Friday, September 15, 2006

an ober update

the good news: the trailer for Ober is available on-line
the bad news: it's kind of in Dutch. In fact, it's pretty much totally in Dutch.

but don't let this deter you!! It's still worth a watch, and it's available in various formats, such as:

Windows Media (Middelgroot)
Windows Media (Groot)
Quicktime (Middelgroot)
Quicktime (Groot)

or, download it from the film's official website:

Thursday, September 14, 2006

TIFF review: the fountain
dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2006

starring: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, & Ethan Suplee (the guy from My Name is Earl)

I really didn't think I'd be back this soon, but just as one Toronto International Film Festival screening prompted me to sing my highest praises, another was so bad that I can't resist the urge to sling a handful of poop in its general direction. If memory serves, I seem to recall rumours (a few years back) that director Darren Aronofsky was in the running to helm a live-action Batman Beyond picture. Well, that film never surfaced, but The Fountain, Aronofsky's labour of love-- the project's inception dates back to 2001/02-- marks his first release since Requiem for a Dream, some six years ago.

Requiem was released at an exciting time, when filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan, and David Fincher were experimenting with (somewhat) unconventional cinematic techniques that serve to remind us that film is, primarily, a visual medium, and that even a familiar story can seem fresh when it is approached with attention to style. For a moment, it seemed as if Aronofsky would join their ranks; in retrospect, however, Requiem feels trite. The performances are strong, but the subject of drug addiction has been handled with such graphic realism in other films that, upon multiple viewings, Aronofsky's efforts start to reek of style over substance. He has a talent for aesthetics, no doubt, but his sensibility seems to be more suited to music videos than to feature films.

The Fountain only emphasizes this sentiment. It is an ugly film, but I can imagine that any band with a penchant for teenage angst might benifit from Aronofsky's style. Neil Gaiman fans will also be impressed with the kind of pseudo-mythology this director vomits up ... Strike that. I like some of Gaiman's work. Gaiman is literate in his exploitation of mythology, while Aronofsky simply repeats the names "Adam & Eve," as if his vision of creation-via-love-via-death-via-special effects is somehow deep.

In reality, The Fountain plays as an unintentional comedy. Sperm pours from a tree into Hugh Jackman's mouth, and instead of receiving everlasting life, flowers sprout from his every oraface. Good golly. And the outrageously emotional performances-- many of which take place between man and tree-- are over the top, even within this fantastical story-world. This is only a minor concern, given the fact that the story-world looks an awful lot like a sound stage.

This is a film that will have a significantly wide release ... After bemoaning the fact that Ober won't, I can't help but feel that the injustice is palpable. All I can do is to urge the Aronofsky fan-boys and fan-girls not to defend a substandard film, simply because you admire the filmmaker ... That's how we got Star Wars episodes I through III.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

TIFF review: ober ("the waiter")
dir. Alex van Warmerdam, 2006

If anyone has stopped by my little site here over the last several months, they will have noticed that I have been remiss in actually posting anything. I have been on an undeclared hiatus as I struggle to finish the schoolwork necessary for the completion of my Masters degree, and must reserve as many words as possible for the purposes of essay writing. Though it is still in its infancy, this blog has become one of my favorite tools for procrastination (second only to watching films), and when one has a readership of three, it is hard to justify one's blogging efforts as anything but frivolous. So Did I Miss Something?? was relegated to the back-burner for a little while.

Now, this post represents only a brief hiatus from my hiatus ... The 2006 Toronto International Film Festival is in full swing, and it's the most wonderful time of the year; after a summer of schlock, movies are suddenly worth raving about again. Perhaps once I've seen all ten of my selected films, I will recap the experience with a few summaries. One screening in particular, though, prompted me to take a break from real life and return to cyber-criticism in an effort to share the wealth.

Alex van Warmerdam's Ober was well received by the audience at yesterday's TIFF presentation. Spectators can be fickle at 9:45 a.m., and it is a testament to the director's talent that his film elicited a laugh-out-loud response from beginning to end. Sadly, this is a film that will never garner the mainstream spectatorship that it deserves-- When's the last time you saw a movie from the Netherlands at a theatre near you? In all fairness, I tend to be skeptical of films from the Netherlands (which are similar in style to Scandinavian cinema). I'm no philistine, but I have encountered several movies from these regions that I can only describe as "weird." Now, I won't claim that there aren't unusual elements in this film, but they are employed in the service of comedy rather than abstraction.

Warmerdam, himself, plays Edgar, a middle-aged waiter who suffers through confrontations with his belligerent customers, unruly neighbours, his chronically ill wife, and his demanding mistress. Warmerdam's dead-pan performance is so consistent that the passivity that defines his character is not compromised when Edgar visits Herman, the screen-writer who is controlling his destiny; he is simply worn out, and has come to request, not demand, that his life might be propelled in a more agreeable direction.

Herman concedes, mainly to protect his own privacy (he doesn't feel that it's appropriate to have a fictional character visit his apartment). He strikes the plot line involving the invalid wife, and grants Edgar temporary solace in the arms of another woman. But, as any screen-writer will attest, a compelling narrative requires conflict, and Edgar is not off the hook in terms of the misery he must bear. As I mentioned, some of the circumstances in which Edgar is placed are unusual-- there's an hilarious scene in which he purchases a bow-and-arrow set from an eccentric hunchback, for instance. It sounds strange, yes, but don't mistake Ober for some kind of surrealist art film; scenarios like this are outrageously funny because they are unexpected, and refreshing because most contemporary comedies are ridiculously predictable.

Another film playing at TIFF this year is Stranger than Fiction, starring Will Ferrell and Dustin Hoffman. It has a similar premise: the destiny of a character (whom we perceive as real) is controlled by an author who is writing fiction. I had wanted to see this movie at the festival, but tickets are issued by way of a lottery system and it was sold out before my selections were considered, so I can't assess whether or not it is as successful in its execution. I have talked to a number of people who have seen Stranger than Fiction, and their feedback has been positive. I suspect, however, that Ober is the better of the two. I say this, not because I am snobbishly pro foreign films, but because I honestly believe that mainstream audiences will respond to the "gags" in Ober with more pleasure.

I know: you're afraid of subtitles ... And, yes, subtitles take some getting used to; but it is a mistake to discount foreign films as erudite or pretentious. Alex van Warmerdam's film has the potential to satisfy a wider audience than it will ever encounter, and I would urge people to seek it out. It is a film with great depth, but it needs to be emphasized that, first and foremost, Ober works as an accessible comedy that even the most skeptical movie-lover will enjoy. So, please, don't forget this title ... It may surface at a specialty video store in your neighbourhood, and I guarantee that it will provide a satisfying night of entertainment.

(note: this commentary contains excerpts from a review I posted on

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

review: kiss kiss bang bang
2005- dir. Shane Black
starring- Robert Downey, Jr., Val Kilmer, & Michelle Monaghan

Not long ago, a wise e-mailer responded to my mission statement, suggesting that I should: "try to keep in mind that many people want "just entertainment" from films rather than a lot of deep stuff, especially after a stressful work week." While many of the films that I intend to review in upcoming posts are, perhaps, a wee bit deeper than anything you might see at your local multiplex (especially during these summer months), I have no plans to recommend an Ingmar Bergman retrospective as an alternative to your regular screening schedule.

The word "deep" is both arbitrary and suspect to me. What makes a film "deep"? Must it be depressing and abstract? Inaccessible to the "masses"? Maybe it has to be "arty" (or even "artsy"), preferably in Black & White and subtitled, with plenty of loooooong close-ups on sorrowful-looking faces or, even better, barren landscapes!! And if I am not a part of the elite group of spectators who enjoy these films, I must be stupid. But I'm hard-headed. Instead of considering why I don't like these deep, deep movies, I choose to ignore them. If I give my opinion, them artsy folks will just make me feel even stupider.

So I'm gonna go see Date Movie, 'cause that's a film made for "ME"... Or is it? You, the reader, are smart. More often than not, you know a shitty movie when you see one... But do you seek out anything better? Again, more often than not, "no." It's not entirely your fault. Better movies (films that I honestly believe would appeal to wider audiences don't get the release that they should) aren't advertized on the sides of HUMMERS, like SUPERMAN RETURNS is.

I do think, however, that a better term than "deep" is "SOPHISTICATED". Here's a word that puts the onus on the film, rather than the viewer. Let me explain: a summer film that I loved, a few years back, was The Mummy. Arguably, The Mummy is a movie that provides "just entertainment". And yet, the filmmakers seem to be aware enough to realize that they are making a modern day "B"-movie. This film is "sophisticated" because it is self-aware. And, yet, you don't need to know how self-aware the film is in order to enjoy it.

On the other hand, I really feel that a film can be too self-aware, so-much-so that the filmmakers think that they are smarter than you. Which brings us to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I am honestly surprised that this film was never released as a "BIG" motion-picture. It was well received by the audience that I saw it with at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it has been praised (big-time) by cult critics like Harry Knowles (of Ain't it Cool News). In addition, it reeks with the elements of success: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a fast paced, accessible caper-comedy with a few good laughs and a couple of top-notch actors (Kilmer & Downey, Jr.). It's written and directed by the guy who penned all four Lethal Weapon's!!! Surely there' would be interest in a film such as this...

So why haven't you heard of it? Well, my theory is that the filmmaker vigorously pumped it up as an "intelligent" movie-- to the point that studio execs felt that it would soar above viewers' heads and they panicked. What they didn't seem to realize is how low-brow this comedy actually is.

The film follows-- and is narrated by-- Harry Lockhart (Downey, Jr.), a career criminal who accidentally stumbles into a Hollywood casting session and finds himself living the life of a hot-new-commodity on the acting scene. He is paired with a professional consultant, a Private Eye who has been dubbed "GAY PERRY" (because he is GAY), in order to prepare for an upcoming role as a detective. "Things" are, of course, complicated when a legitimate crime-- involving Harry's lost love-- eclipses pre-production.

The plot begins to mirror that of a pulp crime novel (which is explicitly defined, in the film, as a story wherein two seemingly unrelated cases converge to reveal ONE ludicrously elaborate conspiracy). To say more would be difficult and would, perhaps, spoil the lame surprises.

I have taken a lot of flack for criticizing this film. People seem to love it, and they seem to think that it is subverting a number of elements of the "crime-comedy" genre... I disagree. I honestly think that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is trying to fool us. This is a film that pokes fun at the conventional crime genre without realizing that it ends up adhering to the formula that it seeks to challenge.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is neither an outright success, nor a failure; it tends to alternate between the two. It begins with some wry subversion of the crime movie formula, but falls into those very conventions for most of the second and third acts. It then over compensates at the end as if to convince us that it's really smart... But is it? The filmmakers strive for satire. At best, however, they achieve parody.

I would like to think that audiences realize the difference, but, it has been my experience, with this film, that they often don't... So, once again, I offer my take:

WHAT YOU MIGHT LIKE: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is pretty funny. You might like the fact that the film takes some chances that a "normal" film wouldn't.... I Iiked that a certain injury never heals... and that a guy pees on a corpse. But, these are the very elements that allowed the filmmaker to say "my film is ground-breaking" when, really, he was only going for cheap laughs.

WHAT YOU MIGHT NOT LIKE: This film ultimately follows the FORMULA... I respect what it subverts, but IT ENDS WITH A CAR CHASE!!! I cannot recommend a film that pretends to be something "new," but presents you with the "same-old", as if you can't tell the difference.

Also, you might be aware of the fact that two of the greatest actors working today(Robert Downey, Jr. & Val Kilmer) are simply phoning in their performances. I'm not too surprised... They must realize that the characters, as written, are one-dimentional to-the-extreme (especially Kilmer, whose "gay-ness" is articulated when his ring tone plays "I Will Survive"... Oh!! ha ha ha.)

Ultimately, I think that this film is one that you should be embarassed to like. It's not the worst picture ever made.... but it depends on stereotypes for laughs and, even worse, tries to make you feel smart by employing cheap gags.

And,yet, I'm also "WRONG"... I know a lot of people who like this movie... If you have feed-back, this is a great opportunity to send some "spite." I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

review: once upon a time in the west
1968- dir. Sergio Leone
starring- Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, & Claudia Cardinale

Circa summer 1991, my dad reluctantly John-Henried a contract that would allow cable television to be installed in our home. His decision was, perhaps, inspired by the fact that our family was embarrassingly behind the times-- we had just upgraded from a floor unit T.V. that took thirty-or-more minutes to "warm up"-- but I am inclined to believe that the company was offering a fantastic deal, 'cause we didn't simply "get cable"; we got "the whole package."

This included, what was known at the time as, "First Choice" (now, The Movie Network, or "TMN"... Basically it was "Rogers' on Demand" without the Rogers or the Demand). Regardless, we suddenly had movies pumped into the house, and video tapes ready to capture them. Instead of forming an addiction to the 40-channels of "boob-tube," as dad had feared, my sister and I found ourselves in need of a "Young Guns II" "hit" every day, and we watched that VHS recording over and over and over again. By the end of the summer we could recite the dialogue verbatim.

The source of our fascination remains enigmatic to me. I recently conducted an un-scientific poll, and the results seem to suggest that a majority of viewers aged 18-30 have never seen a western, let alone devoted an entire summer to one. Of course, Young Guns II has a contemporary flair that undermines many of the stigmas we might attach to more traditional westerns.

I, myself, grew up believing that the western genre was archaic in league with our floor unit. My resistance to these films was based on the superficial grounds that they looked old and boring. It was only two years ago that I finally shed the last of my preconceptions and pitched a wagon towards the western frontier.

For fear of carpal tunnel syndrome, I will resist the urge to recount the entire journey. It is, however, important to point out that I discovered a wealth of entertainment; my expectations were blown to pieces when, over the course of watching forty-some-odd films, I marked a range of plot-lines-- more diverse than I ever would have fathomed. These were not the "cowboy and 'injun'" pictures that had fettered my imagination for nearly two decades... No, these are films that depict a variety of universal human conflicts against a backdrop of stunning vistas, riveting action, and intricate gun-play.

In order to convince you, dear reader, that this is so, I can either describe every western I have seen, or review the one film that contains almost every element that deems this genre worthy of your attention. Once Upon a Time in the West was not the first western I saw, nor is it necessarily the best. This Leone opus, however, is a great picture to start with if you are a reluctant inductee. In line with his previous "spaghetti westerns," Leone envisions the Wild West as a grimy half-wilderness where bounty hunters and entrepreneurs, alike, aim to earn their capital via blood-money. The burgeoning towns depicted in his films are so remote that they are virtually lawless; consequently, the stories explore human morality from a refreshingly carnal point of view.

I am purposely avoiding plot detail-- not because this film doesn't have a cohesive story-line (it does), but because Once Upon a Time in the West follows a kind of episodic structure, each sequence playing homage to classical Hollywood westerns that inspired Sergio Leone's filmmaking career. In a certain sense, OUaTitW might be described as "Baroque," rather than "revisionist" ; but it's over-the-top in the best of ways... Even without any western fore-knowledge, you will appreciate the humour and subversion that has been injected into the plot:

Frank: How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can't even trust his own pants.

As I have previously mentioned, the point of my reviews is to provide the kind of fore-knowledge one might need to appreciate, if not enjoy a film. Once Upon a Time in the West is the picture that first affords me the opportunity to really cut to the bone with my "YOU MIGHT" categories:

You Might Not Like: a few things... First, it's a WESTERN. I really believe that this is a big obstacle for a lot of people-- I was one of those people!!! Once Upon a Time in the West will cost you, maybe, $3 to rent... I bought it for less than $15. Either way, it's worth the low, low fee.

#2: It is a slow moving film-- compared to what you are used to. There are scenes that pop, but Leone has a cinematic style that favors long close-ups on actors' faces, and wide, vista like, location shots that are equally detailed in their terrains.

and #3... I suspect that the dubbing may turn a few people off. Once Upon a Time in the West was recorded in Italian (and some of it silent...) It was dubbed in English for American audiences, and you can tell the difference. Or can you? The dubbing is fairly well done, and the story is strong enough that you might forget that there is a lot of post-sound-work.

WHAT YOU MIGHT LIKE: This film has modern touches that you might find surprising. It is funnier and more tension-packed than most contemporary movies... Even though it is a '68 production, it feels surprisingly fresh.

WHAT YOU MIGHT CONSIDER: The western genre has provided the basis for most movie story-telling. The A-B-C'S of human behaviour and morality are examined and debated in these films... They are almost Shakespearian in nature. Westerns employ understandable language, though... Don't be afraid. I will publish a list of "must-see" films soon. For now, if you enjoy Once Upon a Time in the West, you will want to check out Rio Grande, Winchester '73, and/or The Quick and the Dead, just for a taste.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

musing #3: j.j. versus joss
I went to see Mission: Impossible III last week and, in spite of the many warning signs that led me to believe it was going to be a disaster, I really enjoyed the movie. My low expectations may have furnished the entertainment factor to a point, but ultimately, my demands of a summer blockbuster are no different than those of any other film; no matter what I might expect, I always hope it will be good.
Which is why I tend to avoid films starring Tom Cruise. There are actors with less talent, but then Tom's not really an "actor," is he? He's a "movie star" whose infamous personality tends to impede any suspension of disbelief; my constant awareness that he IS Tom Cruise almost always throws me out of the picture. This, however, is where expectations become interesting. Walking into the latest installment of the M:I franchise, I harbour no illusions about this being a character study. I am fully aware that Ethan Hunt has less psychological depth than, well, cardboard, for instance. The role is physically demanding, but the first two films make it evident that Cruise is adept at performing action, and that he is photogenic enough to compel audiences to watch him do just that.
So I was less concerned about Cruise, in this case, than with the film's biggest unknown element: director J.J. Abrams. As evidenced by his television track record (Abrams is creator of the hit shows Felicity, Alias, & Lost), J.J. ain't no hack, but directors who cut their teeth on the boob tube don't always chew their way onto the big screen as effortlessly as one might expect. I had hoped for more, par example, from Joss Whedon's Serenity, the motion picture follow-up to his ill-fated Firefly series.
Now, don't get me wrong... I am a Whedon-ite in the geekiest sense of the term. I consider Joss to be the master of genre television, and although he is best known for the horror-comedy-film noir-melodrama-screwball hybrids Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, I really feel that he has never come as close to perfection as he does with Firefly. It comes as no surprise that the series was prematurely cancelled (only eleven of the thirteen episodes filmed actually aired); it's difficult to peddle a Space-Western in today's market. But damned if this isn't the best show that no one's ever seen.
Whedon's quippy, stylized dialogue is delivered with a natural rhythm by the cast of Firefly (whereas it periodically sounds a bit stilted in his previous series). The stories also flow quite organically-- less frequently interrupted by the choreographed fight scenes one finds at the 35 minute point of a Buffy or Angel episode. The characters are rich and complex (as they are in the Buffy-verse), and the show establishes a fully textured world (multiple worlds, actually) that yearns to be revisited. There are details in the production design that introduce plot-lines that may not have surfaced for seasons to come.
In keeping with tradition, Whedon's show looks spectacular. One of his signatures is to bring a complexity to camera movement and editing that stands apart from the traditional television formula. Compared to most T.V. shows, Firefly is cinematic; compared to cinema... Well, therein lies one of the problems with Serenity. Although I admire Joss for maintaining visual consistency with the series, I feel that the motion picture adaptation of Firefly bears too close a resemblance to really, really good T.V., and consequently fails to hold up as a cinematic experience.
J.J. Abrams has offered up similar quality with his television programs. Though I was never a fan of Felicity, I would certainly remark that the show's cinematography is quite stunning, that it is visually distinct from other fare. The premise of Alias intrigued me more, but I was too busy to watch when it first aired, and by the time I made time for it, I felt that too much had happened for me to catch up. Lost, on the other hand, blew me away with its two-hour series premiere; the production value and visual splendor of the show was like nothing I had ever seen on T.V. I do have some issues with the way that Lost has progressed, but it has its hooks in me; I have been a committed viewer for nearly two seasons now, and the story-lines are still more riveting than most everything else on the dial.
His talent, however, is unleashed like never before in the M:I 3 action sequences. I think I may have held my breath a little during the helicopter chase sequence that weaves through a field of wind turbines. There's also a fantastic gag that plays with that old cliche of the oil tanker barreling sideways down the street towards imminent explosion... The style of the film is cinematic in the blockbuster mode, and I daresay that this installment is far better than its two predecessors. The drama is okay, too. Philip Seymour Hoffman may be slumming it, but his intensity proves that he's still bringing full efforts to this performance, and he more than makes up for the ridiculously convoluted plot.
In addition to being a film that works on the big screen, Mission: Impossible III is also instantly forgettable. I suppose it's not meant to resonate much (mission: accomplished), but this brings me back to the issue of the Whedon works. In many ways, adapting a show as sophisticated as Firefly for the cinema has more insurmountable obstacles than producing a sequel. Serenity picks up where the series left off (or shortly thereafter), and basically attempts to wrap up plot-lines that would have composed the second half of season one. How do you effectively cram eight or nine episodes worth of material into two hours? Well, you don't. Whedon's film has to jettison a great deal of the core character interation in order to make room for exposition. The series has a large cult following, but the movie must be accessable to newcomers, also.
From discussions with a number of people, I have discovered that those who have never seen an episode of Firefly tend to enjoy the movie more than the die hard fans. So, Serenity is not an all and out failure. My position is that, if it entices viewers to look at the thirteen episodes available on DVD, then all will be right. Honestly, Firefly is one of the most re-watchable shows you will ever come accross (I myself have participated in no fewer than eight marathon sessions).
I look forward to the next motion picture J.J. Abrams directs, but I won't be purchasing M:I 3 on DVD. The film more than entertained me for two hours, but as far as I am concerned, Joss Whedon has delivered a life-time's worth of satisfaction in a four-disc box-set. "Satisfaction" is, perhaps, an iffy term... If and when you seek out this hidden gem, you may be disappointed that it ends. I guarantee that you are likely to crave for more, but as Joss ponders aloud on an episode commentary: "Wouldn't it be great if someone watching the movie said, "Hey... This would make a fantastic T.V. show."
In any case, the J.J. versus Joss battle results in something of a tie. Each has entertained to the extreme in an individual way. The best we can hope for is that both of their talents continue to reach our screens, be they 1.33:1 or 1.85:1.
p.s. I secretly hope that Joss Whedon will ultimately win!!!

Friday, May 12, 2006

review: Murder by Death

1976- dir. Robert Moore
Starring: Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness, David Niven, Peter Falk, Maggie Smith, & Truman Capote

Lionel Twain: I'm the greatest, I'm number one!
Sam Diamond: To me, you look like number two, know what I mean?
Dora Charleston: What DOES he mean, Miss Skeffington?
Tess Skeffington
: I'll tell you later. It's disgusting.

I almost mused again. In fact, I have been musing, in my head, quite frequently. I do, however, want to devote as much of this space to reviewing films as I can... It's just that nothing I have seen in the past few weeks has fastened jumper cables to my analytical battery. My intention was to kick off with a magically perfect kind of film, something vaguely recognizable but under-appreciated, an off-beat treasure of the hidden gem variety. A must-see!

Murder by Death? Well, it doesn't quite fall into that category. But it's really funny. And it addresses an issue that I have been musing about recently: comedies, these days, generally aren't.

I have evidence to support this claim-- actually, it's just a list of movies-- but before I reveal who the culprits are, I shall examine the case of the cock-eyed crime spoof. Murder by Death is a clever parody of the detective genre performed by an ensemble of prominent comedic actors (note that they are actors, not "comedians" or "former Saturday Night Live cast members"). The famous sleuths that they lampoon, well known figures from both literature and cinema (Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and Nick & Nora Charles), have been assembled by eccentric madman, Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), who aims to put their criminology skills to the ultimate test. Summoned to his creepy country estate via invitation to "dinner and a murder", the investigators arrive at the Twain manor doors with their trusty-rusty sidekicks and wacky associates in tow.

The plot is simple: Twain wagers a million dollars against the reputations of the world's five most famous detectives by challenging them to solve the murder of someone at the dinner table to be committed by someone at the dinner table at precisely midnight. Everyone is a suspect, and everyone a potential killer. This exposition is, however, more or less beside the point. The entertainment value of this film comes from its manic word-play and its masterful send up of the cliches we have come to expect from the detective formula. Murder by Death provides a healthy combination of dialogue and slapstick based jokes, and is anchored by a talented cast of actors who have mined the original characters for quirks that can be embellished to produce humour.

This is not to say that Murder by Death is a perfect film, let alone a perfect comedy. I get the feeling that the script, by the eminent playwrite Neil Simon, is much stronger than the actualization we see on screen. In fact, the style in which it is shot adheres too closely to the conventions of a stage play (long, static shots accommodate all of the action at once), and, as a result, the film's pace is a little bit slow. It lacks the ruckus perfection of a laugh-a-minute spoof like Airplane! And yet, it has a laugh every two minutes, which is a testament to the strength of the material (and, certainly, to the actors). Contemporary comedies seem to be able to provoke a laugh only once every twenty minutes at best.

Why is this so? Well, if you will allow me to muse for a moment... The success of genre films tends to come in cycles. You get a bunch of, say, detective films; we become familiar with their conventions, then, ten years later, we get a new slew of detective films that recreate and/or deviate from those conventions. Near the end of a cycle of popularity, we tend to see a film that spoofs the formula, i.e. Murder by Death (that ol' detective film) or Airplane! (tackling the disaster movie).

Nowadays, films tend to be self-reflexive anyway. There are "no new ideas," so filmmakers play with conventions on their own accord. Although it may be difficult to "spoof-a-spoof" (to put it that way), people still try, and, consequently, we get the Scary Movie franchise, and also Not Another Teen Movie and Date Movie.

But this is old news... Critics have been panning these movies on the premise that you can't parody a parody for years. What hasn't been addressed is the fact that filmmakers no longer seem to know how to direct, and therefore edit, a comedy. I suspect that this has to do with directors depending on their actors to be so funny that nothing else matters, so they just sit back and watch. Comedy, however, is much more complex. It is a combination of construction and talent. A director has to provide the kind of coverage that will allow his/her editor to build a rhythmic cut, and an actor must be able to do more than carry an SNL sketch.

Ultimately, it comes down to the writing. Audiences will forgive a bad performance if the idea shines through. Truman Capote does not play Lionel Twain particularly well, but his lines are fantastic. Murder by Death works because it spoofs the conventions of a very specific genre with, not only affection, but attention to detail. The Scary Movies, on the other hand, fail not only due to the fact that the source material is already self-aware, but because they attempt to parody anything. For godssake, Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah's couch is bizarre enough... How could Craig Bierko doing the same thing possibly be funnier???

So... should you watch Murder by Death? Well, I'm not here to say yay or nay... But here's the low down:

What you Might Like:
This film is so funny that I laughed while watching it by myself. Out loud. If you're looking for a funny comedy, you might find it here.

What you Might Not Like:
It's old. I know a lot of people who will only rent from the "NEW RELEASE" section of their video stores. I understand why, but DEAR GOLLY,they are missing SO much. Surely, most people who are reading this have never heard of David Niven. And yet, you know who Rob Schneider is. I have discussed older films with a number of people who are genuinely surprised that motion pictures made prior to the 1980's might actually be entertaining.

Also, you may not have seen the films that this spoof borrows from. I think that Murder by Death still functions as a laugh-out-loud comedy whether you are one-hundred-percent familiar with the original characters or not, but there are a number of jokes that play upon the minute details of the detectives that are parodied.

What you Might Consider:
Consider, first of all: SEEING THESE FILMS!!! It is worth seeking out some of the classic noir movies (and Agatha Christie adaptations), not only for the pure enjoyment of screening some wonderful pictures, but to be surprised by the extent to which the contemporary films we all watch have been influenced by these formulas. I highly recommend The Maltese Falcon (starring Humphrey Bogart)and The Thin Man (a brilliant spoof of the detective genre in its own right).

Friday, April 28, 2006

musing #2: i am trailer trash...

This past Wednesday, I visited my local multi-multi-multi-plex theatre for the first time in ages. It was nice to see a movie on the big screen as opposed to my 20" T.V. for a change, but as I was ascending the dizzy-inducingly steep escalator to the second floor, the true nature of my excitement passed through my lips. I said, to my friend Theresa, "I can't wait for the previews!!"

Now, I know that there is an on-going debate as to whether or not the previews give too much away about any given film-- and often times they do--... But I don't care. A movie will rarely live up to its advertised expectations, yet I am so often entertained by previews that promise so much. I know that I don't want to see all of these movies, but the ads are extremely telling when it comes to "why?"

A comedy preview, for instance, will give away its best jokes. I have seen enough comedy trailers and enough comedy films to know when this is true. Thank you, comedy trailer editor, for saving me twelve dollars.

A sports film about an underdog team that rises above the obstacles placed before them might be charming, but I've seen it before. Thanks for trying, but I've been there and done that. I liked Remember the Titans, but preferred the two-minute abridged version.

My favorite trailors are for horror films. They offer chills that one can never expect to find in the movies themselves. How can it be that an ad is more frightening than the film it promotes? I am happy that I can still be frightened by cinematic technique: I am always up for a good horror flick... But what is the deal with previews that make me piss my pants, whereas the films leave me cold?

Another friend of mine, Liz, once said that no preview ever looks like it'll be a bad movie. I don't agree... I believe that a bad film might look better as advertised, but that the truth is being handed to you on a generous platter.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

musing #1: woody allen's infidelity

auteur /o:t3r/ noun a director who so greatly influences the films directed as to be able to rank as their author. [French,=Author]

I had wanted my first official post to be a review, but inspiration struck me as I watched Match Point, Woody Allen's latest film. It seems somewhat apt that I would begin with a piece about one of my favorite filmmakers, though. When I first discovered Allen's work-- many, many moons ago-- It was like finding a soul-mate: a neurotic intellectual with a penchant for beautiful women and beautiful brains (not to mention the almost scientific urge to fuse the two together). His on-screen image was, for many years, that of a cowardly nebbish whose insecurities are in constant battle with his self involvement and pithy attitude towards modern life. This is not to say, however, that he has been a "one-note" performer. Upon re-viewing his films, you will find a marked variety in the level of confidence and concern that his characters display.

Whether he is working within the conventions of broad comedy or high drama, Allen's films are always rooted in a kind of artful intelligence. His earlier comedies seamlessly weave together slapstick, philosophy, and allusions to Russian literature; his dramatic efforts bare the stylistic influence of European art cinema and explore, with remarkable depth and insight, the dark complexities of human psychology. At his best, Woody Allen injects all of these elements into a single film (gosh... I'm making me want to sit down and watch Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors all over again).

Now, Woody Allen is not for everyone. Some find the stilted cadence of his dialogue off-putting, while others object to the sordid details of his much-publicized love life. I suspect, however, that many people simply don't want to sit through another variation of the New York elite engaging in romantic affairs fable that Allen so often revisits. These reasons are all valid, but I have remained a fan, and I believe that Woody Allen's biggest infidelity was to his audience when he released a slew of half-assed comedies in an attempt to garner (or re-garner) mainstream success.

With Match Point, though, Allen is back in top form. Yes, it's a tale about infidelity, but this time it concerns the British elite!!! This film not only reassured me that Woody has not yet reached his own Hollywood Ending, but refreshed my memory as to what a formidable director he is. For ages now, I have been primarily critical of his writing; the scripts to his last few films have felt un-finished to me. The story of Match Point is certainly engaging, but what really grabbed my attention was the camera work. The way that Allen frames his characters and reveals intimate details with deliberate movement is so affective. I was drawn in immediately, largely the result of Allen's subtle technique, and I am inclined to believe that this film could have the same kind of impact on those who don't generally care for his work. This is the Woody Allen film that, I think, stands the greatest chance of capturing the kind of mainstream appeal that he hasn't seemed to have been able to muster for decades.

Monday, April 24, 2006

mission statement or "how i learned to stop worrying and love the blog"

I have had, for quite some time now, a great deal of trouble trying to convince friends outside of my current field of studies-- and my profession-- that I am not a "film snob." A long time ago in an undergrad program not so very far away, these outsiders (sans goatee et garb noir) began to question as to whether studying/analyzing/interpreting and/or tearing apart films had ruined "the movies" for me. Over the course of a decade-or-so, the concern has become so ubiquitous that I have been compelled to devise a kind of general response, the tone of which may account, in part, for the leveled charge that I have my nose in the air: "Studying film hasn't ruined movies for me... It has ruined bad movies, and bad movies deserve to be ruined."

The relationship, in fact, is a little more complex than that. I love all kinds of movies, good and bad. What irks me, I guess, is that vast, mediocre middle ground that people so complacency accept as the bulk of their entertainment. Hmm... That sounds snobby, too. Let me rephrase: What irks me is not that people watch, are entertained by, and enjoy mainstream films (or even blockbuster extravaganzas), but that they seem so reluctant to seek out anything else...

And I understand this reluctance; I understand it because I have been privy to the reviews of two of the most formidable movie critics I know: my parents. Mom and Dad are well-rounded spectators. Variety is the spice of their movie diet, and any number of reasons might prompt them to give their thumbs up to a film they enjoy. If, on the other hand, they do not like a film, it tends to be for one of three reasons:

#1. "It was too depressing."
#2. "There were too many characters... We got confused."

(Allow me to digress for a quick second to say that these critiques are of some concern to me, and I hope to address them in a future post, but that this third one proved to be the inspiration for my "on-line agenda"...)

#3. "Did we miss something?"

Nine times out of ten, the answer to this question is "Yes." Now, this is not to say that the film in question is good or bad. It does, however, speak to the fact that their expectations have been manipulated by the formulas that have been established (by "popular" entertainment) as the norm. Which brings me to the point of this little effort:

For quite some time, I have wanted to write some reviews that shift the focus away from the purely evaluative, and present the reader with some information that will allow him/her to consider what to expect when approaching a film... Any film. Any movie. In doing so, there are a few things I'd like to achieve:

#1. On this website, I will review much of what I watch: films both old and new. My emphasis will be on "What You Might..." What you might like, what you might not; what you might expect, what you might consider; etc. I want to share some of the tools that have shaped my appreciation and analysis of movies, and I hope that anyone who's reading will respond with their own evaluations of the films I discuss. Tell me whether or not you like these films... Above all, tell me WHY.

#2. I also plan to use this space as a diary (urgh) to post some musings about issues in film that are rattling around my brain. I also welcome feedback here. The more we discuss, the more we grow to be critical spectators.

#3. The larger goal is to encourage people to be more discerning as an audience. I harbor no illusions that my little waste-of-space on the internet could ever inspire a mass audience to demand better from the Hollywood studios, but I would love to be assured that people recognize the difference between the good, the bad, and (especially) the mediocre. I would feel extremely fulfilled if I heard from one person who went to their local video store to rent King Kong, but also picked up something like The Squid and the Whale, Pieces of April, or The Station Agent, and was pleasantly surprised.