Monday, May 30, 2011

Stanley Cup Final Prediction

I went two for two in the Conference finals, bringing my Playoff record in predictions up to 8 and 6, which is better than last year, but still further proof of why I shouldn't quite my day job. It all comes down to this - potentially seven games between two teams for the Stanley Cup.

Vancouver vs. Boston
The differences between these two teams are fairly striking. Vancouver has gotten better ever round in the playoffs so far, fumbling and stumbling through their series against Chicago, taking longer than anticipated against Nashville, and then being fairly dominant over San Jose. The best news for the Canucks is that the Sedins have finally hit their stride, and Luongo has not really had a bad game since round 1. Kesler continues to be their best player, and the likes of Kevin Bieksa has stepped up big on defense. The potentianl addition of Manny Maltholtra to their lineup earlier than expected could certainly help them - but if it turns out he isn't ready, I think Vancouver is strong enough without him. They have to be seen as the overwhelming favorites. For Boston, they fumbled and stumbled through their first round against Montreal, looked dominant over Philidelphia, and then fumbled and stumbled again against Tampa Bay. Their biggest weakness is their special teams - a lackluster penalty kill and a powerplay that can't score to save their lives. They need to play discplined hockey to have a chance here. They also need Tim Thomas to be more consistent than he has been in the first three rounds - at times he has looked like the Vezina trophy winner he is, and at times he looks uncomfortable. He needs to be great, or at least hope that Luongo also reverts back to his old ways and becomes inconsistent as well. The biggest factor may just be Zdeno Chara, and not just because he's 6'7. He'll be charged with shutting down the Sedins, and as Shea Weber proved in the Nashville series, it can be done. If Chara cannot do it, Boston's already slim chances will be non-existent.
Prediction: Vancouver in 6.

Movie Review: Kung Fu Panda 2

Kung Fu Panda 2 ***
Directed by: Jennifer Yuh.
Written by: Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger.
Starring: Jack Black (Po), Angelina Jolie (Tigress), Gary Oldman (Lord Shen), Seth Rogen (Mantis), Jackie Chan (Monkey), Dustin Hoffman (Shifu), David Cross (Crane), Lucy Liu (Viper), James Hong (Mr. Ping), Jean-Claude Van Damme (Master Croc), Michelle Yeoh (The Soothsayer), Dennis Haysbert (Master Oxen), Victor Garber (Master Thundering Rhino), Paul Mazursky (Musician Bunny).

I think the reason why most sequels, even good ones, fall short of the original is that they can no longer surprise us. By the time we walk into a second (or third or fourth or fifth) installment in a series, we already know what to expect. Sequels don’t want to be original – they want to give audiences more of what they enjoyed the last time out. Good sequels do that. Great sequels move behind, and push the series into new directions. Most sequels simply fall flat and are best forgotten.

The first Kung Fu Panda was one of my most pleasant surprises of 2008. It was fast paced, well animated, smart and funny and I enjoyed it from start to finish. Kung Fu Panda 2 is probably about as good as the first film – it’s just that since I had seen it before, it didn’t quite seem as good this time around. No matter – kids will enjoy the movie immensely, and parents along for the ride will have fun with it too.

This time, our hero Po (Jack Black), a giant panda with a giant appetite needs to learn who to achieve inner peace. His master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tells him that he will only truly be a kung fu master when he has achieved it – that he’ll only truly live up to the title of Dragon Warrior he achieved by accident the first time if he can. He is once again teamed up with the Furious Five to fight evil in their small village. But then they get some distressing news – it seems like Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), an angry, bitter peacock, has returned from exile, and has a new weapon, utilizing gun powder. Kung fu may be in danger if Po and the Furious Five cannot stop him. Also, Po discovers the shocking truth from his swan father – that he was adopted. And what’s more, Lord Shen may know about his real parents.

Kung Fu Panda 2 is fast paced and exciting, and also extremely well animated. I liked that director Jennifer Yuh put some more traditional looking, hand drawn animation into the flash back sequences, because for the most part, this has become a lost art in American films. The 3-D in the movie isn’t a distraction in this film, but neither does it really add to the film. Like most 3-D films, it seems to be there in order to bilk an extra three bucks from people.

I enjoyed Kung Fu Panda 2 pretty much from beginning to end. The team behind the movie is obviously trying to learn from Pixar, and the emotional storyline about Po being adopted, and how it frays his relationship with his sweet, loving adoptive father is obviously meant to wring tears from the audience, like Pixar so masterfully does year after year (I have my doubts that Cars 2 will accomplish that trick this year, but we’ll see). It comes close to working here, but didn’t quite have the same impact.

Overall, I cannot see too many people being disappointed in Kung Fu Panda 2. It delivers what it promises, and is far more entertaining and exciting than the other sequels I have seen so far in what has been called “The Summer of the Sequel” (Fast Five, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides). For that, I am grateful. I just wish someone would come up with a new idea.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Cutter's Way (1981)

Cutter’s Way (1981) ****
Directed by: Ivan Passer.
Written by: Jeffrey Alan Fiskin based on the novel by Newton Thornburg.
Starring: Jeff Bridges (Richard Bone), John Heard (Alex Cutter), Lisa Eichhorn (Maureen Cutter), Ann Dusenberry (Valerie Duran), Stephen Elliott (J. J. Cord), Arthur Rosenberg (George Swanson), Nina Van Pallandt (Woman in the Hotel), Patricia Donahue (Mrs. Cord).

Cutter’s Way was essentially abandoned by its own studio back in 1981. Discouraged by the few harsh initial reviews, and realizing since it had been approved by the previous regime that if the film was a success, they wouldn’t receive any credit, the studio pawned it off on its independent division – who renamed it and made it a critical success. But in the 30 years since it’s release, most people have pretty much forgotten about Cutter’s Way – which is a shame because it is an excellent character study posing as a paranoid thriller. It really does feel like the type of film they made during the Hollywood Golden Age of the 1970s, when films like this had an easier time getting made. Yet despite the fact that Cutter’s Way is certainly a product of its time, it is a film that has not really aged – it is as relevant now as it was when it was made.

Jeff Bridges gives one of his best performances as Richard Bone, a holdover from the 1960s who is pretty much aimlessly drifting through his life, unwilling or unable to commit to anything. He works as a salesman at the marina, but doesn’t really try very hard, and spends more time sleeping with the unsatisfied wives of rich men in LA – and expects a cash tip for his troubles. While leaving one of these dalliances, his car breaks down in an alley. Seeing another car pull up, and dump something out into a garbage can, he tries to flag them down for help – only to get almost run over. He goes on with his day, tracking down his friend Alex Cutter (John Heard) in a local bar. Cutter has been scared by the Vietnam war – both physically, as he is missing an eye, an arm and a leg, and emotionally. He takes pleasure in screwing with people – as we see right from the beginning as he baits two African American patrons – almost daring them to hit a cripple. Bone then moves on to the Cutter’s house – he is crashing with his friend – where he flirts with Cutter’s wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), who like her husband is an alcoholic. She is drawn to Bone, and he is drawn to her, but she has never given in to his advances – sensing, perhaps correctly, that once she says yes to Bone, like every other woman, he will no longer care.

The movie will eventually turn into a murder mystery. Of course what that car was dumping in the alley was a dead body – and Bone becomes a suspect because of his car being there. But the police don’t actually think he did it – he’d have to be pretty damned stupid to leave his car next to his murder victim. Bone only got a glimpse of the man doing the dumping – but at a parade he thinks he sees him. The man is JJ Cord (Stephen Elliot), a man of immense wealth and influence in the community. When he tells this to Cutter, he decides that they should blackmail Cord into giving them money – then they’d have proof he was guilty and could turn him in. Also in on the blackmail scheme is the victim’s sister, Valerie (Anna Dusenberry), whose motives are somewhat cloudy.

Whether or not Cord is guilty is really beside the point. To Cutter, Cord, and corporate bigwigs like him, is already guilty – already responsible for events like Vietnam, and everything else that is destroying America with its violence and greed. The power structure has changed – the class structure has changed – and now people like Cord run everything. Whether he killed that young girl or not, at least in Cutter’s eyes, Cord is guilty of murder.

The plot is really just an excuse for a character study of these three wounded individuals. John Heard has the showy role as the crippled Cutter – angry and bitter at the country he fought for, and the price is cost him, he glories in antagonizing people for the hell of it. He fully admits he is paranoid, but he doesn’t really care. He wants desperately to get back at Cord for the injustices visited upon him, that he doesn’t care if he’s guilty or not. Heard is a talented actor, who has never been given a role as good as Cutter in his career, but he makes the most of it. I would be shocked if Gary Sinise never saw this movie, because in his famed performance as Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump, he seems to be trying to channel Heard in this film. For his part, Jeff Bridges does some amazing work, with a much more subtle, quiet character. Bone is essentially a coward – sitting on the sidelines, never committing to anything. He quite simply doesn’t care, but slowly, surely he is dragged down into the muck that Cutter is creating. His final act in the movie represents the first time in his life than Bone has really made a decision. Drawn to both of these men is Lisa Eichhorn’s Maureen – perhaps because each of the men have what the other lack. If you put them together, they might make a good man. She has given up putting her faith in either of these men, but acts an enabler to both of them. Her end in the movie is really what drives it towards it violent climax.

Directed by Ivan Passer, Cutter’s Way is a fascinating little film. It’s a thriller, but not really, because it is too interested in its characters to allow them to go through a cookie cutter plot that most thrillers require. The film has been compared to Easy Rider, and in some ways, that comparison is apt. But Cutter’s Way never takes it easy on its audience – or gives them a easy out like the ending of that film did. Right down to its core, Cutter’s Way is dark, cynical and ambigious. It’s an underrated classic that deserves to be rediscovered.

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Funny Face (1957)

Funny Face (1957) ***
Directed by: Stanley Donen.
Written by: Leonard Gershe.
Starring: Audrey Hepburn (Jo Stockton), Fred Astaire (Dick Avery), Kay Thompson (Maggie Prescott), Michel Auclair (Prof. Emile Flostre), Robert Flemyng (Paul Duval), Dovima (Marion).

I love Fred Astaire. Just like there are Elvis people and Beatles people, or Buster Keaton people and Charlie Chaplin people, there seems to be a divide among lovers of Hollywood musicals. You are either a Fred Astaire person or a Gene Kelly person. Put me down firmly in the Astaire column. Having said that, the 1957 film Funny Face, despite the presence of a dancing Astaire, despite the direction of musical legend Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain among others), and despite the performance by Audrey Hepburn left me a little let down. It’s not that it’s not a fine film – it is – it’s just that despite the presence of these three legends, I think that they have all done much better work in their careers. Funny Face is amusing and fun – but not really memorable.

The story is classic Hollywood musical stuff. Astaire plays Dick Avery, a famed fashion photographer, working for a high end magazine that dictates the style American women wear every day. The magazine wants a fresh, new face for a new campaign they are doing – and they happen to stumble upon humble Jo Stockton (Hepburn) working in a bookstore. She despises fashion, but longs to travel to Paris to study under Professor Emie Flostre, who has come up with a new philosophy Empathism. The opportunity to travel to Paris, all expenses paid, is too much for her to pass up – even if she does have to degrade herself by becoming a model. You get no bonus points for guessing that Astaire and Hepburn fall in love – but that there are complications.

Funny Face is amongst the most colorful musicals I have ever seen. From its opening sequence, where everything is painted pink, right through to the end, Funny Face is a non-stop burst of color. It’s so colorful in fact that at times, it is almost blinding. But you cannot fault the wonderful cinematography, art direction or costume design – all of which helps to create a visually exciting artificial playground for the characters to go in.

You cannot really fault the performances either. Astaire had essentially been playing a version of this role his entire career – yet you never catch him sleepwalking through it. He is fun, funny, charming and playful throughout the movie. And Hepburn has played similar roles as well, but here she seems to be having a blast in her role. While it’s true that Hepburn didn’t have the greatest singing voice, hence why the dubbed her singing in My Fair Lady (1964), she has the chops to the pull off what is asked of her here. Personally, I thought the much praised work by Kay Thompson, playing a kinder, gentler version of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, was a little too far over the top – even by musical standards.

If there is a failing to this movie, sadly, I think it’s the music. To be perfectly honest with you, even though it’s only been a few days since I’ve seen the movie, I really cannot recall any of the songs in the movie. Yes, they are written by George and Ira Gershwin, but can any of them even compare to their best work – songs like Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm, The Man I Love, They Can’t Take That Away From Me or Someone to Watch Over Me? I don’t think that any of the songs in Funny Face even come close.

There are two wonderful musical sequences in the film though. Both are dance numbers. One featuring Fred Astaire dancing in a deserted square for Hepburn who watches from her balcony. It is a lovely scene, and shows that even though Astaire was aging at this point (he was 58), he could still move. No, it doesn’t compare to the great work he did in the 1930s – or even just a few years before in The Band Wagon (1953), but it wonderful just the same. The one truly brilliant segment in the movie surprising involves Hepburn – and its her now infamous Bohemian routine in the coffee shop, which somehow manages to mock the pretentiousness of the routine, while still being a wonderful one. Hepburn plays this to the hilt, and it is truly an unforgettable movie moment.

But it also highlights what is missing from the rest of Funny Face – truly memorable moments. I enjoyed Funny Face quite a bit as I watched it. Over the past few years, I think have truly gotten over my previous aversion to movie musicals, and can now fully embrace them for the artificial fun they were meant to be. Yet, even by those standards, Funny Face felt a little too by the numbers for me to truly love. The great musicals are no less clichéd than Funny Face, but they don’t feel as clichéd – or at least they get past that by having numerous great musical numbers. This one doesn’t offer that. Instead, Funny Face is, to me anyway, simply a fun, enjoyable musical – a good way to kill a couple of hours. There are worse things that it could be – but there are also better things.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ** ½
Directed by: Rob Marshall.
Written by: Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio based on characters created by Elliot & Rossio & Stuart Beattie & Jay Wolpert and suggested by the novel On Strangers Tides by Tim Powers.
Starring: Johnny Depp (Jack Sparrow), Penélope Cruz (Angelica), Geoffrey Rush (Barbossa), Ian McShane (Blackbeard), Kevin McNally (Gibbs), Sam Claflin (Philip), Astrid Berges-Frisbey (Syrena), Stephen Graham (Scrum), Keith Richards (Captain Teague), Richard Griffiths (King George), Greg Ellis (Groves), Damian O'Hare (Gillette), Óscar Jaenada (The Spaniard), Anton Lesser (Lord John Carteret), Roger Allam (Prime Minister Henry Pelham).

Normally by the fourth movie a franchise is merely running on fumes and memories of what audiences enjoyed in the past. The original director has moved on, much of the original cast has joined him, and the movie exists solely to cash in on the name the previous installments have established. All of this is certainly true for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie – On Stranger Tides. I went into the movie expecting the worst, and perhaps that’s why I ended up almost liking the movie. It certainly isn’t a great movie – it is marred by the over length and overstuffed nature that all the films in the series have been guilty of, and this time, other than Jack Sparrow, there really isn’t an interesting character on screen, but what it does, it does fairly well. It is a time waster to be sure, but not an altogether unpleasant one.

This time, we find Sparrow (Johnny Depp) without a crew or a ship, but of course being a wanted man. He learns that apparently Jack Sparrow is looking for a crew and is holding a casting call as it were at a local bar – since he isn’t actually doing this, he wonders who is, and goes to the bar himself. There he finds an old love, Angelica (Penelope Cruz) disguised as himself. They argue, it turns violent, Sparrow is knocked out and find himself aboard her ship – which actually belongs to her father Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Meanwhile, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is now working for the King, and also wants Captain Jack, because he is the only one who knows where to find the Fountain of Youth. Since the Spanish have sent a ship to find it as well, and seem to be making progress, everyone wants Captain Jack’s help. The movie essentially becomes a giant chase – with Blackbeard chasing the Spanish and Barbossa chasing Blackbeard, with Sparrow, of course, looking out for his own self interest at all times.

What I liked about this movie is that it is somewhat scaled back from how the original trilogy ended. The original movie remains the best, because not only was it somewhat original (especially Depp’s performance), but also because it the most straightforward of the series. As we got into the second and third installments, which told one huge story, the franchise got bogged down in far too much convoluted plot for its own good – and then it kept throwing on unnecessary characters on top of unnecessary characters (I’m still trying to figure out what the hell Ken Watanabe was doing in the third movie). Here, free of the over serious Orlando Bloom-Keira Knightley love plot, the movie is free to concentrate purely on Captain Jack – which is where we wanted it to be in the first place.

And yet, the movie still does have an overstuffed feel to it. The Spanish ship adds little to nothing but running time to the plot in this movie, and could have been done without. Barbossa seems to be in the movie mainly because they wanted to bring the fantastic Geoffrey Rush along for another ride, because really, he isn’t given much of anything to do. As Captain Jack’s “love interest”, Penelope Cruz is fine, but as with almost all of her English speaking roles, she lacks the fire she has when acting in her native Spanish (remember, her Oscar winning role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona is in an English film – but she speaks almost all Spanish in it). Most disappointing, for me anyway, is that the movie completely and totally wastes Ian McShane as Blackbeard. For Deadwood fans like myself, you know just how great McShane can be, but here, his Blackbeard doesn’t really carry that much weight – doesn’t really seem to be all that dangerous. In fact, he seems like a pathetic coward. Clocking in at 137 minutes, the movie is shorter than the other movies in the series, but still at least a half hour too long. There comes a point where I just get a little bored watching pirates.

It must be said that Johnny Depp seems to still be having fun making these movies. He doesn’t phone it in here, and he is as good as always as Captain Jack. And yet, therein lies part of the problem. When they made the first Pirates movie, Depp’s performance as the effeminate, flamboyant, Keith Richards inspired Captain Jack was daring and original – now it’s about the safest thing in the world for him to do. The original movie turned him for a star into one of the biggest stars in the world. But I am a little tired of seeing him play Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s still entertaining, but there’s no surprises left in that character.

Overall, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides isn’t a horrible movie. It delivers what it promises, and director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Nine) handles it all fairly well. I doubt that fans of the series, who just want to see Depp prance around in a pirate costume will be disappointed in the film. For me though, it just isn’t enough anymore.

Movie Review: Something Burrowed

Something Burrowed **
Directed by: Luke Greenfield.
Written by: Jennie Snyder based on the nove by Emily Giffin.
Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin (Rachel), Kate Hudson (Darcy), Colin Egglesfield (Dex), John Krasinski (Ethan), Steve Howey (Marcus), Ashley Williams (Claire), Geoff Pierson (Dexter Thaler Sr.), Jill Eikenberry (Bridget Thaler).

Ginnfer Goodwin was born to make romantic comedies. Even when playing the harpie first wife of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Goodwin was lovable, as she has been in every role I have seen her in – from her early TV work in Ed, to Big Love to Win a Date with Tad Hamilton to the godawful He’s Just Not That Into You (where she was the only redeeming quality), to this latest film, Something Burrowed, where once again she is the only reason to see the film. She is the classic romantic comedy heroine – lovable and sweet to a degree that both men and women love her. Now it’s time for her to actually get a good role in a romcom, instead of the crap she is saddled with here.

In this film, Goodwin plays Rachel, a lawyer who just turned 30, who has been in love with Dex (Colin Egglesfield) since law school. The problem is, on the night when their relationship may have turned from friendship into something else, Rachel’s best friend Darcy (Kate Hudson) crashed the party, and started dating Dex herself. Now 6 years later, Darcy and Dex are about to get married, and Rachel is alone. She finds herself alone with Dex one night however, and confesses that in law school, she had a crush on him. It turns out, he feels the same way – and the two end up in bed together. Of course, with the wedding only weeks away, things get complicated, and Dex isn’t sure he can call it off. So Rachel is forced to continue to help the demanding Darcy plan the wedding, while hoping to steal her fiancé from her.

Something Burrowed is one of those movies that I find endlessly frustrating because everything could be solved by a simple conversation – which the movie delays for two hours so they can stretch a simple premise into a movie. The characters never say what they should to each other – even when no one is around to hear them – because if they did, the movie would have no reason for being there. So instead, we get a lot of scenes where nothing is really said, and the plot is essentially on hold. The movie adds more characters than were necessary just to make things complicated – like Rachel’s friend Ethan (Jon Krasinski), the girl who he slept with, but doesn’t like Claire (Ashley Williams) and a dimwitted party boy who still says Whassup named Marcus (Steven Howey).

The major problem with the movie is that none of the people in it are all that likable. Kate Hudson’s Darcy is actually downright despicable, which I suppose is necessary to try to make Rachel seem lovable, since she is trying to steal her fiancé. I’m not sure where romcoms like this keep finding generically good looking, but completely bland actors like Colin Egglesfield, but they do. He really doesn’t add much to the proceedings here, and he doesn’t seem to have the acting chops to make his dilemma seem plausible. Jon Krasinski is pretty much playing Jim Halpert here, just like on The Office, and while it is still somewhat enjoyable, I wish he would do something else.

Ginnifer Goodwin is really the only reason why they movie remains watchable. Despite the fact that she slept with her best friend’s fiancée, I still found her lovable, simply because I don’t think I could ever find Goodwin truly hateful in a movie (I don’t expect to see her play a villain at any point in her career). She is lovable and cute, and has an easy comic touch. But in this movie, it’s all at the service of a lazy screenplay filled with pathetic people. I wish Goodwin the best – I really want to see her make a great romantic comedy. She needs to find it now.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Un Chant D'Amour (1950)

Un Chant d’Amour (1950) *** ½
Directed by: Jean Genet.
Written by: Jean Genet.

Jean Genet is mainly known as a writer, whose work was brazenly homosexual, rubbing the mainstream face in their own homophobia. He only made one film, the 1950 short film Un Chant d’Amour that was apparently never meant to be seen publicly. He made it as pornography for wealthy, gay Frenchmen, and he was so embarrassed by it, that he disowned the film. Why anyone would be embarrassed by a film like Un Chant d’Amour is beyond me however. It is a wordless, 26 film, that shows that Genet had a real eye behind the camera. It is an erotic film that was miles ahead of its time in 1950 – and to be quite honest, still makes many of the “gay” films of today look sanitized by comparison. It’s a fascinating little film.

The movie takes place inside a French military prison. Two prisoners – an older, darker skinned man, and a younger man who spends much of his time dancing by himself while look at the tattoo on his shoulder – are in adjoining cells, separated by a concrete wall. Despite this, they share an erotic connection. They interact with each other the only ways they can – blowing smoke through a straw via a hole in the wall. They dance together, and at times, grind up against the same concrete wall – on opposite sides of course. There is a guard who watches these displays with a mixture of disgust, jealously and lust. This confusion leads the guard to lash out violently towards the older prisoner – in one sequence beating him with a belt, and in another, forcing him to suck on his gun in a highly sexualized fashion. The older prisoner dreams of frolicking in a field of flowers with his younger companion, who he is forced to be apart from.

Of course, the prisoner is a none too subtle metaphor for how society treated homosexuals at the time the movie was made. They are separated from the one they love, and forced to keep their lives apart from society.

Genet’s film shows that had he continued in filmmaking, he probably could have become a truly great director. He has an eye for imagery here that is striking, and some of his images (the passing of flowers from one prisoner to another for example) that is truly haunting. His film is also one of the only truly erotic gay films I have ever seen. Of course, because of its full frontal male nudity and it’s in your face gay content, the film was banned back when it was completed in 1950. Hell, Genet had his books banned in America for much the same reason later in the 1950s. The mainstream had control of the culture at that time, and they did not want to see anything with homosexual content in it. Perhaps that’s why Genet never made another film – it would have been impossible to do what he wanted to.

But what is striking to me about Un Chant d’Amour is how much more erotic it is than gay films made today – over 60 years later. I’m thinking of mainstream films like Jonathan Demme’s Philidelphia (1993), which allowed Tom Hanks to be gay, and in a relationship, but was devoid of any display of sexuality between him and Antonio Banderas. The same could be said of even a film like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), which was rather chaste in its depiction of sexuality. Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) had Colin Farrell’s Alexander supposed torn between two sexual rivals – Rosario Dawson and Jared Leto, but while Dawson is portrayed as a sexual firecracker, Leto is little more than an homosexual puppy dog, looking at Farrell with wide eyes. The only film that comes to mind that could be seen as a direct descendant of Un Chant d’Amour if John Cameron Mitchell’s wonderful Shortbus (2005), which depicted sexuality of all kinds in a more honest light.

Un Chant d’Amour really is a one of a kind type of film. It is because it is Genet’s only film, but also because many filmmakers seem to be scared to follow his lead. There is no doubt that opinion has changed about homosexuals in the 61 years since Genet made this film. But it is also true that society has a long way to go.

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Rose Hobart (1936)

Rose Hobart (1936) **
Directed by: Joseph Cornell.
Featuring: Rose Hobart.

I have to admit it – the first time I watched Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart, I had no idea what the hell it was supposed to mean. It is an 18 minute short, where Cornell re-edited the 1931 film East of Bornero, focusing entirely on the film’s female lead – Rose Hobart. Scenes are edited together completely out of order, with some transitions jarring in effect, as everything around Hobart changes from shot to shot – the setting, the other characters, her costumes – yet because everything is shot at essentially the same angle, and because Cornell chooses shots to sit next to each other where Hobart is in a similar position on the screen, or making a similar movement, it appears to be one disjointed scene. The plot of East of Bornero is completely excised, as is the dialogue, as Cornell uses music over the whole thing. We remain fixated on Hobart throughout the film, and with no context with which to view the images, we have to rely on the images themselves. This results in differing views of Hobart from scene to scene – as a sex object, a surrogate mother (to a monkey no less), to a damsel in distress, etc. Cornell plays with our ideas of film grammar, because his re-editing breaks all of the rules we have come to expect. Devoid of context, we have to rely on the images themselves. The entire movie has a blue hue – which Cornell originally achieved by projecting the film through blue glass.

After a first confused viewing of Rose Hobart, I went and read a little bit about the film, and came back to it again. After all, it is only 18 minutes. Once again, the film had the same effect on me – by depriving us of any context for the images on the screen, we are forced to evaluate them as they stand on their own. Cornell is highlighting the images themselves, not their context.

I suppose to some, this could be considered art. Salvador Dali apparently attended a screening in 1936, and was angered because he said had the exact same idea for a movie – although he never wrote it down or told anyone about it – and that Cornell had somehow “plagiarized his dreams”. To a certain extent, Rose Hobart can be seen as a similar film to Un Chien Andalou, the infamous short Dali made with Luis Bunuel. Both films have no plot, and that’s the point. That the images are meant to be taken on their own, and the filmmakers want to play with our idea of what a movie is, and what the images mean.

For me though, I didn’t find Rose Hobart, the film, to be all that interesting – even the second time through. I have to admit that I still do not entirely “get” the film, so if you’re a fan of the film, or Cornell, then feel free to dismiss my opinion. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and while many think that Cornell is a great artist, based on my experience with Rose Hobart I think I have to admit that he’s just not for me.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Movie Review: Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids ***
Directed by: Paul Feig.
Written by: Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo.
Starring: Kristen Wiig (Annie), Maya Rudolph (Lillian), Rose Byrne (Helen), Melissa McCarthy (Megan), Wendi McLendon-Covey (Rita), Ellie Kemper (Becca), Chris O'Dowd (Rhodes), Michael Hitchcock (Don Cholodecki), Jill Clayburgh (Annie's Mom), Jon Hamm (Ted).

The one problem I have had with many of the movies that Judd Apatow has either directed or produced is that often, the male characters are so interesting and complex, where the female characters are either complete bitches or absolute saints. The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, etc are some of the best comedies in recent years, but to a certain extent they’ve all suffered from that problem. The men are interesting, and the women are quite simply there. The latest films Apatow produced, Bridesmaids, isn’t so much a corrective of that – that would imply that both the male and female characters are interesting and complex – but the opposite. This time, the women are interesting and complex and the men are either dicks or saints. Beggars can’t be choosers I guess, and it was refreshing to see the females in a movie like this actually be funny, flawed and complex. Sooner or later, I hope he brings it altogether.

The film stars Kristen Wiig (who also co-wrote the screenplay) as Annie, a woman in her late 30s, who has just seen her bakery go under, has no boyfriend, lives with a very strange British brother and sister combo, and has little going on in her life. She sometimes sees Ted (Jon Hamm), but he is a complete asshole. Her best friend is Lillian (Maya Rudolph), who has a better job, and has just gotten engaged and asks Annie to be her maid of honor. Annie loves the idea, but soon meets the other bridesmaids – including Helen (Rose Byrne), the wife of Lillian’s fiancé’s boss, who is super rich, and seemingly perfect in every way, and who seems to have decided that she really should be Lillian’s maid of honor. Instead of simply sucking it up and moving on, the two of them get into a tug of war for Lillian’s affections that spins wildly out of control. In movies like this, the main character needs a love interest, and Annie finds one in the sweet cop Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd) who pulls her over one day. But Annie is screwed up, and as with everything else in her life, she may just screw this up as well.

Since Wiig co-wrote the screenplay, she was able to tailor the film to meet her comic stylings. Anyone who has seen her on SNL in the past few seasons know what that entails. There are moments where she goes wildly over the top, and other moments where her voice retreats to barely over a mumble. This can be really effective on SNL, and for much of Bridesmaids, it works as well. I do think she has to learn be a consistent comic performer for movies – which are of course wildly different than sketch comedy – but for her first real starring role in a movie, she’s pretty good. I enjoyed Maya Rudolph as well as her friend, pulled between Annie, her old life, and Helen, her new life, trying to make everyone happy, which is of course the quickest way to ensure that she is the one who ends up miserable. And Rose Bryne, who last year proved to be an extremely gifted comic performer with her hilarious, but small, part in Get Him to the Greek is quite good as well. The rest of the cast fills in nicely.

Ultimately, I do not think that Bridesmaids is quite as good as many of the other films that Apatow has been involved in. It is a little too long (as all of them have been), but also a little too scattershot at times. Gags that start out promising get pushed to the limit – beyond the point where they are funny. The movie also feels dragged out at times.

And yet, at the same time, Bridesmaid is hilarious at parts as well. It was refreshing to see women acting like as big of jackasses as men are always allowed to act like in comedies. That for once, the women are allowed to be stuck in a state of arrested development, and the men had to be the ones who were patient and supportive. That never happens in movies. Ultimately, I think Bridesmaids is a good movie – not a great one – but a good first step for Apatow and company on the road to making a truly great female centric comedy.

Movie Review: Priest

Priest ** ½
Directed by: Scott Charles Stewart.
Written by: Cory Goodman based on the graphic novel series by Min-Woo Hyung.
Starring: Paul Bettany (Priest), Karl Urban (Black Hat), Cam Gigandet (Hicks), Maggie Q (Priestess), Lily Collins (Lucy Pace), Brad Dourif (Salesman), Stephen Moyer (Owen Pace), Christopher Plummer (Monsignor Orelas), Alan Dale (Monsignor Chamberlain), Mädchen Amick (Shannon Pace).

Priest is a movie that works a hell of lot better than it really has any right to. It is a silly story, set in a dystopian future where the Church (what church is never named, probably in the hope of avoiding pissing anyone off) controls all the daily aspects of their citizens lives. They have just ended the Vampire Wars, where the only reason why the humans won was because an elite group of soldiers, called Priests, with crosses tattooed on their foreheads that were finally able to quell the vampire resistance. The Vampires were sent to live on Reservations, and most of humanity lives in dark, gloomy cities, where they do not question the church. Some live outside the walls in the Wastelands that offers more freedom, but also more danger. One such family is attacked – the parents killed, and the pretty, young daughter kidnapped. The Sheriff Hicks (Cam Gigandet) comes to see the girls uncle, a Priest (Paul Bettany) to ask for his help in tracking down the vampires who kidnapped her. The Church refuses to grant him permission, but he goes anyway. We know from the outset who the bad guy is – a former Priest, left to die at the hands of the vampires, now hell-bent on revenge. This is Black Hat (Karl Urban), who does indeed where a Black Hat.

Priest is purely a B grade action movie. Directed by Scott Charles Stewart, who also made last year’s Legion starring Bettany as an Angel come down from heaven to protect a small dinner from an invading horde of demons, who want to kill the unborn child of a waitress who will become humanity’s new savior, Priest is a movie that has an fine visual look and style – dark and murky, with action sequences that don’t use rapid fire editing and shaky camera movement, which is refreshing for once. It is a definite improvement over Legion, even though this movie is shot in 3-D, which adds nothing to the look of the film. Usually I hate 3-D in live action movies, because it makes the movie look like it we’re watching it through a dirty window (this is the reason I avoided the 3-D Thor last weekend, instead going with 2-D), but here, the film is so dark anyway, that I didn’t really notice the 3-D one way or another.

Bettany is not who I think of when I think of an action star, and yet in these two movies, he has been the main reason to watch. Here, playing a mysterious Priest, with a dark past, he does a fine job. Yes, you should be able to guess his back story fairly easily at least an hour before the film lets you know what it is, but he plays it well. Karl Urban makes a menacing villain, going delightfully over the top. Cameos by Christopher Plummer and Brad Dourif help give their scenes a kick. The rest of the cast is fairly average and forgettable – but at least they do not stand out like sore thumbs (like I think Gigandet has done in pretty much every other movie he’s been in). They are simply there.

Priest is not a good movie. It isn’t even all that close to a good movie. And yet, it isn’t a boring movie either. It isn’t a film that made me roll by eyes at the ridiculousness of what is on the screen, like many of these B grade action/horror movies (like the Underworld or Resident Evil series’) do. Perhaps the best thing you can say about Priest is that it holds your attention for its 88 minute running time, and is mildly entertaining. If that sounds like a back handed compliment, that’s because it is.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Tropical Malady (2004)

Tropical Malady (2004) ****
Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Written by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Starring: Banlop Lomnoi, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Huai Dessom, Sirivech Jareonchon, Udom Promma.

I think critics who say that the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who I will refer to as Joe for the rest of this review, because that is what he likes English people to call him, undoubtedly because he is tired of having to explain how to pronounce his name) are difficult to understand quite simply are trying too hard to make sense of them. In my review of his latest film, the Palme D’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (which is the first of his films I had seen), I admitted I wasn’t sure if I understood it all, but loved it regardless. Looking back on it, I think I did understand the film. It is about precisely what it seems to be about.

The same can be said for his 2004 film, Tropical Malady, which many critics said was inscrutable, but I just think they’re trying too hard. The film contains a rupture at its midpoint – going from one story to a radically different one half way through, and yet both are essentially the same story, told in radically different styles. The two films, if you prefer, that make up Tropical Malady deepen the understanding of each other.

The first film is about a solider Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and his romantic relationship with innocent country boy Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). This is a chaste love story, between two sickly sweet characters, who talk to each other in romantic clichés that are meant, I think, to be funny. That the dialogue is corny in the extreme is precisely the point – these two are in an old fashioned romance, in which sex seems to be the last thing on their mind. Instead they like to proclaim their love to each other like teenagers who barely understand the concept of love in the first place. It is the last scene in this film – where first Keng licks Tong’s fingers, and then Tong does the same, before smiling and walking off into the distance without a word, in which lust first shows itself – and it’s this scene that in effect causes the rupture in the film, and gives way to the fever dream that is the second half.

That second half starts with Keng, a soldier once more, waking up and finding out that another cow in the small village in which he has been stationed (presumably alone, since we see no other soldiers) has been taken, and that the villagers are blaming it on a mythical “Tiger Ghost”. Keng goes off into the jungle in search of this Tiger Ghost, and gets some strange help along the way – from a talking baboon (Joe loves talking monkeys), and a translucent cow). It shouldn’t surprise you to find that the Tiger Ghost, when Keng finally does track it down, turns out to be Tong.

The first half of the movie, with its chaste romance, is shot is duller colors – at least after the opening sequence when we see Keng, and his fellow soldiers, standing around a body on the outskirts of a jungle, snapping pictures of each other smiling. Their romance, with all its simplicity, is told in realistic fashion. The second half is full of bright colors – as if the dream world is more vivid than reality, which in the case of Joe’s films is certainly the case. His films operate on dream logic, not on realistic logic, which I think could explain why some have such a hard time liking his films.

Tropical Malady is a fascinating movie – one that, especially in the second half, plays like a dream that you cannot get out of your head. If in the first half love remains just out of reach for Keng. Both of these characters are being pursued by each other – meaning they are also pursuing each other – and yet the impression is that neither one can actually catch the other. They remain out of reach. The second half once again sees the two characters – now the soldier and the tiger ghost – pursuing each other. Once again it appears like this is where the characters belong – with each other – but that it may not be possible. The film is about man’s relationship with nature, and also about release through death. The film’s two halves illustrate a similar point – one in reality, one in the dream world.

I don’t expect that there are many people who want to see Joe’s films. They are not simple, yet they are not as complicated as people make them seem. People like to impose a classical structure to films – want films that are both complex and yet easy to understand. They want a films mysteries to be solved for them by the end of the film, because to a certain extent, it is more comforting that way. Joe doesn’t make films like that. You have to do work when you watch one of his films. And yet, I cannot help but think that he puts everything you need to know right there on the screen – in bright, beautiful colors – for all to see. You need to spend less time trying to figure it all out, and simply let his films wash over you.

Conference Finals Predictions

So far these playoffs, my predictions haven’t been good. I was 4 and 4 in the first round, and 2 and 2 in the second – so in total I am 6 and 6. But being wrong has never stopped me from expressing my opinion before, so here’s my conference finals predictions.

Western Conference
1) Vancouver vs. 2) San Jose

I think many people expected these two to make it to the Conference finals. Even though I hoped against hope in the first round that the Kings could beat the Sharks, I knew it was a long shot. Both of these teams are great – Vancouver the best in the NHL over the whole season, the Sharks the best in the NHL since the All Star break. The real question will be whose best players show up. For Vancouver, there can be no doubt who their best player these playoffs have been – Ryan Kesler who has essentially put the team on his back and dragged them to the Conference finals. Luongo, after struggling in the first round, was solid in the second. The question will be how good he is against the Sharks potent offense – they certainly have more weapons than the Preds did. Another major question will be whether the Sedins finally decide to start playing playoff hockey. They haven’t so far. For the Sharks, they have fumbled and stumbled their way through two rounds – outlasting a surprisingly good LA team, and then giving up a 3-0 series lead against Detroit before pulling it out in Game 7. The key to their success is simple – Thornton, Heatly, Marleau, Setoguchi, Clowe and Pavelski have to produce – when they do, the Sharks win. When they don’t, they lose. Like Luongo, Niemi struggled in the first round, but was rock solid in the second. It is also worth noting that so far, Niemi has a 6-0 playoff series record in his career. I have no doubt that this will be a battle.
Prediction: Vancouver in 7.

Eastern Conference
3) Boston vs. 5) Tampa Bay

It seems like these two teams have been off forever as each has had more than a week since eliminating their opponents. I think this will be a good series – Boston is right where everyone expected them to be, and Tampa has been the surprise of the playoffs so far. However, I think Tampa is going to find Boston a harder team to play than Washington or Pittsburgh were. Tim Thomas is the best goalie still around in the playoffs. The defense is solid. And while the offense lacks stars, they have gotten the job done. The question will be how big a loss Bergeron is for the Bruins, and how long he’ll be out. Tyler Seguin is a promising player, but at this stage of his career, he isn’t ready to bear that much weight on his shoulders. For their part, Tampa is the best coached team still around. Guy Boucher has everyone on this team – from stars like St. Louis and Stamkos to his grinders buying into his unorthodox system that seems to frustrate opponents. The real question for them is how much gas does aged goalie Roloston have left in the tank? The week plus off will certainly help that however. I have had a horrible track record of predicting the outcomes this year – especially in the East – so keep that in mind.
Prediction: Boston in 6.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Tropical Malady (2004)

Tropical Malady (2004) ****
Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Written by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Starring: Banlop Lomnoi, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Huai Dessom, Sirivech Jareonchon, Udom Promma.

I think critics who say that the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who I will refer to as Joe for the rest of this review, because that is what he likes English people to call him, undoubtedly because he is tired of having to explain how to pronounce his name) are difficult to understand quite simply are trying too hard to make sense of them. In my review of his latest film, the Palme D’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (which is the first of his films I had seen), I admitted I wasn’t sure if I understood it all, but loved it regardless. Looking back on it, I think I did understand the film. It is about precisely what it seems to be about.

The same can be said for his 2004 film, Tropical Malady, which many critics said was inscrutable, but I just think they’re trying too hard. The film contains a rupture at its midpoint – going from one story to a radically different one half way through, and yet both are essentially the same story, told in radically different styles. The two films, if you prefer, that make up Tropical Malady deepen the understanding of each other.

The first film is about a solider Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and his romantic relationship with innocent country boy Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). This is a chaste love story, between two sickly sweet characters, who talk to each other in romantic clichés that are meant, I think, to be funny. That the dialogue is corny in the extreme is precisely the point – these two are in an old fashioned romance, in which sex seems to be the last thing on their mind. Instead they like to proclaim their love to each other like teenagers who barely understand the concept of love in the first place. It is the last scene in this film – where first Keng licks Tong’s fingers, and then Tong does the same, before smiling and walking off into the distance without a word, in which lust first shows itself – and it’s this scene that in effect causes the rupture in the film, and gives way to the fever dream that is the second half.

That second half starts with Keng, a soldier once more, waking up and finding out that another cow in the small village in which he has been stationed (presumably alone, since we see no other soldiers) has been taken, and that the villagers are blaming it on a mythical “Tiger Ghost”. Keng goes off into the jungle in search of this Tiger Ghost, and gets some strange help along the way – from a talking baboon (Joe loves talking monkeys), and a translucent cow). It shouldn’t surprise you to find that the Tiger Ghost, when Keng finally does track it down, turns out to be Tong.

The first half of the movie, with its chaste romance, is shot is duller colors – at least after the opening sequence when we see Keng, and his fellow soldiers, standing around a body on the outskirts of a jungle, snapping pictures of each other smiling. Their romance, with all its simplicity, is told in realistic fashion. The second half is full of bright colors – as if the dream world is more vivid than reality, which in the case of Joe’s films is certainly the case. His films operate on dream logic, not on realistic logic, which I think could explain why some have such a hard time liking his films.

Tropical Malady is a fascinating movie – one that, especially in the second half, plays like a dream that you cannot get out of your head. If in the first half love remains just out of reach for Keng. Both of these characters are being pursued by each other – meaning they are also pursuing each other – and yet the impression is that neither one can actually catch the other. They remain out of reach. The second half once again sees the two characters – now the soldier and the tiger ghost – pursuing each other. Once again it appears like this is where the characters belong – with each other – but that it may not be possible. The film is about man’s relationship with nature, and also about release through death. The film’s two halves illustrate a similar point – one in reality, one in the dream world.

I don’t expect that there are many people who want to see Joe’s films. They are not simple, yet they are not as complicated as people make them seem. People like to impose a classical structure to films – want films that are both complex and yet easy to understand. They want a films mysteries to be solved for them by the end of the film, because to a certain extent, it is more comforting that way. Joe doesn’t make films like that. You have to do work when you watch one of his films. And yet, I cannot help but think that he puts everything you need to know right there on the screen – in bright, beautiful colors – for all to see. You need to spend less time trying to figure it all out, and simply let his films wash over you.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Platform (2000)

Platform (2000) ****
Directed by: Jia Zhangke.
Written by: Jia Zhangke
Starring: Tao Zhao (Ruijuan), Jing Dong Liang (Zhang Jun), Tian Yi Yang (Zhong Pin), Wang Hong-wei (Cui Minliang), Bo Wang (Yao Eryong).

Jia Zhangke’s Platform is one of the best films of the last decade that hardly anyone in North America has seen. While I have often read about Jia’s work in some film magazines, his films never seem to open in Toronto, and somehow I had gone through the decade without seeing any of his work. But when Cinemascope proclaimed Platform the best film of the decade, and it ranked 11th on Film Comment’s poll, I figured I should see the film for myself. Needless to say, I am now a fan of Jia’s work, and look forward to seeing his other films – Unknown Pleasures, The World, Still Life, 24 City and I Wish I Knew as soon as possible.

Platform is a decade spanning film that chronicles the social change in China from 1980 to 1990. When the decade starts, the country is still under Maoist rule, and as the decade ends, the country has opened itself up to Western influence. Daringly, Jia does not set his film among any protesters or politicians fighting for change – he doesn’t even set his film in a major city. Instead, he focusing on a small theater group, in a out of the way town, who travel to other out of the way towns to perform. The changes in the group are subtle at first – a slightly different wardrobe with more color, a group member getting a perm, but gradually they become more pronounced when they seep into their stage show – the collectivist propaganda is weeded out, and soon they are performing pop songs on stage – under the greatest band name in cinema history the “All Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band- and working for themselves.

Although the movie is filled with characters, it essentially ends up centering on four of them – Cui Minliang (Wang Hong-wei) and Zhang Jun (Jing Dong Liang) are the two male characters, sullen and withdrawn who are in very different relationships with Zhong Pin (Tian Yi Yang) and Ruijuan (Tao Zhao) respectively. Of these characters, Zhong Pin is the most daring of them all – smoking cigarettes, considered unladylike, and getting a perm before anyone else in the area. Her relationship with Cui Minliang perhaps goes too far, too fast, and it is not long before she is at the abortion clinic. The relationship between Zhang Jun and Ruijuan is more old fashioned by comparison – although it is quite clear that they are drawn to each other, and complement each other well, Ruijuan tells him that they cannot be together – her father does not approve of their relationship.

Jia’s film is remarkable in how it shows social change not in the big sweeping moments, but in the everyday moments of these people’s lives. Jia prefers long shots – often lasting minutes at a time – as he sits back and observes these people in their lives. The outdoor scenes he often shoots at a distance, as if eavesdropping on the characters in their moments. The indoor scenes often seem cramped an uncomfortable – there is not space for them to move around. Jia never really calls attention to the changes in the style, the music or anything else that signifies the changing social reality in China – but it is there is every scene. His sound design is interesting – often we hear things in the background – a march or a rally most of the time – that the characters are not participating in. Most filmmakers would concentrate on these events, but to Jia, they remain in the background. The social change in the movie is better signified by pop music than anything else.

The characters in Platform are struggling to find their identity in the new China. After years of living in a closed society, they have to deal with the fact that it has suddenly opened up. After years of self denial, they can now indulge in whatever they choose to. That is what makes the final shot in Platform the film’s best – one of the most haunting final shots in cinema history. In many movies, the final shot would be a happy one – one of domestic bliss and tranquility, of two characters who circled each other throughout the movie finally ending up together. Yet in Platform, it is a sad shot, and because Jia holds it for so long, and has the creepy music playing underneath, it adds to the shots mounting doom. Free for the first time ever, they still choose the path of least resistance, and lead the same lives they could lived under the old social order. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Movie Review: Thor

Thor ***
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh.
Written by: Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz and Don Payne and J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich based on the comic by Stan Lee & Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby.
Starring: Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Natalie Portman (Jane Foster), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Anthony Hopkins (Odin), Stellan Skarsgård (Erik Selvig), Kat Dennings (Darcy Lewis), Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Colm Feore (King Laufey), Ray Stevenson (Volstagg), Tadanobu Asano (Hogun), Josh Dallas (Fandral), Jaimie Alexander (Sif), Rene Russo (Frigga), Adriana Barraza (Isabel Alvarez), Maximiliano Hernández (Agent Sitwell).

When you stop and think about it, Thor has got to be one of the silliest superheroes in history. He is, after all, the Norse Thunder God, who travels between worlds on a magical, glowing highway and has a hammer that can destroy anything and allows him to fly. It makes you wonder why he needs to join up with The Avengers, because really, Thor could destroy anything earth threw at him pretty easily all by himself. But these are questions you aren’t supposed to ask – just like why Wolverine is apparently the greatest of the X-Men, when Magneto could just pull his skeleton out of his body, and when Storm is clearly the most powerful one.

And yet, despite the inherent silliness of Thor, I have to admit, I quite enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s big screen version of the superhero. Why they decided to get Branagh, best known for his Shakespeare adaptations (that, in many cases I think are superior to even those by Laurence Olivier) to direct this film, I honestly have no clue, but he pulls it off. The silliness of it all simply adds to the films charm.

The movie opens with Thor in his own world. His aging father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is finally getting ready to turn the kingdom over to Thor, much to the chagrin of Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who feels passed over. But during his coronation, right before Odin is to make it official, the discover their arch nemesis, the Ice Giants, have broken into the palace, and are trying to steal back the source of their power, that Odin had taken from them 1,000 years before. Odin preaches patience, but Thor has none, and decides to travel to the world of the Ice Giants to find out what happened. This, of course, does not go well, and it looks like after a millennium of peace, war will break out again. Odin, furious at his son, banishes him to earth, as a mere mortal. He also sends Thor’s magical hammer done to earth – but makes it impossible for anyone “unworthy” of its power to possess it.

On earth, circa 2011, Thor is obviously a strange person. The first people he meets are scientist, tracking strange lights in the sky. They are led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her mentor (Stellan Skarsgaard) and her wise cracking assistant (Kat Dennings). Of course, it isn’t long before SHIELD finds out about Thor, and his strange hammer, and sends Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) to find out what happened. Coulson is the character who ties all of the Avenger movie together – having appeared in the first two Iron Man movies and The Incredible Hulk, although I doubt they’ll be able to work him into Captain America, seeing as how in that film Captain America is fighting Nazis.

The flaw in Thor is the same flaw I find in nearly all first installments of superhero movies. They have to spend so much time setting everything up, telling the “origin” story of the superhero, that an actual plot seems secondary. And for the most part, origin stories are usually pretty lame. Even Stan Lee admitted that he made the X-Men mutants because he was tired of figuring out how to make his superheroes obtain their powers. At least in Thor, the origin story is radically different – there are no Gamma Rays or Radioactive Spiders or strange blasts from space. The stuff on Asegard, where Thor is from, actually works quite well – and could well be the reason they decided on Branagh to direct. After all, it is all about Kings and Princes, and struggles for the throne – in other words, stuff Shakespeare wrote all about. One thing I will mention about the Asegard scenes is that the special effects work there was not very effective to me – it all seemed overdone and rather fake. The special effects work done on earth is much better handled however.

Overall, I liked the scenes on earth more than Asegard. True, you really didn’t need someone of Portman’s talent to play Jane Foster – who like many women in superhero movies seems like window dressing more than anything else. Yet, I enjoyed the fish out of water comedy of Thor, this giant, Norse god in 2011 America. Chris Hemsworth finds the right note to play Thor – he doesn’t take it too seriously and become bogged down by playing this larger than life character.

I enjoyed Thor more than I really thought I would. The whole concept of Thor still seems silly to me, and I’m not sure how he’ll fit in with the other Avengers (which thankfully, will not include Ant-Man of Wasp, because really, who the hell wants a superhero whose power is to shrink to the size of an insect), but at least in this film, it works. For better or for worse, Thor signals the official start of the summer movie season – at least it started on a good note.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Movie Review: Passion Play

Passion Play ½ *
Directed by: Mitch Glazer.
Written By: Mitch Glazer.
Starring: Mickey Rourke (Nate), Megan Fox (Lily), Bill Murray (Happy Shannon), Rhys Ifans (Sam), Rory Cochrane ('Rickey'), Kelly Lynch (Harriet).

There are some movies that just make you shake your head is disbelief at the awfulness on screen. Mitch Glazer’s Passion Play is a film like that – one of the most ridiculously wrong headed movies I have ever seen and one that boggles my mind because of all the talent who, for some reason, agreed to be in the film. Did no one read the screenplay before signing on?

Mickey Rourke plays Nate, a once famous, now down on his luck jazz musician in some nameless town. He runs afoul of gangster Happy Shannon (Bill Murray) when he sleeps with Happy’s wife. In retaliation, Happy gets one of his goons to kidnap Nate and bring him out to the middle of the desert to execute him. But before Nate can be killed, a group of Indians come along and kill his would be assassin, but lets Nate go. He wanders around lost in the desert until he comes across a circus freak show, which for some reason has set itself up in the middle of nowhere. It is here when he first sees Lily (Megan Fox) and is instantly drawn to her. She is a bird woman – the catch being the wings that come out of her back are real, not fake. This isn’t an act, this is her reality. He convinces her to run away with him – thinking that he can give her to Happy as a peace offering. But wouldn’t you know it he falls in love with her. And wouldn’t you know, she falls in love with him. And wouldn’t you know it, but when Happy sees her, he falls for her as well.

The problem with the movie is, well, everything except Bill Murray. Murray seems to know just how ridiculous this movie is, and never really makes any real attempt to make Happy into a believable character, but instead seems to be having a hell of a lot of fun being ridiculous. Mickey Rourke and Megan Fox fair much worse, because they take it all so deadly seriously. This is the type of work Rourke was doing BEFORE his comeback – and proves that while he can be an incredible actor given the right role, given the wrong role he can be dreadfully awful. I feel kind of bad for Megan Fox, who continues to strive to be taken seriously as an actress, but seems to have no sense for material. Is it her fault she is so awful in this movie? Not really. You try acting with giant wings on your back and see how you fare.

The fault for this horrible film ultimately lies with write/director Mitch Glazer. He has spent years on this movie – apparently this was his passion project that we always wanted to do (which perhaps explains the stupid title of the film, because why else he would choose a centuries old term referring to plays depicting the execution of Jesus I have no idea). What made him think this movie would work? If it is a personal project, what was it about this story that spoke to him? I have no idea, because whatever it was, it doesn’t make it to the screen. Passion Play is the type of film that Mystery Science Theater 3000 would have a field day with.

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) ****
Directed by: Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid.
Written by: Maya Deren.
Starring: Maya Deren (The Woman), Alexander Hammid (The Man).

What is one to make of a film like Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon? It is a strange, surreal short (only 16 minutes long) that is nonetheless a haunting cinematic experience. It portrays a world that, I think, is almost entirely in the head of the main character. What is in her head, and what is reality becomes blurred beyond recognition. In the days since I have seen the film, it keeps expanding in my mind, as its images keeping coming up in my thoughts. I have never been as big of a fan of short, surreal films like this one – but Meshes in the Afternoon is a tiny masterpiece.

The “action” in the film involves a woman coming home. The film opens with a shot of a flower in a long way driveway that the woman picks up. She then continues to the stair case leading into her house, walks up, unlocks the door, goes inside and falls asleep on a chair. She then dreams she is chasing a strange, grim reaper like creature, with a mirror face, but cannot catch him. Each time she fails, she ends up at the end of her driveway, and walks back up the same stairs. Each time is slightly different than before, in terms of the camera movement (in one scene in particular where the camera moves with her body), the fumbling for the key, the placement of a knife inside the apartment. She wakes from her dream to find a man in her apartment, who she comes to see as the grim reaper character from earlier – and tries to fight him off. Eventually, we will see this same man take the same journey that the woman has taken multiple times – up the driveway, up the stairs, and comes into the apartment, to find the woman dead in the chair – a supposed suicide.

What does all of this mean? Does it mean anything? Maya Deren has said she wanted to make a film similar to Un Chien Andalou, the infamous Salvador Dali/Luis Bunuel short film, but that is misleading. The whole point of Un Chien Andalou, was that there was no point. It is simply a series of images that bare no relationship to each other, meant to shock and scare the audience. But Meshes in the Afternoon is different – it quite clearly has a “plot” that can be unlocked.

In short, Meshes of the Afternoon is all about the woman – the grim reaper and the man don’t really matter, except in how she perceives them. This seemingly mundane routine of coming home gets expanded in the woman’s mind to become something much more than what we see them as. It all leads to this blending of the real world and the dream world, as the two seep into each other, and the woman ends up dead.

Yet, I think describing the movie, and what the actual plot means, is to take some of the pleasure out of Meshes of the Afternoon. The film is a clear influence on the work of David Lynch – in particular his “Hollywood Trilogy” of Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006). I’m thinking in particular of the sequence in Lost Highway involving Robert Blake, and that video he gives Bill Pullman where, yes, it is a video of him going up the stairs, into Pullman’s apartment. Or of the suicide ending of Mulholland Dr., when Naomi Watts’ dream world clashes with the real one. Or the entirety of Inland Empire, which its multiple repetitions and amplifications throughout the film, which culminates much the same way.

But Lynch is just one filmmaker – the most obvious one – influenced by Meshes of the Afternoon. The film’s impact and influence can be seen all over the place. It is clearly one of the most influential shorts in film history.

Yet, Meshes of the Afternoon, unlike a previous entry in this series, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, remains interesting in and of itself – not just because of what it inspired. It is a haunting cinematic experience. One that I doubt I’ll ever forget.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The BEst Movies I've Never Seen Before: Le Voyage Dans La Lune (1902)

Le Voyage Dans La Lune (1902) ***
Directed by: Georges Méliès.
Written by: Georges Melies based on the books by Jules Verne.
Starring: Victor André, Bleuette Bernon, Jeanne d'Alcy, Henri Delannoy, Georges Méliès.

Georges Melies was perhaps the first true movie magician. According to the IMDB, he directed 555 shorts between 1896 and 1913 – although many of them have been lost to time. He was the first to use stop motion photography, the fade in, the fade out and dissolve. He pioneered special effects for the movies. He was trained in theater, and was the first one to start making true stories out of films. He was unable to keep up with the changing industry, and stopped making films in 1913 – 25 years before his death, his final years marked by poverty. But he had a host of admirers, with D.W. Griffth saying of Melies “I owe him everything”, and many other early filmmakers citing him as a major influence. There are few filmmakers that can claim that they forever changed film history – Melies is one of them.

His most famous film is inarguably Le Voyage Dans La Lune from 1902. It runs only 14 minutes, and is fairly crudely made, even by silent movie standards. Yet, for its time, it is a truly groundbreaking film. The story is of a group of scientists who decide to take a trip to the moon. They build a giant gun, and fire themselves, inside a bullet, to the moon – resulting in the iconic image of the rocket hitting the moon in the eye. They get out of the spaceship, having some adventures with the inhabits of the moon, known as Selenites, who are acrobatic little creatures, before pushing their bullet off the side of the moon, and landing in the ocean – where they are greeted like heroes.

Watching the film today, 109 years after it was made, is a fascinating experience. Of course the film as aged horribly in that time – how could it not – but what fascinated me is everything that Meiles is doing in this film that had never been done before. The effects work surprisingly well, and the film is actually quite amusing. I enjoyed the comic fight between the scientists that begin the film, and the exaggerated fight sequence with the Selenites on the moon. The whole movie is an enjoyable way to spend 14 minutes.

Is it a truly great film? Not by today’s standards, and not even by the standards later set by the silent movie giants like Griffth. Yet it is impossible to imagine those other filmmakers existing without Melies and his contribution to film. In a very real way, cinema history begins with Melies, and so if you are a fan of film, you have him to thank. Le Voyage Dans La Lune is a curiosity piece, true, but if you love film, you should see it.

Note: Martin Scorsese is currently making The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which is based on the award winning children’s book by Brian Selznick, in which Ben Kingsley will play an aging Melies, his filmmaking days behind him. It is a great book, and I’m hoping, a great movie.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Movie Review: Fast Five

Fast Five ** ½
Directed by: Justin Lin.
Written by: Chris Morgan based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson.
Starring: Vin Diesel (Dominic Toretto), Paul Walker (Brian O'Conner), Jordana Brewster (Mia), Dwayne Johnson (Hobbs), Tyrese Gibson (Roman), Ludacris (Tej), Matt Schulze (Vince), Sung Kang (Han), Gal Gadot (Gisele), Tego Calderon (Leo), Don Omar (Santos), Joaquim de Almeida (Reyes), Elsa Pataky (Elena), Michael Irby (Zizi), Fernando Chien (Wilkes).

Typically, by the third sequel, a movie series has simply run out of gas. What made the series popular initially has been copied and recopied not only by the sequels before it, but by a run of rip-offs trying to cash in on the success of the original. Often times, the original cast has moved on to other projects, and the film is really just another knockoff – using a name audiences like to try and fool them into thinking they’ll like this movie as well.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been a huge fan of The Fast and the Furious franchise, but I think it is an exception to the rule. I don’t think any of the now five films is all that special, but none of them are horrible either. Remarkably, they have pretty much kept up the same quality level throughout the series. The one thing you can say about this franchise is that with each film, it delivers precisely what you expect it to.

This movie begins with Dominic (Vin Diesel) being sentenced to 25 years to life in prison – but we know that won’t last long. On the bus ride there, Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) and his girlfriend, Dominic’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster) break him out – of course at the end of a spectacular car chase and crash, which they tell us no one was hurt – and the gang makes their way down to Brazil. They sign on for a job that goes wrong of course, and puts them on the wrong side of the local drug kingpin (Joaquim de Almeida). And then there is a Federal man hunting task force led by Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) who is also chasing them. Soon they have assembled much of the casts of the previous four movies and are trying for “one last job” – Ocean’s 11 style.

The movie is what it is, no more, no less. By this point Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster and the rest of the returning cast can pretty much play these roles in their sleep, but they don’t. Limited acting ability that many of them may have, they do really seem to care in this movie and are not simply going through the motions. Director Justin Lin, who has made the last three movies in this series, does a fine job – not just with the car chases, but with all the heist stuff in the film. More than the other films in the series, that’s really what this one is – a heist film. If I am a little disappointed in Lin, it’s because his debut film, Better Luck Tomorrow, was such a smart, sure handed film (for those of you who haven’t seen, and I assume that’s almost everyone, it is a high school film about a group of overachieving Asian students who are bored at school, and slowly but surely get involved in criminal activity – starting slowly by selling exam answers and ending with a surprising number of bodies piling up). He isn’t the first, and he certainly won’t be the last, filmmaker to make a promising debut indie film, and then spend the rest of his career making Hollywood trash, but it is disappointing every time it happens.

I must admit, I have a hard time getting too worked about this film one way or another. I feel I have already reviewed the film, and in a very real way I have. It’s just as big, dumb and loud as the other films in the series. At the same point, it’s just as stupidly entertaining as the others as well. It is a film where I cannot really think of anything to say about it – the truth is, you already know if you’re going to like the film walking into it. So, if you are a fan of the series, than Fast Five delivers the goods. And it you’re not, what made you think that this time would be any different?