Saturday, May 30, 2009

DVD Views: White Dog

White Dog **** (1982)
Directed By:
Samuel Fuller.
Written By: Samuel Fuller & Curtis Hanson based on the story by Romain Gary.
Starring: Kristy McNichol (Julie Sawyer ), Paul Winfield (Keys), Burl Ives (Carruthers), Jameson Parker (Roland Gray), Samuel Fuller (Charlie Felton).

Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) is an actress driving to her home one night, when a dog jumps out of nowhere and she hits it with her car. Terrified that she may have killed the dog, she takes it to the vet, who fixes the dog up and releases it to Julie. She doesn’t really want the dog, but doesn’t want it to be put down either. It is a beautiful, white German Shepherd, and so she puts up signs around the neighborhood and hopes someone will could and claim it. Then the dog saves her life when night when a rapist breaks into her house, and dog mauls him half to death. From then on, the dog and Julie love each other.

But the dog has a problem. The rapist is not the only person that it attacks. It also attacks an African American co-worker and friend of Julie’s. Everyone tells her she should put the dog down – it was obviously trained as an attack dog, and nothing can change that. It is only a matter of time before the dog kills someone. Unwilling to give up, Julie brings the dog to a crusty old animal trainer Carruthers (Burl Ives), who agrees with everyone else – the dog should be put down. But then a strange thing happens – the dog sees one of the other trainers – another black man – and goes nuts. To Julie this means nothing, but to Carruthers the truth is clear. She does not have an attack dog – she has a white dog – a dog trained to kill a black people that it sees. The African American trainer, Keys (Paul Winfield), agrees to try and re-train the dog for Julie. He has tried to retrain White Dog’s in the past, and has always failed. His theory is that if they can figure out a way to cure white dogs, than sick, racist breeders will stop turning the animals into them.

Director Samuel Fuller was always been drawn to controversial material that exposed the ugliness of American life. He angered J. Edgar Hoover with 1953’s Pickup on South Street by implying that some Americans didn’t care about the flag or American in general. In 1962’s Shock Corridor, he essentially said that America had become an insane asylum and in 1964 he somehow made a movie about misogyny and child sexual abuse in a mainstream film. White Dog was essentially buried by the studio when some people idiotically thought that the film was racist (all someone would have to do is look at Fuller’s filmography, which was always much more progressive than his contemporaries to know that it was a stupid charge).

White Dog is a daring film in the way that it examines racism in America. The film does not reveal that the dog is a “white dog” until about half hour into the movie, and by then we have fallen in love with the dog - who is probably the most well defined character in the movie. Working with the great composer Ennio Morricone, Fuller makes us feel sympathy for the dog throughout the movie, by underlining his scenes with the great score. Like Kong in King Kong, even if the dog is evil - and he is - he cannot be blamed for his actions. He was bred to be a racist by the people charged with the raising him. Racism is viewed in this movie as a disease. Now he is just following his instincts, and although we see the dog brutally kill more than one person, we still find ourselves rooting for him to become “cured”. The sin of the Keys characters of one of gross hubris. Even after the dog has murdered, and it becomes clear that it would do so again if given the chance, he still wants to cure it. Carruthers never wanted him to take the project on in the first place, and at some point even Julie, who loves the dog, wants to give up the project. But Keys cannot accept the fact that he cannot stamp out racism itself.

Fuller was a genius visual stylist, and his work behind the camera here makes up for some of the weakness in the script and the acting. McNichol has never been a great actress, and at times in this movie she is simply too blank. Winfield is at times a little too earnest. And Ives put on his crusty old man routine a little too thick. But the film really isn’t about the acting. Fuller’s visual genius in evident in the attack scenes, where he brilliantly uses POV shots from the perspective of the dog itself, driven into a frenzy about the sight of black skin. There is a brilliant sequence when the dog escapes and wanders the streets. Around the corner from the dog, we see a small black child playing, and the as the dog gets closer and closer to seeing the child, the tension in practically unbearable, until the child’s mother pulls him back inside just a split second before the dog was to see him. This is a brilliant reference to Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M, but is used to great effect. The staging of the final scene recalls an old fashioned Western, with the dog in between three characters, and we wonder when, and if, the dog is going to snap.

White Dog ultimately presents a rather bleak view of racism. By using a dog as the film’s racist character, he is able to represent a nation of racists. The dog could be cute and cuddly and wonderful, if it had not had had racism driven into its head as a puppy. He has been taught to hate to the point where it has become a part of his nature that he simply cannot fight. Much to the chagrin of the human characters in the film, it eventually becomes clear that you cannot treat racism like a disease. It cannot be cured. Sometimes the only cure for hatred is to kill it. White Dog is an undiscovered gem by one of cinema’s giants.

Friday, May 29, 2009

DVD VIews: Of Time and the City

Of Time and the City ** ½
Written & Directed By:
Terence Davies

Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City is a interesting little documentary about the filmmakers hometown of Liverpool, England. Best know as the home of the Beatles, Davies’ film sheds light on the city as a whole, concentrating on the directors formative years after WWII in through the 1960s. Made up of archival footage, the film offers a fascinating insight into the city, the country and the filmmaker.

The movie has garnered much critical attention since it’s debut at last year’s Cannes film festival. I understand the critical acclaim the film has received, even if I cannot fully embrace it. Films like Of Time and the City are rare nowadays. In an industry dominated by what’s new and exciting, Of Time and the City takes a bold look backwards – to examine the past, to help understand the present. The images found by Davies are fascinating and beautiful in their everyday quality. His voiceover narration offers an interesting view of the past. Sometimes romantic and nostalgic, sometimes full of anger and rage, Davies does not shy away from exposing his soul as an artist.

Had this been a short film, I probably would have loved it. But stretched over feature length, the film became tiresome and repetitive to me. The images are all beautiful, but after a while they simply start to blend together, and lose the power that they have in isolation. Davies voiceover narration is similar. Once hearing about his struggles with his sexuality, or his problems with the monoarchy and the history of the city is fascinating – but soon it’s all just too much.

Movies like this get critical attention because they are so different from everything else out there. It’s true that you are unlikely to see another film quite like Of Time and the City this year, so for that reason alone it may be worth renting. Yet, I cannot help but to compare the film to last year’s film My Winnipeg, by Canadian maverick Guy Maddin. That film, part documentary, part fantasy, was a fascinating look at the director’s love/hate relationship with his home town. Even when Maddin goes over the top into fantasy, he is exposing some buried truth about his city. For me, it reaches a level that Davies film simply does not. I certainly did not dislike the film, nor would I discourage someone who thinks its sounds fascinating from seeing the film. Yet for me, there just wasn’t enough here for me to truly fall in love with the film. Perhaps had I had a more personal relationship with the city in question - or was more familar with Davies other work as a director - I would have responded differently. But I did not, so I have to be honest.

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XXIV: A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies

A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) ****
Written & Directed By: Martin Scorsese & Michael Henry Wilson.

There is probably no better guide you could have through American movies than Martin Scorsese. His enthusiasm for film is well known, and he cannot contain his passion when speaking about the films of the past that inspired him the most. A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, his three hour and forty five minute documentary (that he wrote and direct along with Michael Henry Wilson for British TV) is an amazing journey. Scorsese covers the films starting in their earliest days and continues right on through until the late 1960s. He says he needs to stop there for two reasons. 1) There isn’t enough time and 2) That’s when he starting making films, so judging himself and his contemporaries would be harder than judging the past masters.

Scorsese’s film journey through the films of the past is fascinating because he doesn’t just cover the old masters that everyone talks about all the time. True, D.W. Griffth, F.W. Murnau, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Vincente Minelli, Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, King Vidor, Michael Curtiz, Fritz Lang, Buster Keaton and John Ford all get their due, but Scorsese is just as passionate when discussing directors who are less well known – Allan Dwan, Anthony Mann, Frank Borzage, Samuel Fuller, William A. Wellman, Mervyn LeRoy, Raoul Walsh, Richard Brooks, Erich von Stroheim, Josef von Sternberg, Rowland Brown, Busby Berkely, Jacques Tourneur, John M. Stahl, Delmer Daves, Phil Karlson and these names are just the tip of the iceberg. Whether you are a novice looking to get interested in classic movies, or a seasoned film buff who prides themselves on seeing as much as possible, you will get some tips on movies to track down (I filled up a page and a half with suggestions).

You can feel Scorsese’s passion for the films and directors he discusses in every scene in this film. He explores the roots of modern filmmaking in the works of D.W. Griffth, F.W. Murnau, Frank Borzage and King Vidor for example, who pretty much invented modern film grammar. It’s not just the technical aspects of these films that Scorsese admires, but also the buried stories and themes, and how the directors use their camera to bring the stories to life. Often these days, I feel filmmakers spend more time “telling” then “showing” their themes through endless dialogue. These filmmakers had no such luxury, and it’s fascinating to watch their films have to rely on pure cinema – visuals – over everything else.

The movie is a three part documentary, that is separated further into five segments. The first segment looks at the age old conflict between art and commerce. How the director has to struggle to get his personal vision on the screen, in a way that pleases the producer and the studios financing the movies in order to make money. They would rather make a terrible film that makes lots of money than a masterpiece that makes none. From the beginning of film, directors adopted the “one from you, one for them” policy – alternating between films they knew would be popular, to more personal films. This theory is still very much alive today – Scorsese himself is an example.

The next segment concentrates on the growth of three particular genres – the gangster movie, the western and the musical. I found the gangster section the most enlightening, starting with classic silent films, moving through the films of the 1930s like The Public Enemy and The Roaring Twenties right through film noir, in which the gangster was replaced by a normal guy being pulled under by his lure to sex and violence. You could almost define the western section as the John Ford section, as Scorsese particularly highlights three of the master’s films – Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers – to examine how the Western moved from fun escapism to dark realism during the period. I also loved this section’s examination of Anthony Mann, an underrated master. The musical is the least in depth, because to be honest, the musical did not evolve that much, except in the way that over time they started to introduce some realism into all the spectacle.

Next Scorsese look at the director as visual technician. Essentially this segment looks at how technology has advanced over the years to give filmmakers more tools at their disposal. The trick to making a great film is not in staying true to the old methods, but not letting all the new methods take the place of story and character. From the days of the static, non-moving camera to the latest in computer imagery, they’ve come a long way.

The longest segment is devoted to the director as smuggler. In essence, this segment look at the various ways directors were able to put their own personal stamp on films, getting their subversive themes that would not have been allowed if they overtly stated them, into films. A lot of time is devoted in this segment to B-movies, especially Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece Cat People. Tourneur was able to make an extremely scary movie despite having no budget, by using just shadows. Not only that, but the film is very sexual, using the main characters transformation into a wild cat when she gets jealous of her husband and another woman into a metaphor for her shame at her woman sexuality.

Finally, we get to the director as iconoclast. These are the directors who bucked the system – who were not happy being subversive, but wanted to rub your face in their themes. Orson Welles, Samuel Fuller, John Cassavetes, Richard Brooks and others are mentioned. These directors were brilliant, at times blunt, but always did precisely what they wanted to, despite the costs. Many of these directors had careers cut short, or demands placed on them by the studios, but they were not about to change who they were or compromise.

Overall, it is remarkable just how much information Scorsese conveys in a relatively quick 3 hours and 45 minutes. The movie is never dull, never less than fascinating. Of course there are holes – and Scorsese admits as such. He doesn’t really cover Hitchcock or Lubitsch or many others, but says they have already been covered extensively, so he doesn’t need to. Plus, there are time restrictions. Everyone sees films through their own personal lens. What is a masterpiece to some, is crap to someone else. It all depends on what you as a viewer bring to the movie. What I found fascinating about this movie is that it gave you an opportunity to see things through Scorsese’s lens for a few hours. The greatest director of all time expressing his love for the films of the past, and in the process, getting us to share in his love for them. This is a great film – a must for film lovers.

DVD Views: Killshot

Killshot ** ½
Directed By:
John Madden.
Written By: Hossein Amini based on the novel by Elmore Leonard.
Starring: Mickey Rourke (Armand 'The Blackbird' Degas), Diane Lane (Carmen Colson), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Richie Nix), Thomas Jane (Wayne Colson), Rosario Dawson (Donna), Aldred Montoya (Lionel), Hal Holbrook (Papa).

Elmore Leonard is one of my favorite authors, and Killshot is one of his very best books. No one writes a crime story like Leonard does, full of interesting characters, gritty, realistic, yet still fun dialogue, and plots that slowly tighten the noose around the necks of its characters. All of these elements are in full effect in his Killshot novel, and the screenplay for this movie by Hossein Amini does a faithful job of bringing it all to the screen. You could not ask for a better cast for the movie, all of whom do a wonderful job playing their characters. Why then am I so disappointed in the movie? What should have been one of the best crime thrillers of the year instead just kind of sits there on the screen despite all the elements of the movie that do work. The biggest mistake, it seems to me, was hiring John Madden to direct. Best known for prestige, or would be, prestige films like Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare in Love and Proof, Madden can do those types of stories quite well. When faced with a thriller though, he gets the pacing all wrong. When the film should be generating tremendous tension, it just feels lax.

Despite this, Mickey Rourke gives an excellent performance as Armand “The Blackbird” Degas, a Native hit man associated with the Toronto Mafia (we have one?). He and his brothers – one of whom is now dead, the other in jail for the rest of his life, were hit men for hire, doing the jobs that no one else associated with the Outfit would go near. Armand is contacted by the Mafia’s second in command with a job – kill the Boss (Hal Holbrook). He does, but angers his employer – who is now the new boss – when he also kills a girl in the hotel room with the Boss. It seems that he belonged to the guy, who is now so upset, he refuses to pay Armand his money, and has taken out a contract on him.

Then we meet Richie Nix (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an out of control kid who is loud and boisterous, but not all that bright. He brags about his crimes to anyone who will listen. An idea strikes him and he calls up a local real estate developer and tells him unless he wants his new houses destroyed, and himself killed, he will pay Richie $20,000 when he shows up at his office. When Armand and Richie meet up by chance, Armand agrees to go in on the deal with him. No, it doesn’t sound a particularly good plan, but it may work, and he needs the money.

Well, of course, it doesn’t work. Worse then not getting the money, both Wayne and Carmen Colson (Thomas Jane and Diane Lane), a married couple going through a divorce, see both men and can identify them. Armand’s rule is to never trust someone not to remember you, so after he and Richie flee the scene in a panic, they set out to kill the Colsons. No witnesses, no crime, they think.

The Elmore Leonard novel on which this movie was based weaved together these characters – and more, most important Donna (Rosario Dawson), Richie’s girlfriend, who is both repulsed and attracted to Armand – effortlessly, and gradually ratcheted up the tension until we get to the final showdown. The movie, which follows the same plot almost scene for scene, does not accomplish this same feat. The mounting feeling of dread in the novel has been replaced by a sense of sadness hanging over the whole movie. And while this makes for some interesting moments, it isn’t good for the film unto itself. Which is a shame, because the performances are mostly very good. Rourke is perfect for a role like Armand – looking at Rourke’s lined and scarred face is like looking at a roadmap to and from Hell. Armand is tired of doing what he does, and is full of regret. But he is a man without a home, without family, without money, without skills. This is all he knows. When someone asks him what he does for a living he says “I kill people. Sometimes for money, sometimes for fun” it doesn’t snap the way the dialogue did in films like Get Shorty, Out of Sight or Jackie Brown (all based on Leonard novels), but rather expresses Armand’s world weariness. He is playing a role, and is too tired to give it all he has anymore. Gordon-Levitt continues to impress me more and more with each passing year. He has no proven he can do just about anything, and his Richie Nix is a scary psychopath. He is essentially just a boisterous boy when the film begins, but Armand’s influence seems to flip a switch in him and he turns into a psycho. Diane Lane and Thomas Jane are solid, if not spectacular in their roles. They don’t have as much to work with, but they really do feel like a couple who still love each other, even if they cannot quite make their marriage work. Worse off is Dawson, who has to play a more subdued character than she is used to, and doesn’t quite pull it off. Usually a sexual firecracker (most notably her underrated performance in Oliver Stone’s Alexander), here she doesn’t get to let loose, and the result is an uneven performance.

Had the film, with this same cast, had been directed by a Tarantino or even a Guy Ritchie, it probably would have come to life more. But Madden is a director more used to subtlety, which at times work, but is wrong for this material. He doesn’t get the tone right, and as a result, what should have been one of the year’s best, is merely okay.

Holy Trinity Film Festival

Last night, I was honored to be asked to be a member of the jury for the sixth annual Holy Trinity Film Festival. This festival showed 22 films from high school students from Brantford and the surronding area. Having never attended the festival before, I was a little nervous going in. Was I going to be stuck watching hours on end of Blair Witch knock-offs and cheesy films? The answer, surprising, was no. I was blown away by the talent these students showed in their films last night. Out of the 22 films, there were only a couple (which I will not name) that failed to impress me at all. Overall, the quality was amazing. I am happy to report that we gave out nine prizes last night (eight voted on by us in the jury, and the People's Choice Award), and that all the films that won were deserving in one way or another. I'm going to offer a few brief thoughts on the films that won, in case anyone is interested.

First Prize: Bitter Endings to New Beginnings.
In a festival full of dark, hard hitting films, Bitter Endings to New Beginnings was completely different in that is was a highly enjoyable comedy. An homage to the films of Charlie Chaplin, the film featured a character not unlike Chaplin's The Little Tramp (played, in perhaps the best performance of any movie in the festival, but a young woman), as he sees and a beautiful girl, and tries in vain to impress her. Set to wonderful music, and featuring a brilliant photography in black and white, the film was told in stop motion, and amazed me with its technical prowess. Although it was only my second choice, it was still a great film.

Second Prize: Melancholy Joy
This was, to my mind, easily the festival's best film. Shot in split screen, the movie tells the story of two separate high school kids as they go about their day, culminating when one of the students decides to hang themselves, only to double back and reverse the events later in the film. The technical prowess in the movie was amazing - the use of long tracking shots in the split - that were perfectly timed to each other, and completely in sync - blew me away. The sequence where one student hangs themselves was for me, easily the best shot and edited sequence of any film I saw - simply wonderful. The film also had a fine message - sometimes a little human interaction can make a big difference. Great filmmaking.

Third Prize: Second Draft
This was a film I had to fight for in the jury room. We all agreed on what the two best films were, but third place was a toss up between any number of films. What amazed me most about Second Draft was unlike almost all of the other films in competition, this was not just a movie that told it's story through music and images - but also through dialogue. The acting by the pair of students in the film was supreb. It's a story about two men on a park bench, when one reveals that's we there to kill the other. Why? Because the writer told him to. Neither know the writer, but they are bound by what he wants them to do. Then, part way through the film a "second draft" of the script is written, and the tables are turned. What amazed me most about the film was the fact that in five short minutes, the filmmaker told a complex story that was able to twist and turn itself around. A budding Charlie Kaufman is born.

Honorable Mention: When Did This Storm Begin
Many of the movies this year took the form of a "music video", and although we in the jury preferred to give the awards to short films rather than this format, we could not deny the striking imagery and great editing on display in this film. Many of the films this year did simple shots - mid range, flat shots - but this film played wth angles and pans and editing, and did it all amazingly well. This would not look out of place playing on MuchMusic.

Honorable Mention: Jesse's Angel
A fine film, that was probably somewhat overshadowed by Melancholy Joy for us in the jury, as both deal with the subject of teen suicide, and Melancholy Joy was for us, the more accomplished film. But Jesse's Angel manages to tell it's story completely and succintly in five minutes, and is a very technically proficient film. The special effect at the end - of the spirit or soul of the dead student raising from their body - is one of the single most striking images of any film at the festival.

Honorable Mention: Another Horror Movie
We saw quite a few horror films this years, and most of them tried hard to inject humor into the proceedings as well. But Another Horror Movie was different as it was a "mockumentary" about the making of a student horror film, that poked fun at just how cheesy student horror films can be, and had an interesting view of the filmmaking process. I loved it when the director got mad at his star from changing his hair during the shooting of the movie (although, according to the actor it "deepened" his character). A well acted, and very funny little movie.

Christain Values Award: Bowling Buddies
As probably the lone athetist on the jury, (it being put on by a Catholic school of course) I was nervous about this award, but Bowling Buddies was for all of us the clear choice. It was not the most technically proficient film in the festival (only after we gave it the award were we informed that the three young ladies who made the film had never done anything like it before), but was an inspirational documentary about the competitors and volunteers at a bowling event for Special Olympians. This film didn't exploit it's subjects, but treated them with respect. I hope these girls come back next year, using what they learned this time around, and make an even better film.

Healthy Living Award: Throw the Habit
One of the themes this year was "Healthy Living" particularly films that encourage teenagers not to smoke. There were not a whole lot of films that took up this challenge, but Throw the Habit was by far the best. Instead of getting "preachy" or guilting the audience, it told a funny story about a teenage girl who every time she lights up a cigarette, gets hit in the head with a frisbee that says "No Smoking". Highly entertaining, very funny and a film that played to its audience perfectly. I suggested we give a "special jury prize" to the lead actress who showed real committment by being willing to get hit in the head by a frisbee so many times, but apparently we were not allowed. She should definitely get some of the prize money the filmmaker got though.

People's Choice Award: Bill Erwin's Diary
Apparently, this won the audience award by a huge margin, and of course was my fiance's favorite film (cough lowbrow cough). It was an admittedly clever little film, that took the form of a Crocodile Hunter show, but instead of getting close to a dangerous animal. the main character tries to study "girls". Ends on an hilarious note as he tries to wrestle one to the ground, only to be attacked by the "pack", I enjoyed the film, but would not have ranked it that high.

I won't go into the other 13 films in the festival that did not get a prize, except to say that back in the jury room nearly every film came up in conjunction to one award or another. Overall, I had a great time being on the jury, and I hope to come back next year. Now that I know just how good the films are going to be, I cannot wait.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

DVD Views: What Doesn't Kill You

What Doesn’t Kill You *** (2008)
Directed by: Brian Goodman
Written By: Brian Goodman & Paul T. Murray & Donnie Wahlberg.
Starring: Mark Ruffalo (Brian), Ethan Hawke (Paulie), Amanda Peet (Stacy), Brian Goodman (Boss), Angela Featherstone (Katie), Kelly Holleman (Kathleen), Edward Lynch (Jackie), Donnie Wahlberg (Detective Moran).

Some films you know are intensely personal to their makers. What Doesn’t Kill You is a film like that. Written and directed by Brian Goodman, he tells his own story of life on the streets of Boston, where he decides to turn to a life of petty crime as well as alcohol and drug abuse, until he finds turns his life around. It is an inspiring story, and the movie that he has made about it is quite good.

The movie opens with Brian (Mark Ruffalo) and Paulie (Ethan Hawke) working for a low level mob connected guy (played by Brian Goodman himself) in South Boston. They do small jobs, for little money, and are always on the lookout for a big score. Brian has a wife (Amanda Peet) and two kids who depend on him, and he’s not a dependable guy. He stays out to all hours of the night partying, drinking and doing drugs with his friends. When a job goes wrong, Brian and Paulie end up in jail for 5 years. When they get out they have different ideas of what to do.

The movie is obviously inspired by Martin Scorsese, particularly Mean Streets, which has become one of the most influential films of all time. It’s look at the world of low level crime feels authentic, and Goodman is a smart enough filmmaker to not try and do too much in his first film. He has a simple, straightforward shooting style that is effective to his film. His biggest asset are the performances by the two leads. Mark Ruffalo has a nice everyman quality, and a natural likeability, which means no matter what Brian does, we still like him. Hawke is more manic, more irresponsible. He is a like a big kid, whose actions you can never quite predict. His relationship with Brian maybe the only thing for keeping him going off the deep end.

What Doesn’t Kill You doesn’t reinvent the wheel or anything, but it is a solid movie. It is a good film, with superior performances, and you can tell that it means something to the filmmaker. Most films are made solely to make money. This one feels like the director had to make it, if for no other reason, than to keep him from going back to what he used to know all too well.

Weekly Top Tens Part III: The Ten Remakes I Want to See

There are many films that would work as remakes, and I had to narrow this list done quite a bit to only get to. But these are the ones I would love to see new film versions of.

10. Dirty Harry (Don Siegal, 1971)
If Pauline Kael, and others, accused the original film of supporting fascism by the way Harry Callahan violated a suspects civil liberties, can you imagine what this film could be like in the age of the Patriot Act? Hollywood doesn’t seem to much make violent police films quite like this one anymore, and that’s a shame because they can be terrifically entertaining, and even a little thought provoking. May I suggest that Mel Gibson direct and star in this one?

9. Oldboy (Chan-wook Park, 2005)
I don’t so much relish the idea of a Hollywood version of the insane Korean thriller in which a man is kept in a room for 15 years, and then let out and tries to seek vengeance. But I just want to see what a Hollywood version of this story would be like. Would they possibly allow anyone to follow the original’s storyline to its final, shocking conclusion? I don’t think so, especially since the latest rumor is Spielberg directing Will Smith. You know who should do it? The director responsible for giving the film one of the top prizes at Cannes a few year’s ago – Quentin Tarantino. He’s just about the one I can imagine actually doing it properly in Hollywood.

8. Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950)
In the nearly 60 years since Billy Wilder’s classic was made, Hollywood has only become more shallow, superficial and cruel. You now no longer even need an old actress to play the Gloria Swanson role of the once big movie star – now any actress over 40 could do it! May I suggest a cast of Julianne Moore as Swanson, Ryan Gosling as William Holden, Martin Scorsese as Erich von Stroheim and Hilary Duff (yeah I said it!) as Nancy Olsen. And to direct? Rian Johnson, to get him back on track.

7. Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk, 1947)
The 1947 film noir, about a guy in the army who is murdered because he was Jewish was a great step forward for Hollywood. And yet, it is kind of sad that the original story was not about a Jewish man being killed, but a homosexual. It is even more sad that almost 70 years later, you could set the same story in modern day America and it wouldn’t appear all that outlandish or old fashioned. Get Gus Van Sant to direct.

6. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
The film Francis Ford Coppola made in between the two Godfather films was this little masterpiece about a man who listens in on other people’s conversation, but can never completely understand what is going on. Gene Hackman gives a great performance in the lead role, as he becomes more and more obsessed with unraveling the mysterious conversation he overheard – and gets it completely wrong. A great paranoid thriller. George Clooney to direct, and star, in this one.

5. Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972)
I’m not sure why I think John Boorman’s classic about four city guys heading to the country for a canoe trip, and being confronted by hillbillies should be remade. Perhaps it’s because with America still divided into Red States and Blue States, that I think this movie would make an interesting comment on modern day America. Perhaps it’s because they don’t really make thrillers this anymore, and this is a great one. Or perhaps I’m just a pervert who wants to see a redneck tell a fat guy “I bet you can squeal like a pig” before raping him. Give this one to Rob Zombie.

4. Rolling Thunder (John Flynn, 1977)
Where are all our movies about Iraq war veterans coming home screwed up? I know that we have had a few, but almost all of them concentrate specifically on the war, instead of telling a story about them when they come home. John Flynn’s 1977 film, based on a screenplay by Paul Schrader, is a nearly forgotten masterwork about a man (William Devane) who returns from Vietnam, has his house broken into, his wife and son killed, and his hand shoved down a garbage disposal all so the thieves can steal a little prize money he got when he got home from Vietnam. With the help of his army buddy (Tommy Lee Jones), who is having trouble readjusting, he goes to get revenge. With only a few changes, this would make a fine modern day movie in America. Give it to Clint Eastwood.

3. The King of Comedy (Maritn Scorsese, 1983)
What would Rupert Pupkin be like in the age of reality television? He would probably be much the same as he was back in 1983, yet the whole system around him would have changed drastically. Now his obsession with being famous, despite no discernable talent, would not seem that strange (as Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie prove everyday). There is no reason why he would have to kidnap someone like Johnny Carson anymore – it could be anyone – and the film could be truly merciless with the paparazzi, something only hinted at during the end credits for the original film. I think this would work more if it were completely reimagined, instead of simply remade. And they best guy to both direct and star in it? Why Vincent Gallo of course.

2. Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979)
Like The King of Comedy, Being There simply seems more prophetic with each passing year. Chance the Gardener (Peter Sellers), who is mildly retarded and only able to speak in vague sentences about gardening and TV, goes out into the world for the first time in years and is hailed as deep thinker and genius by all those around him (they call him Chancey Gardener, because they think he is some sort of upper crust type) and becomes a media sensation with his simple wisdom. Television has further rotted our brains in the 30 years since this film came out, and really, few changes would need to be made to make this film relevant to modern audiences. May I suggest Alexander Payne would be perfect for this one?

1. Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)
Like both two and three on this list, Network was seen as a satire when it came out in 1976, but now it almost seems like a documentary. In the years since the film came out, TV news has become more about entertainment value than information, personality over substance. When Howard Beale yells “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” it was once seen as crazy – now Glenn Beck does this nearly every night of the week! What I would really like is to get a director with Sidney Lumet’s (and writer Paddy Chafesky’s) talent and take a look into the future of the “news industry” again, using this movie as it’s best structure. That director, in my mind, should be Paul Thomas Anderson.

Weekly Top Tens Part II: The Ten Worst Remakes of the Decade

Like last week’s worst of list, you had to be remaking a good movie that I had seen to be able to qualify for this last. As terrible as a movie like The Hitcher was, it was actually an improvement over the even more terrible original. Also, I saw no point in adding The Invasion to this list, as I already ripped to it shreds last week in the novel adaptation entry. Anyway, here are the 10 worst remakes of the decade.

10. Planet of the Apes (Tim Burton)
If I’m going to praise Burton when he does a good remake (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), then I have to tear him down when he makes a bad one. Burton turned an intelligent, science fiction masterpiece into an inane action movie that drained the original of all its ideas and focused instead on mindless escapism. Not only that, the movie lacks Burton’s usual visual flair. The film feels like it could have been directed by any old hack, not one of the more original directors of his generation. A true disappointment in every sense of the word.

9. The Fog (Rupert Wainwright)
This film would rank even lower (higher?) on this list if I thought that the original film was the genre masterpiece that many seem to think it is. I don’t however. While John Carpenter’s 1980 original was a good film, compared with the films he made surrounding it (Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween before, The Thing and Escape from New York after), it just does not compare. However, it was creepy and effective, and featured some fine performances and some truly frightening performances. The remake however has none of those – not even from Selma Blair who I love in everything. The remake takes everything good about the original and jettisons it, while keeping all of the bad stuff, and heaping on a pile of crap on top of it. One of the worst films of the decade.

8. The Pink Panther (Shawn Levy)
Peter Sellers was a comic genius, and Inspector Clouseau was one of his greatest creations. However, even Sellers was only ever to make two truly good movies about this character (the original and A Shot in the Dark), before the series devolved into downright buffoonery. As good as Steve Martin is, he is no Peter Sellers. Not only that, he is surrounded by cast (with the exception of Emily Mortimer, who is as adorable as always) of people who either cannot act, or at least show no evidence of talent in this movie. The plots of these movies have always been silly – it’s part of their charm – but here it goes beyond silly into downright dumb. An unfunny mess.

7. Poseidon (Wolfgang Petersen)
The original Poseidon Adventure is cheesy good fun, with well drawn characters that we truly care about, so we don’t want to see die. The remake is full of cookie cutter characters, and replaces all the tension with special effects. I like Kurt Russell quite a bit, but he is wasted here. And even if Josh Lucas, Jacinda Barrett and Emmy Rossum may never win any Oscars, they both deserve better than this. And poor Richard Dreyfuss. Only Kevin Dillion seems to realize that he’s in a crappy movie, and at least decides to have fun with it. Petersen used to be a reliable director of action movies. But Poseidon is just plain bad.

6. All the King’s Men (Steven Zallian)
I’m not sure how this movie went so bad. A talented writer/director in Steven Zallian, one of the best ensemble casts (at least on paper) of the decade – Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Jackie Earle Haley and others, terrific source material, that once yielded a movie that won the Best Picture Oscar that is also relevant to the modern political landscape. But this remake is nothing but a thudding, plodding bore. Penn is completely miscast in the lead role, and the other actors flail around madly trying to make it all work, but they can’t. Just a piss poor excuse for a “prestige” movie.

5. Mr. Deeds (Steven Brill)
Adam Sandler taking over a role made famous by Gary Cooper was always a horrible idea, but even I was not prepared by just how badly they would screw up this movie. The movie is actually strangely faithful to the events of Frank Capra’s classic, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and yet gets the tone all wrong. Instead of Longfellow Deeds being an inherently decent guy who simply gets in over his head, Sandler plays him with his typical blend of sweetness and psychopathology. Winona Ryder, in her only significant role this decade, is completely wasted. I can still not figure out why John Turturro and Steve Buscemi keep making these movies (unless they are really that hard up for cash). An insulting immature remake of a classic.

4. The Day the Earth Stood Still (Scott Derrickson)
Robert Wise’s original sci-fi masterpiece was a warning about nuclear annihilation wrapped in a classic B movie formula. It was, quite simply, one of the very best sci-fi films of the 1950s. So what happens when over 50 years later they decide to remake the film? They strip the entire film of its meaning, replace it with subpar special effects, and put the characters through the most inane road movie plot imaginable. Keanu Reeves should be good as a clueless alien – since Lord knows he’s no good at playing realistic characters – but he isn’t. Jennifer Connelly, one of my favorites, is also painfully bad. Just a terrible film.

3. The Wicker Man (Neil LaBute)
I’m just realizing now that this is the third time I’ve picked on this film in my weekly top ten – following my post about Neil LaBute is wasting his talent with films like this, and how it contains perhaps Nicholas Cage’s worst performance. But trust me, this movie deserves all the derision I have thrown its way. The original British film about a cop who is lured to a remote island by a strange hippie cult, is one of England’s best films, and really should be able to make an effortless transition to modern day. I even like the idea of changing the cult from hippies to some sort of proto-feminists led by Ellen Burstyn. But the execution of this film is ridiculous. By the time you get to Nicolas Cage in a freaking bear suit, you’ve lost all interest.

2. Rollerball (Jon McTiernan)
Okay, so Norman Jewison’s 1975 original is by no means a masterpiece, but it is a hell of a lot of fun from start to finish, with James Caan at his manly man best. McTiernan’s film loads the film up with crappy special effects and casts three actors – Chris Klein, Rebecca Romjin and LL Cool J – who have no charisma or chemisty together. Not only that, by McTiernan, usually one of the best at directing action sequences, seems to have forgotten how to do it this time around – or been replaced by Michael Bay. (I take that back, Michael Bay has never directed anything anywhere near this bad). Truly awful.

1. The Heartbreak Kid (Peter & Bobby Farrelly)
The Farrelly Brothers are great comic filmmakers and the Elaine May original, with Charles Grodin, Cybil Sheppard, Eddie Albert and Jeannie Berlin is one of the best comedies of the 1970s – and is still relevant today. It’s about a man who marries the “right” girl, and realizes even before they reach their Honeymoon destination that he has made a mistake. When he meets the gorgeous Shepherd, he tries to seduce her. He ends up getting just what he wanted – and being completely miserable. The Farrelly’s turn this terrific comedy into an non-stop grossout comedy. Worse still, I cannot think of a more misogynistic film in recent years – as it shits all over poor Malin Akerman, and turns Michelle Monahan into some sort feminine ideal of perfection. Ben Stiller is painfully bad as well. All in all one of the biggest disappointments, and worst films, of the decade.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Weekly Top Tens Part 1: The Ten Best Remakes of the Decade

Following last week’s three part top ten about book adaptations this decade - the top ten, bottom ten and ten I would like see – this week, I decided to concentrate on remakes. There was no shortage of remakes to choose from – we seemingly get dozens each year – but only a few have been truly special, although many have been downright horrid. Yet still, there are 10 films (in fact more than 10), that I would love to see remade. For the most part, these are films that I think if updated properly, would be relevant to modern times. But before we get to them, let’s get to the best ten remakes of the decade.

10. The Ladykillers (Joel & Ethan Coen)
I know that even among Coen diehards, I am one of the few defenders of this film. It’s not that I think it’s as good as Alexander Mackendrick’s sublime original with Alec Guiness, just that there are few films this decade that made me laugh more consistently than this one. I loved seeing Tom Hanks return to his goofy comedy roots – doing a demented Colonel Sanders impression as the leader of a group of men trying to rob a bank by using the house of an old lady. The rest of his band of misfits, who one by one meet hilariously tragic ends – JK Simmons, Marlon Wayans, Tzi Ma and Ryan Hurst make for the most inept, hilariously mismatched group of thieves ever assembled. And nothing will dissuade my belief that the great Irma P. Hall deserved an Oscar nomination for her amazing, uproarious performance as the old lady Marva Munson. Every line reading in the film by her is a comic masterwork, none more so than when she dresses down Marlon Wayans for using the N-word. “Niggas! Two thousand years after Jesus, thirty years after Martin Luther King, the age of Montel; sweet Lord of mercy is that where we at?”. Pure comedic genius.

9. Funny Games (Michael Haneke)
Often, I find it futile, and a little silly, when directors remake their own movies. But Michael Haneke’s Funny Games in the rare exception to the rule. It makes much more sense that his film – about violence in the media, and more importantly they way we consume it – be an American film, with a cast of movie stars rather than a small cult movie from Belgium. Even though this is nearly a shot for shot remake of his original, I found this film much more disturbing, much more penetrating. Perhaps it’s because having a previous on screen relationship with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as the couple being terrorized by a couple of teenage psychos (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet), but the violence in the film – almost all of it off screen – is more difficult to take this time. That the film failed to penetrate into the American consciousness like Haneke wanted is not really his fault. To most, Funny Games will represent a blip in a brilliant career coming out of his hugely acclaimed Cache before his Palme D’Or winning The White Ribbon, but to me, it’s a worthy film by one of cinema’s greatest directors.

8. Halloween (Rob Zombie)
Even if Rob Zombie’s remake of the John Carpenter classic is not the best horror remake of the decade (see number 4), it is perhaps the only one that tried to do something completely different from the original film. Carpenter’s film, a masterpiece of horror and suspense, opens with a brief prologue of Michael Myers as a young kid when he kills his sister before being sent to the mental hospital. Zombie expands this – from about five minutes in the original to almost half the movie – and essentially makes a biopic about Myers. Before we can see him hack people to death, we have to learn to understand him. The first half of the film is brilliant – the second a well executed slasher film. I cannot wait to see what Zombie does next. He’s the best American director of horror working right now.

7. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton)
I maybe in the minority on this one as well, but I’ll take Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory over the trippy, psychedelic version of the 1970s any day. Johnny Depp’s performance as Willy Wonka, as a freaky, overgrown man-child in the Michael Jackson vein, is pure genius. Freddie Highmore has the kind of sweet, open face perfect for Charlie. The rest of the cast – Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor and the great Christopher Lee as Willy’s demented dentist father among them – are all brilliant. Burton’s visuals are never less than astonishing in this film, and every frame is filled with imagination. I love it.

6. Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe)
A remake of an already pretty good Spanish movie (Open Your Eyes) by Alejandro Amenabar, Crowe made a distinct departure from his usual romantic comedies to make this dark, science fiction film. Tom Cruise gives one of his best performances as a rich playboy who comes undone when the girl he sleeps with sometimes (Cameron Diaz – never better) decides to get some revenge on him. Penelope Cruz, reprising the role she played in the original, is the weak link in the cast, but overall Vanilla Sky is a movie that if you give into it, and get on its wavelength is utterly fascinating and involving. One of the more underrated films of the decade.

5. Ocean’s 11 (Steven Soderbergh)
Soderbergh followed up the best year of his career, where he won the best director Oscar for Traffic and was also nominated for Erin Brockovich, by making this seemingly meaningless heist movie with an all star cast – George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts being just the tip of the iceberg. But Ocean’s 11 has got to be one of the decade’s most entertaining films. The sequels are mildly amusing at best, and I can’t stand to sit through them a second time, but I have lost count as to how many times I have watched this one. Whenever it’s on TV, no matter at what point I come in, I often stay until the end. Old school Hollywood filmmaking at its best.

4. Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder)
I think Zack Snyder was smart enough, even in his debut effort, to realize that he would never be able to match George A. Romero’s original in terms of social commentary or consciousness; so instead, he decided to simply make a balls to the wall horror film. The result is one of the most entertaining and gruesome films of the decade. Lead by surprising strong, realistic turns by Ving Rhames and Sarah Polley, the movie starts out with a bang, and doesn’t let up for its entire running time. The film never cops out, or shies away from the more disturbing moments (they kill a freaking zombie baby for Christ’s sake!) and ends on a perfect, nihilistic note. Just great moviemaking from start to finish.

3. The Manchurian Candidate (Jonathan Demme)
Jontahan Demme’s remake of the John Frankenheimer classic is great for several reasons – the performances by Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, Jeffrey Wright, Kimberly Elise, Jon Voight and especially Meryl Streep (who for once deserved an Oscar nomination she didn’t get instead of the other way around) were all brilliant, Demme’s surefooted direction constantly escalates the tension as we are drawn closer to its inevitable conclusion, the screenplay is tightly wound and pitch perfect. But the biggest reason this remake worked is because Demme and company updated the original story and turned it into something relevant to modern audiences. Many remakes are content to simply redo the original, but this one expands on it. While, in the end, it may not be quite as good as the original film, it is still an excellent film unto itself.

2. King Kong (Peter Jackson)
Damn if that giant monkey doesn’t make cry everything I watch this film. Taken from his home and treated as nothing but a sideshow, Kong truly does love Naomi Watt’s Ann Darrow, and there are moments of sheer unadulterated joy in the film, undercut by the tragic knowledge of what it to come. Is there a more magical movie moment this decade then the two of them sliding around the ice in Central Park? The finale is truly thrilling and heartbreaking, where Kong looks at Ann with those huge, expressive eyes, uncomprehending as to what it happening, before finally letting go. It’s the most heartbreaking moment in recent years. So while I admit the film is too long (and feels it on repeat viewings, especially in the first hour), and while Jack Black and Adrian Brody are merely adequate as the male leads, I love Peter Jackson’s King Kong with all my heart – and more than I love The Lord of the Rings.

1. The Departed (Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese, along with screenwriter William Monahan took what was essentially a tightly wound Asian action movie, Infernal Affairs, and turned it into something operatic in its scope and sense of tragedy. The film expands the universe created in the original film by adding elements of the tragic surrogate father-son relationships both main characters have – who cannot stop themselves from following their idols orders even as it pushes them closer to death and farther away from their true selves. The classic Scorsese elements of guilt, and to a lesser extent redemption, course through the movie as well. And the sly War on Terror allegory that most people missed is utterly brilliant. Oh, and did I mentioned that this is far and away the most entertaining film of the decade? A masterpiece.