Thursday, September 30, 2010

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT!!!

31 DAYS, 31 HORRORS

There is but one holiday out there that can claim its own film genre. Horror films, no matter what you think of them, are an important part of cinema. They explore the darker sides of human nature in bizarre, frightening, and macabre ways, and the great ones out there function on another level; to tell us something about ourselves. To tell us about our fears and deconstruct our minds to expose ideas and notions we may not have even thought existed. Sure, for every great horror film there are twenty that are ridiculous and forgettable and – worst of all – not frightening. But we aren’t here today to discuss the worst; we are here to discuss only the best. The 31 best horror films, to be specific.

With the help of my resident horror guru, Skullbasher, we have cobbled together what we feel to be the 31 best horror films out there… so far that is. Starting tomorrow and going all the way through Halloween, we will be counting down these pictures until we reach number one on our list. Skullbasher, aside from shoring up the order and chipping in with suggestions and ranking ideas, will be writing his own thoughts on several films throughout the list.

We tried our best to stick with pure horror. You may spot a science fiction film or a thriller from time to time, but we felt that the elements combined to tell these specific stories produced more horror than anything else. We look to your comments, your disagreements, your opinions on any and all members of this list. Tune in tomorrow when we kick things off with number 31…

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps


FINANCIAL MELTDOWN

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps: Michael Douglas, Shia LeBeouf, Carey Mulligan, Josh Brolin, Frank Langella (130 min.)

A lot has changed since 1988, in between the original Wall Street and Oliver Stone’s follow up, Money Never Sleeps. As Gordon Gekko claims in the new film, “someone reminded me I said ‘greed is good.’ Now it seems it’s legal.” That is the gist of what has changed in the world between now and then, and that is what Stone is trying to convey with his new picture. But something else has changed; in between the original Wall Street and now, Oliver Stone has seemed to grow soft. The evidence has been there recently, in his easier approaches to subjects like 9/11 and George W. Bush. But with Money Never Sleeps, Stone had a chance to cut to the core of what destroyed this country’s financial system, all the while telling a story with some familiar faces and some fresh ones. I don’t think he really succeeded.

The main draw of MNS is the return of Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko, the iconic character that became a hero to the money-grabbing culture of the 80s despite Stone’s better efforts. As the film opens, Gekko is being released, alone, back into the world with no real wealth or financial stability to get back into the game he left for prison nine years prior. So he decides to write a book, “Is Greed Good?” and peddle that across the country. But Gekko is not the core of the story for some time after he is released; that belongs to Jake Moore, an ambitious young player on Wall Street.

Moore is played by Shia LeBeouf, and the entire film I couldn’t help but think that Hollywood has found their replacement for Tom Cruise. LeBeouf has the energy and the intensity of a young Cruise before he left the reservation. Moore is looking to get some clean energy technology up and running, and with the help of his mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella, Supporting Actor quality here), things seem to be headed in the right direction. Moore also happens to be engaged to Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan, serviceable), Gordon’s daughter who long ago shunned her father. Jake employs Gordon behind Winnie’s back with a promise that he will get them together again. Meanwhile, Bretton James (Josh Brolin), a seedy, money-grabbing snake is busy tearing down Zabel’s investment firm, ruining Louis Zabel in the process. Jake seeks revenge.

Stone moves the story along and uses the first half to set up the devices that will play out in the final act. Gekko becomes a player again, he manipulates Jake and his daughter, all the while working with Jake to get revenge on Bretton James. As James, Brolin never feels very menacing. Nobody in MNS feels as menacing as Gekko did in the original. Even Gekko himself is a changed man, although we take a very long time to see this change. It is nice to see Douglas back in the role, but it feels more like novelty than anything. And LeBeouf’s Moore never really earned the leading role to me. I didn’t buy him as a hotshot Wall Street shark. Perhaps that was the idea.

It may not be fair to compare Money Never Sleeps with the original Wall Street, but too bad. The films are forever linked, and Stone goes out of his way in one party scene where a cameo serves as a nice wink to the original. That being said, this sequel feels soft compared to the original. Things are in disarray in Manhattan throughout this film, but there is never anything in the story that rivals the cynicism, the wit, the energy, or the bite of the original. The teeth have been pulled from Stone’s screenplay. Stone had a great opportunity to burn down the financial district with some strong characters and some sharp-tongued dialogue, but it never comes to fruition. Stone seems more concerned with tossing in some strange split screens and distracting effects to give us the false sense of energy. Even though the second half of Money Never Sleeps is considerably stronger than the opening hour, I still feel like this was a missed opportunity.

C+

Monday, September 27, 2010

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: The Maturation of David Fincher

There hasn’t been a director more consistent than David Fincher over the last fifteen years. But there has not been a director who has shown more maturity and evolution with his work since he got his start in the mid nineties. Some directors are hands off, allowing things to evolve organically on the set; Fincher is not one of those directors. Technical perfection is something Fincher is known for, and the attention to detail is an aspect of his direction that does not go unseen in his finished product.

Born in Denver in 1962, David Fincher soon moved to California where, after watching Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, he would find the inspiration to begin making his own movies on an 8MM camera. He spent the early part of his career working for smaller production companies, loading cameras and doing odd jobs until he joined Propaganda films. Propaganda was the launching pad for so many directors, including Mark Romanek, Spike Jonze, and Michael Gondry, directors who got their start directing music videos. Fincher directed videos for Madonna, Billy Idol (Idol’s most famous video, Cradle of Love), The Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith among others. In 1992, Fincher was given his first feature to direct from 20th Century Fox, Alien 3.

Alien 3 was doomed from the start. The studio undermined Fincher’s directing, never fully allowing him to do what he wanted with the film. There is clearly potential in Alien 3, and you can see the glossy darkness and stylistic tendencies that would become staples of Fincher’s visions, but you can also see that Alien 3 was rushed into the theater. The studio gave Fincher a release date and basically forced him to get things done. Even though Fincher was burned by the studio, he would return in 1995 to direct what we could really call his first feature, and he would forever cement himself as a directing force.

Se7en changed the face of serial killer crime dramas forever, spawning numerous rip-offs. Fincher’s first collaboration with Brad Pitt was a slick thriller steeped in mood, layered in pathos, and loaded with moments that are simply horrifying. And the end is one of the most infamous cinematic moments in the last twenty years. Fincher was finally able to get his own vision across with Se7en, and he would team up again with Pitt four years later in Fight Club, another revolutionary picture based on the controversial novel by Chuck Palahniuk. Pitt would play Tyler Durden, the doppelganger to Edward Norton’s character that would start an underground revolution of mayhem. Fight Club is a cult picture that somehow manages to toe the line between mainstream and underground cinema. Fincher was definitely flexing his muscle in Fight Club, and his ability to incorporate subtle special effects, textured scenery, and compelling action would stamp Fight Club as his most popular film to date. It is a fan favorite indeed.

These two films would be the most notable of Fincher’s early career, but what many forget was that in between these two pictures Fincher directed The Game, a dense psychological thriller starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn. The film, about a wealthy bachelor (Douglas) who is caught up in a web of psychological games, was well received by critics and audiences but has been relatively overlooked. For my money, this is one of Fincher’s finest pictures, a slick thriller with some crafty twists and turns that Fincher handles marvelously. It thrives on a plot-driven story that is so elaborate and does not bother trying to be subtle or too believeable. That is its strength.

Three years after directing Fight Club, Fincher released Panic Room, a gimmicky thriller starring Jodie Foster as a mother caught in a safe room in a home being robbed. Panic Room is perhaps his most forgettable work (not counting Alien 3), although it is still a decent thriller. It just relies to heavily on gimmicks and not enough on the performances. After a five-year break, Fincher returned and his work seemed to take on a different tone. His style was still there, the dark sheen and stylistic decisions still prevalent in the work; but his reliance on gimmicks and camera tricks was decidedly less noticeable. Fincher would rely on the story in 2007, when he directed Zodiac. The thriller revolved around the killings in the Bay Area in the 60s and 70s that would paralyze Northern California. Only Fincher’s story was less concerned with the killings themselves (even though those scenes in the picture are horrifying and done to complete perfection) and more concerned with the damage it did to those whose life revolved around catching the killer. The obsession with finding the Zodiac would ruin many lives, not counting those who lost loved ones to the killer, and Fincher’s focus was tight. Despite being one of the three best reviewed films of the year, Zodiac’s March release would keep it from any Oscar contention, but Fincher was getting closer.

The next year, Fincher would receive his first Best Director nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a meditative fantasy picture about a man aging backwards. The film would get 13 nominations and win only a few, and Fincher’s nomination was more of a recognition for the technical mastery of the film more than the quality of the narrative. This third collaboration between Fincher and Brad Pitt would get Pitt a nomination as well, but I feel like the picture itself will not hold over time. Benjamin Button is more like a living painting and less a compelling story. There is not enough forward momentum in the narrative to keep it from dragging in several areas. Beautiful indeed, but forgettable overall.

This week, Fincher releases The Social Network, a drama telling the story of Mark Zuckerburg and his seemingly accidental creation of facebook. Early on, the teaming of Fincher with this subject matter seemed questionable to me. Was the creator of facebook really going to be a compelling enough character and do we really need a story about this? Well, all early indications are that The Social Network may be something special. It has a built in audience of, well, almost everyone (at least those who have ever logged on to facebook), and it also has that signature style that has defined Fincher over the years. I must say I am greatly looking forward to this film now.

David Fincher has shown over the years a mastering of the technical side of filmmaking. But he has, over the last decade or so, shown a developing maturity with his work. His early career was heavy on technical effects to tell stories. Don’t get me wrong, Fincher’s early films are also compelling films with solid performances and definite magnetism to the characters and their plight, they just rely on effects more than his later films. At the same time, Fincher needs these effects to tell stories the way he wants, making his directing efforts a taut balancing act. When Fincher is firing on all cylinders, not allowing effects to overtake his narrative or vice versa, and when everything is balanced, he is one of the finest auteurs around.

Friday, September 24, 2010

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Bill and Ted 3???, The Short List for Superman, and is The Social Network "important"?

* The winner of “the most ridiculous news story of the week” goes to the rumors that there is going to be a third Bill and Ted movie. I get why Alex Winter might want to do another one, since I am pretty sure he has only played Bill S. Preston and the first vampire to die in The Lost Boys. But it seems like Keanu might be a little too busy. Maybe not though…

* Who watched these Resident Evil movies? Or these Underworld movies?

* Chris Nolan has assembled a list of five possible directors to helm the new Superman film. According to slashfilm, his five prospects are:

- Tony Scott (Unstoppable, The Taking of Pelham 123)
- Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield)
- Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles, Clash of the Titans 2 [upcoming])
- Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code)
- Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch)

The top two on this list are my choices. I think Scott could do great things with a superhero, and a movie like Superman is perfect for a young up-and-coming director like Reeves. I don’t know much about Liebesman, I didn’t care for Moon which is why I am out on Duncan Jones, and I don’t think I want a hyper-stylized Superman from Zack Snyder. Snyder hasn’t really impressed me yet.

* I wonder how many people have watched the original Wall Street this week. I know a handful of people myself who have done it.

* I think Let Me In is going to be the remake of a beloved classic foreign feature that most fanboys and girls are going to accept and appreciate. The trailer looks fantastic, and all early indications are that the film is both respectful of the source material while creating its own identity.

* If The Social Network wins Best Picture (which it very well might), I think it will be a turning point for the country as far as movies and society are concerned. Initially, I was reluctant to accept this movie as anything more than throwaway popcorn fare. But now, after reading and listening and paying closer attention to the buzz and the story and soaking in the ideas, I think this film may be something transcendent for our time.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

WHERE THEY STAND: Michael Douglas

Michael Douglas is often left out of discussions about the best living actors. There is a tendency to label Douglas as a man whose better days are behind him, who has floundered in drivel for the last fifteen years, not really putting forth an effort in anything and growing more and more irrelevant as the days go on. In other words, people are too quick to lump him in with Robert DeNiro and Harrison Ford. And while Douglas has starred in his fair share of forgettable films in recent years there is no denying that, in an instant, Douglas can become relevant once again. This may be the year where Douglas breaks out of his short-lived funk.

Michael Douglas started as an actor on small films and in the television series The Streets of San Francisco, but it wasn’t his main desire to act. Kirk, his famous father, was the one who would eventually give him the job as producer on a little film called One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The picture was a smash hit, and would win multiple Oscars. One of those would be Best Picture, and would go to Douglas. From the success of Cuckoo’s Nest, Douglas would get back into acting and star in more small pictures that anyone would be hard-pressed to find these days. In 1979, however, he starred in a small but effective political thriller, The China Syndrome, alongside Jane Fonda. Douglas was picking up roles more frequently, but it was not until 1984 that he would shoot to the top of the list of bankable stars.

Romancing the Stone was a crowd-pleasing action comedy in which Douglas played a rogue adventurer leading Kathleen Turner out of trouble in the jungle. The next year they would re-team for the sequel, Jewel of the Nile. Douglas was a leading man, and the late 80s was where he would transcend action star or matinee draw and become a compelling performer in more serious fare. In 1987, Douglas starred opposite Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. The picture was not only a huge success, it was a phenomenon and an iconic staple of the 80s. It was the birth of the yuppie thriller, a subgenre that would spawn films like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Pacific Heights. Close garnered much of the attention from Fatal Attraction, and rightfully so, but Douglas’ performance as the adulterating husband coming unhinged was absolutely key.
That same year, Douglas would star in Oliver Stone’s indictment of the financial epicenter of the world, Wall Street.

Douglas played Gordon Gekko, a manipulative and greedy investment banker who specialized in corrupting young Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen). Douglas would win his only acting Oscar, and would forever cement himself as an A-List star. 1987 was Douglas’ strongest professional year, but he continued to tear through the late 80s with starring roles in Ridley Scott’s grossly underrated crime drama Black Rain, and alongside Kathleen Turner once again in the dark comedy The War of the Roses. Three years later, Douglas would star in one of the most controversial films of the 90s, Basic Instinct.
The campy thriller from Paul Verhoven was controversial because of Sharon Stone’s character, the bisexual murderess Kathryn Trammel. Douglas would again play a somewhat despicable character, a barely-reformed alcoholic policeman who gets caught up in Trammel’s web of seduction. Two years later, he would star alongside Demi Moore in yet another sexual thriller, Disclosure. Only this time, Douglas would play a more innocent character, the victim of sexual harassment. Douglas was the go-to guy to play yuppie assholes or people in sexually intricate thrillers. But he would get away from these roles as he got older, and in the 90s starred in solid, albeit less important films like the underrated films Falling Down and The Game, An American President, and the less than stellar remake of Dial M for Murder, A Perfect Murder. But again, as he did in 1987, Douglas would deliver a one-two punch in 2000.

First up was Wonder Boys, an adaptation of Michael Chabon’s academic novel. Douglas played Grady Tripp, a pothead professor floundering in life and coasting on the success of his only novel. For my money this is Douglas’ finest performance of his entire career. Next up in 2000 was a supporting role in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, a picture focusing on various areas of the drug problem in America. Douglas played a senator and was deserving of a nomination. Unfortunately, Douglas would not get a much-deserved nomination for either of the roles.

The 2000s were less lucrative for Douglas. He starred in forgettable movies like It Runs in the Family and The Sentinel, a tired thriller that came and went faster than Harrison Ford’s Firewall. In recent years, Douglas has found relative resurgence in independent films like King of California and A Solitary Man, a film from earlier this year that has garnered a small bit of Oscar buzz. But all of us who love Michael Douglas as an actor are surely waiting to see him in Wall Street 2, out this weekend. Seeing Douglas reprise his role as Gordon Gekko will be interesting in a few different ways.

So there you have it. Douglas has had some lean years, but he tends to resurge every ten years or so with a one-two punch of solid roles in commendable pictures. After his success in the late 80s, 2000 was another strong year, and it appears that after A Solitary Man and the Wall Street sequel, Douglas may be keeping that trend alive. FRONT ROW indeed.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Town


THIEVERY CORPORATION
The Town: Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner (123 min.)

I don’t know if Ben Affleck can ever direct a movie outside of Boston. I’m not saying he will or he won’t, I’m just saying that I am not sure he can direct without his beloved city playing an underlying character in his pictures. But I must say, after watching his sophomore effort The Town, I don’t really care if he ever gets out of the city to direct. If The Town does anything, it proves that Affleck was not a one-hit wonder with Gone Baby Gone in 2007. But thankfully, The Town exists on its own merits as one of the finest entries into the crime genre.

Charlestown, Massachusetts is a direct suburb of Boston, and it also happens to be the largest and most sustained breeding ground for career thievery. Families in Charlestown pass down armed robbery like an inherent trade. These aren’t robbers who travel to Vegas and stay at the Venetian and plow through untold millions while planning their next big heist; these are blue-collar workers who have learned the tricks of their trade through generations and utilize them to make a living. No flash, no glitz, just earning a living and staying true to the neighborhood.

Affleck himself plays Doug MacRay, the head of a crew of four such robbers. Affleck is fully submersed in his character, a quietly efficient man looking to get out of the town and away from this life. Affleck carries Doug as a hulking, murmuring townie whose world-weariness is starting to shine through. Doug’s closest friend in the world is Jem, played by Jeremy Renner, a bit of a loose cannon that is dedicated to his friends and his neighborhood, sometimes to a fault. Renner is simply excellent. In the opening sequence of the film, the crew robs a bank and takes a hostage, Claire (Rebecca Hall), whom Doug falls for almost immediately. “We won’t hurt you,” Doug reassures her in the van, beneath a skeleton mask. Jem has other ideas. Claire is the only one who could tip them off to the FBI, maybe she needs to be scared a little more. Doug assures Jem that he can take care of her.

Meanwhile, the latest robbery has drawn the attention of Adam Frawley, an FBI agent who grows more relentless and more willing to threaten as he becomes more desperate to pin these robberies on Doug and his crew. Jon Hamm plays Frawley, and once you are able to get past the notion that it is Don Draper on the screen, Hamm really embodies the agent. In fact, he seems like a perfect choice to play the outsider from everyone else. He has no thick Boston accent, no tattoos, no rough edges. Affleck paints a portrait of Frawley so well as an outsider that as the events unfold, you find yourself rooting against him and rooting for the thieves. Perhaps because you are pulled so deeply into this city and these people that you want to be a part of their code and their world.

Along with the central performances in The Town, performances that anchor the narrative, there are brief but effective supporting roles that are just as vital in creating a background and developing a sense of place. Chris Cooper plays Doug’s father, behind bars for life, and his scene serves as an excellent motivational tool for Doug to flee. Pete Postlethwaite plays Fergie the “Florist,” the ruthless and cold-blooded mastermind behind the robberies. And Blake Lively plays Krista, a former flame of Doug who never escaped the world of drugs and alcohol like Doug managed to do. Lively, who most know from Gossip Girl, is able to shed any teenage pop stardom to play a strung out townie effectively. Krista has a young child who may or may not be Doug’s, a fact that Jem reminds him of without really saying anything. Because that is how well these two know each other; no words are necessary.

Aside from the action and the heat being drawn, the romance that builds between Doug and Claire is vital to the success of the film. However improbable or impossible their relationship may ultimatley be, Affleck treads lightly with the relationship, works steadily without making the romance too overwhelming or flowery. On the flip side, the action set pieces are ferocious, immediate, lean, and compelling. Affleck opts, wisely, not to make the camera fly about too frantically, allowing the shootouts and the fights and the chases to all carry their own weight. There is no confusion about where one element is to another in the action.

As he did in Gone Baby Gone, Affleck uses Boston to his advantage, creating a powerful sense of place to enrich the textures and the details. The car chases – and there are a few – are filmed with precision and an almost claustrophobic camera as they whip in and out of these narrow city streets. There are the conventions here, all of those moments that indicate that The Town is a crime drama. There is the one who wants out, the loose cannon, the hard-nosed Fed, the final big score, the showdown… All of these elements are here. But, as I have said before, it doesn’t matter that you make a genre picture, it is what you do with those conventions and how you fill the screen that set your film apart from the mediocre entries that are a dime a dozen. Affleck understands this, and he excels in every aspect of making a rich, fully-realized film.

A-

Monday, September 20, 2010

Devil

GOING DOWN
Devil: Chris Messina, Bokeem Woodbine (80 min.)

I will say this about Devil, the new horror film from the “mind” of M. Night Shyamalan… Those were some cool opening credits.

Too bad it’s all downhill from there.

Devil is another mishandled thriller from Shyamalan, only this time he thought that by stepping away from the director’s chair and supplying only the idea for the story that his mark would somehow go unseen. But his fingerprints are all over the place. The picture starts off with a halfway interesting premise; five characters wind up in an elevator together in a large building in downtown Philadelphia. But before long the elevator stops suddenly, and then weird things begin to happen. One of the passengers thinks another one grabbed her. The lights flicker on and off and when they shut off completely, well, bad things happen.

Meanwhile, outside the elevator the security team for the building (Matt Craven and Jeremy Vargas) are working on getting to the elevator and getting it running. At the same time, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) is investigating a suicide at that very building. Bowden has your standard movie-cop background: he is a recovering alcoholic whose family was killed in a hit and run, and the killer got away, but not before leaving a note saying how sorry he was. Seriously. His investigation transforms into an investigation of the things that are happening inside the elevator. There is a closed-circuit video feed in the elevator, and as Bowden and the security men watch helplessly, the lights go out, they come back on, and one of the passengers is killed. But which one is doing it?

The passengers are a collection of actors that are relatively unknown. And none of them are terribly interesting here. It turns out that all of these five people are morally corrupt in one way or another, and you can imagine by the title who might be in charge of killing them. The killings become routine, however, monotonous as the lights flicker, the screen goes black, the lights miraculously turn back on, and a passenger is dead. The whole thing began to remind me of a murder-themed dinner party.

The story should have enough leg to stand on by itself, but for some reason Shyamalan, co-writer Brian Nelson, and director John Erick Dowdle decide that one of the security guards, Ramirez (Vargas), has to be a religious fanatic and has to have some completely fabricated story about Satan that his grandmother told him, a story that just so happens to fit the narrative of Devil perfectly. This is a lazy and unnecessary plot device that basically upends the entire story. As Ramirez tells this mystical tale in voiceover, he lays out what is about to happen, who is about to die, and why. The voiceover sabotages the film. And it is not a story any of us have ever heard before, it is completely made up for the sole purpose of being an underlying narrative. Much like Lady in the Water, which is not a good thing.

There are a few glaring issues I had with Devil. First of all, who is in charge of hiring security for this building? One of the guards, Ramirez, is so incredibly overwhelmed by his religious background that he loses all sense of reality when he spots a face (NO! Not a face!) on the screen in the elevator. Another guard, a new hire, is Bokeem Woodbine (perhaps one of the worst actors of all time), a passenger in the elevator. He has a history of assault, almost killing a man with a bat. And he is a security guard for a skyscraper downtown. No way. And about that suicide; who was that? Where did that story disappear to? It is the opening of the film and is completely forgotten before long.

Of course there is a twist or two at the end, but the twists don’t really have an impact. None of the people in the elevator are drawn out beyond flat portrayals of scummy characters. You don’t much care about anyone or anything in Devil, so the twist is rendered ineffective. The only saving grace for the story is Messina, who takes a relatively thin character and makes the most of it. Messina has always been an effective actor, someone who has interested me ever since he showed up as Claire’s boyfriend in the final season of Six Feet Under, and despite the overwhelming cliché machine that is his character, Devil works only when he is doing police work trying to find a logical solution to this story. Those are the best moments, but they are hardly enough to make the movie worthwhile.

Devil is apparently the first of three pictures in “the night chronicles,” which is indicated before the opening credits. I suppose there will be two more films in some sort of series that will tie in with Devil, at least this was Shyamalan’s original plan. But I think that after such a lackluster opening film for what is supposed to be a future trilogy, the next two films are probably doomed before they even start.

C-

Friday, September 17, 2010

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: The Town Preview Overkill, Sci-Fi hang up, and the two Best Actor Frontrunners...

* I am tired of hearing movies are some sort of combination of other movies from the past. I keep seeing the quote that The Town is a “cross between The Departed and Heat.” These get out of hand sometimes. And they are so unnecessary. Let’s stop trying to make new movies hybrids of old movies, let the movies exist on their own merit. I understand what The Town will be like, it’s the same genre as those two films. I don’t need reassurance.

* And when I say that I keep seeing this quote about The Town, I am understating. The other night during Sportscenter every commercial break was dedicated to The Town. I am not exaggerating; every single commercial break was “a special look at The Town.” It got so bad that I would pause the TV for a minute so I could skip past the “special look.” I understand you are aiming for the demographic that watches ESPN, but let’s take it easy.

* That being said, I am supremely excited to see The Town.

* I haven’t seen as much advertisement for Devil as I would expect. And what I have seen barely mentions the fact that M. Night Shyamalan is involved. Boy has his star fallen fast.

* Sasha Baren Cohen has signed on to play Queen singer Freddy Mercury in a new biopic. Sometimes the stars just line up perfectly.

* September seems really overloaded with quality this year. Definitely a shift from the usual. Typically, January and September are the thinnest months.

* Terry Gilliam needs to just go ahead and not try to make a Don Quixote film. It has been canceled twice in two attempts now. Although the first time around the production brought us the great documentary Lost in La Mancha.

* Sometimes I have a hard time with old sci-fi movies and their technology. I try not to let it distract me but it’s tough. For instance, pay phones are in Blade Runner. When is the last time you saw a pay phone? And we aren’t even close to the time in which Blade Runner is supposed to take place. I know there is no way for movies to get around this, it still distracts me though.

* I think Stephen Dorff is going to win Best Actor this year for Somewhere. If he doesn’t, I think it will be James Franco for 127 Hours.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Unbreakable

Unbreakable is a graphic novel formatted for the screen before graphic novel adaptations became the chic thing to adapt in Hollywood. It is also the highest moment in M. Night Shyamalan’s tumultuous and slowly dying career, a moment where everything in his imagination worked to perfection on the screen. A moment where, after the success of The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan was not cornered by his own devices and could tell a story that is beautiful, restrained, and without the vanity that doomed his later work. Unbreakable succeeds, where so many other comic book tales fail, by being a real human story.

After a horrendous train accident, everyone is dead in the rubble except for one man. David Dunne (Bruce Willis) is not only the only survivor, but he is completely unharmed. Not a single scratch on him. This draws the attention of one Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), whom we have already met. Elijah is the opposite end of the spectrum, a man with a disease that makes him prone to broken bones at even the slightest misstep. The fact that David is unharmed from this disaster makes Elijah reach out to him, though David wants none of the attention from Elijah or anyone else.

David is more concerned with his family. He has a son whom adores him unequivocally, and a wife, Audrey, (Robin Wright Penn) whom he is barely speaking to. David works security at a local college where he was once a superstar running back. He wants to live his life without ripples, and he desperately wants his wife back in his life, not just sleeping in another room in the house to keep their son happy. But Elijah is unrelenting in his pursuit of David. “Have you ever been injured or sick?” David was injured, in a car accident that ended his football career. Or was it merely something he did in order to keep Audrey from leaving him?

Elijah is an eccentric man who owns a rare comic art store in the city, a job that could only exist in the movies. For years he has been trying to find some person on the opposite end of the spectrum. He is so convinced that this person is David, and goes to great lengths to convince David of the same thing. Despite the early reluctance, certain events happen and certain memories flood David’s mind where he soon begins to believe that Elijah may be right. One such instance is in a scene with David and his son in the basement. David is doing bench presses, and his son keeps adding more and more weight. His son has heard Elijah’s theory, and he believes it wholeheartedly. Because he wants to believe it. The scene is brilliantly staged by Shyamalan, and this seemingly mundane moment becomes one of great revelation.

David eventually gives in to the idea that maybe he does have supreme powers, and in another brilliantly-staged sequence he decides to test those powers at a crowded train station. But this is not an X-Men movie. There are no elaborate set pieces of action or stunt work. Unbreakable is an internal movie about real people who may really have powers. Shyamalan works this story straight, without flair, and it is the best way to go about telling these stories. At the same time, Shyamalan manages to add conventions of comic stories into this very real and dramatically compelling tale. For example, David wears primarily green, Elijah is always in purple.

Unbreakable is filmed quietly, with calm and ease, but shrouded in mystery and tension that build until they are shown with deliberate but effective restraint. Take the scene in the kitchen for example, where David and Audrey turn to find their son pointing a gun at David. He cannot be hurt, the child is convinced of it, and while he may be right there is still a very real sense of dread at the possibility of the boy pulling the trigger and David dropping dead. Despite the fantastical elements that got us to this point in the story, the moment is very intimate and truly frightening.

Having Bruce Willis cast as the lead in a movie steeped in comic book themes warrants a certain expectation. Willis is an action hero, a man who typically shows up on set with stunt double in tow, but he plays against type. There are no times where Willis has to fire a gun or jump off a building or crack wise, he stays tightly wound. The same goes for Samuel L. Jackson, whose Elijah character is the cog that drives the entire narrative. There is a twist, of course, and the end of the film is almost too much of a real-world result. But I don’t think there was any other option. The pacing of Unbreakable is key in the development of the story, and this picture shows what Shyamalan is capable of doing when he is focused on characters rather than surprises.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

MOVIES IN THE MARGINS: Pacific Heights (1990)


So what about those movies that aren’t really good, but aren’t necessarily bad either? There are perhaps more of them out there than any other type of film that is decidedly excellent or completely awful. Mediocrity is a wide range in Hollywood. Sometimes movies work on one level, but fail at another, and fall into the margins that lie between greatness, mediocrity, and disaster. Pacific Heights is one such example…


Roger Ebert called Pacific Heights “a horror film for yuppies” in his review. I don’t think there is a more accurate description of the John Schlesinger film. Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith play the yuppies in question, Drake and Pattie, a young unmarried couple who buy a three-flat apartment building to live in and rent out to two tenants in downtown San Francisco. Drake and Pattie also fudge on their financial statements in order to get in the building, so they need every last cent from each of their tenants in order to pull through this. Things start out okay when a kind, older Japanese family moves in to one of the apartments, leaving one more to lease.


Carter Hayes appears one day. He shows up in the apartment, unbeknownst to Pattie. He tells her he has signed a lease with Drake, but Drake doesn’t remember, but it doesn’t matter because he is there. All seems fine for a while, until there are strange noises in the middle of the night. Sawing, drilling, destruction sounds echo down the hall. Carter has a shady roommate all of a sudden. Things aren’t making sense to Drake and Pattie.


Carter’s basic idea is to move into places, destroy them and infest them with cockroaches until they foreclose, and then buy them back cheap. The method sounds very manila and not all that threatening in a cinematic sense, but it is merely the device of a psychopath here. Carter goes beyond simply infesting and destroying; he begins to play mind games with Drake and Pattie, driving Drake into acts of violence that give Carter the upper hand throughout. Carter manipulates every situation like a master of his craft, and the collateral damage is the sanity of the young couple. Eventually, there is revenge for the yuppies, and retaliation from Carter, and a climax befitting of such a tightly-wound thriller.


WHAT WORKS: There are several things that are effective in Pacific Heights, beginning with Michael Keaton. Keaton acts with his eyes as well as anyone, and he has a sinister vibe from the beginning. He oozes deviousness in Carter, and makes a formidable villain for such a mild-mannered couple. And the ability for Schlesinger to tighten the screws more and more until things boil over is another effective device for the picture. Mood is an important player in films like Pacific Heights, and Schlesinger captures a very specific, deliberate sense of dread. There are some great moments of tension throughout, and there is a magnificent moment at the end of the second act. Carter has abandoned the apartment, left it in shambles, and is now living in a hotel. Pattie finds this out and gets some great revenge against Carter that I won’t go into. The moment is truly satisfying.


WHAT DOESN’T: Carter Hayes is seen briefly in the opening moments of the film, then disappears into the apartment and exists only as a specter for quite a while. This throws off the pacing of the film. The entire narrative suffers from being uneven, going from one situation to the next until things begin to repeat inadvertently. And there are a few obvious scares, like the cat in the darkness (sigh). And Drake and Pattie are not very convincing as a couple, mainly because Melanie Griffith is a terrible actress. She is monotone and dry and never seems to really be that interested in Drake. And the way Matthew Modine develops Drake, he comes off almost as grating as Carter but in the complete wrong way. He begins to sound like a whiny bitch, frankly. He retaliates against Carter, then cries to a lawyer, then bitches to the cops, then bitches at his wife, until you almost don’t want to hear it anymore. Thankfully, Carter is evil enough that things don’t switch and you don’t begin rooting for him no matter how coarse Drake becomes.


Pacific Heights is a thriller you might find on Bravo one weekend, and I don’t know what that means for it as a viable thriller really. There was a modest box office take, and a solid video take, and it is one of those films that floats around various cable outlets and Best Buy sale racks. That being said, Michael Keaton keeps the picture afloat and there are thrills scattered throughout that keep the story from being watered down in legal real estate thriller purgatory. I don’t think Pacific Heights is one of the best domestic thrillers, a subgenre of films that was quite prevalent in the early nineties, but I know it is far from the worst.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

TUESDAY TOP 10: The Worst Films From Some of the Best Directors

This was a tough list to make. I avoided more recent directors like Aronofsky and Paul Thomas Anderson and Chris Nolan because the sample size was just too small. And, in those cases, there really hasn’t been a movie that is a clear-cut worst (although Aronofsky’s The Fountain might be close). And, like I did a few weeks ago with the best actors’ worst films, I decided to rank them based on the film’s quality, not the quality of the director. So here we go…

10) The Coen Brothers: Burn After Reading – I know some might want to pin this label on the Coens’ Intolerable Cruelty or The Man Who Wasn’t There, but for my money Burn After Reading is decisively worse than those two. The follow up picture to their Oscar-winner No Country for Old Men really looks like a Coen Brothers’ movie. It sounds like one. It even progresses like one. And the cast is stellar, including Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Frances McDormand among others. Everything seems to be in place. But nothing works for me. I rarely laughed at any part of Burn After Reading, and I am convinced that Clooney cannot do comedy very well. He seems like a funny guy in real life, but as a comedian on the screen he is never convincing or really funny. But that is just the first of many problems I had with this one.

9) Clint Eastwood: The Rookie – There are a surprising number of options for Clint Eastwood’s worst film (anyone remember Blood Work? Sudden Impact?), especially since he has transformed into such an amazing filmmaker over the last twenty years. But Eastwood was not always a sure thing as a director. In The Rookie, Eastwood directs himself alongside Charlie Sheen who is, you guessed it, a rookie detective. There is a plot here, and some sort of direction in the story, but I couldn’t tell you what it was off the top of my head. The film is dark seemingly the entire time, like they shot at night with natural lighting. And the characters are quite drab, which doesn’t liven anything up. I just could not care for one single character in this film, and I think the fact that Eastwood had done the cop so many times before, and so much better, made it even less impressive.

8) Steven Spielberg: Always – Again, there is a surprising number of candidates on this list. 1941, Spielberg’s slapstick war comedy is a very viable option here, but it has some camp charm. And the fourth Indiana Jones is very deserving of this title, but after writing at length on it the other day I decided to dig deeper into his filmography. And boy I had to dig to find this one or even remember seeing it, which I did at some point. Always, on the other hand, is a dull supernatural romance… thing, without much to offer in the way of entertainment or real emotion. It is a shame this was Audrey Hepburn’s swan song. Along with Hepburn is John Goodman, Holly Hunter, and Richard Dreyfuss as a dead man who loves Hunter’s character. At least I think that is how it went. This was as forgettable as they come, and as boring a film as Spielberg has ever made.

7) David Fincher: Alien 3 – This might not be too fair. First, Fincher has only directed 8 feature films, so his list is not as extensive as the others here. Second, this film was so dominated by Fox and manipulated in so many ways that it is tough to peg Fincher for it being so poor. But still, his name is attached as director. Alien 3 (is there a reason the ‘3’ is tacked on to the title like an exponent? I never understood that) has some moments, but those moments are not enough to save the picture from being a tedious, drab mess. This second sequel places Ellen Ripley on a prison planet full of horny men, so there’s that. The only thing very memorable about Alien 3 is the fact that Sigourney Weaver shaved her head. So when women do that for movies, don’t expect the movie to be that overwhelming (see: G.I. Jane, V for Vendetta). You can see glimpses of Fincher’s very deliberate style at work here, but since Fox studios forced Fincher into a release date and stood behind him incessantly throughout production, it is no wonder this sequel was doomed from the start.

6) Martin Scorsese: New York, New York – I paid no attention to Boxcar Bertha for this list for a few reasons. I have never seen it, and it is not really a “Scorsese movie.” He was doing a picture at the time to appease the studio, not to sow his own vision. New York, New York on the other hand was a film that was made after Taxi Driver, and Scorsese had a clear intent. This was Marty’s attempt to hearken back to the jazz age of Hollywood. Scorsese’s first mistake was to cast Robert DeNiro as the lead, as his character is neither believable nor likeable as a jazz musician who falls in love with Liza Minelli. And who couls ever believe these two would fall for each other? The musical set pieces are impressive, but the film is overall a mishmash of themes and moods that never really comes together the way Scorsese intended.

5) Francis Ford Coppola: Jack – Coppola has really fallen off in recent years; that is a definite. There are a couple of pictures that could be considered here, especially his 2007 calamity Youth Without Youth. But Coppola was doing something for himself that he wanted to do; same goes for his 2009 picture Tetro. But Jack? Yes, the movie starring Robin Williams as a child who ages rapidly, graduating high school looking like a senior citizen, is a movie directed by the masterful auteur who changed the Hollywood landscape with classics like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. I don’t understand how or why Coppola went after this film in the mid nineties. This star vehicle for Robin Williams to beat everyone down acting like a child is such a weird decision on Coppola’s part, and a truly manipulative and sappy comedy. Confounding.

4) Ridley Scott: A Good Year – Ridley Scott is collecting more and more films in recent years that could be considered his worst, an alarming trend. A Good Year was one such film. The fact that Scott was reteaming with Russell Crowe was a good sign, and I even remember the trailer looking promising. The film is about a wealthy businessman who returns to his father’s vineyard after his father dies, subsequently falling in love with a beautiful Italian woman. While it is not the typical action-adventure with Scott and Crowe, that is not the problem. What is the problem is that A Good Year is so watered down in nostalgia and look that it forgets to tell a compelling human drama. Films like A Good Year rely on things like chemistry, characters, and charm, and A Good Year really doesn’t have any of these aspects in place.

3) Ron Howard: The Grinch – This was a tough call, mostly because when Ron Howard misses, he misses badly. The Robert Langdon films are pretty well deplorable and dull, and Edtv is a solid misfire with better intentions than execution. But neither of those pictures holds a flame to The Grinch, Howard’s live-action adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic. Jim Carrey plays the Grinch, and looks like a big wookie more than the slinky, slimy Grinch from the book and the cartoon film. And he is completely annoying. On top of that, the look is decidedly dark and muddled for such a vibrant story. Everything charming and cute in the book and the cartoon, narrated by Boris Karloff, transforms into something creepy and awkward and totally annoying. It just doesn't translate well to live action.

2) Sidney Lumet: The Wiz/A Stranger Among Us – This was too close to call. The Wiz is a film like Coppola’s Jack, a movie that I still can’t believe Sidney Lumet, the director of such amazing films as Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, would direct in the first place. What a mess this turned out to be, albeit with good intentions at the start. An urban telling of The Wizard of Oz starring Michael Jackson as the scarecrow? Enough said. A Stranger Among Us is a forgettable rip off of Harrison Ford’s Witness, only starring Melanie Griffith as the FBI agent looking for a killer in Amish country. There is your first problem, casting Melanie Griffith in the lead role of anything. Griffith is and always has been a stiff, boring actress. And having her fall in love with an Amish man never comes across as believable, mostly because she never has chemistry with any male leads.

1) Oliver Stone: Alexander – This was a race that went down to the wire for Stone. The other competition in the worst of Stone’s career was U-Turn, the film that was awarded the worst of Sean Penn’s career a few weeks ago. But it is terrible on a smaller level than Alexander, Stone’s ambitious telling of the great leader. Miscasting is a theme that runs rampant here. First, Colin Farrell is the whiniest, wimpiest soldier in any sprawling epic I can remember. And his mother is played by Angelina Jolie, who is roughly his same age. And Val Kilmer… oh Val. What a disaster his character, playing Alexander’s father, turned into. Aside from the awful casting decisions, Stone aimed for the moon and missed on all levels. He skirted any sort of sexual confusion Alexander battled with in his life, and staged the action scenes so that they might be the most boring fight sequences in this type of movie ever. Even the re-released Director’s Cut a few years ago did not fix the overwhelming list of problems.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Bryce Dallas Howard : Movie Killer

Bryce Dallas Howard has all the pedigree and promise of a new leading lady in Hollywood. At first glance, Howard would seem like a sure thing as an actress. The daughter of director Ron Howard, Bryce Dallas is a talented redhead with a unique look and soulful eyes. So why is she the death knell of any film she has ever been in? How is it that, despite working with some of the better directors (at the time anyway) in some of the more high profile movies, and in two of the highest-grossing franchises of all time, that whatever she appears in is complete and utter shit? Perhaps this is just a strange coincidence or a string of bad luck. But new things have come to light; Howard has appeared in yet another trailer from one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, only this time the film is already surrounded by bad buzz that is never an issue with this director’s films. This coincidence is something astounding now, something that is maybe not a coincidence at all. But what could it be?

Aside from being in Ron Howard’s Grinch picture as a young child, Bryce Dallas Howard got her first big break starring in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. Before you drop your shoulders and say “well, no wonder,” consider the way America felt about Shyamalan in 2004. He had just come off three successful pictures, and perhaps even one masterpiece in Unbreakable, and was riding high. Now I, for one, enjoyed The Village and I do not consider it the beginning of the end of M. Night (that comes next), but I am in the vast minority. The Village was ripped apart by the critics and is generally dismissed by most. Howard played Ivy, a young blind girl who becomes the emotional center of the film. Howard was good in the role, but the film was not given the same kind treatment. She decided to try her hand again with M. Night. Any good director has a misfire in their career, so you cannot fault Howard for going back to Shyamalan and trying again. Unfortunately Shyamalan is not a good director, and unfortunately for Howard his next picture was a clear indication. Lady in the Water was an incomprehensible disaster and Howard was right in the middle of it. It was the clear-cut beginning of the end for Shyamalan as well.

So Howard separated from Shyamalan for her next role. This time, she went even bigger too. In Spider Man 3, Howard played Gwen Stacy, the possible romantic interest of Peter Parker, and trouble for Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). This is Sam Raimi and this is Spider Man; so this is fool-proof, right? Wrong. So very wrong. Spider Man 3 is a cluttered mess, a busy, idiotic, annoying entry into one of the best franchises of the new millennium. It spelled disaster for Tobey Maguire and Sam Raimi’s run as the leaders of the Spidey clan, and even prompted Marvel to go back to the drawing board. Howard was merely a bit part in Spider Man 3, but still… she was there.

Howard went from one huge franchise to the next, from Spider Man to Terminator. Terminator Salvation was yet another promising entry into a beloved franchise, and again it failed to deliver. The film was drab and noisy and ultimately forgettable on basically every level. Howard had a small part here again, as most of the action belonged to Christian Bale and Sam Worthington. But still, there she was in the background. Salvation was Howard’s last role in a big film until this fall, when she will star in a dramatic picture from none other than Clint Eastwood, one of the three or four best directors of the last twenty years. Surely this picture will get her out of the slump, right? Not so fast.

According to slashfilm, Eastwood’s Hereafter was released in a super-secret limited viewing at the Toronto International Film Festival over the weekend. There has been bad buzz surrounding it and the veiled release is not a good sign. Nor is the review from slashfilm. Hereafter revolves around a psychic (Matt Damon) who is trying to not be a psychic anymore, who sees his gift as a curse. Howard plays a love interest in the film, a film that has three stories that apparently intertwine weakly. Of all things, a Clint Eastwood film is getting bad press? This is inconceivable. Eastwood is one of the biggest critical darlings ever; it is astounding to me that one of his films, getting a prime October release date, would already be met with poor reviews. Then again, if you check out the strange trailer, you might see why. And there, again, is Bryce Dallas Howard.

There is the argument that maybe Howard is not meant for bigger pictures. Maybe she thrives in independent movies more than blockbusters. Not the case. Even her smaller movies are met with overwhelming disdain. I have no answers for this, or for Howard’s career, but I don’t think it can be chalked up to bad luck anymore, can it? I know in a couple of these films she is a smaller supporting character, but that doesn’t change the fact that she is involved. And she is not the worst part of any of these aforementioned films. Somehow, some way, Bryce Dallas Howard is the biggest and most prominent nail in a film’s coffin. I just don’t know why. Her career is a lot like Lady in the Water in fact: promising beforehand, yet ultimately poor and utterly bewildering.