December 11, 2010

You Don't Have to See a Movie to Hate It

Sometimes I feel like the character in Metropolitan who pretentiously notes that he doesn't read literature--just literary criticism.

I'm confronted with this realization following incessant exposure to advertising for Little Fockers, which I predict will be one of the worst films of the year.

And no, I don't have to see it to believe this.

I've already suffered through the first two installments of this trilogy: Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers, both incredibly junky, cynical "comedies" predicated, in part, on jokes relating to the protagonist's nearly profane surname and his supposedly effeminate profession as a nurse.

This is the kind of humor that makes Jerry Lewis look like Moliere.

So far, I haven't yet read a review for LF, but I will...and I'm hoping whatever I read will corroborate my sentiments. I'd also like to think I can discern a reviewer with "taste" from a reviewer without it. You know--someone reliable.

Someone who can verify my belief that I don't need to see this flick...ever.

For the record, I don't surround myself with "yes-reviewers" or newspapers that only share my opinions. But I know that a good review of a bad movie will provide a reader with a feeling of support that people often relegate to therapy sessions or Sunday dinners with the folks.

"You're not alone," a good review conveys. "We're in your foxhole, too."

And that's what makes good criticism: total, unabashed obsequiousness. Maybe that's what that character in Metropolitan initially liked. Before he changed, of course, and started reading literature.

Yeah, I'm still not gonna see LF.

October 31, 2010

Will We Ever Have 'Kind Hearts' Again?

The most significant mark of a good film, in my opinion, is its capacity to show the watcher something new on every viewing.

Robert Hamer's savory classic Kind Hearts and Coronets fits that bill. I must've seen this movie about 50 times, and yet every time I review it, I notice elements I didn't see before.

On my most recent screening, however, I didn't observe anything new. I just enjoyed it. I think I'm at that stage where the film has become so satisfying for me that it's like a plate of cassoulet: very familiar, yet always tasty...despite the lack of novelty associated with it.

There's no doubt in my mind that this is a great film--the ultimate black comedy, in which the viewer is forced to side with a surprisingly scrupulous fellow who, nevertheless, decides that the best and quickest way to earn his rightful inheritance is to terminate all other potential heirs of the dukedom to which he aspires. The doubt in my mind stems from whether we'll see such a great film again.

Of this type.

I'm not a big fan of the negative comedies of today. They often seem forced and extremely poorly written, such as Gus Van Sant's lamentable "satire" To Die For, which was as dull as a potato sandwich. It's a hard genre to fit into, and even more difficult to be successful at. Which is why it's so amazing to me that KHAC ever got produced.

So will we see another one like it again? My feeling is that it's like asking if we'll get another Mozart. The product of a special time and social context cannot be replicated, though we may see further tries. The wit of KHAC, like the delicacy of Mozart, is inimitable, a historic anomaly.

I'm disappointed by this idea, but I think I should embrace it. It makes the art unique, unquenchable.

Maybe I should just be content with its greatness rather than its duplication.

August 01, 2010

Remaking Foreign Films in a Lowbrow Image

It's summer time, and you know what that means, right?

Time for the usual spate of unoriginal movies to come our way.

The current crop includes a very high-profile remake: the Jay Roach-helmed Dinner for Schmucks (I can't believe they included that word in the title!), which recreates Francis Veber's The Dinner Game for American audiences.

Why? I ask. Why not leave well enough alone?

I do like DFS stars Paul Rudd and Steve Carell, two talented comedians who turned in hilarious performances in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. But I'm skeptical that they can turn their latest collaboration into comedy magic.

The reason? Roach directed two of the worst movies in recent memory, in my opinion: Meet the Parents and its horrid sequel, Meet the Fockers, both of which were squirm-inducing "comedies" of embarrassment that made Jerry Lewis' oeuvre seem highbrow. Popular they were, however, as are velvet paintings and elevator music.

I realize I'm in the minority here. But are we really expecting "the Lubitsch touch" here?

Veber's a talented director and writer who specializes in slick, amiable comedies that smack more of Louis de Funes than Moliere (such as the charming Les Comperes, remade in the States as Father's Day), and he seems to have a new career as a font of inspiration to American directors looking for source material. Still, I'm a bit perturbed at this suggests original ideas for screen comedy are limited, and the need for an instant hit trumps the need for uniqueness.

I don't think we have to be worried about a remake of Jules and Jim coming to our shores anytime soon or anything. I do, however, think that there's a pattern here, and it's one to be concerned about...especially if the new films don't do the originals justice.

And so to bed...with this argument.

June 27, 2010

Now I've Seen It: The Worst Movie of All Time

All right, so that might be an overstatement. But I don't think it's by much.

Remember how, back in October of last year, I lamented the then-forthcoming issuance of another Tim Burton "vision," his dreaded reimagining of Alice in Wonderland? I wrote then that "I'm worried. I know it's gonna be horrible."

How right I was. Don't say I didn't warn me.

To be fair, I went into the viewing of this cinematic massacre with a completely closed mind, aided, of course, by the wonderful Trudi, who sat through the entire film with me. Together, we gasped at the ludicrous back story (what seems to be a specialty of director Burton these days), tittered at the dreary dialogue, grumbled at the overly ominous lighting and smirked at the obtrusive CGI that squeezed out and discarded any vestige of inspiration produced by Alice author Lewis Carroll and illustrator John Tenniel in the original tale.

And then there was Johnny Depp. As the Mad Hatter, no less.

It would be an understatement to call his performance "excruciating."

One of the peculiar things about this film was its dogged insistence on making Wonderland a sad, broken place...and Depp's Hatter some kind of tragic figure, who, like the other inhabitants of this creepy world, has found his joys and desires bound with briars by the e-vile Red Queen (played screechingly by Helena Bonham Carter).

Hey, we know the Red Queen's off her rocker and is totally, thoroughly unjust. But isn't the real fun of Carroll's world the same as that of, say, the Freedonia of the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup...that nobody gives a damn?

I mean, this is a Mad Hatter, for crying out loud. Not Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men.

Then there was the problem of turning this wretched piece of celluloid into an action movie. Didn't work, Timmy. You know why? Well, there's this issue called character development that the film completely skirted. Makes it damned hard to care about anyone when the script is as tight as tapioca pudding.

Honestly, I would've thought the thing was ad-libbed if it hadn't been for that expensive CGI...which, shockingly, looked cheap and rather unrefined, despite what appears to have been an unconscionable number of labor-hours involved in the generation of such effects.

Perhaps the headline of this post is hyperbole. There are plenty of bad movies out there that might top Alice, such as Manos: The Hands of Fate and nearly anything by Oliver Stone.

But Alice is definitely up there. And that leads me to one final thought.

I've indicated in at least one previous post that a remake of a classic has to differentiate itself substantially from its predecessor(s), and I'm not going to take that back. But I will add that if you're going to put your own spin on a masterpiece, you might want to run it by people of taste before launching it into the crowd.

My feeling is, if it ain't frabjous, don't make it. Not nowhere, not nohow.

June 20, 2010

Weighing the Love for 47 Loyal Ronin

I'm going to say it flat out: I'm not the biggest fan of Hiroshi Inagaki.

I don't count the Samurai series of films (I, II and III) as among my favorite jidai-geki. So I wasn't too thrilled about the prospect of sitting down to watch Chushingura, Inagaki's 1962 treatment of the famous Japanese tale of the loyal 47 ronin (masterless samurai). It was one of those things where I felt like I should see it, despite my reservations.

Well, I saw it. And although it was well made, it was typical Inagaki.

I say this somewhat contemptuously, because I feel Inagaki's cinematic "voice" has got to be one of the slickest, least critical ones in Japanese cinema. In Chushingura, the director fashioned a handsome-looking, straightforward version of the classic story, in which 47 ronin, whose lord is executed unfairly by corrupt officials, avenge their master against incredible odds...despite their inevitable fate: death. It's a story about love and unequivocal fealty, and the 47 ronin involved reflect the highest samurai standards, and are worthy of admiration through their sacrifice--a point made at the end during the samurai's long walk through the town after beheading their prime target.

Can you imagine how Kurosawa would've tackled this subject? Someone would've made a crack somewhere, I'll bet.

Inagaki's treatment is reverential, to say the least. He peppers the tale with a complex cast of characters but doesn't spend enough time on most of them for us to become too involved. That's all right, though--this is an all-star type of film with luminaries such as Toshiro Mifine and Takashi Shimura playing small but important roles. I'm OK with this kind of movie.

I'm not OK, however, with the lack of a perspective.

That is what most struck me about Chushingura...and it's what I least like about Inagaki's films. It's a traditional, spectacle-oriented treatment--without much social commentary. You're supposed to hate the corrupt official (played with expert nastiness and no redeeming qualities by Chusha Ichikawa) and applaud the ronin's dedication, though this loyalty even extends beyond family. The values of note are the traditional ones, not the new ones, and one cannot question a samurai's dedication to his master, even at the expense of his wife or children, whom he must leave to avenge his lord and, consequently, commit ritual suicide.

Don't you think Kobayashi would have something to say about this?

I don't think all films have to be critical, and there's something to be said for going "by the book" when adapting classic stories. But I do think Inagaki missed something in Chushingura, and that only affirms my belief that he was not one of the world's top directors. One of the ingredients that makes great cinema so special is vision, and only a few people have it. There has to be a reason for making a film of a well-known tale that differentiates the new version from others that preceded it.

This is, by the way, a systemic issue in cinema that's not solely relegated to Inagaki's canon. We do need more movie visionaries who aren't just purveyors of slo-mo and 3D.

I know you're out there.

June 10, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different...

...and that is the subject of publication (sorry, no movies today). Two of my short stories are slated to appear in July: one in Golden Visions Magazine, and the other in Beyond Centauri magazine, a print publication for younger readers produced by Sam's Dot Publishing. This is a first for me, and I'm very excited. Both publications offer a wealth of quality content. Golden Visions' online site will be down for about a week at the end of June while it reformats, and the print issue won't be available for purchase until after the first week of July, but there should be both print and PDF versions of the issue after that.

Anyhoo (I hate saying that, but I do it anyway), I will try to post more when the issues come out. 'Til then...

May 23, 2010

Altman's 'Goodbye' Proves Long in Tooth (& Script)

That's it. I'm done with Robert Altman.

Having attempted, for the 4,637th time, this weekend to get through an entire film from the director's 1970s heyday, I have now resolved to avoid all further Altman flicks. The catalyst for this decision: 1973's The Long Goodbye, an Elliott Gould-fest disguised as a Raymond Chandler mystery.

I made it about halfway before I left the room to manage my fantasy baseball team.

Trudi didn't get much further into the film and finally became disgusted with it during a scene in which a hood brutalizes his mistress.

I, of course, had become disgusted with it much sooner.

The fact is, when a Serious Movie spends the first 15 minutes or so documenting the protagonist's efforts to feed his finicky cat, there's something wrong.

And I don't care if this is this is un hommage to Chandler, cats or quirky characterizations. It's not interesting. By the time the film got somewhere near a plot, I'd already given up on it.

Oh, and then there was the mumbling. Overlapping mumbling. A Robert Altman specialty that seems to typify his work.

As Mad Magazine's Alfred E.Neuman might say, "Ecch!"

Look, I like a bit of overlapping dialogue here and there. It worked perfectly in the original, 1951 The Thing from Another World. But Altman-directed actors always seem to be performing as if they are conversing with friends in their living rooms. Please, for the love of Ethel Merman, PROJECT!!!

Of course, that wasn't the only thing wrong, in my opinion, with the film. I though the cinematography, by the usually reliable Vilmos Zsigmond, was too murky and uninteresting, and Altman's lack of closeups made the movie cold and distant. It was hard to care about the characters, and this is a "quality" that, to my mind, informs other Altman pictures.

So you can count me out of the viewing of any further Altman extravaganzas. I know he was a much-loved director of the '70s, but I'm just not in that corner. Give me The Thing any day. Or Ethel Merman.

May 16, 2010

Dreyer's 'Passion' Fuels Faith in Silent Cinema

Sometimes, you just wanna sit back and watch a good ol' silent movie.

I did that last night when I checked out Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, a film I'd heard about for years but hadn't yet seen (for no apparent reason). I chose to watch it without the accompanying musical score, as I wanted to know how good it could be in a soundless state.

Well, it was good, all right. Typical Dreyer: deliberately but not slowly paced, with a focus on faith and emotional details...though one of the surprising aspects of the film was how timeless it seemed--with its quick cuts, stark closeups and curious camera angles, Passion would be difficult to place in a particular time period if I hadn't known it came out in 1928.

Unlike, say, anything by the incredibly overrated D.W. Griffith.

Yeah, let the hate mail come in. I'm ready.

Dreyer's attention to detail and focus on facial expressions were superlative and reminded me a bit of the Eisenstein classic Alexander Nevsky. I wonder if ol' Sergei had seen Passion. I wouldn't be surprised if he had. Dreyer's less well known but almost as great a director, and the two shared, I think, many sensibilities.

As well as sterling silent-film credentials.

OK, so Rouen's cathedral doesn't look like the one in Passion. Big deal. There was greatness in the movie that transcended reality. And it was such a simple subject, too.

Not easy filmmaking, and not for the novice. This is a world that requires strong faith in the director.

But I think I have it.

April 25, 2010

'Bad' Bridges Mumbles to Imperfection in 'Heart'

How I hate movies about down-and-out, once-popular performers who've hit the bottle as they've hit bottom.

Didn't we get enough of that type of thing (played for laughs, of course) in This Is Spinal Tap? I mean, do we have to go once more unto the breach with this plotjerker in Crazy Heart?

It's so easy, methinks--a device that never fails to win accolades. Which it did, of course, for Jeff Bridges, who landed an Oscar earlier this year for his mumbling, muttering performance as boozin', womanizin' country "music" has-been Bad Blake.

Oh, he's bad all right. Bad to the bone. And that's just a description of Blake's songwriting.

Which, to be fair, isn't Bridges' fault. Scott Cooper, CH's director, pads out this rather thin film with interminable musical interludes that slow down the pace greatly and provide little insight into the man, the myth that is Bad Blake.

And yet, this character's so uninteresting, I hardly care that we aren't seeing how the great genius got to be where he was...though we do get glimpses into his lying-semi-prone, half-naked-with-booze-and-a-guitar creation process.

Yeah, a regular Mozart at work, that.

The problem with CH is there really isn't much new here. Blake calls the son he never knew and is rejected by him. He hasn't written a song in years...but he does by the end of the movie.

If this doesn't get your dreary buttons blinking, I don't know what will.

Through all the cliches and uninspired music, there is some decent acting here. Old pro Robert Duvall, who apparently helped produce this flick, provides crusty support as, well, a crusty bartender. Who's seen a lot of life...or something. And Maggie Gyllenhaal is her usual reliable self as Blake's new, single-mom flame. Even Colin Farrell steps in as a new-breed singer mentored by Blake, though his character is dropped halfway through the movie, only to reappear at the end singing one of Blake's unmemorable tunes.

The movie, however, meanders too much...just like its subject. It's episodic, with a rather threadbare plot. And as Blake, Bridges is almost incomprehensible at times, summoning Marlon Brando and Tom Skerritt in a performance worthy of asking the question, "Is the TV on too low, or is this dialogue too garbled to understand?"

Not that it was interesting enough to warrant a quick rewind. The film does pick up a bit as it lopes toward the end, but by that time, it's too late. Maybe CH gets better with a few shots of moonshine, but I'd say, don't waste it.

Save it for Amadeus.

April 04, 2010

Tacky 'Titans' Takes 1D to New Low

Before Trudi and I entered the movie theater to see the remake of the 1981's cheesy Clash of the Titans, a cinematic travesty of Greek mythology if there ever was one, I wondered aloud if the newest version would be worse than the old one.

We agreed. Sure, it would.

Oh, we realized that was setting the bar really, really low. But it had to be done, ya know? The old version, which had the wooden Harry Hamlin battling antiquated-looking Ray Harryhausen special effects, hardly had anything going for it...which led me to wonder why anyone would want to remake it in the first place. I mean, was there anything worth remaking?

My feeling is that someone thought, "Hey, let's update this with a lot of CGI and put Liam Neeson in as Zeus and Ralph Fiennes in as Hades, and maybe do a little research in Bulfinch's Mythology"--(Editor's note: "A little research" means "almost none at all")--"and then almost completely refrain from following the original story and make it 3D, because that's what folks like these days, right?"

Yeah...I think it went something like that.

The funny thing was, I went into the film with such low expectations that I didn't completely hate it. It was trash, sure, but at least it was short...though the dialogue was interminable, making some scenes (especially ones dealing with "back story," a now-overused Hollywood treatment that is applied to classic tales as one applies mustard to a corned-beef-on-rye sandwich) excrutiatingly tedious.

Though not as tedious as almost every bit of conversation in Nixon. That's the top tier, there, methinks.

Still, I'm a little miffed that for all the CGI and chase scenes in 2010's Clash, there was not one bit of excitement. The reason? A combination of poor direction, editing, cinematography, and perspective, plus the most important missing piece of all: caring about the characters. Not that I was expecting Charles Dickens, but any development was nil. So what we ended up with was less than a trifle. It was a pittance.

CGI chase and/or battle scenes done right are tough to do, though I believe the greatest example of this was exhibited in 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. But that was rather judicious in its treatment. Clash felt like it was rushed to the theaters in the hopes of making a Friday night showing.

It did that, all right. And how.

Whether anyone will be back, however, is another story.

February 27, 2010

On Life, Liberty and Publication

The unthinkable happened to me the other day.

I was notified one of my science-fiction short stories was accepted by a magazine, and I was too excited to watch one of my favorite films that was being shown on TV: John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Of course, I have seen that movie about 20 times. But it requires concentration to enjoy it fully--especially if I wanted to introduce it to Trudi (now my official fiancee).

And I just couldn't concentrate.

But no matter; it'll be on again, and Trudi and I will have the opportunity to watch it. We've been viewing quite a few pictures recently, ranging from the superb (Sanjuro) to the painful (Bread and Chocolate) to the horrendously overrated (Doctor Zhivago). Post-acceptance, however, it has been difficult for me to get into "movie mode." I'm thinking about my story and how happy I well as how long it took to get here.

I'll get back in the cinematic groove soon, to be sure. And then, perhaps, Valance will be on the shortlist.

Just like I was.

February 06, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened After I Saw 'Precious'...

Imagine seeing Gabourey Sidibe and Gay Talese in the same room together...and then hearing the veteran journalist ask her an interesting but excruciatingly long-winded question relating to a recent op-ed he read in the paper.

As old-time broadcaster Mel Allen might say, "How about that?"

How about it indeed. Strangely, this improbable coincidence (or at least, that's the way it seemed) occurred after a regular showing of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire at a movie theater down on 42nd Street, which I attended. The proceedings started when someone "took the mike" and announced that actress Sidibe, whose astounding performance in the film was the movie's bedrock, would be appearing after the film to discuss it and answer questions.

I think my companions and I were all thinking the same thing: Good thing we didn't see From Paris with Love tonight, huh?

On a more serious note, I had wanted to see Precious for a while because I knew it would be a very well-made film...though I was worried I wasn't going to be able to watch most of it owing to the horrifying subject matter, which concerns the agonizing physical, sexual and verbal abuse of an obese teenager (played by Sidibe) living in 1980s Harlem by her brutal mother (a magnificent Mo'Nique) and vile rapist father. And although I did keep my hand over my eyes for about half of the film, I'm very glad I saw it. The direction by Lee Daniels and the performances are astounding, especially Sidibe's, whose character's life seems to have permanently crashed around her, and Mo'Nique's, portraying--against type--a terror who ranks among the great screen villains of all time and makes a speech at the end that has to be seen to be believed. Although the film is a bit long and is almost impossible to watch at many points (the scenes of abuse will, I guarantee it, shock and infuriate you through your tears), it is alleviated with moments of humor and hope that imbue it with great humanity. A finely crafted film.

And of course, there was Gabby at the end to top it all off.

Wonderfully, the affable Ms. Sidibe discussed her role in the film and answered questions for about a half hour following the movie--including an inquiry from me about how much improvisation she and her co-stars did in the film. (As part of her answer, she noted that about 75 percent of the film was scripted, and much of the classroom material was improvised from the capable ensemble.) Then Gay Talese, dressed to the nines in a vibrant suit, asked Sidibe in an exceedingly tiresome fashion about whether she'd want to write a letter in response to an op-ed piece in a very well-known New York newspaper that called attention to the film's social context. Sidibe responded very well (especially off-the-cuff) to this rambling question, suggesting that the issues in Precious were universal.

No, this wasn't staged, my friends. It was a true New York moment.

Anyway, it was an extraordinary end to an extraordinary evening, and as the Oscars approach, I know whom I'm going to be rooting for.

It won't be the cast from From Paris with Love, that's for sure.

January 17, 2010

In Slicing Nobility, 'Harakiri' Hones Unkindest Cuts

After watching Masaki Kobayashi's brilliant film Harakiri (aka Seppuku) recently, I'm starting to wonder why this director isn't better known.

This guy was, at his best, as visionary as Akira Kurosawa, and as much of a technician as Kenji Mizoguchi. Kobayashi has a distinct style (which includes telling camera zooms and pictorial, static images), as well as a critical voice. And nowhere is that more pronounced than in Harakiri.

This 1962 masterpiece tells the story of a ronin (masterless samurai) who visits the house of a great noble family with the intention of committing ritual suicide (harakiri or seppuku) there. Only problem is, the clan is suspicious because it had forced another such ronin who appeared on their grounds with the same intentions to do the gruesome deed, owing to the group's belief that all that individual wanted was a handout--not a "spectacular" death.

Bad move, clan dudes.

Harakiri has Kobayashi's magnificently choreographed fight scenes and beautiful cinematography, as well as an aesthetically gory ritual suicide scene, but the real highlights are the tense dialogue that carry the action, as well as an infusion of bitter irony that, to a certain extent, mirrors negative masterpieces such as John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (also 1962). Kobayashi's film seems to suggest that for some people, there's no way out of a prescribed fate--and the reason for that is a sense of duty and the rigidity of enforced code. And, like Valance, Harakiri suggests that there's a backstory to every person that determines his or her character. This is heady stuff for a chambara film...but of course, this is no ordinary chambara film. It's a movie made by one of the strongest individual talents in world cinema, who should be better known.

And better appreciated--at least, outside the circle of those who understand his genius.