Monday, November 30, 2009

BAD LIEUTENANT: Port of Call New Orleans


BLAND LIEUTENANT

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans - Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer (121 min).

Typically, when Nicolas Cage is allowed to go off the reservation in a film, the result is entertaining if anything. I love my Cage when he’s bat shit insane (see: Face/Off, Wild at Heart, Raising Arizona and, to an extent, Leaving Las Vegas), but for some reason, in Werner Herzog’s new crime drama, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, his zaniness, and the entire film, fails to ever be cohesive or entertaining in any sort of memorable way.

There was much interesting controversy surrounding Herzog’s “reimagining” of the 1992 Abel Ferrara film that shares really a name and nothing else. Ferrara has been quoted as, basically, wishing everyone involved with this new version would die. The new version has Cage as Terrance McDonagh, a good cop who develops a back problem, one that gradually cripples him to a point where he spends the entire film hunched slightly and turning from side to side as if in an invisible neck brace. This is apparently the gateway to Terry developing an addiction to harder drugs like crack and heroin, drugs that he gets from time to time by shaking down club goers and lowlifes.

The plot of Bad Lieutenant involves the murder of five people in a house, but the actual drive and purpose of this plotline is so underdeveloped and vapid that the details surrounding it are of no consequence at all. All I know is that it involves swindling a local drug kingpin played by Xibit (never a good sign with him in your movie) and a series of half baked plot devices placed there simply to make the story move forward. Half of them are so coincidental it's embarrassing. And perhaps this is the point, as the film’s central focus is the deterioration of Cage’s character, not any type of cohesive plot. Which brings about another problem or two: this bad lieutenant isn’t really that interesting, or that bad to be honest.

Of course he smokes crack, does heroin, and gets in debt with the bookies (the only real similarity to the Harvey Keitel character from the original film), but none of his actions ever feel threatening or as dark as they should. These things McDonagh are doing are serious, no doubt, but the neutered, glossed over way Herzog decides to film everything takes any grit out of the picture and leaves the audience at arm’s length from the action. I kept wanting Cage’s character to take that next step, to take his extreme behavior to that next level that I know he is capable of, but it never happens. Even when the reigns are off Cage’s character, those moments feel absolutely forced.

Aside from the murder McDonagh is trying to solve, he is also trying to deal with his drug-addicted prostitute girlfriend – Eva Mendes, still showing that it is abundantly clear she cannot act – his bookie connection, and a group of gangsters who need money from him for, well, something I don’t really remember. Mainly because it makes no difference, their motivation. Motivation is not really an angle of psychological make-up in these characters that ever gets explored.

Cage is decent here, but at times he looks rather bored with a film that is rather boring. Val Kilmer as his partner is a complete waste, adding nothing to the overall framework. Despite a few spots of promise and the occasional dry wit, the screenplay never really explores a character that really needs to be explored in order to make the film interesting. The entire endeavor feels like a bit of a miscalculation, or a good idea on paper that never really delivers on screen. As I said before, Herzog adds nothing fresh to the camera work of the look of the picture. And he never really employs the stylistic prominence of New Orleans. This could have been filmed anywhere. There are a few curious moments where we focus on iguanas or alligators with a few inexplicable tight shots on the reptile’s faces, but those don’t really make sense in a film that is otherwise shot without any flair of character.

D

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Road

Bleak House

The Road: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall (110 min.)

John Hillcoat's adaptation of the new millenium's finest work of fiction, Cormac McCarthy's dystopian epic The Road, may have been caught between a rock and a hard place from the moment of its inception. The novel is one of the finest works of contemporary literature to come along since the 60s. Adapting a novel as powerful and lyrical as this one may have been a task too daunting for any director. That being said, what Hillcoat delivers hits more than it misses, and manages to take on a life of its own while remaining faithful to the source material, even though there are moments of stagnation, perhaps moments that cant be avoided.

The film focuses on a father and son - as they are never named otherwise - played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi-Smitt McPhee, respectively. The world has virtually ended, as everything is dead and grey and the planet has become a hollow shell. No birds fly, no trees live, no society exists, and there is no explanation as to what happened. Father and son are travelling along the road, trying to reach the coast, although there is no guarantee that enything is different along the edge of the ocean. Along the way, father is forced to defend son against roaming collections of humans whom have lost all sense of their moral compass, and are now cannibals.

So goes the entire film. In between harrowing moments along this road, there are poignant flashbacks to the father and son's life with their wife and mother, played sparingly but with great effect by Charlize Theron. Along the way, father and son must fight to stay alive, both by finding food and fending off cold-blooded gangs of "bad people." This is McCarthy's central thesis, however bleak it may seem: that people, when pushed and desperate, are inherently cold and hearltess, and they would prefer to join in groups for safety, however evil or disgusting the ideology of those groups may be.

There are a few cameos in The Road, none more powerful and lasting than the appearance of a barely recognizeable Robert Duvall playing an older man wandering the road alone. These moments, however brief, where Duvall is on the screen are perhaps the most powerful of the entire film. With only a few scenes in the film, Duvall should still be considered for a supporting actor nominee (people have won for less before). And there are moments of genius scattered throughout The Road, while other extended sequences tend to bog down the forward momentum.

And here is the catch 22 of The Road. McCarthy's novel was not an action-packed fare for certain. But those moments of inaction were poignant, written with an abruptness that delivered an emotional impact that is completely impossible to translate to the screen, no matter how well Hillcoat tries. That being said, Hillcoat's film manages to take all of the important scenes and all of the central themes, about the lack of faith in humanity, the religious undertones, and the talking point of "what would you do in that situation," to a level that is generally effective. However, there are moments scattered in between these scenes that bog things down. Things could have been trimmed here and there to focus the narrative.

I realize they are working from a novel, but since Hillcoat decided to take certain liberties (expanding the role of the mother in the film for example), he could have just as easily takne those scenes that work so effectively as subtle innner narratives in the book and trimmed them away from the picture. Nevertheless, the world created in The Road, the lifelessness an unavoidable despair, is just as I had imagined when I read the book.

Mortensen's performance here is the best in his career. The pain, the anguish, and the steely-eyed resolve are all visible in each and every scene. He should absolutely find himself on the short list come Oscar time. And Smit-McPhee as the young boy has an interesting job: to deliver sympathy an naivety in the face of his father's more negative approach to this world in which they exist. In this he is perfect.

The Road is a journey not for the faint of heart, and for the most part it is a film that captures the essence of the novel, a novel that succeeds in subtelty where a film simply cannot. And that is no fault of the picture, but it is something of which to make a note.

B

Monday, November 23, 2009

'THE ROAD' WEEK - DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: John Hillcoat

John Hillcoat, director of the upcoming adaptation The Road, is anything but a household name when it comes to directors. Nevertheless, I found myself truly excited at the announcement that he would be adapting one of the best novels of the last fifty years into a film simply because of his previous film, The Proposition. Searing, violent, and morose, The Proposition is a fantastically bleak western and a perfect precursor to the bleak and hopeless world of The Road.

Born in Australia and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, John Hillcoat was an artist at a young age. Some of his paintings were featured in the Art Gallery of Hamilton in Ontario. This artistic ability of Hillcoat can explain, in part, his stylistic choices in his limited filmography. Somewhere along the way, Hillcoat returned to Australia where he began working with Nick Cave and his band, "The Bad Seeds," directing some of their music videos. Ever since, Hillcoat and Cave have worked closely together on Hillcoat’s films.

In 1988, Hillcoat directed his first feature, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, an Australian horror picture revolving around prison gangs. Little is known about this film beyond Australia, where it was released. Despite its lack of popularity in the US, Ghosts won an AFI Award for Production Design, and was nominated for 8 more. One of those 8 nominations included best score from Nick Cave.

Following Ghosts, Hillcoat released To Have and to Hold in 1996, another Australian film, this time about a tumultuous romance. Again, nick Cave’s score was nominated for and won an ARIA Music Award for Best Original Soundtrack. Hillcoat continued to work with Nick Cave for the next several years, directing a music film, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds: Babe, I’m on Fire, in 2003. Two years after that, Hillcoat collaborated with Cave on his bleak Australian Western, The Proposition.

Starring Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, and Danny Huston, The Proposition was Hillcoat’s largest American success to date. That being said, very few have seen it in the States. Which is unfortunate, because The Proposition is one of the most brutally honest, violent, thrilling, and ultimately haunting Westerns in the history of the genre. Not only did Nick Cave do the soundtrack for The Proposition, one of the most important aspects regarding the artistic brilliance of the picture, but he also penned the screenplay. The growing success and recognition of The Proposition was key in Hillcoat landing The Road as his next project.

Hillcoat was offered the directing job on The Road before No Country for Old Men took home four Oscars, including Best Picture, and made Cormac McCarthy the hot new author in Hollywood (a fourth adaptation of his – the Matt Damon flop All the Pretty Horses was his novel as well – Blood Meridian, is on the horizon). As a matter of fact, Hillcoat was given the job before the novel was published, before Viggo Mortensen or Charlize Theron even agreed to do the picture, as his work on The Proposition was enough to sell the studio on his abilities. Again, Hillcoat has tagged Nick Cave to do the soundtrack, which should be quite amazing.

When asked about the postapocalyptic aspect of The Road, Hillcoat shudders and says they want something more impacting than Mad Max or 2012: “It [postapocalyptic] lends itself to so many clichés… We wanted something more resonant than, you know, the Statue of Liberty cut in half.”*

Let’s hope he's succeeded in this.



* This quote was taken from New York magazine’s Guides, August 24, 2008.

Friday, November 20, 2009

FAVORITE SCENE FRIDAY... Planes, Trains, and Automobiles...

Well, with this being the last Friday before Thanksgiving, I figure this was the time to show the best scene from the best (if not the only real) Thanksgiving movie out there. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a comedic gem from the late John Hughes, and I think those of you who have seen the movie know what scene is coming up.

That’s right, after an already arduous journey, trying to get home to his family for Thanksgiving while simultaneously trying to rid himself of the grating travel companion Del Griffith (John Candy), Neal Page (Steve Martin) is dropped off in a rental-car lot far far away from the airplane terminal, only to discover the keys he was given belong to a missing car. The following is one of the most abrasive, over the top, hilarious displays of anger and frustration ever filmed.


Enjoy…

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

WEDNESDAY'S SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE... New Moon

There is something frightening on the horizon. Something unsettling. It has to deal with vampires and werewolves, though it isn’t frightening in the way you might imagine those things to be frightening. That’s right, the first Twilight sequel, New Moon, is a mere two days away, and with it Twilight will bring feverish hoards of maniacal women into theaters all across this low-IQ country of ours. They will undoubtedly pass smaller screens playing the Coen brothers newest film, A Serious Man. They will surely fly past the screens playing Bad Lieutenant or The Men Who Stare at Goats or the new Award-worthy, inner-city drama, Precious, on their way into the biggest screen in the theater to munch on their popcorn and ooh and ahh at a collection of Emo teens pretending to be vampires and werewolves in love. Beware, gentlemen, of the theater this weekend, as you may be mauled by thousands upon thousands of rabid cougars.

I feel like its been established that the American moviegoer in general is, quite simply, brain dead. If you doubt this, take a look at this past weekend’s number one draw at the box office: the ridiculous disaster porn 2012. American audiences like shiny objects and easy plots that they don’t have to invest in, which might explain why they like vampires that glitter in the sunlight and don’t have “scary fangs.” I watched the first Twilight film a few months back, in my home, with the shades drawn so nobody could see me. My initial reaction was “eh… this thing ain’t that bad.” I was more indifferent towards it than anything else, and saw it as no real threat. I don’t remember it breaking any big box office numbers either, so I watched it, took it for what it was, a teenage romance with marginal vampires, and went on.

But then I did the wrong thing: I thought about it. The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. They don’t have fangs? Well, how do they bite far enough into the skin to reach veins? Of course, you don’t see them do that anyway because that’s too intense for the audience, right? I mean, they are all teenagers, right? Wrong (we will come back to this). And then there is the sparkling. These vampires sparkle in the sunlight? They actually bedazzle when UV rays hit them, which is why they moved to the Northwest as, apparently, it is always cloudy. But I found myself using too much logic. This story was no place for logic.

But then I came to the baseball situation, and was overwhelmed by logic and, to be honest, common sense and the desire to not be moronic. So, let me get this straight, this “family” of vampires just really, really like baseball? They get all giddy and excited thinking about playing baseball. But they can only play during thunderstorms because, see, they hit the ball so hard that it sounds like thunder. So in order to keep everyone in the dark about their awesome baseball-hitting powers, they have to disguise their baseball games by playing when it thunders outside. Nevermind the fact that an aluminum bat sounds nothing like thunder, or if it was hit that hard it would fold the bat in two, or rip the ball into a million pieces, or… I can’t type about this anymore. My blood pressure is rising.

I had to tell myself again that this was a teenage girl movie. No more significant to anyone else than, say, The Princess Diaries. It’s She’s All That with cheesy vampires, werewolves, and poor special effects. So what if teenagers enjoy it? It gets them reading, so that’s all that matters. If they want to see the movie, fine. But that, in fact, is not the case. If you were to look across this lowbrow country of ours at the premiers for New Moon, you would see the biggest, most fevered pack of middle-aged housewives and cougars fighting for a chance to see the three stars of this series. Women approaching forty, not even with their teenage daughters, struggling to snap a picture of Robert Pattinson. These women are grown ups for God’s sake. They are adults! And they are whipped into a frenzy by one of the most asinine, ridiculous stories and hunting down these young men like the desperate high school teachers you see in the news once a month. These women have the capacity to read and understand things well beyond the level of Stephanie Meyer’s juvenile writing (as it should be), but they have somehow been hypnotized by a story that is so ridiculous and poorly assembled.

Twilight didn’t break many box office records, but I feel like, after taking the pulse of those around me, those twenty and thirty and forty year-old women around me, that New Moon will double the first weekend take of the first film. And that is a step in the wrong direction. I see these women, these adults, more excited for this abomination on the vampire landscape, this thing that sums up the problem with the decline in intelligence in this country, than I ever was for The Dark Knight. And that was actually a good movie, one of the best of its kind if not the best. This thing, this is for teenagers, and the teenagers its for must be embarrassed by their mothers taking a night out on the town with the ladies and going to the multiplex to sit and make googly eyes at these mopey teen douchebags pretending to be deep thinkers and star-crossed lovers.

New Moon is what’s wrong with American cinema. Plain and simple.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

TUESDAY TOP 10: Best Book to Film Adaptations...

There are two big movies on the November horizon, and both of them are adapted from celebrated novels. I am truly excited to see one of these two, and I can tell you now that the one I am excited to see does not involve squinty-eyed werewolves, shiny vampires without fangs, or screaming middle-aged women standing in line to see it. New Moon, the latest in the Twilight series comes out this weekend, in case you haven’t noticed by the overpowering scent of cougar estrogen in the air. Next week, however, a worthy novel comes to the big screen: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a Pulitzer-prize winning novel about a father and son braving a post-apocalyptic world. It seems then, like a good time to look back at the best book adaptations to hit the screen.

Before anyone blows a gasket, I am leaving series of books off of this list (Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings) due to the sheer volume of adaptations in those alone. These will focus more on single works of literature and how they have been translated to film:

10) There Will Be Blood – Although There Will Be Blood is one of the better films here, the adaptation is so loose that it needed to be low on the list. Paul Thomas Anderson took the first third, perhaps a bit more, of Upton Sinclair’s lesser known work, Oil!, and turned it into a sprawling opus about the beginning of the end in America as far as greed and corruption are concerned. Daniel Day Lewis delivers his best performance in a career full of great performances, and Anderson takes Sinclair’s work and unwraps it into a much more complex story.

9) Interview with the Vampire – I know this is technically a series of books since Queen of the Damned was released in 2000, but I think we all know this adaptation from Irish director Neil Jordan does not fall under the same category as the aforementioned series.’ When it was announced that Tom Cruise would be playing the vampire Lestat, a smooth, stylish vampire in nineteenth-century New Orleans, author Anne Rice was not at all satisfied with the casting choice. However, she changed her tune when she saw how well Cruise did in the title role, and how he and Brad Pitt worked so well in the story together.

8) Fight Club – There has been some backlash against David Fincher’s cult hit in recent years, but I feel like this adaptation is a good addition to Chuck Palahniuk’s anarchistic novel about a group of misfits, led by a schizophrenic, who cause all manners of chaos and destruction to the heart of capitalist America. Ed Norton is brilliant, and Brad Pitt as his doppelganger Tyler Durden is even better. Fight Club speaks out to a certain demographic of Generation Y, and Fincher’s adaptation stays true to the pages of the novel and captures its dark spirit.

7) Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel about, again, a group of misfits looking to stir up trouble everywhere we go was actually surpassed by the adaptation from Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick, of course, took many liberties with the Burgess novel (he took too many with The Shining, which is why you wont find it on this list. The movie is almost completely exclusive from the Stephen King novel), but he kept true to the damaged soul. Something else he also kept true to was the distorted hybrid cockney accent, a dialogue so complex the book needed a glossary of terms in order to be understood.

6) Apocalypse Now – This is an interesting adaptation. Francis Ford Coppola, adapting the Joseph Conrad book Heart of Darkness, moved the novel from the nineteenth-century Amazon to Vietnam, and managed to keep the essence and basic plot of Conrad’s work. This was a taxing film on Coppola, though the grueling work on the film can be seen in the quality of the finished product. Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando capture the voices of the two main characters in the novel as well, keeping this time-jumping adaptation eerily accurate to the source material from nearly a century earlier.

5) Goodfellas – Nicolas Pileggi’s novel Wiseguy became, several years before Martin Scorsese transformed it into one of the best crime-dramas of all time, the penultimate crime novel about the true story of the mob in America. Telling the story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta in the film), Pileggi uses the words of Hill himself to get deep into the crime world. Scorsese, using his deft touch behind the camera, was able to understand the material better than anyone else could, and the result is perhaps his best film.

4) American Psycho – Director Mary Harron adapted Bret Easton Ellis’ dark satire of American capitalism in 1980s Manhattan as accurately as she could. She, along with the writers, was forced to trim back some of the expansiveness of the book. For example, Patrick Bateman’s morning routine, a few minutes in the film, is some twenty pages in the novel. A very understandable edit. Nevertheless, Harron’s adaptations is spot on with the satire of the novel, accentuating every necessary detail in order to make a worthy screen version of Ellis’ incendiary novel.

3) Silence of the Lambs – Again, this could perhaps be considered the first in a series of films, but this again is really the only one worthy of being on a list like this in the first place (LOTR and Potter are all quality in their own right, not so much with Red Dragon or Hannibal). Director Jonathan Demme transforms Thomas Harris’ middling crime novel into a frightening, deeply psychological picture that was the surprise big winner at the 1991 Academy Awards. It also created Anthony Hopkins’ most memorable role of his career, though Brian Cox did Hannibal Lector a few years previous in Michael Mann’s Manhunter.

2) To Kill a Mockingbird – This is the first and perhaps only novel/film combination on this list that is impossible to rank as far as importance and quality. Both Harper Lee’s novel and the film, starring Gregory Peck, are classics in their medium, and both are important. Lee’s book and the film both capture a certain era in American prejudice and understanding, and the courtroom scenes are some of the best ever filmed, as well as inspirations for the courtroom films that would permeate the cinematic landscape from there on out.

1) No Country for Old Men – Cormac McCarthy’s brutal Southwestern crime novel is a vibrant, violent, vicious story about humanity and corruption of the soul, and Joel and Ethan Coen understood that when they set out to adapt the story into a film. The result is one of the better films of the decade, and a true page-for-page adaptation of the novel. Seemingly everything in the novel is in the film, and vice versa. What the Coens did, however, was flesh out characters that were not described (for good reason) in McCarthy’s minimalist writing. The result of this was Anton Chigurgh (Javier Bardem) another one of the most memorable, frightening realistic villains in cinematic history.

Friday, November 13, 2009

FAVORITE SCENE FRIDAY: Punch Drunk Love...

Paul Thomas Anderson’s quiet meditation on love and loneliness, Punch Drunk Love, is quite a departure for the director whose other three major releases are three-hour epics. And Punch Drunk Love is still arguably Adam Sandler’s best dramatic work. Sandler plays Barry Egan, a lonely, quiet, quietly angry man who is suffocated regularly by his eight sisters, as evidenced in this scene.

A few other things we see in this scene, a birthday for one of his sisters, is his social awkwardness, his tension, and his discomfort among a zoo of maniacal family members. He is under the impression that his closest sister, Elizabeth (the grating Mary Lynn Rajskub) has invited a girl for him to meet, creating even more anxiety. So when he discovers she isn’t coming, he is relieved, but that relief lasts only momentarily. I am sure we can all relate to something here, and the payoff in the laundry room is at first very funny, but grows a bit sad before the end.


Business is very food….


Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Problem with 4...

Very rarely can a film franchise withstand a third sequel. Several times, a poor third installment should be a signal for the studio and those involved to wrap things up and move on to another franchise to exploit. While the third installment might be serviceable on occasion, a fourth dip into the pot is almost always recipe for disaster. This is what concerns me about the big three number fours on the horizon: Spiderman 4, Jurassic Park 4, and a fourth Bourne film. Taking a look back, history should teach the people involved with these big three that a fourth film is not the best idea:

From time to time, a third film in a franchise can serve as a warning sign for the studio that a series may be running on fumes. Consider first Terminator 3. At first glance, this film seems like a solid addition to the franchise. But upon further review, it is clear that T3 is simply a shell of the movies before it. There is almost a mocking tone to the picture, and the writers become to in love with their own lame sense of humor to see that they are turning a dark and ominous series into a polished, glossy adventure film with no real resonance or weight. That, in turn, caused the studio to take things in a much different, darker direction with McG’s Terminator Salvation. This didn’t help, as the intense about face made the franchise bland, washed out, and dull. Proof that this series should have ended on a high with James Cameron’s first sequel.

Another franchise that should have seen the writing on the wall, much like the Spiderman franchise should do, is the Batman franchise from the late eighties and early nineties. Batman Forever was a massive departure from the gothic pop art of Tim Burton’s first two films. While still watchable, it is clear that the tone had drastically altered thanks to the severe hack job of Joel Schumacher. This over stylized, overwrought sequel should have been the one and only Schumacher Batman, as the next installment, Batman and Robin, is a complete joke, and one of the most ridiculous, absurd, hokey, bat-nipple-ridden sequels ever.

Every once in a while, a franchise ends on a high in a third installment (see: The Bourne films). This tends to blind studio heads into thinking they can just tack on another film regardless of whether or not the story has been satisfactorily concluded in a tight trilogy. The Indiana Jones trilogy was a tightly knot, enjoyable trilogy of adventure films, so Spielberg and Company decided to go back some seventeen years later to try and revive the story. What they came up with, The Kingdon of the Crystal Skull, is pretty much an embarrassment. Spielberg’s worst film. This is another film, like T3, that deceives at first, perhaps because the excitement of seeing these familiar characters back in action blinds one from noticing the drivel they are watching. Indy 4 was poorly written, uninteresting, and too hokey even by Indy standards.

The Lethal Weapon franchise had a solid third entry, only to be followed by an annoying fourth. The strength of the Lethal Weapon franchise was the difference between Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs, a crazy, suicidal recluse, and Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh, a grounded, aging family man. By the fourth installment, Riggs had become grounded as well, and was soon to be a family man. This weakened the comedic dynamic between the two. That and the overcooked reappearance of Joe Pesci’s grating character Leo Getz, on top of the hot-at-the-time Chris Rock and a flat plotline involving immigration made Lethal Weapon 4 feel more and more unnecessary as the story unfolded.

Sometimes enough is enough, and there is no rhyme or reason to go into the dreaded third sequel (take heed, Jurassic Park franchise). As bad and aimless as Rambo III was, the fourth entry, directed this time by Sylvester Stallone, was hateful, nihilistic, and drab all at the same time. David Fincher’s doomed Alien 3 should have been a sign to end things, but the powers that be still felt in necessary to do Alien Resurrection, a confusing, stupid addition. And who can forget Jaws 3-D? Remember, where the shark was loose in a Sea World-type amusement park? As if that wasn’t bad enough, studio execs decided to green light Jaws: The Revenge. This time, Ellen Brody, so traumatized by the water because of the events of Jaws one and 2, decides to move to the beach in the Caribbean. Little did she know that now a Great White shark with an agenda would be hunting her.

Fourth films are almost never a good idea. The most recent to buck that trend was the solid addition to the Die Hard franchise, but it still had lost some of the edge and grit of the first three films. The most concerning of the big three number fours headed into pre-production is the Bourne franchise. Bookended perfectly and tightly knit with a clear beginning and end, the Bourne series needs no further exploration. I fear that this may end up being the new millennium’s version of James Bond, and the fifth installment will have a new actor in the role. As for the fourth Spiderman, perhaps they can make up for Peter Parker’s barroom jig, but I fear the worst. And as for another Jurassic Park, well, since the only reason the third film was made was to show off a pterodactyl, you would think studio execs would no better. Then again, if it can make a buck, what do they care about quality?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

WEDNESDAY'S SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE... The Perilous Plight of The Wolfman

These days, any news about the Universal’s upcoming remake of the horror classic The Wolfman generates more sighs that buzz. This project is perhaps the most plagued film to come out of Hollywood in, well, forever. From studio meddling, to lack of confidence as evidenced by the carousel of release dates, to disagreements aplenty, nothing has gone well from top to bottom. And despite a promising trailer and the appearance of Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, this overwhelming amount of negative buzz and bad press, coupled with this less-than-promising release date has me thinking this highly anticipated remake will be dead on arrival.

I love The Wolfman story. I ranked it number one on my Top Ten list of best horror films from the 30s and 40s. The Wolfman has always been my favorite of the “big three” (the other two being Frankenstein and Dracula), and after hearing some four years ago that a Universal remake was on its way I was immediately interested. But then the first bit of bad news, to me anyway, hit the web. Universal had decided to employ mediocre director Joe Johnston to direct the picture. Johnston’s credits include the forgettable 40s superhero pic The Rocketeer, the lackluster children’s adventure Jumanji, the (again) forgettable adventure Hidalgo starring Viggo Mortensen, and the completely absurd and unnecessary Jurassic Park III. So this seemed a bit of an uninspired selection from Universal. But after the negative buzz began to hit the circuit, it was clear Universal hired Johnston so they would have someone to push around.

The studio chose Del Toro as Laurence Talbot, the tortured soul of the film, and Anthony Hopkins as his father. Two very promising actors in the lead roles. But after that, the studio’s differences with Johnston’s vision took center stage. First, there were problems with the makeup F/X, mostly due to the fact that nobody could agree on the look of the werewolf. Rumor has it that the studio wanted a more animal-looking wolf, whereas Johnston wanted a more human version. I agree with Johnston here, as in the original Lon Chaney version the monster stood upright. Eventually the studio and Johnston found common ground, and the result seems to go, thankfully, in Johnston’s favor. But that was not the end of the controversy.

Originally slated for a February 13, 2009 release date, it was not long before Universal pushed the date back to April 3rd. This didn’t seem too bad. In fact, moving it from February to April made it seem like the studio had an early summer hit on their hands, and they were confident enough to release it in April rather than the typical February dumping ground. Well, then, as April approached, Universal came out and said that filming and post-production would not be finished in time for the April release date, so they moved it way back, seven months down the road to a November 6th date. This was a curious date to me, because although a fall release date is a very good slot for a picture’s release, the idea to open a werewolf horror film one week after Halloween didn’t make much sense, especially since October was a lean month for big studio releases.

Well, as the fall movie season approached, Universal again came out and announced they would be delaying the release to February 12th. This is almost exactly one year after its initial release date. And again, this sticks The Wolfman in a very uninspired February release date, where typically films are released when the studio has no faith in them. With all of the negative buzz surrounding The Wolfman, I fear that the perilous production and ballooning pricetag (originally slated for $85 million, it has since rumored to have swelled past the $100 million mark) have doomed this remake before it even opens. And it doesn’t end here.

Yesterday it was announced that legendary film composer Danny Elfman would be leaving the film due to his scheduling conflicts with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. This is understandable; given the fact that Elfman has scored every Burton movie ever made. What is disconcerting is how, once again, Universall decided to replace a creative, visionary composer like Elfman with Paul Halsinger, whose most notable credit to date is the score for the camp classic Death Race 2000. Another uninspired decision, and proof that the studio didn’t have enough faith in the project to pay a high-priced composer to do the score.

I fear that seeing The Wolfman will bring more “what could have been” that “what really was.” That being said, The Silence of the Lambs was released in February back in 1990, and this coming year, alongside The Wolfman, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is being released. Perhaps this February will change perception about films being released that month. But for some reason, I feel like The Wolfman won’t be responsible for that if it were to happen.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

UNDER THE RADAR: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Seventeen years ago, a film called Bad Lieutenant was released. Starring Harvey Keitel, this dark and deeply disturbing film focused on Keitel's Lieutenant, a wildly corrupt, drug addicted policeman investigatingthe rape of a nun. In debt to bookies and hooked on whatever drug is in front of him, Keitel's character is unlikeable, unhinged, and on a road to complete ruin. Director Abel Ferrera's film was dark, morbid, and completely nihilistic, released with no rating because if it had gone through the ratings board it would have gotten an NC-17 rating. Mostly because of an extended shot of Keitel high and fully nude in a dark and unsettling sequence.

Fast forward to 2009, and exactly seventeen years after the release of Ferrera's film, offbeat director Werner Herzog hs opted to "reimagine" the story of Bad Lieutenant, this time adding the subtitle Port of Call New Orleans. The film, judging from the following promotional trailer, appears to be similar to the 1992 picture in name alone. This time around nicolas Cage plays the lieutenant. The idea of Cage may generate some eye rolling, but I found myself drawn into this trailer and curious about the film itself. Cage is at his best when he is let off the leash. When he is allowed to be as crazy as he wants, most of the time Cage shines.

Abel Ferrera has voiced his displeasure with Port of Call, but as Herzog has said, this is a total overhaul of the preexisting film. This also seems to have a bit more insanity on a more polished, watchable level, where Ferrera's film was simply uncomfortable. Religious angles have also been removed and replaced with the seedy underbelly of the Big Easy.

And the Iguana line gets me every time...



Monday, November 9, 2009

The Robert Zemeckis Dilemma...

Robert Zemeckis has made some of the most impacting, personal films in my lifetime. Some of Zemeckis’ pictures I grew up on, others I loved as a teen, and others I fell in love with as a young adult. So why is it now, that Zemeckis has decided to go exclusively with this motion capture filmmaking? It seems like one of the strangest, most inexplicable, most upsetting moves by a director of this caliber. Zemeckis has even claimed publicly that he will do these stop-motion animation flicks from now on, opting not to film “real” movies anymore.

Initially, Zemeckis told Variety that all of his films would be motion capture, but has since backed away from that statement. Nevertheless, it appears as if he will do his next film, a remake of The Yellow Submarine (which sounds like a bad idea on many levels) using motion capture. But why, with all of the films in his past, is he determined to continue down this path?
Consider his past. In 1985, Zemeckis released Back to the Future, a criss-crossing time travel adventure starring Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd that is still one of the most popular, enjoyable films of the last thirty years. And the two sequels filled out a fantastic trilogy. I grew up watching Back to the Future and its two sequels repeatedly until I could just about rewrite the screenplay scene for scene. Before helming Back to the Future, Zemeckis directed Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in the wildly entertaining adventure Romancing the Stone. Other films on his resume from the 80s include Who Framed Roger Rabbit (a pop culture phenomenon) and Death Becomes Her, a gimmicky macabre comedy that was also quite popular.

Zemeckis’ crowning achievement came in 1994, when he directed Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. The film went on to win all of the major awards, and was a sweeping historical epic with a heart and a soul unlike any film to come before or after it. Zemeckis showcased his ability to bring humanity into the most unlikely stories, and he continued this display of humanity in the calm, existential alien story, Contact. And then in 2000, Zemeckis directed what I feel to be his best film, Cast Away.

Starring Tom Hanks as a man stranded alone on a desert island, the challenging production involved a yearlong break where Hanks could lose a considerable amount of weight and grow his hair out to look like a follower of the Grateful Dead. Zemeckis showed again, with Cast Away, heart. In Cast Away he was able to pull heartbreak, happiness, and angst together in so many scenes while never becoming overwhelmed with such a challenging storyline. But from there, Zemeckis became distracted by technology, and fell in love with the transition into digital cinema and motion-capture animation, and adapted The Polar Express into a feature-length film. And with this his career has taken a disheartening turn.

The Polar Express was a big hit, though I wish it hadn’t been. I have seen bits and pieces of The Polar Express throughout the years, enough to find the problem with the animation. No matter how realistic or uncannily similar the actors look as these animated characters, there is one very vital part of their acting that can never be duplicated: their eyes. Hanks’ character is lively, active, and entertaining from a distance, but the eyes are obviously CGI. What is different about this animation and other animation is that this is motion capture, not complete recreation by an artist, so the eyes in these characters can never match their animated bodies.

The Polar Express was understandable as an animated feature, but consider his next two forays into motion capture: Beowulf and this year’s A Christmas Carol. When I first heard that Zemeckis was directing Beowulf, I was very energized to see what he might be able to bring to the material. After discovering that he would employ Ray Winstone and Angelina Jolie into the material, I was even more energized to see this. But then I heard it would be motion-capture animation, and my heart was out of it. There seemed to be no reason to do this, and the idea of a live-action Beowulf seemed more enticing than any type of animated version.

I have watched Beowulf and I find the same problem with the eyes, only this time it’s even more irritating because this was not a children’s book, Beowulf was a piece of classical literature and having the characters deliver lines behind lifeless eyes completely steals the drama from the story. I imagine this eye issue is alive and well in A Christmas Carol, a film I would absolutely want to see if Jim Carrey were actually acting in the film, not a motion-capture version of himself.

Zemeckis needs to get back to live action filmmaking, a place where he thrives. This is Dylan going electric, this is Scorsese doing Disney. Frankly, this is talent being misplaced. Zemeckis should find his way back into the arms of a tightly written script and a solid cast of actors and do something profound again, something with life behind its eyes...

Thursday, November 5, 2009

OSCAR HOST TALK...

It seems like the worst year for the Academy Awards to expand their Best Picture category to ten nominations given the lack of Fall film power. But perhaps the silver lining to doubling the Best Pic noms is that the Academy has opted to double the number of hosts. And in this they have chosen an inspired duo, as Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin have agreed to be co-hosts. Martin has taken the stage before, but what about Baldwin? The Academy has chosen some interesting hosts before, so let’s take a look at some of the past hosts while looking forward to Martin and Baldwin.

First, for this generation, Billy Crystal was the staple of the Oscars. Crystal hosted the Oscars 8 times between 1989 and 2004. That was the most since Bob Hope scattered 18 hosting gigs between 1939 and 1977. Johnny Carson hosted four consecutive times between 1978 and ’81, then again in 1983. But it was Crystal who took the reins and became a mainstay. He was the face of the Oscars during the early nineties, when films were really in a good place. But somewhere along the way, as irony crept in to the masses, Crystal’s humor became too safe, too generic.

And the Oscars recognized this, as the year after Crystal’s final hosting gig in 2004, Oscar returned with Chris Rock. Rock was the antithesis of Crystal’s humor, abrasive but not to the point of damaging the prestige of the show. But perhaps he was still too abrasive (the Academy has been known to tighten the sphincter from time to time) so they delved into the political landscape of the time, electing Jon Stewart in 2004.Stewart was timely, his political jokes perfect for an election year. Which is probably why he was back for 2008.

Throughout the nineties, when Crystal wasn’t hosting, the Academy took some experimental avenues, including a failed hosting stint for David Letterman (we all remember the Oprah, Uma debacle) in perhaps the best film year of the decade, 1994. Whoopi Goldberg managed, somehow, to get four hosting gigs between 1993 and 2001, and she never was really a hit or a miss. She was just kind of there.

After Hugh Jackman, perhaps the best, freshest host in a long time, opted not to return, the Academy turned to Martin. Martin hosted twice, in 2001 and 2003, forming a Whoopi sandwich, and he was solid. Safe, but solid. I think adding Baldwin alongside Martin will spice up the comedy considerably and add an edge and a modern style of comedy to the event. If only we can figure out a way to fill up the ridiculous ten nominees…