Friday, August 29, 2008

the rest-of-summer round-up

Some brief thoughts about the movies I have seen during the latter half of the summer.


Great premise, poor execution. The film doesn't want to alienate viewers who think Will Smith's ears are cute (read "the general public"), so it avoids confronting superhero conventions or the psychology of its main character with the depth it would require to be satisfying. It's kind of a shame that
Hancock missed the mark because now that the 2008 summer season, with its deluge of comic book movies, is over, the moment for Hancock's timely themes has passed.


I'm struggling to recall whether I liked this film or not, which suggests that it was not particularly memorable. Honestly, though, I had the same response to
Hellboy numero uno. Both installments pass the time without making me wish I was elsewhere, knitting or something, and offer minor delights, mostly visual. Every review of the Golden Army that I have read speculates that director Guillermo del Toro either had leftover creatures from his previous film, Pan's Labyrinth, and/or had recently spent some time in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Had I bothered to review Hellboy II at the time, I would have likely blurted out similar quips. The creature designs, though, remain quite faithful to the style of Hellboy artist Mike Mignola, too. So, yes, there's optical splendor that probably works best on the big screen, but my overall indifference towards the film makes it difficult to recommend.


You know what
The Dark Knight needs? More buzz. Really, though, what am I going to add to a discussion of the film that hasn't already been said? I belong to the camp that thinks The Dark Knight is not quite as wonderful as it has been raved to be, but most of my quibbles are minor. The first time I saw the movie, I spent the initial forty minutes wondering what was so great about the film, but then it kicked into gear and wowed me like it did so many other viewers. I left the theater with the same kind of buzz I felt after seeing The Empire Strikes Back so many years ago. I saw The Dark Knight again in IMAX, and was not as bored during the opening scenes, but I recognized that there are a number of sequences that seem to be over before they're finished. What happens at Bruce Wayne's dinner party after the Batman jumps out the window, for instance? Heath Ledger: very good. Christian Bale: deserves more recognition for how good he is, also.


For better or worse, Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, and their cadre of regulars have set the bar for contemporary comedy with their series of successful R-rated flicks (in which nothing is sacred, except maybe pot). In comparison to movies like
Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Tropic Thunder has an air of gentility that belies its attempts to skewer its targets with significant audacity. The film opens with some clever gags, including the parody advertisements and trailers that introduce the main characters. In general, though, the jokes are kind of lame.

The semi-controversial retard material is less shocking than protesters made it out to be, and whatever shock-value was intended in the casting of Tom Cruise to play studio exec, Les Grossman-- oh my god, he's
so playing against type-- is undermined by the fact that Tom Cruise really stinks. If the humor was as outrageous as it needed to be, it might be easier to accept the ridiculous plot: actors who think that they're filming in the jungle, guerrilla style, end up doing battle with an Asian drug cartel. As it stands, however, this movie offers no incentive for me to suspend any degree of disbelief.

Tropic Thunder is valuable in one regard, it would be its contribution towards catapulting Robert Downey, Jr. to A-List fame. Along with his recognition for Iron Man, Downey's performance in this film has been appropriately lauded as one of this summer's highlights. I think we can look forward to seeing him in future projects that are not as easily summed up as:

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Dennis Cozzalio keeps me occupied for fifteen hours with his latest quiz for hard core cinephiles at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Here are my answers to:


1) Your favorite musical moment in a movie

Whenever someone asks me what my "favorite"
anything in a movie category is, I immediately come up with a list of at least 25 answers. I am willing to commit to a favorite movie musical, as I am inordinately fond of An American in Paris, but a musical moment? Here's a smattering of moments that immediately jumped into my head: Movin' Right Along from The Muppet Movie; the last supper scene (Suicide is Painless) in M*A*S*H; Deadfall's symphonic heist; the Hooray for Captain Spalding number in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You; Rick's customers rallying behind Le Marseillaise in Casablanca; the Flying Trapeze song from It Happened One Night; and oh-so-many more... (I haven't even addressed musical scores)

2) Ray Milland or Dana Andrews

Gotta say, neither actor is particularly compelling to me. Looking over their filmographies at imdb, I can confess to only having seen one of each performer's movies (The Lost Weekend and Laura, respectively). My response to both was ho-hum. I like the
name Ray Milland, though. It rolls off the tongue nicely: Ray Milland. I'm gonna go with Ray Milland (born Reginald Alfred Truscott-Jones).

3) Favorite Sidney Lumet movie

I'm going to go ahead and classify Network as a Paddy Chayefsky movie so that I can throw this bone to The Verdict. Lumet, Newman, Rampling, Warden, Mamet, Mandel, and a sophisticated plot that puts most legal dramas to shame. The world needs more movies about alcoholic ambulance chasers, too.

4) Biggest surprise of the just-past summer movie season

Nicky Katt is in The Dark Knight.

5) Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth

Rita Hayworth, but I have a poster of Tim Robbins hanging on my cell wall.

6) What’s the last movie you saw on DVD? In theaters?

The last movie I saw on DVD was Prom Night (2008), because internet piracy makes movie watching so affordable that I no longer have to be discerning about what I choose to see.

The last movie I saw in the theater was Tropic Thunder. It was retarded.

7) Irwin Allen’s finest hour?

The Poseidon Adventure.

8) What were the films where you would rather see the movie promised by the poster than the one that was actually made?

'nuff said

9) Chow Yun-Fat or Tony Leung

I really enjoy watching Chow Yun-Fat shoot people in the early John Woo films, but Tony Leung blows me away as an actor. At his best, so far, I think in Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love. The man has a face that can make your soul cry.

10) Most pretentious movie ever

adjective 1 making an excessive claim to great merit, importance, fashionableness, etc. esp. without cause. 2 ostentatious, showy. (Canadian Oxford Dictionary)

You would think that some artsy foreign film would jump to mind, but a couple of mainstream movies tie at the top of my list:

Gladiator: a picture that wants you to believe that it is an historical epic in the vein of Braveheart or Lawrence of Arabia, but is actually just a sports film. In fact, it's not even Rocky... It's like ancient WWF.

Forrest Gump: a picture that wants you to believe that it is an insightful human drama that examines ideological perseverance in the face of political and personal adversity, but is actually emotionally manipulative, sentimental pap.

11) Favorite Russ Meyer movie

I'm not much of a Meyer fan, so I'll resort to the the title I like best, which is Wild Gals of the Naked West. I watched this flick on TV a few months ago, begging the question, what was I doing awake at 3:30 in the morning?

12) Name the movie that you feel best reflects yourself, a movie you would recommend to an acquaintance that most accurately says, “This is me.”

Cabin Boy. No, wait! That was an answer from your previous quiz... different question... I am uncomfortable with the idea of trying to describe my personality in relation to the content of a single movie, let alone someone else's art. It's a reductive and arrogant task. So I called my ex-girlfriend to ask which movie reflects me most accurately, and she said "Deconstructing Harry."

13) Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo

Wow. Both icons, both incredibly talented, both strikingly beautiful in such interesting ways. This question is more fascinating than the mundane case of Milland v. Andrews, but much more difficult to answer because the two actresses are so great. Because I hate to be uncommitted, I will give a slight edge to Greta, whose performance in the famous "Garbo Laughs" scene in Ninotchka had such an impact on me when I studied the films of Ernst Lubitsch. But I reserve the right to change my mind at any time without reason or accountability.

14) Best movie snack? Most vile movie snack?

Who decided that popcorn was the movie snack of choice. Yeah, I just love to hear those kernels squeaking between your teeth while I'm trying to watch a picture. Throw in those crackly candy packages and
nachos?!? You might as well leave your cell phone on, 'cause the theater is beginning to sound like a STOMP! production. My vote is that we allow only pudding.

15) Current movie star who would be most comfortable in the classic Hollywood studio system

Jeremy Northam. While watching the film Cypher, I was struck with the thought that he could easily slip into a number of Cary Grant's roles.

Fitzcarraldo—yes or no?

Yes, but not without having first seen Herzog's 1999 documentary, My Best Friend.

17) Your assignment is to book the ultimate triple bill to inaugurate your own revival theater. What three movies will we see on opening night?

Steamboat Bill, Jr.

The 400 Blows

The Muppet Movie

18) What’s the name of your theater?
(The all-time greatest answer to this question was once provided by Larry Aydlette, whose repertory cinema, the Demarest, is, I hope, still packing them in…)

Hmmm... The all-time greatest answer beats anything I could come up with. Is Aydlette looking to franchise?

19) Favorite Leo McCarey movie

The Awful Truth... no, Duck Soup. Or maybe The Awful Truth? (Stop, I'm both right!)

20) Most impressive debut performance by an actor/actress.

I don't know because I haven't seen them all, but recently I'd have to say that those kids in The Kite Runner were really quite good.

21) Biggest disappointment of the just-past summer movie season

Learning that Bill Maher's Religulous would not be released until the fall.

22) Michelle Yeoh or Maggie Cheung

Maggie Cheung. Every bit as good as Tony Leung in In the Mood for Love.

23) 2008 inductee into the Academy of the Overrated

Iron Man

24) 2008 inductee into the Academy of the Underrated

In Bruges (more underexposed than underrated)

25) Fritz the Cat—yes or no?

No to Ralph Bakshi in general. But yes to Robert Crumb.

26) Trevor Howard or Richard Todd

Too arcane. I wouldn't be able to pick either one out of a lineup.

27) Antonioni once said, “I began taking liberties a long time ago; now it is standard practice for most directors to ignore the rules.” What filmmaker working today most fruitfully ignores the rules? What does ignoring the rules of cinema mean in 2008?

If one adopts the attitude that everything has been done, then breaking the rules simply means chiding the unions, in which case Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are our most prominent rebels.

I still believe, however, that there are narrative and stylistic frontiers yet to be explored. A fruitful rule breaker in 2008 is someone who proves that you can work against expectations and still connect with the audience on an emotional and/or cerebral level.

Some contemporary rule breakers:
Michael Haneke
Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze
Michel Gondry
Steven Soderbergh
Julian Schnabel
the Coen brothers
Thomas McCarthy

28) Favorite William Castle movie

I'm going with House on Haunted Hill because I have seen it.

29) Favorite ethnographically oriented movie

The Gods Must be Crazy (I am so not as racist as this answer would suggest).

30) What’s the movie coming up in 2008 you’re most looking forward to? Why?

Religulous. The world is in desperate need of perspective when it comes to religion, and Bill Maher has perspective in spades. Real Time doesn't air here, so I've been jonesing for a hit of Maher since Politically Incorrect was canceled.

Also, Bangkok Dangerous because I'm a sucker for hit-man movies.

31) What deceased director would you want to resurrect in order that she/he might make one more film?

Oooh. Toughie. I would love to see a modern day political thriller from Alan Pakula, but comedy has been on the decline for nearly two decades now, so I think I would have to resurrect either Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges.

32) What director would you like to see, if not literally entombed, then at least go silent creatively?

Ron Howard. Lets cremate his lousy films while we're at it.

33) Your first movie star crush

Yes. I have admitted to this before: the very first poster I hung on my wall for reasons of crushiness was of Brooke Shields. I have no idea where it came from; in fact, I'm fairly certain I had never seen her in a movie previous to decorating my room with her visage. To be honest, though, I still kind of dig her.

Monday, August 25, 2008

mondays with buster

Thursday, August 21, 2008

review: death at a funeral

dir. Frank Oz, 2007

In real life, it is difficult to get laughs at a funeral; in the movies, it's somewhat easy. Chaos set against the backdrop of a typically somber event is a fairly common base for a comedy writer's recipe. Consider, though, that onions, carrots, and celery are common to many soups. It is the additional ingredients, both familiar and unfamiliar, that determine how tasty the final dish will be.

Death at a Funeral has an air of predictability because it works within the comic formula of presenting its audience with a number of "uh-oh" moments. We know that trouble is ahead when a character, on his way to the funeral, takes a pill that he thinks is Valium but is, in fact, a narcotic hallucinogen: "Uh-oh!!!" What takes us by surprise, if a film's ingredients are fresh, is the manner in which these "uh-oh" scenarios play out. Alan Tudyk, for instance, gives a rather broad performance as the LSD-dosed character, but his elastic physicality and priceless facial expressions elicit more hysterics than one might expect from a somewhat conventional series of gags.

Even more outrageous is the thread involving actor Peter Dinklage , whose character work is always compelling enough to ensure that his diminutive stature is never exploited for cheap laughs. Dinklage is quickly establishing himself both as one of cinema's greatest treasures and as one of my all-time favourite performers. He doesn't disappoint in this role as a stranger to the family whose relationship with the deceased threatens to disrupt the solemn funeral proceedings if divulged.

Save for the two aforementioned actors, the cast of Death at a Funeral is predominantly British, and the script was inked by two English blokes, as well. Some of the dark humour reflects the film's place of origin, but it is not so steeped in the UK sensibility as to seem foreign to some North American viewers (a la Monty Python, for instance). Director Frank Oz is, of course USA born, and has a fair amount of experience in the field of making quirky but accessible comedies. While some of his movies (Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?) are certainly better than others (HouseSitter, and blech The Stepford Wives), he has successfully flavoured this little picture with all the right spices.

what you might like: The film opens with a great gag that really sets the tone of the picture. After that, it seems for a while as if everything is a bit too familiar. Stick with it, though. As Death at a Funeral approaches its climax, it provides some of the most laugh-out-loud material you are likely to have encountered in some time. (I suggest watching it with others... The laughter is contagious).

what you might not like: There's no accounting for taste. I know that a small contingent of viewers will find the content and language offensive. If you tend to err conservatively, you may want to avoid this picture (although, I imagine one would have to be pretty uptight to not succumb to its offbeat charms).

what you might consider: Now that it is widely available on DVD, Death at a Funeral is easy to find and worthy of your rental dollars. It deserves some word-of-mouth recommendations, and I think you will find yourself eager to share the guffaws.

links to imdb:
Death at a Funeral
Frank Oz
Peter Dinklage

Monday, August 18, 2008

Thursday, August 14, 2008

the not-top ten project
a series of posts in which an amateur film critic discusses ten movies he loves, in no particular order, that may or may not be his favorites.

entry #2: Father Goose

Catherine Freneau: [Eckland has sucked the "poison" from Catherine's "snakebite"] Tell me, I would like to know - what did my blood taste like? Walter Eckland: Delicious. Now come on.
Catherine Freneau: No, no, no, I'm serious. What did it taste like?
Walter Eckland: Well how would I know? I'm not a vampire,
Catherine Freneau: Um, was it salty?
Walter Eckland: Mmm, a little salty, yes.
Catherine Freneau: Too salty?
Walter Eckland: No, it was just right.
Catherine Freneau: Oh, no! You thought it was too salty, I can tell! You didn't like it!
[she seems on the verge of crying]
Walter Eckland: I liked it!
Catherine Freneau: Oh, really?
Walter Eckland: Uh-huh, I liked it!
Catherine Freneau: You're not just saying that?
Walter Eckland: Great blood!

It is merely coincidence that the first two entries in my not-top ten project happen to be family films (after all, these titles are brought to you in no particular order). Like The Muppet Movie, though, Father Goose (dir. Ralph Nelson, 1964) is not strictly a "family film," as the term is thought of by many to be synonymous with "kiddie-fare." In fact, while the content of numerous older movies tends to come across as chaste by modern standards, Father Goose has elements that may be perceived as being less suitable for children by (some) contemporary viewers than they were by audiences forty-some-odd years ago. That the film won the 1964 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay is enough to suggest that Father Goose is more sophisticated than the average kids' movie, and the fact that it has fallen into relative obscurity is indicative of the type of film that this project aims to celebrate and draw your attention toward.

To say that the plot is quirky may be a mild understatement: During WWII, a boozy scavenger, Walter Eckland (Cary Grant), is coerced into monitoring enemy aircraft from a small island in the South Pacific. He answers a distress call from a nearby outpost, and a reluctant rescue mission saddles him with unwanted company in the form of a prissy French schoolmarm (Leslie Caron) and the seven young girls whom she tutors. The disciplined lifestyle that this teacher espouses interferes with Walter's primary aim, which is to find and drink numerous bottles of whiskey that have been hidden around the island.

The premise is absurd, but the script is so cohesive that one cannot help but suspend disbelief and accept cinematic plausibility. Recent comedies like The Love Guru and You Don't Mess With the Zohan have proved that a wacky concept alone does not guarantee perpetual laughter or feature length interest from an audience.
Too many filmmakers, these days, seem to think that they can extend a five minute sketch into a two hour extravaganza. Whereas these newer movies attempt to shock us with intermittent penis jokes and gags where we see fish clenched between the cheeks of bare bottoms-- simple gross-out humour-- Father Goose implores us to react to legitimately funny situations that are directly related to the story.

In the four and a half years that I have owned my DVD copy of
Father Goose, it has been on loan to friends and colleagues more than it has been in my possession. I am particularly fond of lending this film to people who swear that they don't like "old movies." Rather than present them with a bona fide classic like Casablanca or Citizen Kane-- films they may feel as if they are supposed to like-- it is more fun to surprise them with this lesser known picture. The cover photo on the DVD (pictured here) is not particularly enticing; many people I know have been repelled from believing that the film might be, in any way, interesting... All the more pleasurable for me when they do finally watch and enjoy it. In one instance, a friend of mine put Father Goose on and, within ten minutes, her entire family had gathered around the TV and they all watched together. The success rate of my little lending experiment is, thus far, 100%. I'm proud of this statistic because I feel as if, in a way, I discovered this hidden gem, and that sharing my enthusiasm for the film with others will earn Father Goose some deserved recognition.

Of course, I have no interest in issuing a smug "I told you so" to reluctant viewers who find that they are, in fact, subject to the allure of an old-timey picture. The infectious charm of Cary Grant and Leslie Caron's performances, after all, is not a difficult sell. And there is an unexpected edge to the film's humour in scenes where Eckland interacts with the children that will likely appeal to fans of modern comedies that elicit laughter by means of politically incorrect scenarios and the celebration of social taboos.

Many of our favourite movies, books, musicians, etc.
do make us feel as if we have some level of proprietary interest, that they are rare commodities, known only to a select few, and we are part of an exclusive group who happen to be in-the-know. Ultimately, though, we take as much pleasure in sharing these works with those closest to us and discovering that they are equally blown away, than we do from reveling in that special feeling of "ownership." Such is my relationship with Father Goose. So I urge you to seek out a copy, even if it means borrowing mine; perhaps you will be the next ardent fan who feels compelled to pass it along to others.

links to
Father Goose
The Muppet Movie

links to purchase:
Father Goose
The Muppet Movie

Sunday, August 03, 2008

review: cassandra's dream
dir. Woody Allen, 2007

Just over a decade ago, "The Beatles Anthology" was released on CD in the form of three two-disc volumes. Reviews were, by and large, positive. Unsurprising, I guess. Can you really pan The Beatles? What struck me as interesting, though, was the fact that many critics had the where-with-all to admit that these albums are not necessarily "must-have" items; the Anthology, it has often been noted, along with the earlier "Live at the BBC" compilation, is more likely to be of interest to die hard Beatles fans who long to hear every scratch and pop, every unused take, every variation on a song, and a whole lot of studio chatter, than it will be to the (comparatively) casual listener.

With the notable exception of 2005's Match Point, a similar critique is useful in reviewing the films that Woody Allen has released over the past decade. Allen has long been a polarizing figure in cinema-- a broad sector of film-goers hate his work, few are ambivalent, and those who like him, like him a lot. But even hardcore fans would be hard pressed to convince themselves that recent titles like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Melinda and Melinda, and Scoop are anywhere near as satisfying or relevant as the thirty-some-odd films that precede them. As one of these fans, however, I find that I am perpetually drawn to Allen's films regardless of how minor, mediocre, and/or odious they may be (relative to his canonical high points). I think this has something to do with the fact that the writer/director's most disappointing misfires reveal more about his working process than some of his masterpieces.

For instance, his comedies of late seem to be thrust into production before their screenplays are fully fleshed. Lines of dialogue that appear to be leading towards classic Allenesque punchlines tend to peter out as if the intended jokes were missing from the typewritten page, and the actors were too intimidated to improvise. One almost gets the sense that Woody has a drawer filled with outlines, "Idea for a comedy...", and early drafts that he can turn to when writer's block threatens to disrupt his yet unbroken track record of releasing (at least) one movie every year. It's possible that an avid fan will derive some pleasure from watching these skeleton films to discern what trade mark elements are missing when compared to Allen's more accomplished works, and ultimately develop a deeper appreciation for his process and style. Others are likely to feel as if they have simply wasted their time watching a crummy picture.

Cassandra's Dream, on the other hand, is neither a misfire, nor does it reek of incompleteness. Still, I think it is an Allen film that will appeal almost exclusively to Allen fans. This dramatic story of two brothers, Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell), wrestling with the moral consequences of a violent crime they have committed does not stray far from the themes that Woody Allen has explored in previous films such as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. The latter was quite successful in breaking through to audiences who were never much keen on Allen's oeuvre, but are these viewers willing to watch a movie that explores the same material with minor variations? I'm not convinced that a similarly wide demographic will be interested in Cassandra's Dream, but I do believe that this film will satisfy Woody Allen aficionados who are drawn to the filmmaker's penchant for revisiting grand questions of scruples and attempting to formulate answers.

Just because I think that Cassandra's Dream is more likely to resonate with Woody Allen fans who are interested in seeing how his exploration of familiar themes will play out within slightly different circumstances does not mean that I would discourage newcomers or (those rare) on-the-fencers to seek out this film and give it a look-see. It is a cohesive and sophisticated movie that has the potential to entertain and provoke thought, a combination that is far too rare in films these days. It is, however, a film that benefits from a certain amount of foresight from its viewers:

What you might like: There are some great performances in this film... and not just great "Woody Allen" performances (i.e. John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway or Edward Norton in Everyone Says I Love You). Colin Farrell reminds us that he is not the vacuous Hollywood star that films like Daredevil and Miami Vice have made him out to be, and Ewan McGregor sheds his Jedi robes to reveal that he is much more comfortable in a psychologically driven role than in front of a green screen. Their combined charisma goes a long way towards ensuring that we are emotionally invested in the characters' interests when the film takes its dark turn. And the story is compelling enough to warrant our investment in Ian and Terry's fates.

What you might not like: It is not unusual for those who dislike Allen's work to attribute some of their negative feelings towards his nuanced dialogue. Cassandra's Dream is very much a writer's piece, and it is fair to assume that some viewers will find the rhythm and repetition of the line readings off-putting. Also, depending upon one's threshold for slower paced films, this character study may come across as a bit of a gloomy bore.

What you might consider: This film isn't really crying out for attention from those who would sympathize with these criticisms. Like any filmmaker, Woody Allen probably yearns for his work to reach the largest possible audience, but he doesn't often compromise his artistic integrity in pursuit of mass appeal. A film like Cassandra's Dream might resonate the most with an exclusive group of Allen anthologists who are familiar with the larger context of the auteur's work; but, like an alternate take of a Beatles' song, this film remains a solid (if slightly unpolished) piece of work with chords that may entice some new fans, as well.

links to imdb:
Woody Allen
Cassandra's Dream

links to purchase:
Match Point
Crimes and Misdemeanors