Friday, January 05, 2007

Revisit: All That Heaven Allows

Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), a wealthy widow, falls in love with the much younger nurseryman, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). This provides gossip for the country club set, and her children are ashamed that she plans to remarry below her station. Ron is an independent man who can ignore the petty conventions of society, but can Cary ignore them as well?

A Universal-International release 1955
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Writing Credits:
Peg Fenwick (screenplay)
Edna Lee (story)
Harry Lee (story)

Another classic Sirk melodrama from the fifties, also starring the incomparable Rock Hudson. The subject here is taboo love and the American bourgeoisie; Wyman's love for Hudson is scorned by the local socialites, providing most of the conflict for the film. Sirk turns this into a damning portrayal of fifities upper-middle class suburban society and liesure time. He offers Therou's Walden as a superior alternative way of living as compared to the gossipy rumormill that is country club life. Likewise, there is a strong anti-television discourse throughout the film. While perhaps not as sweepingly melodramatic as Written in the Wind, it remains a textbook example of the genre.

Review: Casino Royale

This one's been out for a while but I figured I'd post the review anyway...

There’s a scene towards the end of the new James Bond film Casino Royale in which Bond, looking anxious and dreary-eyed, orders a martini. Duly, the bartender asks, “Shaken or stirred?” Bond coarsely replies, “I don’t give a damn!”

The scene embodies the direction the classic franchise appears to be taking after forty years of exciting audiences across the world with stories of espionage and intrigue. Bond is back, but he’s brittle, battle torn, and emotionally unstable.

He’s also blue eyed and blond – not exactly the traditional Bond look. Many questioned the decision to cast Daniel Craig as the sophisticated suave super-spy, but fans of the series can rest easy – Craig is the toughest, most intense Bond to date and the film, which is an origin story of sorts swiped from both the 1967 spoof and 1953 novel of the same name, is smart, slick, and action packed. But is the franchise really starting over, or is it simply offering more of the same?

Casino Royale starts things off at the beginning, with Bond committing his first two kills and earning OO agent status. The script, which was penned by previous Bond scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade along with Academy Award winning Crash screenwriter Paul Haggis, is intermittently brilliant, with a relatively low-tech plot involving terrorists and a card game that doesn’t escape into the absurdity of 1999’s The World is Not Enough or the sci-fi schematics of 2002’s Die Another Day. Director Martin Campbell delivers the good at a brisk, calculated pace and the result is a focused, easy-to-swallow story with a heightened sense of realism, plenty of tension and twists. It even leaves room for Bond to act!

And yet, even with all that emoting, one can’t help but feel like they’re watching just another Bond flick. The story follows the same narrative arch as any of the other films (it’s all just a platform for Bond to run from exotic locale #1 to exotic locale #2) and contains all the necessary elements (fast cars, faster women, and a creepy villain who weeps blood) without attempting to raise the bar in terms of spectacular stunts or singular storytelling. Rather, the subject of this film is Bond himself; his unwavering ego, the way he struggles with his work, and his state of mind. Bond is depicted, finally, as a vulnerable character, both mentally and physically.
The origin angle, which acts to justify Bond’s new state of psychosis, is too fleeting – is this a psychological study, or an uneven attempt at adding depth to a character that’s been one dimensional for almost four decades? The film doesn’t flesh out Bond’s back-story much beyond what we already knew (minus an interesting explanation for his misogynistic tendencies towards women), and the whole soul-searching, self-preservation thing wouldn’t have worked if Daniel Craig weren’t so damn good.

The franchise has really found a winner in Craig, who brings the same effortless intensity from his breakout performance in 2004’s drug-fueled British ganger film Layer Cake to his portrayal of a cockier, more complicated Bond. With his baby blue eyes and Steve McQueen type looks – as well as his buff physique – Craig remains somewhat an odd choice but wears the Bond moniker surprisingly well. And, luckily for him, the script has more juicy acting bits than all the Pierce Brosnan-era Bond films combined.

At over two hours and twenty minutes long, Casino Royale does drag on a bit – too much poker, perhaps – but it also features some heart-stopping action including an energetic, off-the-cuff introduction involving jumps that rival what Spiderman can do in terms of distance. In fact, many elements of the film seem to have taken a cue from the modern superhero movie: the internally torn protagonist, the flawed and vulnerable villain, the super-psychological storytelling. Even the swooping camera that follows Bond around during the action scenes seems to be taken from a page right out of the Spiderman textbook. But for a franchise that has long suffered from flaccid dialogue and frivolous storytelling, these somewhat timeworn techniques for revitalizing a well-known character work, at least for now. Whether we’re actually seeing a newer, better Bond or merely a franchise riding the high of replacing its lead actor is hard to say; we’ll have to wait for Bond #22 to find that out. But if Casino Royale is any indication of where things are heading, it should be a fun ride.
An MGM release 2006
Directed by Martin Campbell
Writing Credits:
Neal Purvis (screenplay)
Robert Wade (screenplay)
Paul Haggis (screenplay)
Ian Fleming (novel)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Revisit: Written on the Wind, The Killers (1964)

A Universal-International Pictures release 1956
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Writing Credits:
Robert Wilder (novel)
George Zuckerman (screenplay)

Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), the son of a farmhand, and self-pitying playboy millionaire Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) have always been best friends. Hadley tries to cure his alcoholic ills by marrying the virtuous Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall), whom Mitch loves but cannot express his feelings towards. Kyle's wild sister, Marylee, hopes to marry Mitch, but he treats her as a brother. Kyle stops drinking until he discovers that he may be sterile. Slyly, Marylee suggests to Kyle that Lucy and Mitch are lovers, and when Lucy finds that she is pregnant, a drunken Kyle accuses Mitch of being the father. What follows is a whirlpool of searing emotionalism that results in disaster.

A Universal Pictures release 1964
Directed by Don Siegel
Writing Credits:
Ernest Hemingway (story)
Gene L. Coon (screenplay)

Based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway, this crime caper follows two hitmen (Lee Marvin, Claude Akins) as they discover why their latest victim, race car driver Johnny North (John Cassavettes) "just stood there and took it" when they came to kill him. Ronald Reagan plays the rich, double-crossing bad guy who ordered the hit, and a young Angie Dickinson plays the femme fatale.*

*Please note that this is different from the 1946 noir version of the same Hemigway story

Though these films are inherently different, there are several undercurrents, both narrative and form based, that tie them together. Each feature themes of masculine sexual displacement, with a strong-willed, conniving woman at the center of the story responsible for the creation of conflict. Both Angie Dickinson's and Dorothy Malone's characters manipulate other characters within the films to get what they desire. Likewise, there is a strong emphasis on the reflected male gaze in each film. In The Killers, there are reflection shots in the bounty hunters' glasses; in Written on the Wind, reflection shots in mirrors are used heavily, particularly of Robert Stack's character. Both films have a sort of cheesy emotional resonance as well.

That being said, the films represent two very different genres (crime and melodrama respectively) with very different visual aesthetics. The Killers features a lot of quick, jarring cuts with sharp dialogue to match. (A lot of the lines from this film seem to have been reused in many of Tarrantino's films, further proving him the hack of the century). Written on the Wind is spacious, with a sort of classical, seemless editing style. The performances here are more natural, with emphasis on emotion.

Regardless, both films present directors working in their prime and should be seen by anyone who has interest in the cinema.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Revisit: Phantasm II

A Universal Pictures release 1989
Written & Directed by Don Coscarelli

Mike (James LeGros) is released from the psychiatric ward where he was supposed to come to terms with the terrible happenings in his past. A beautiful but strange girl starts to appear in his dreams, and Mike fears that the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), who plunders graveyards and kidnaps victims in their sleep with help of his terrible gnomes, may be back. Mike contacts his old pal Reggie (Reggie Bannister) and they team up to hunt down and eliminate the Tall Man. But can they find the girl before the Tall Man gets to her first?

This sequel to the 1979 horror flick of the same name improves upon it's original in almost all respects. The plot line is more coherent, more interesting, and the film is filled with sweet gore effects. I mean, look at this stuff:

That last picture shows the Tall Man being attacked by one of his own 'floating spheres'. Those sphere things are absolutely terrifying - tiny silver balls that chase their victims down at full speed, ramming a pair of prongs into their head, then drilling through their skull and draining their brains. There's pretty much no escaping them. Horrifying.
While not the most intelligent filmmaking, Phantasm II does have some interesting interplay between the real world and the world of dreams. Thankfully the whole psychic/dream thing isn't just a gimmick here - the concept is used to motivate the characters, rather than just connect scenes. Those of you who are fans of the cult film Bubba Ho-Tep may recognize writer/director Coscarelli. Although many might disagree, I would say this film is better than Ho-Tep. A must see for fans of 80's horror.

Revisit: The Puppet Master

An Empire Pictures/Paramount Pictures release 1989
Directed by David Schmoeller
Writing credits:
Charles Band (story) & Kenneth J. Hall (story)
David Schmoeller (screenplay) (as Joseph G. Collodi)

André Toulon (William Hickey) is a puppet maker who discovers an ancient Egyptian formula for the creation of life. Holed up in a bay area hotel, he uses the ancient power to rejuvinate his puppets, but commits suicide as the Nazis seek to use his knowledge to their advantage. Flash foward twenty years later at the same hotel: four psychics (Paul Le Mat, Irene Miracle, Matt Roe, & Kathryn O'Rielly) decide to investigate the suicide of a former colleague (Jimmie F. Skaggs), along with his widow (Robin Frates). They uncover the secrets of the Puppet Master and are stalked by Toulon's puppets, who have a variety of strange traits including a drill for a head and the ability to spit up leeches.
The Puppet Master series is one of the largest horror franchises in recent history, with over 9 movies in twelve years, and yet I'm hard pressed to find anyone who's actually seen the damn thing. And no wonder - this movie is bad, bad in all the ways 80's horror movies can be bad. It's a high concept, low action snoozefest that takes itself way to seriously. There's a whole lot of mumbo-jumbo about psychics and dreams and "metaphysical" shit in there that's clearly cashing in on the Nightmare On Elm Street boom, but is irrelevant to the plot (unlike in Nightmare) and doesn't engage with any concepts of reality (also unlike Nightmare). The gore is pretty weak in terms of 80's splatter, although the deaths are fairly original. The coolest thing about this flick are the puppet effects, which only slightly improve upon Ray Harryhausen's early stop motion techniques, but there are not enough of them. I can only assume that's why they made a sequel - the people demanded more puppets, and more puppets they recieved. But I'm still pretty curious as to who exactly was making those demands...

Revisit: The Affairs of Dobie Gillis

An MGM Release 1953
Directed by Don Weis
Screenplay by Max Schulman

Grainbelt University has one attraction for Dobie Gillis (Bobby Van) - women, especially Pansy Hammer (Debbie Reynolds). Pansy's father (Hanley Stafford), however, does not share her affection for Dobie. A plagarized essay which almost revolutionizes English instruction, and Dobie's role in a chemistry lab explosion convinces Mr. Hammer to send broken-hearted Pansy to New York, but with the help of best pal Charlie Trask (Bob Fosse), his girl Lorna (Barbara Ruick), and Happy Stella Kolawski's (Kathleen Freeman) all-girl band, Dobie secures Pansy's return to Grainbelt.

This movie is truly absurd. It's a musical-comedy in the classical sense, but it swipes a lot from rock'n'roll and really reflects the care-free attitude of the era. I don't think I've ever seen a film that reinforces an "no work, all play" attitude so strongly as this. It'd be interesting to see a comparison between Gillis and Frank Tashlin's 1954 film The Girl Can't Help It, as they appear to be rooted in the same material while being polar opposites on almost all levels; one is a simplistic, black and white, classical musical 'updated' for the rock'n'roll age, the other a real rock'n'roll movie with biting satire and bright colors. Both have a certain cartooniness to them as well - the whole chem lab explosion has served as a plot point for almost every modern cartoon I can think of. The performances here are stellar - Debbie Reynolds shines with starry eyes and a sensational singing voice, and Bob Fosse's footwork is impressive as always. Not a must see, but a fun way to kill a quick 90 minutes.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Review: Dreamgirls

When I was in high school I sat next to the captain of the football team in home room. He was a jock, for sure - stocky, with broad shoulders and little brains - but a nice guy, jovial and very easy-going. We'd talk from time to time, sharing quick conversations before class began. He was just friendly enough to keep it from being awkward, just funny enough to keep things interesting. When Christmas time rolled around our sophomore year, he wore a big Santa hat that pushed his red hair out at all different ends and matched the color of his freckles. He turned to me and asked, "Did you put up your tree yet?" No, I replied. I'm a jew. He looked at me puzzled, his right eyebrow cocked as if he didn't know what I had meant. "So you don't have a tree?" Nope, I responded cooly. "What about lights, do you put up any lights?" No, I repeated. Jews don't put up lights. "You gotta have lights," he said, "for Santa!" No, I said a forth time, wondering if he was just pulling my leg or if he was actually being serious. Jews don't put up lights. "Well how do you celebrate the birth of the lord Jesus Christ, then?" he asked. I sat there a bit stunned for a second before replying, I go to the movies.

Every jew celebrates Christmas at the movies. Though it would appear to be out of convience (considering everything else on earth is closed), it's actually a tradition, one that has lasted for generations and probably dates back to the golden age of the nickelodeon. While the rest of the world is opening presents and sucking down egg-nog, we kosher children flock to see films. As a movie buff, it's one tradition that I admire and anticipate. In fact, if I don't see a movie on Christmas, I get angry, uppity and annoyed. It's the equivalent of a Christian family forsaking the tree - it just doesn't feel like Christmas.
Looking back, however, I can't say that Christmas times makes for memorable movie-going experiences. In fact, I can only remeber a select handful of the films I've seen on Christmas day, most of which were mildly entertaining (Mars Attacks!, Bad Santa), or piddling crap (Man on the Moon) . Hollywood generally doesn't leave much options for the jews of suburbia come December 25th. While most of the Oscar-buzz pictures are still relegated to art houses in NY/LA, your average cinema generally offers a handful of holiday themed, family-friendly affairs or non-spectacular, soft-R rated thrillers. Throw in a biopic and a Ben Stiller comedy and you've got a good idea of what's going to be playing at a theater near you this holiday season.

This year was no different. With Children of Men in limited release and Pan's Labarynth set for December 29th (expect reviews of each shortly), I lost out on all the pictures I asked for this Christmas. My family decided they were going to see Dreamgirls whether I liked or not, so I was stuck. It's not like I wasn't going to see something, I mean... it's Christmas.

Originally I had understood that Dreamgirls was a biopic based on the life and times of Diana Ross and the Supremes. I understood that it starred Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Beyonce and some girl from American Idol that I didn't care about, and was directed by Bill Condon, who did Kinsey, Gods and Monsters, and a few other films I didn't care about. In fact, I didn't care about any of it - there's nothing that irks me more than musical biopics (I'll say it - Ray sucked), and this seemed to me like the lowest of the low.
However, the film is not a biopic, it's strictly a musical. It takes it root from a broadway show of the same name that premiered in 1981 starring Loretta Devine. While comparisons to the biography of the Supremes are fitting, the characters in the film are original and seem to be extrapolated from a variety of African-American musicians from the past fifty years.

That being said, I was happy it was not a biopic. I can't stand that shit. But cinematic adaptations of broadway shows are often even more disasterous than films with impersonations of famous people. (Anyone remember last years horrid Broadway-style remake of Mel Brooks The Producers? I didn't think so.) It's easy for Hollywood to match the bright lights, glitz and glamor of Broadway, but very difficult to recreate the spirit of the stage. Live performances are engaging on a whole nother level, one that the cinematic performance very rarely captures. Something is ultimately lost in the transition from B'way to the big screen, and Dreamgirls is no exception. For a movie about soul music, the film has very little soul. It degenerates some of the most trying and important times in the history of black music - and America in general - to banal cliches and clear black vs white, good vs bad dichotomies. This is the scourge of Broadway in general: much of everything is simplified and easy to digest. But it doesn't mean that complicated issues have to become cliches, especially in the cinema. The film batters through history like a wrecking ball, giving brief contextual moments before breaking into song and dance. It all makes the Dreamettes rise to fame seem a little too easy, and unbelievable.

Perhaps Condon was focusing his efforts on characterization, but many of the key performances here lack the kind of power they require to breathe life into the film. Foxx starts things off with a whole lotta sleaze as the group's manager and somehow turns what should be a character who's torn between doing what's right and his dreams of granduer into one big money-grubbing cliche. Beyonce offers a big voice but little personality for a character who supposedly can't sing but has plenty of charisma.

That being said, if you see this movie for one thing it should be Jennifer Hudson, that American Idol girl I mentioned earlier. Her performance as Effie, the head-strong lead singer who gets kicked out of the group before their rise to fame, is easily one of the years best. She nails her character to a T, and offers a pair of pipes that can blow the extensions off Beyonce's head quicker than you can say 'destiny's child'. Check her version of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" that's featured in the film, and you'll hear what I mean.

Likewise, Eddie Murphy gives a rousing performance as James 'Thunder' Early, an amalgamation of Chuck Berry and James Brown and a bunch of other crack-slewing soul brothers. He adds a lot of depth to a character that easily could have been the comic relief. And who knew he could sing?

I saw this film right outside of Asbury Park, New Jersey. The theater was absolutely filled with black people, and it was great. It was like going to church in Alabama; everyone was hootin' and hollerin' and cheerin' along, singing the songs with the film. For all the movie's faults, this seemed to make it a bit more palatable. I can't say I reccomend it - there are a million better musicals out there, with better songs and better performances. But if you absolutely love Broadway and can't make the trek out to NYC, maybe this film is for you. It's got lots of bright lights and sequin dresses, and it certainly captures the shallowness of 42nd Street, but it lacks the heart and soul of the music it supposedly represents. Let's just thank god it wasn't a biopic.
A DreamWorks SKG/Paramount Pictures release 2006
Directed byBill Condon
Writing credits:
Bill Condon (screenplay)
Tom Eyen (book)