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).