the ghost of Warren Oates. He adds a sinister heft to his role, and looks forever as though he is willing and able to send Downey to the hospital.

The supporting cast gamely keep up. The afore mentioned Ms. Johansen gets some of the film’s best lines and action scenes as Molotov Cockte- The Black Widow. Gwyeneth Paltrow continues to be more appealing then she perhaps ever has been onscreen (outside of Margo Tenenbaum of course) and her relationship with Faveru (giving himself a bigger role this time out, and all the better for it) and Tony has the easy intimacy of people who actually know each other (As a result Tony’s “I Guess I lost both kids in the divorce. Is one of the funniest lines in the film). Sam Rockwell brings the full and considerable powers of his smarm to bear in his roll as Justin Hammer the eternal Goofus to Tony’s Gallant. With his spazzy energy and idiotic attempts at grandeur, Rockwell fully captures how dangerous a dumb person who thinks they’re smart can be.

The film’s one miscasting is in Don Cheadle. Who while certainly a step up from Terrance Howard, fails to carry over the sense of history the two had from the first film (Also I think Howard’s and Downey’s had better chemistry together). Its obvious that Faveru didn’t quite know how to handle the situation, both shunting Cheadle off to the side and trying to make him the heart of the movie in a way that is, to say the least, awkward.

The other complaints about the movie I frankly don’t get. The supposedly over stuffed subplots, really balance themselves out. Its supposed to feel as though Tony is being attacked from all sides, but it never feels as though a subplot or two is being deliberately overpowered ala Spiderman 3.

As for the supposedly truncated action sequences. I have no idea. The movie takes its time getting to its first one (as did the first movie). But that’s really about all you can say. (Minor Spoilers) I mean I can understand the complaints one might have about the final Vanko battle. But that comes after a solid HALF AN HOUR of Robots fighting, not to mention The Black Widow laying waste to Hammer Industries. Really how much more Robot fighting do you need?

Still what I like most about Iron Man is the unabashed sense of wonder it has in the possibilities of the future. In an age of anti intellectualism it is perhaps Iron Man’s greatest quality that it makes Science sexy. Tony Stark assuredly knows how fucking magnets work.