Saturday, July 28, 2007

Picks and Pans


With all respect to Danny Boyle's newest genre-bending experience "Sunshine", it's going to die a slow, unprofitable death at the box office. Not only is there no marketing push for this film, but the theater I saw it at today had only 25 seats or so filled. That doesn't bode well for an opening weekend strategy. Is it because the studio doesn't fully understand how to campaign for such a well-crafted, eye-popping science fiction thriller in the midst of the remainder of the summer shallowness? Either way, I can only do my duty and use this meager space to shout to the heavens that everyone should see "Sunshine" immediately. It's the most visually arresting and emotionally charged thing you've seen in the theater all year long.

The plot, even though its often caught up in technological science-fiction babble, remains lucid when it comes to the characterization. Cillian Murphy plays Robert Capa, a physicist on board space station Icarus 2. Along with seven other astronauts (featuring a largely international cast including Cliff Curtis, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rose Byrne and Chris Evans), their mission is to travel to the sun and implode a nuclear device in order to save Earth from an enveloping solar freeze. Of course, this is 50 years in the future and the majority of Alex Garland's script deals with the psychological fissures that develop as the crew mates descend further and further into space. The sun (and mission) pale in comparison to the internal explosions of the characters' psyche. While "Sunshine" borrows alot from previous cinematic forays into science-fiction, it also distinguishes itself from its predecessors by tripping in and out of genres with courage. What begins as a typical space thriller (featuring the ubiquitous repairing the outer ship panels and computer malfunction) soon evolves into a nightmarish collision of slasher flick and psychological thriller.

Heightening the perfection of mood is not only Alwin Kuchler's daring cinematography, which feels like an Edvard Munch painting in the way it bends light and reflection to maximum effect, but also the contagious scoring of John Murphy and the band Underworld. "Sunshine" is that rare blend of science-fiction fantasy entertainment that intermingles loftier ideas with varying degrees of success. For the art house fans, there's Tarkovsky's "Solaris" (and to some extent Soderbergh's remake that hits alot of the same notes for modern audiences) and no doubt "Sunshine" will be paired with that achievement. Some will be turned off from "Sunshine's" final act, but for me, it invigorated an already competent film. Not only do writer Alex Garland and director Boyle handle the wild shift in genres well, but they amp up the tension to undeniable degrees. This is one of my favorite films this year.


Why did I pay to see "Transformers"? Because nothing these days beats seeing a movie in digital projection, and what better movie to see than the big summer action blockbuster? Even in digital projection, I want my money back. There's probably not enough space here to define my dislike for Michael Bay's latest..... but I"ll try. Transformers are certainly within my generation. I had them as a kid and played with them everyday. Honestly, I liked my G.I Joes better, but that's a minor quibble. I can see some of my generation enjoying this film, but this is not a film for adults. Not when you have shallow and insulting stereotypes; the high school teacher is a sweater wearing geek, every black person in this film screams and acts foolish, such as when they yell at their 'grandmammy', and the fathers are all uptight white guys concerned about their yards and pools. Even when the Transformers themselves are given voices, they're relegated to stereotypical sounds that murmur childish things and bellow empty things such as "we are here now, and we are waiting". "Transformers" is a colossal disappointment for me. The heart gets racing a little when the Autobots and Decepticons finally meet in a grand finale battle that teats apart a city and utilizes some nifty CGI, but the heart of this thing is empty. This is an assembly-line production that exists solely for marketing and children under the age of 13. And even though I'm usually not affected by the depiction of US soldiers on the screen, I was a bit disturbed by the film's universal unacknowledgement of the consequences of violence. I guess that's how it got its PG-13 rating. Terrible, insulting stuff here.

DVD Pick 'o' the Week- The Missouri Breaks

There are very few things that can usurp the performance of Jack Nicholson in the 70's, but Marlon Brando does just that in Arthur Penn's magnificent 1976 western, "The Missouri Breaks". The story follows Tom Logan (Nicholson) as he and his gang of horse thieves buy a farm next to their sworn enemy, Braxton (John McLiam). In addition to stealing his cattle, Nicholson also steals the affection of his daughter, played with loving precision by Kathleen Lloyd. In retaliation, Braxton hires a contract killer and from the first time he arrives on screen, Brando embraces his performance like an un-performance. I'm not sure if we're witnessing acting or the personification of Brando doing anything he can to turn acting inside out. He wears dresses, mutters off-the-cuff lines of dialogue that could never be scripted, and waifs through the film with a deadly sense of perverse fun. And it all makes sense. Director Penn holds the entire affair together and manages to make some nifty conceits about violence as well. This is new on DVD as part of the Brando set released late last year. Put this high in your Netflix queue.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Sex, Drugs and Movies.. Ok, No Sex

It must be the hot July air that's making all these movie types go ballistic and snort up all the cocaine available in New York and L.A. The next to get caught with drugs (no, NOT Tom Sizemore) is one of my favorite actors, Peter Greene . According to this story, actor Greene was arrested in New York on Tuesday evening in posession of crack-cocaine. Greene is no stranger to addiction. He struggled with dependency all through the 90's while making himself visible in films like "Clean, Shaven", "Pulp Fiction", "The Rich Man's Wife", "Permanent Vacation" and my personal favorite, the amazing 1992 indie "Laws of Gravity". You can see, in that performance, he's not far removed from the glaze of hangover, which works pretty well for the story of a two-bit criminal gliding through New York city with his rag-tag crew. Still, I always hoped he would eventually kick his habit. I've seen him pop up in a few bit parts in the last couple years, but nothing substantial. Looks like he may be away for awhile now. We can only hope he makes a resurgent come-back ala Robert Downey Jr. Why are two of my favorite actors drug-addicted burnouts? OK, that's harsh for Downey Jr, but there must be something to the nature of fueled obsession with a substance that translates into raw performance shifting.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Pop Quiz

Whose job would you rather have right now?

1. Bud Selig

2. David Stern

3. Roger Goodell

I think I'll choose none of the above and sign my application for the commissioner of the Argentinian water polo league. This is all going to be very, very interesting. Call it Sportsgate '07.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Power of Laughter

Over at The House Next Door blog, they've linked up with yet another list. This time, the British publication The Guardian has posted their top 50 comedy films of all time list comprised from reader ballots. It's actually a pretty conclusive selection, naming "The Big Lebowski", "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" in their top ten. There's still some elitism going on (i.e. "Some Like It Hot" and the I-just-personally-never-understood-it "This Is Spinal Tap" clocking in at numbers 3 and 4 respectively), but it's a nice list. They even go so far as to include recent hits such as "Shaun of the Dead" and there's much love for my John Hughes fav, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles". The problems? Well, "Anchorman" earns a spot at number twenty, beating out classic laugh-fests like "The Blues Brothers" and "The Naked Gun", but the inclusion of maverick favorites "Team America: World Police" and "South Park The Movie" make up for some of that. The whole affair is a distinctively British affair, as evident by Monty Python's "The Life of Brian" earning the top spot as well as the inclusion of very-English works like "Alexander MacKendrick's "The Ladykillers", "A Fish Called Wanda" and "Withnail and I"???! Still, I'm a little jealous that I never recieved MY ballot. Granted, I don't live in the U.K. or subscribe to the Guardian, but they could've reached out a little more. Still, its a very fun list.

So, because I missed out on the Top 100 Films thing that was going around the blog-o-sphere a couple weeks ago, this is my attempt to make up for that. I invite everyone within this next week to post their Top 50 Comedies of all Time list. If I were more adventurous, I'd conduct a ballot of my own, but, hey, we're all adults here and can post our own lists. You can either link to them or post in the comments section or display them on your own blog. Laughter makes the world go round!

UPDATED: Here's a brief list. Creating 50 of my favorite comedies became a chore, sort of. I never have given comedies the preference over drama or other genres, so this tested me a bit. I have about 40 or so, so my ballot would've looked like this, in no particular order after the first:

The Big Lebowski (Coen Brothers)
Blazing Saddles (Brooks)
Young Frankenstein (Brooks)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Swingers (Liman)
The Royal Tenenbaums (Anderson)
Super Troopers (Chandrasekhar)
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (Hughes)
Dr Strangelove (Kubrick)
Bob Roberts (Robbins)
Bull Durham (Shelton)
Austin Powers Goldmember (Roach)
Hott Fuzz (Wright)
Shaun of the Dead (Wright)
Ghostbusters (Ramis)
Waiting For Guffman (Guest)
Harold and Kumar Go To Whitecastle (Leiner)
Napolean Dynamite (Hess)
Airplane (Abrahams)
Office Space (Judge)
National Lampoons Christmas Vacation (Chechik)
Knocked Up (Apatow)
The Jerk (Reiner)
A Christmas Story (Clark)
Army of Darkness (Raimi)
The Princess Bride (Reiner)
Top Secret (Abrahms)
Quick Change (Franklin)
The Life Aquatic (Anderson)
The Blues Brothers (Landis)
Funny Farm (Hill)

Curb Your Enthusiasm, Rescue Me, Freaks and Geeks, Seinfeld?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Summertime Blues

In the past 2 weeks, I've been unfortunate enough to sit through some mind-numbingly bad films:

Live Free or Die Hard- I know I'm getting jaded when I start looking for plausibility and consistency in a summer action blockbuster, but "Live Free or Die Hard" does a tremendous dis-service to the Die Hard trilogy. How would one actually drive a car through an office building by accessing the parking lot garage??? Why would all those cars be abandoned for hours and hours just because the traffic lights aren't working.. other than to save the costs of requiring extras? And the list of plot holes goes on and on... not to mention horrible characterizations, lazy pleas on emotions and a Bruce Willis who truly has gotten too old to portray a believable action hero.

The Hills Have Eyes 2- Detestable sequel to the first Wes Craven remake that situates itself somewhere between the slasher films of the 80's and 2006 torture porn. Not only does it roll out a sickening rape scene, but indulges in eye-gougings, severed limbs and a man being put inside a portable toilet?! Like that character, the rest of the film is just as full of shit.

Police Beat- Robinson Devor's 2006 indie that charts the week in the life of A Muslim Seattle bicycle cop. Desperately wanting to imitate some type of Terrence Malick art film, it never finds a tone or tempo.

Shooter- I have to give this film a few props for its imaginative shoot-out scene on a snow-capped mountain, but its hamfisted politics, unbelievable character archs and mumbling performance by Mark Whalburg don't add up to much of anything.

The 1 bright spot during my recent disc-watching: seeing "Freaks and Geeks" for the first time on DVD. So good. I'm in love with Linda Cardellini.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Flesh and Bone

In the May-June issue of Film Comment, Brynn White writes of Lee Marvin, "Marvin wanted the audience to grimace and stiffen, but he always wanted them to look back, captivated by what they had seen, gradually finding poignancyin human nature's initially repellent capacities." In Michael Ricthie's "Prime Cut" (1972), Marvin does just both- creating a silent hunter who makes us grimace when he dispatches Gene Hackman's henchman as well as stirring a few gentle emotions in the way he resurrects the empty childhood of a girl (Sissy Spacek) sold into sexual slavery. "Prime Cut", along with "Point Blank", are the best renderings of a man on a quest for something greater. Although they're both fairly straight-forward examples of the strong, silent type that made Marvin a star, they're also the quintessential types of filmmaking that earmarked their respective eras. While "Point Blank" cashes in on the late 60's feel and mood, "Prime Cut" is loose and spirited in a way that only the best films of the 70's captured. While Michael Ritchie would go on to make other classic examples of the period (namely "Smile" and "The Bad News Bears"), "Prime Cut" stands out for its efficient, focused, and nasty way of telling a very ordinary story.

From the opening credits, "Prime Cut" establishes itself as an attack on good manners; a man's body is seen laying inside a Kansas City meat factory converyor belt. The belt starts up, and we're given glimpses of the process that creates our daily beef intake. The camera follows as the body is eventually turned into sausage links. The links are packages up and mailed to a mob boss in Chicago, courtesy of 'Mary Ann' (Gene Hackman) as an affront to the big city boys who sent someone to his small town to collect money. The idea of disposing of a body within a meat packing plant seems elementary today (think of the passion that would've stirred up in a film like "Fast Food Nation"!), but it seems especially grotesque in 1972, which only begins the heated and bloody collisions that stack up in "Prime Cut".

It's not long before the Chicago boss sends his toughest henchman in to negotiate with Mary Ann. Enter Lee Marvin. Upon arriving in Kansas City, Marvin walks right into the barn of Mary Ann, who's in the middle of an auction for beef and drugged, nubile young girls. One of these girls catches Marvin's eye, but not for the same sexual reasons that other men are lined up. Marvin takes the young girl (played with sensual abandon by Sissy Spacek) and makes his intentions clear to Mary Ann. Pay or consequences (and most undoubtedly hell) will be coming. From there, "Prime Cut" explodes into a frenzy of single, efficient vision. It continually subverts the suspense and film noir genre, creating 2 setpieces that feel terrifying in their mundaneness. The first occurs when Marvin and Spacek run from Mary Ann's blond-cloned henchmen from a small town carnival. They end up in a wheatfield where a combine begins to chase after them. Hitchcock watch out. The second, a setpiece that acts as the thrilling finale, places Marvin in the middle of a sunflower field, automatic machine guns blazing. Not only does Richie nail the logistics of the gun battle with great audacity, but he manages to make it feel like anyone (even Lee Marvin) could fall at any minute. Marvin stalks through the battles with great confidence, but what differs from this melee and the ones he surrounded himself during "Point Blank" is the fact that he's fighting for something greather than himself. The undercurrents of father-child relationship between Marvin and Spacek echo loudly throughtout the final few minutes. Which, again, makes the bloodshed all the more palpable.

"Prime Cut" is a film that's hardly ever mentioned when 70's classics are thrown around, but it's a masterwork that demands to be seen. Recently released on video for the first time, maybe now is the perfect chance for everyone to seek out an unheralded gem.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

What's In the Netflix Queue #7

Another round. Here goes:

1. The Booth- J horror film that I rented one time from my local BLockbuster, got thrugh 20 minutes and couldn't hear any sound. From what I saw, it was pretty creepy.
2. Runaway Train- Jon Voight and Eric Roberts on a train with a conductor who suffers a heart attack. Like the description says, if you think this is "corny action fare", Roberts and Voight both got Oscar noms for this film.
3. Siberiade- Aint It Cool News raved about this film; 2 discs, five hours spanning the lives of 2 families from the Bolshevik revolution to the 70's. After watching the 5 hour and 37 minute "1900" this week sometime, I'll need to change the cushions on the couch....
4. Charlotte Gray- This is one Cate Blanchett film I've never seen. Anyone who vistis this blog knows my love for Cate runs deep.
5. There Was A Crooked Man- Western starring Kirk Douglas and a host of great supporting character actors. Can't remember where this one comes recommended from.
6. The Assassination of Trotsky-Joseph Losey film in which Alain Delon is sent into the inner circle to kill Trotsky (obviously!). I have a very hard time turning down any Delon film in which he plays a contract killer. Add to that political intrigue, and I'm so there.
7. Savage Cinema from Down Under: Stained- Australian director Mark Savage (whose other films were listed earlier) crafts some pretty unnerving exploitation flicks and this is another. Once I get through a few more, I may write up something on him. He's an interesting one if you like experimental exploitation films.
8. The Bounty- I may have seen this early Mel Gibson flick back in the day, but it sounds interesting. Director Roger Donaldson's film tracks the mutiny on board a ship commanded by Anthony Hopkins. Should be some great scene-chewing.
9. My Left Foot- With actor Daniel Day Lewis co-starring in "The Bounty", so begins my exploration of the few films of his I haven't seen. I still believe he's one of the 5 greatest actors of the past 20 years, so I need to see everything he's done.
10. The Boxer- Daniel Day Lewis, director Jim Sheridan. They made magic before.