Saturday, June 28, 2008
Everybody (well, just about everybody - the film is at 96% at Rotten Tomatoes) is raving about WALL-E and it is well deserving of the acclaim. As the latest in the line of popular sophisticated animated Pixar films it is set in 2700 and involves a lonely rusty robot left behind to clean up the Earth after pollution has deemed it unlivable many centuries previous. As the humans have retreated to what Buy’ N Large (think Wal-Mart) CEO (played by a non-animated Fred Willard) calls “the final fun-tiere!” on a large corporate cruise-ship space station, WALL-E (stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth) compacts old trash into cubicles and builds skyscrapers out of them. He collects what strikes his fancy - a Rubik’s cube, silver lighters, a dingy old hub cab that he tips like a hat while watching an ancient videotape of HELLO, DOLLY.
It’s apparent up front that this machine, as well as this movie, has a big heart as he befriends a cockroach and looks longingly to the sky while replaying love song sound-bites from his before mentioned favorite movie. When a probe named EVE (stands for Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) from the ginormous spaceship comes to Earth looking for plant-life, WALL-E is intrigued. She’s a shiny new model with a noble directive and after one of the mightiest movie meet-cutes I’ve ever seen, WALL-E is soon smitten. I really don’t want to spoil any more of the nice narrative surprises or the tons of ingenious ideas here so that’s as far as I’ll go with the plot.
A friend mentioned IDIOCRACY (Mike Judge’s failed futuristic dumbing-down of society satire) right as WALL-E began so it was hard to shake the similarities of a trashed-out Earth with remnants of non-perishable plastic products covering every square inch. There is no big spelled out environmental preachiness here though, the narrative is too clever for such moralizing - more fun to be had in spectacularly imagining a future where cute robots sift through the debris and help mankind get back on track. There are many echoes of past sci-fi classics which also involved cute and not so cute robots - the warp speed, musical queues, and sound effects of the STAR WARS movies (thanks to Academy award winning sound designer Ben Burtt who also does the voice of WALL-E) and 2001 in both the character of the evil ship’s Computer (voiced by Sigourney Weaver!) and the use of the grand “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”
Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm, I WANT SOMEBODY TO EAT CHEESE WITH) does a enthused performance as the Ship’s Captain who despite his hard to move girth may find a spark of inspiration from the passionate power-activated robots who suddenly appear before him. In the matinee crowd full mostly of families with many little kids I sat in watching this mind bogglingly beautiful and funny movie I heard a lot of laughter of course, but there was also much crying, awe-ing and the very vivid sensation of an audience being profoundly moved. Score hit #9 for Pixar - in my book, or on blog, every one of their films has been better than the last and WALL-E is not only the best yet but one of the best films of the year.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Made to order, GODFATHER III picks up 20 years later as Michael tries to finally go legit with a deal with the Vatican, harasses his ex-wife, destroys his children’s dreams (or maybe just his children), and ends up yet again on a bench now much older and still alone but this time we get to see him die! Yep, all necessary events that solidify once and all Michael Corleone into the classic character we all love and make us completely forget the first 2 films.Michael’s snazzy new look - the spiky bleached hair-do and more stylish attire show that the man has gotten hipper - see how he puts down Sinatra stand-in Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) with this crack: “I’m just gonna go into the kitchen and listen to some Tony Bennett records.” Snap! His voice is gravely to the extreme and his arm motions are more flailing - while the old Michael was stoic and subtle, new Michael is in your face with his bug eyes and exclaimations: “Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!”
Then there's the case of the recasting of one of the main members of Michael’s posse - previously D-lister Robert DuVall barely registered as lawyer Tom Hagen so it’s a major improvement to bring in the grand gentleman actor George Hamilton to be the consigilere. Hamilton, with his ultra-tan and slick lovable posing, alone provides a gravitas that the early entries were sorely missing. It only gets better - when Winona Ryder was too ill to participate, director and co-writer Francis Ford Coppola drafted his daughter Sophia to take on the role of Michael’s daughter Mary. Sophia Coppola’s performance was originally derided but in recent years it has been re-evaluated to be considered one of the best in all cinema. Her death scene (sorry Spoilers!) when she realizes after a few seconds that she has been shot and says “Dad?” in an unaffected blank manner is as heartbreaking as it gets. I get choked up just blogging about it.
Friday, June 20, 2008
It’s not a bad idea to resurrect the character of Maxwell Smart - the bumbling Agent 86 of CONTROL immortalized by the late Don Adams in the 60’s sitcom Get Smart - but it is remarkably uninspired to bring him back just to be the makeshift hero of yet another ginormous action movie formula. Created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry (who are credited as consultants here) Get Smart was a James Bond satire pitting the CIA stand-in CONTROL against the faux KGB - KOAS. In the 4 decades since the 007 series debuted many movies and TV shows have mocked the immortal spy and the aging original has even taken shots at itself. But the act of satirizing or spoofing isn’t really on display here because for all of its use of the original character names, the updating of ridiculous accessories like the shoe phone and the cones of silence this is a standard comic adventure film with no points to make about the genre and precious few laughs to get us through the generic expensive CGI-ladened chase and fight scenes.
Steve Carrell stated explicitly that he would not be doing an impression of Don Adams, which is commendable but after seeing how little new he brings to that character maybe he should have. Without Adams' affectations classic lines like “Sorry about that Chief”, “missed it by that much”, and “would you believe...?” all fall flat. Carrell is basically just doing a slight variation on his Michael Scott from The Office so it’s hard to go along with him assuming this iconic role. Anne Hathaway, looking like she's in a magazine shoot in every shot, as the lady sidekick and love interest does little to erase memories of Barbara Feldon. Alan Arkin as The Chief and Terrence Stamp as the villain Siegfried fare better but expose how little wit is in the script. The less said about Dwayne Johnson as Agent 23 the better and James Caan as The President in what amounts to a cameo just lounges around looking bored. The by-the-numbers plot is one of the most uninteresting I’ve seen in a long time with a climax lifted straight from the 1978 Chevy Chase/Goldie Hawn caper FOUL PLAY and if you don't guess who in CONTROL is really an evil double agent within the first 10 minutes then you were more successful at turning your brain off when entering the theater than I was.
Saturday, June 14, 2008
Alexandria (Catinca Untara): “I’ve never seen one!”
Roy: “You’re not missing much.”
THE FALL (Dir. Tarsem, 2006 *) I only recently saw Tarsem’s THE CELL which looked great but was pretty stupid exactly as a friend (and many critics) warned me. Like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, Tarsem came to the movies from the world of music video production (he directed R.E.M.’s famous “Losing My Religion” video) so his visual mastery is his calling card. Still though I was unprepared for the absorbing and splendiferous experience that is THE FALL. With a much improved less slickly formulaic premise and screenplay (not to mention no stars in the cast) than his previous film every shot has a purpose and power that is joyous to view.
Set at a hospital at an unspecified era, most likely Los Angeles in the 20’s, the story concerns a young girl with a broken arm (Catinca Untara) who befriends a bedridden man (Lee Pace) while strolling through the wards. Pace was injured doing a stunt for a movie that involved jumping off a train bridge onto a horse. He charms her with a mythic tale about 5 bandits (he at first calls them pirates but Untara doesn’t like that) who vow revenge on an evil General who banished them to a desert isle. Pace posits himself as the masked Black Bandit and his partners are an escaped African slave (Marcus Wesley), an Italian explosives expert (Robin Smith), a soul shattered Indian mystic (Jeetu Verma), and Charles Darwin (Leo Bill) who is obviously the brain of their operation as they escape confinement and journey towards salvation or death. The grand tale overlaps with real life as it is peopled with folks from the hospital and Untara’s family WIZARD OF OZ-style.
* Though this film was originally premiered in 2006, it is only now that it is in wide theatrical release as presented by David Fincher and Spike Jonez.
It’s a film filled with incredible shots with plenty of action as well as personal drama that fill the frame too. Pace has had his heart broken along with his bones so he casts his ex-girlfriend (Justine Waddell) as the fabled Sister Evelyn in his impassioned bedtime story. There is a nice chemistry between Pace and Untara and a charm to this whole pretty package even when he uses the story as a bargaining tool to get her to break in to the hospital’s sanctuary to steal morphine for him. Yes, all this luscious euphoric beauty comes for a dark price but not one that would be too intense for most intelligent kids. That’s right, at heart this is a kids movie but an incredibly stylish and inventive kids movie. I was expecting something along the lines of the gothic tension and creepiness of PAN’S LABYRINTH but THE FALL is more colorful, infinitely more clever, and frankly a lot more fun. Reviews have been very mixed (except for Roger Ebert who gave it 4 stars and wrote that the film will most likely make his top ten of the year list) but I implore those to look for it if it comes to your area. The beautiful photography and fantastic CGI-free imagery deserves to be seen on the big screen - it would truly make a fantastic IMAX movie. A wonderful ride stocked with eye candy as well as a tribute to the power of storytelling, you will really be missing much if you miss THE FALL.More later...
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Roger Ebert called it “the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen” and Vincent Canby wrote that is was “an unqualified disaster”. Worse though it became synonymous with the word “flop”. As in Flop (n) - An utter failure - see HEAVEN’S GATE, ISHTAR, and HOWARD THE DUCK. Nathan Rabin's hilarious My Year Of Flops column at the Onion A.V. Club (which has extended way past a year) covered the movie for Case File #81 and made the argument that it was actually a “secret success”. I’m not so sure about that but there are many defenders of the film and time has definitely been good to Cimino’s vision but critical consensus is still pretty damning - it stands with a 45% approval rating on the Rotten Tomatometer.
Enough about the film’s reputation though. When a friend who loves it lent me his DVD copy I felt it was time to see it for myself. I didn’t realize that it would be the biggest challenge so far of my film geek blogger career. At first I loved the imagery - the sepia tint, the long sweeping shots of the endless landscape, and the overhead tracking shots were all gorgeous. The film immediately identifies itself as an epic and introduces 2 of the main characters played by Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt as they graduate from Harvard in 1870 on the brink of a new country yet to be fully conquered. After a massive celebratory dance we skip 20 years to Johnson county, Wyoming. Kristofferson is now a sherriff who learns from Hurt that The Stock Growers Association is planning to murder the immigrant settlers in the region for stealing their cattle. Sam Waterson, in probably the most evil role he’s ever played, offers $50 a head for each of who he calls the “thieves and anarchists” while Kristofferson and Hurt protest to deaf ears. Mix in Christopher Walken as a cold killing enforcer, Issabelle Hubbert as a brothel madam, Jeff Bridges as a roller skating fiddle-playing (no kidding) friend, Joseph Cotten in his next to last film role as a preacher, and Mickey Rourke in a part of no consequence and you’ve got yourself a modern Western classic, right? On the surface yes, but the movie is so slow and meandering that all these elements drown into a murky mess. So it’s a modern Western classic flop but a beautiful one that I fully understand a film lover falling for. Along with Vilmos Zsigmond’s incredible cinematography, Cimino’s indulgent ambition to portray the historic 1892 Johnson County War as the ultimate example of class warfare is impossible to dismiss so there is much to admire if not enjoy here.
There were many times that I caught my mind wandering so I’d rewind the scene (or skip back - whatever you call it with DVDs) and rewatch the scene only to find that I didn’t really miss anything. For all the magnificent splendor of the open terrain and the visual artistry on display the dialogue is weak (Kristofferson even says “I told you so” to Hubbert at one should’ve been emotionally affecting moment) and the characters are all one note. Kristofferson is so stoic and short-lipped that he never lets us in to care about him. I wasn’t sure whether or not to hate or have empathy for Walken as he faces off against Kristofferson for the love of Huppert while John Hurt tries to find poetry in his part but more often just finds his flask to take another drink. Hard to blame him. The editing feels off especially during the battle scene of the last third of the film and there are many uninvolving sequences that just go nowhere. Still it is an amazing looking film with many stunning shots that are worthy of study for aspiring film makers. What more likely will be studied though is how it not just destroyed careers, it ended an era - the director-driven 70’s died here so this is less a review than an autopsy. It’s neither as bad as Ebert or Canby or its sweep of the Golden Raspberry awards scream nor is it the misunderstood masterpiece that it’s defenders yell back; it’s at best gloriously sprawling and at its worse a blustery bore. I loved hating it as much as I hated loving it.
So, I finally saw the notorious HEAVEN’S GATE. I’m exhausted but proud that I finally conquered this beast of a box office dud. One day I may actually take on another infamous flop - Dennis Hopper’s THE LAST MOVIE. That’s a film that I think of as the “Metal Machine Music” of movies i.e. I don’t know a single soul who has ever sat through the whole thing. Whew! That’ll be the day.
Saturday, June 7, 2008
I really wanted to like this low budget comedy. It was filmed in my home state (in Concord, NC), made by former North Carolina School of the Arts students and The Varsity where I work is the only theater in the whole state showing the movie. So for obvious reasons I was pulling for it despite the first wave of so-so reviews. Comedian Patton Oswalt (best known as the voice of the rat in RATATOUILLE), who has no connection to the film except that he’s a fan, wrote this response to Keith Phipps’ lukewarm review of the film at the Onion A.V. Club (Phipps rated the film a “C”) which was another factor that got my hopes up. I mean Oswalt, whose stand-up comedy I love, used words like “genius”, “unique comic vision” and called it “a brilliant little movie” so you can see why I was on board there too. The film being the first production of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay was less encouraging because Ferrell’s last few sports comedies have, well, sorta sucked so that doesn’t really have the pull it used to. Unfortunately this film about a strip-mall Martial Arts instructor (Danny McBride) has only about 3 or 4 laughs in it.
McBride plays Fred Simmons whose deluded ego, cheating wife, and connection to his students is supposed to engage and amuse us but he’s not a likable nor even unlikable enough of character to do anything but annoy. As his slutty wife, Mary Jane Bostic gives a pretty wooden performance (even during a sex scene!) but with such flimsy material I don’t think it really refects on her as an actress. Director Jody Hill fares a little better as a pretentious Tae Kwon Do master and writer Ben Best does a decent turn as coked-up asshole Chuck “The Truck” Wallace - a movie star who McBride worships. NAPOLEON DYNAMITE-style buzz is highly unlikely to be generated by this lackluster effort - any few random hours of Comedy Central will bring bigger laughs. Like I said I was wanting to root for this scrappy underdog film from my Southern state but I find it very hard to see the “brilliant little movie” in THE FOOT FIST WAY that Patton Oswalt promised so I can only offer this 2 paragraph “Meh” as my response. Maybe if I had some of what he was smoking when he watched it I’d feel differently.
Sunday, June 1, 2008
There is a scene early on in Woody Allen’s 38th film as director in which the protagonists (Ewan MacGregor and Colin Farrell) in the middle of a discussion in a garage leave the shot while the camera stays still. While the dialogue of their tense talk is still audible they exit into a back room for a few moments then reappear with no breaks; no cuts. It is notable because it is one of the only times, apart from the standard white on black opening credits that is, that this British brothers gone bad thriller feels like an actual Woody Allen movie. As it goes on with the questionable character of their Uncle played by Tom Wilkinson, fresh from his crazily sane (or sanity-driven insanity) turn in MICHAEL CLAYTON, showing up with a out to the brothers’ financial worries, a few unmistakable Woody Allen themes pop up - jealousy and greed to be exact. A murder movie in the mold of Allen’s last hit MATCH POINT is the order of the day but since I was in the minority that was unfavorable to that first foray into British societal class crime, I am even less forgiving to this unmoving neo-noir creeper caper.
Comparisons are inevitable to BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, Sydney Lumet’s thriller also involving corrupt money-mad brothers doomed to fail in matters of finance and family; but this can’t really be considered a copy-cat because production of it was well underway years before that film was forged and it certainly doesn’t have anything in common with its narrative structure. Still it doesn’t bode well that that fine film would so definitively overshadow Allen’s incredibly self-conscious effort to make such an uncharacteristic and cold morality play as this. MacGregor and Farrell put in solid performances that show signs of rehearsing and multiple-take re-focusing but the material they have to work with feels like it came from pages of a first draft with the repetition fat uncut.
Wilkinson energizes the few sweaty desperate scenes he’s in but he acts as if he has secrets he’s not willing to share with the brothers, the audience, and even the movie. The female characters don't make much of a mark either - as gorgeous as Hayley Atwell, Sally Hawkins, and Ashley Madekwe are they are just decorations on a boy’s club class project. CASSANDRA’S DREAM, named after a boat the brothers name after a race winning dog at the tracks that doesn’t really have much of a consequence to the movie’s themes, is unfortunately another movie misstep for Woody Allen. In trying to make a movie so unlike any other from his canon he ended up with a film so indistinct that it is instantly forgettable.
Whew! Next Time I'll Tell you what I really think. This August comes yet another Woody Allen film - VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA which as a Spanish murder movie (that's just going by the trailer) doesn't look like a very characteristic work either. The oft repeated line from STARDUST MEMORIES (and real life) was that of his movies folks prefered “the early funny ones” well I’m going to start calling all his filmography before the last decade - “the early good ones”. So for the blogosphere film geek record here’s my list of my top 10 favorites of the early good ones:
Film Babble Blog’s Top 10 Woody Allen Films
2. MANHATTAN (1979) Shot in widescreen black and white with a Gershwin score and again a magnificent script this a rich rewarding movie over and over. Relationships, digs at shallow popular culture, pithy party repartee, heart breaking partings, and so on - Allen captures New York in the “Me Decade” like nobody else could. The great cast (Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemmingway, Meryl Streep) all inhabit the material beautifully. Of course again, there are the great one-liners: “My analyst warned me, but you were so beautiful I got another analyst.”
3. ANNIE HALL (1977) Allen’s most popular movie (it won the Best Picture Oscar) is an obvious but crucial choice because it signified a new direction and style after years of silly (but still terrific) comedies. Diane Keaton (who won Best Actress) as the title character and Woody as, well, Woody (actually his comedian character's name is Alvy Singer) do their crazy chemistry thing over an almost surreal mix of 4th wall breakage, childhood memory revisionism, overlapping comic dialogue, and even animation. “If life was only like this!”Allen says directly to the camera at one hilarious point and yes, I often wish it was.
4. HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992) Hard to separate this from the real-life break-up of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow but this take on Bergman’s SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE has a lot more going for it than what is now dated gossip. The late great Sydney Pollack, in what is definitely his best performance, and Judy Davis announce their divorce to Allen and Farrow, before their planned dinner out together mind you, and the two couples struggle through crises caught on a shaky cam with odd cuts and a docudrama style. Juliette Lewis as a writing student of Allen says: “Life doesn’t imitate art - it imitates bad TV”; in this film though, art does a pretty good impression of awkward desperate living.
5. HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986) Smack dab in the middle of the Reagan era and Woody’s Mia Farrow era as well, this is another sweet blend of comedy and drama. A large cracking cast including Diane Wiest, Barbara Hershey, Michael Caine (who won an Oscar for it), Sam Waterson, and Carrie Fisher keep the proceedings lively but Allen on the verge of suicide and getting rejuvenated by a chance midnight moviehouse showing of the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP is why this movie makes the list.
6. THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985) At the movie theater I work at part time one of my co-workers, who has worked at theaters for over 20 years, often remarks that this is his favorite Woody Allen film. Fitting for a projectionist to love a movie that largely takes place in an old 30’s movie palace. One of Allen’s best premises, a character (Jeff Daniels) in the movie within a movie of the title walks off the screen and into the real world of the depression because he falls in love with a woman (Mia Farrow) in the audience. Farrow sighs: “I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can't have everything.”
7. ZELIG (1983) Looking a lot like I am stuck on 80’s Woody Allen, huh? A mockumentary (I don't care if Christopher Guest hates the term) about a human chameleon played by Allen who can change his form or ethnicity depending on the company he keeps. Through the movie magic of editing and insertion Zelig finds himself rubbing shoulders with key players in early 20th century history - Hitler, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin, and James Cagney are among those who convincingly appear in archival footage. Forget the forgery that was FORREST GUMP, and relish ZELIG.
8. LOVE AND DEATH (1975)Woody’s War and Peace! Much headier than the comedies that made his name this was the most ambitious of his early career - an epic period piece with battle scenes and much Foreign film influence but the silliness and rapid-fire jokes ranks this as one of his all time funniest films. Another great pairing with Diane Keaton and yes, another great script. One of many hilarious one-liners: “There are worse things in life than death. If you've ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, you know what I'm talking about.”
9. DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997) The last great Woody Allen movie IMHO. It is different terrain with vulgarity, profanity, and depravity and that’s just what comes out of scorned lover Judy Davis’s mouth! Woody Allen plays Harry Block, rumored to be based on author Philip Roth, who takes everyone’s suffering and turns it into literary gold, as his ex-wife says. His creations catch up with him and he takes a look back at his parasitic existence with help from a large cast featuring Robin Williams, Billy Crystal (as the Devil!), Richard Benjamin, Demi Moore, Tobey McQuire, and a clever cameo by Mariel Hemmingway. Maybe the most acerbic and divisive film of Allen’s career.
10. TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969) I have a soft spot for this one because it is the first Woody Allen movie I remember seeing as a kid on television. Maybe one of the first mockumentaries it tells the story of Virgil, a petty thief who goes from heist to the slammer again and again. Essentially a series of sketches filled with patented one-liners and sight gags, it remains one of my favorites of his early funny ones because of the sheer amount of material that works. I saw it again recently on TCM and it still holds up. Virgil on meeting his wife (Janet Margolin) for the first time: “After fifteen minutes I wanted to marry her, and after half an hour I completely gave up the idea of stealing her purse.”
Okay! Now, there are a number of other Woody Allen films I love and recommend as well (like BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, RADIO DAYS, and SLEEPER) but that’s my top ten. Maybe this’ll encourage some young novice film geek to put some of the Woodman’s work in their NetFlix queue.