Tuesday, June 28, 2011

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE

Dear American Film Institute,

Congratulations on your choice of Morgan Freeman as the 2011 recipient of your prestigious AFI Life Achievement Award. He is a great actor and a worthy choice. And I watched your show honoring him last week on TV. However, I am writing to warn the AFI that you are on the verge of becoming an obsolete honor if you don’t get your act together pronto and recognize more worthy recipients. Let me explain.
It’s not that Freeman doesn’t deserve the recognition. He does. But he should have been honored a few years from now. The AFI Life Achievement Award is supposed to honor a single individual for his or her lifetime contribution to enriching American culture through motion pictures and work that has stood the test of time. The interesting thing about the Freeman choice is that he’s only been making films since the mid-eighties. A mere three decades. Has INVICTUS or BRUCE ALMIGHTY stood that test of time yet? No, they have not. Even more embarrassing to you, AFI, I can come up with at least six people who deserve the honor who have had film careers starting two decades before Freeman’s. And you’ve ignored them. 

Your oversights have been egregious. And for an organization like yours to hand out a career capper to Freeman so prematurely is disingenuous. So because you clearly need a little guidance and clarity on what constitutes a lifetime, let me offer the following six for you to honor. And they are in the order you should follow.
JOHN WILLIAMS
So far the only recipients of your award have been actors or directors. How narrow-minded of you especially when you consider that film composer John Williams is a household name. Here’s why in case you need reminding: THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE TOWERING INFERNO, JAWS, the STAR WARS trilogy, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, SUPERMAN, the INDIANA JONES trilogy, E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, EMPIRE OF THE SUN, HOME ALONE, JFK, JURASSIC PARK, SCHINDLER’S LIST, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and the first three HARRY POTTER films. He’s won 5 Oscars and been nominated another 39 times. And I’ll bet most of us can hum at least six or seven of his brilliant movie themes, can’t we? His might be the most remarkable body of work in film history. So show the film community that below-the-line artists matter too. Honor this man in 2012. He is quite simply the greatest film composer of all time.

ROBERT REDFORD
The Sundance Kid has been a leading man in six decades. Six decades. In addition to BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID he has starred in these cinematic essentials: THE CANDIDATE, DOWNHILL RACER, JEREMIAH JOHNSON, THE WAY WE WERE, THE STING, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, THE NATURAL, OUT OF AFRICA and INDECENT PROPOSAL. He’s also a wonderful director who won an Oscar for the Best Picture winner ORDINARY PEOPLE. He’s been nominated for Oscars for acting in THE STING and producing and directing QUIZ SHOW too. And he’s received an honorary Oscar for founding the Sundance Film Festival, because yes, as you know, he is the father of the modern independent film movement. The Kennedy Center has already honored him with their lifetime achievement award. What’s holding you up?

SIR MICHAEL CAINE
He’s had a far more varied career than Sir Sean Connery who received your award in 2005. He’s had far more hits too. And like Redford, he’s been a leading man for six decades. Who can forget ALFIE, THE IPCRESS FILE, THE ITALIAN JOB, GET CARTER, SLEUTH, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, DRESSED TO KILL, EDUCATING RITA, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, THE QUIET AMERICAN, BATMAN BEGINS, CHILDREN OF MEN, THE DARK KNIGHT or INCEPTION? He’s also got two Oscars and four other nominations. What else must Sir Michael do to impress you, become a Lord of the British Empire?

WOODY ALLEN
He’ll likely never sit for the dinner that you require of your recipients, and we all know that’s why Katherine Hepburn and Paul Newman were never honored, but don’t let Woody Allen’s shyness divert you from the necessary task of giving him your award. He’s made 40 films in just as many years and given us classics like BANANAS, TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, SLEEPER, ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN, BROADWAY DANNY ROSE, ANOTHER WOMAN, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, CRIMES & MISDEMEANORS, BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, MATCH POINT, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA and the new delight MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. He’s a great movie star, writer and director, and is quite simply our greatest living filmmaker. Whatever it takes, get him to sit for the dinner.

GENE HACKMAN
He’s retired from the movies now but he has done more significant work than Morgan Freeman and is one of two American character actors who redefined the term. (More on the second one in the next paragraph.) Hackman has been both leading man and supporting performer throughout the five decades of his varied film career. Look at what he’s done and tell me he doesn’t deserve a lifetime achievement award: BONNIE AND CLYDE, DOWNHILL RACER, both FRENCH CONNECTION films, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE CONVERSATION, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, SUPERMAN, SUPERMAN II, HOOSIERS, NO WAY OUT, MISSISSIPPI BURNING, CRIMSON TIDE, UNFORGIVEN, GET SHORTY, THE BIRDCAGE and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. He's got two Oscars and there are few actors who can do drama and comedy as well as him and he needs to be heralded. 

ROBERT DUVALL
The other great who redefined the term character actor is Hackman’s old chum Duvall. Look at his list of amazing titles starting in 1962: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (He was Boo Radley!), BULLITT, TRUE GRIT, M*A*S*H, THE GODFATHER, THE GODFATHER PART II, THE CONVERSATION, NETWORK, APOCALYPSE NOW, THE GREAT SANTINI, TENDER MERCIES, THE NATURAL, LONESOME DOVE (on TV), THE APOSTLE, A CIVIL ACTION and GET LOW. He's an Oscar winner too and perhaps more significantly when actors tell you whom they most admire in the business one of them is always Duvall. What more does the AFI need? 

I have been an AFI member for over a decade and wish that I had a vote. But only your committee can determine the winners. So they better start making more thoughtful choices. I implore the AFI to honor these six gentlemen. They have had longer and greater careers than many of those you have already bestowed with your award. Tom Hanks is a wonderful talent, but you awarded him when he was only 45 years old and that's way too young for anyone to receive a life achievement award. So resist giving the award to such contemporary types that would generate greater publicity for you like a Denzel Washington or Tom Cruise. Their time will come. Now you must be smarter and less expedient. You must do the right thing and honor these six without any further delay. If you don’t, you dishonor them as well as the history of film. And your relevancy and credibility will be lost.

Sincerely,
Jeff York

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

THE 10 BEST COMIC BOOK MOVIES OF ALL TIME


Behold the mighty Thor!

Don’t you love that word mighty? It seems to be used only for behemoths. (And certain dog foods, I suppose.) But Thor is mighty, on screen and at the box office already this summer season. I saw it this past weekend and what a pleasant surprise it turned out to be. It’s got grandeur and pageantry, but it never feels bloated or ponderous. Instead, it’s hugely entertaining with some of the biggest laughs this side of the similarly toned IRON MAN (2008). It’s a fitting adaptation that’s got to make Stan Lee proud, both reverent and slightly irreverent. (Of course Lee makes another witty cameo here in THOR, just as he does in all the film versions of his beloved Marvel creations.) 

At first I thought Kenneth Branagh was an odd choice as THOR’s director but his success with the film versions of HENRY V (1989), MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993) and HAMLET (1996) made him a perfect choice here as this material requires the same mix of majesty and crowd pleasing theatrics as those works by the Bard. All in all, Branagh has made one of the better comic book movies and that gives me hope for this year where no fewer than seven other comic book movies are due. They won’t all be as good as THOR, but hopefully they won’t be as dreadful as the likes of THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (2003) or CATWOMAN (2004). Yeesh, please don't be any worse than those!

So as a big comics fan, what would I deem the 10 best comic book movies of all time? The following are my choices in descending order. Let the mighty debate begin.

10.) GHOST WORLD (2001)
Who better to direct the alienation of Daniel Clowe’s teens than Terry Zwigoff? (You’ll remember how disturbingly Zwigoff captured the cartoonist Robert Crumb in the documentary CRUMB in 1994.) In this movie, Zwigoff gets moving portraits of loneliness from Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson before she was “la femme,” and the great character actor Steve Buscemi. They’re three loners trying to connect in a world that’s labeled them losers. It’s heartbreaking, yet oddly amusing and sweet. If you’ve never seen it, you owe yourself the Netflix rental. 

9.) HELLBOY (2004)
Director Guillermo del Toro, like Zwigoff, has a lot of affection for the disaffected. He finds beauty in ugliness, and here he’s got one wonderful beast at the center of his tale. Based on the Dark Horse comic series by Mike Mignola, this film captures the derring-do of Hellboy, the reformed demon now battling underworld creatures even more hideous than he. Character actor Ron Perlman brings great sensitivity as well as prowess to the role and it’s a rare treat to see him in a lead. It’s a terrific film as is its sequel HELLBOY 2: THE GOLDEN ARMY released in 2008.

8.) A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005)
While this movie departs significantly from its source material, David Cronenberg’s interpretation still captures the essence of the story. It’s about a small-town family man (Viggo Mortenson) unable to completely put his checkered past behind him. When the former mob employers catch up with their former hit man shocking violence breaks out. (It is a Cronenberg film after all.) This tale is full of jolting twists and turns. And there's deft supporting work here from Ed Harris as the mafia fixer, Maria Bello as Mortenson’s devoted wife, and William Hurt as the top mob boss. Hurt’s witty eight-minute scene dominates the last portion of the picture and it deservedly netted him a best supporting actor Oscar nomination.  

7.) ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES (1993)
Sometimes a sequel tops the original. Such is the case with this superior follow-up to the huge film hit about Charles Addams’ darkly comic family in 1991. The sequel is also a savage put down of the GOP hypocrisy surrounding their family values obsession. In the “A” storyline, Joan Cusack plays a gold digger after an unsuspecting Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) and his money. In the secondary one, the Addams children are sent off to a summer camp where Wednesday and Pugsley must rise up against the bourgeois children and triumph over their haters. Both plots sneer at the false morality and family values posturing from the Gingrich era. (Hopefully we're way past that now and will reject Newt's dunderheaded presidential run!) Screenwriter Paul Rudnick wrings big belly laughs from all his barbed bile, particularly in the withering lines he writes for Christina Ricci as Wednesday. When the camp counselors ask for volunteers to help them demonstrate how to perform a drowning rescue, Wednesday's richie blonde rival intones, "I'll play the victim!" and the Addams daughter dryly quips, “All your life.” Those lines, and Ricci’s droll comedic performance, are ones for the ages. 

6.) IRON MAN (2008)
Thank God for director Jon Favreau and leading man Robert Downey Jr. Neither seemed like natural choices for super hero ethos but their comedic skills helped make this probably the most surprising comic book adaptation of the last 20 years. It’s a rousing action picture, true, but more importantly, it’s a character-driven comedy that recognizes that so much of the superhero world is simply high-falutin’ bunk. IRON MAN is a tonic meant to cleanse the taste of Christopher Nolan’s Batman angst out of our palates. Downey plays Stark only a few degrees shy of a flim-flam artist, more con man than world savior. That's ballsy. And brilliant. And it made me love this film.

5.) SIN CITY (2005)
If I was picking the best comic book movies based solely on how faithful it is to the original source material, SIN CITY would win hands down. Technically, it doesn’t even warrant a screenplay credit. Instead it merely acknowledges creator Frank Miller’s original graphic novel. But director Robert Rodriguez has created a stunning original on every other level. The costumes, art direction, editing, slow motion effects and most importantly, the cinematography pop off the screen. And if that’s not enough, you get some of the nastiest and funniest characterizations ever put on film from Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, Benicio del Toro, Elijah Wood, Rosario Dawson, Nick Stahl, Carla Gugino and Mickey Rourke. As Marv, the thug with a leather trench penchant, Rourke is unrecognizable under heavy make-up yet his humanity shines through. It’s a stellar performance that won the Chicago Film Critics’ best supporting actor award that year. (Smart people, those reviewers in the city of big shoulders.)

4.) X-MEN 2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)
The first X-Men movie was wondrous albeit for some sloppy special effects due to its economic budget. (The train station scene in particular was marred by obviously shoddy wire work and breakaway sets.) However, after its gargantuan success, the sequel got a more appropriate budget and director Bryan Singer soared even higher with it. Building on the sharp storytelling track and complex characters he started in the first one, the sequel exceeds beyond almost any other comic book adaptation. The acting, particularly by that of Ian McKellan as Magneto and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, is exemplary. Veteran pro Brian Cox makes a great supercilious villain here. And the younger cast excels as they step more into the center of the story, particularly Anna Pacquin as the torn mutant Rogue.

The X-Men comics have always been about prejudice and in this movie all the X-Men must band together to fight a U.S. government bent on destroying them. It's a hugely political movie and if its themes bare any similarity to the Japanese internment camps, the civil rights movement, the women’s lib movement, or this decade’s discrimination against gays and Hispanic population, well, it's purely intentional of course. Its scolding of our  government's history of hostility and discrimination adds weight to the film’s already potent mix of brains, brawn and humanity.

3.) SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010)
I still marvel at how well Edgar Wright did on bringing this offbeat comic to life. Of course, he make the film as odd, with its cockeyed camera angles, exuberant energy, droll performances, and slyly askew dialogue. It was the perfect translation of tricky material. Michael Cera played Scott as a gullible, yet resourceful teen trying his darndest to win the affections of cool chick Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and finding himself battling her evil exes to do so. Wright and his cast create a whole world that feels fresh, funny, young and as slanted as the panels of its comic book page origins. It's one of those movies that I've seen a half dozen times and always find something new in, and never tire of seeing. 
2.) SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
This one bettered its predecessor as well, mostly for the same reasons as those in X-MEN 2. Director Sam Raimi couldn’t pull off all of his first film’s effects due to underfunding, but here the studio money equals his ambition. (That’s the reason this one won the special effects Oscar where the first didn’t.) This entry also has a much more sympathetic villain in Doc Ock. Where the original’s Green Goblin was shrill and tiresome, Ock is both tragic and terrifying as played by the exquisite Alfred Molina. SPIDER-MAN 2 also deepens the love story between Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). And its action sequences are breathtaking throughout. The fight scene atop the runaway subway car is easily one of Hollywood’s best ever action sequences. And any film that finds more screen time for the invaluable J.K. Simmons, sublime as the volatile newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson, is aces in my book. 

And now, without further ado, my pick for the best comic book movie of all time:

1.) SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978)
Call me sentimental but this movie from my youth holds the top position for me. And it holds up remarkably after all these years. Here’s why. First of all, it really was the movie that started the whole superhero genre. Director Richard Donner and screenwriters Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton served the seriousness of the material yet also tweaked it with gentle wit. They deftly pulled off the three varied chapters of the saga: the mythological destruction of Krypton, the Americana upbringing of Clark Kent, and the adventure of Superman’s battles with Lex Luthor. SUPERMAN had a great villain in the amusing yet threatening Gene Hackman. Margot Kidder gave her best-ever performance as the sassy Lois Lane. And the supporting roles were filled by perfectly cast veterans such as Jackie Cooper, Susannah York and Glenn Ford. (Maybe Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty were a bit over-the-top as Luthor’s crew, but they’re still a lot of fun.) I don’t think John Williams ever wrote a better score, creating not one but five different themes for this extravaganza. And of course, its state-of-the-art visual effects and action scenes at the time were jaw dropping. The helicopter rescue of Lois still is up there as one of the top action sequences of all time.

And most importantly this classic film had the incomparable Christopher Reeve in the lead. His performance as Superman could have been stiff and dull. He is playing a pretty straight arrow after all. Instead Reeve's take was revelatory. He played it smart, witty, sexy and made his character deeply moving. His anguish at the discovery of Lois’ “death” is astonishing. It's acting worthy of the highest accolades. Reeve’s fully committed work here made a larger-than-life character into a vulnerable human being. And he did it all in a ridiculous and unforgiving costume. You really did believe a man could fly and 30 years later, you still do. Not because of the effects, which unfortunately haven’t aged so well, but because Reeve sells it. It’s a superb achievement. As is the film.

NAKED AMBITION IN HOLLYWOOD

A funny thing happened on the way to the cineplex. The new sex comedy called FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis forgot that it was a sex comedy. Sure it talks a good game with lots of naughty words, but when it came time to walk the walk, the movie pulled its punches. I have not seen such coyly placed bed sheets in a film in some time. In an age where the media relishes Congressman Anthony Weiner’s “Tweeted” photos for weeks on end it seems astounding to me that a movie whose subject is sex would be so cowardly about showing skin. 
Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake in FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS

When I saw a sneak preview of the movie last week, almost a month before its scheduled release, the disappointment in the audience was palpable. As a romantic comedy, it had very few laughs. As a sex comedy, it had very little sex. (NOTE: It’s supposed to be rated R, and I believe its four-letter language will ensure that, but at the time of the screening the film had not yet been rated.) The most laughable thing in the movie was the way it went out of its way to cover up its two stars. In almost every scene where they are in bed, the sheets are strategically placed to make sure nothing, and I mean nothing, is seen. They’re forever covered up to their necks in bed covers. It’s ridiculous. When did Mila Kunis become Doris Day?

Hollywood is often a town of extremes, either too puritanical like in the case of FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS, or too exploitative, almost all other times. The new teaser poster advertising the American version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO wrongfully showcases its leading lady Rooney Mara in her role as Lisbeth Salander. While the Salander character in the books and subsequent Swedish film versions doesn’t shy away from her sexuality, she’s not exactly a cheesecake pin-up. But cheesecake is exactly what the American marketing team seems to be going for in its first ad. (There’s an even more explicit and NSFW version of the poster bouncing around all over the Internet. I imagine author Steig Larsson, a renowned feminist, must be rolling over in his grave!) 
Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara in the teaser poster for THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Hollywood may be overreacting on both sides of the equation because there is simply so much sex surrounding us every day. From the Wild West web to the latest Washington sex scandal to the continuing saga of reality sex stars like Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian or Hef’s girlfriends, there is so much of it around us it becomes overwhelming. Is that why the filmmakers behind FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS decided to play their sex story so quaint? Or did they play it safe to secure a PG-13 rating and hopefully increase their box office receipts? Whatever the reasoning it just strikes me as the height of hypocrisy to make a movie about f**k buddies and then abstain from a realistic presentation of it. 

As for the new Larsson adaptation, it remains to be seen what the filmmakers have done with the material but the marketing team has certainly chosen the exploitation route already. I think their reasons are two fold. One, they want to get everyone talking and writing about it online. (Guilty as charged. My bad, I guess.) And two, the studio is likely worried that the audience will be turned off by director David Fincher’s grotesque vision of Salander. He’s decided to bury the attractive Ms. Mara under an awful asymmetrical haircut with jagged bangs, bleached eyebrows, a clutter of harsh face piercings and unflattering raccoon make-up. The marketing guys must have panicked and were determined to show the fans of the books that this Salander is still a hot leading lady underneath all that excess. What makes it even more egregious is the fact that Salander is sexually exploited by her perverted parole officer in the book. Too bad the PR folks at the studio decided to take a similar route. 
Emilia Clarke in HBO's GAME OF THRONES


That old cliché that actresses used to espouse about only doing nudity if it was essential to the story is actually a good rule of thumb. The story should determine how much is shown. In the case of sex comedies, a little more guts in dealing with the subject matter head on would surely be welcome. In other cases, a little more discretion would be appreciated. Nudity and sexuality should be there for a reason and dealt with in a fitting fashion. One place where Hollywood usually gets it right is on HBO. They push the proverbial envelope albeit in ways that are in line with the material. In their series GAME OF THRONES profane language and nudity are plentiful but that’s appropriate for its brutal and unscrupulous medieval world. Some may balk at the excessive amount of nudity displayed by the Daenerys Targaryen character (Emilia Clarke) but it’s important to her storyline. After all, she is sold into sex slavery but rises above it, ultimately learning to take ownership of her sexuality and bend the tribe to her will.
Kate Winslet in HBO's MILDRED PIERCE

HBO triumphed again with their more explicit version of MILDRED PIERCE a few months back. This was hardly your grandmother’s three-hanky weeper with Joan Crawford. Instead this new adaptation told James M. Cain’s sordid prose with an unabashed clarity and frankness. The story of a hard-working mother and her spoiled daughter contained scenes of sexual awakening, adultery and prostitution. And its stars Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce and Evan Rachel Wood handled the scenes with emotional and physical maturity. 

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN

Throughout most of the last fifty years Hollywood has often handled adult themes of sexuality brilliantly. Films such as DON’T LOOK NOW (1973), LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1974), BODY HEAT (1981), 9 AND A HALF WEEKS (1986), FATAL ATTRACTION (1987), AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999) and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005) all tread this territory with finesse and clarity. So what’s happened in the last five years that has rendered so much sniggering when it comes to sex? Is it that everything today is post-modern, to be instantly evaluated, dissed, laughed at, and discredited? Is it because so much of adult sexuality itself, at least within the media confines, tends towards the puerile exploits of reality TV stars, elected officials and sports legends? Their sexuality is played for a punchline. But are we laughing?

In some ways the most disturbing thing about FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS was the fact that it was so tame compared to the exploits of its stars when they showed up on the MTV Movie Awards two weeks ago. There, on that cable network whose audience tends towards the junior high crowd, Timberlake and Kunis raucously groped each other’s privates on live TV. In those brief moments they were much less inhibited than they were in their 90-minute sex comedy. 
Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis at the MTV Movie Awards
I know that movie studios want to cater to the pre-teen and teenage boy audience as much as possible since they are the prime ticket buyers these days, but does that mean every movie has to have a seventh grade boy’s sensibility? Does everything have to be so immature? It’s enough to make me want to climb into bed and pull the covers over my head. Move over Justin and Mila!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

10 REASONS TO SEE A MOVIE THIS WEEKEND


No, not because MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS or THE GREEN LANTERN are opening. The former may be a delightful kids movie, but why is Jim Carrey making Eddie Murphy movies now? As for the latest superhero extravaganza, well, all that CGI does look impressive in the trailer but whether or not the story is up to snuff remains to be seen. (I will tell you, the buzz is bad.) Instead, I’ve got 10 terrific recommendations for you that I’ve experienced and I think you should too. 

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER IS BRILLIANT IN “BEGINNERS”
Christopher Plummer is 80 and yet he's still doing some of the most amazing work of his long and sterling career. (And today he’s as handsome and trim as he was when he played Captain Von Trapp in ’65.) In this charming new film from writer/director Mike Mills, Plummer plays Hal, a man who comes out of the closet at the ripe old age of 75, after his wife of 40 years dies. It’s a complex performance, full of glee as he discovers a whole new lifestyle, but also layered with melancholy as Hal comes to terms with having incurable cancer. It's a wonderful film with great performances from Ewan McGregor as the befuddled son Oliver and Melanie Laurent as Oliver’s new girlfriend. All three characters come to realize that whatever time they have left they must always strive to be happy. It’s never too late to begin again. You can begin your weekend in a lovely way by checking out this special film.
Christopher Plummer in BEGINNERS
“THE TREE OF LIFE” IS SIMPLY GORGEOUS
Can every shot in a movie be a work of art? It can if the film is THE TREE OF LIFE. I was absolutely blown away by the pure artistry of Terrence Malick’s newest film and in particular, the extraordinary camerawork of his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. It’s easy to make costume dramas look sumptuous but I’ve never seen everyday life – brothers horsing around in the backyard, a father marveling at his newborn’s feet, a young mother hosing fresh cut grass off her toes in the summertime – shot with such grace and attention. This movie illustrates how precious life is: always moving, always evolving, and if we accept the good and the bad then we can thrive. That beautiful lesson is illustrated, literally, in every single shot. Lubezki's lens finds remarkable detail and humanity at every corner. It’s one gorgeous achievement. (Check out the trailer below and you’ll see what I mean.)


THEATERS ARE FINALLY TOSSING OUT TEXTERS
Recently, a patron at the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater in Austin, Texas was tossed out of the theater for texting during the movie. Bravo! To my thinking, and that of the Drafthouse Theater, there is no room for talking, texting, or crying babies at the movies. Stay home and watch Netflix if you can't help yourself, but treat the movie house experience with more respect. 

MARION COTILLARD MUST BE SEEN ON THE BIG SCREEN
Is this French dazzler the most luminous actress working today? Yes. Is she one of the most talented too, capable of playing historical figures (LA VIE EN ROSE) and femme fatales (INCEPTION) and even the girl next door (A GOOD YEAR)? Even if the next door is in Provence, France. Oui. And does she give another wondrous performance in Woody Allen’s terrific new comedy MIDNIGHT IN PARIS? But of course. And a star that ethereal is only done justice by as big a venue as possible. 

Marion Cotillard in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
MOVIE THEATERS NOW HAVE HEALTHIER SNACKS
The AMC theater chain has started offering a bag of goodies called AMC Smart MovieSnacks. The pack contains Chiquita fruit chips, a bottle of Dasani water, PopCorners popped corn chips and an Odwalla trail mix bar. It’s quite good. No, not as delicious as a Toll House ice cream sandwich at the movies. But I will tell you that the Smart MovieSnack is a better choice than that stale popcorn drenched in greasy, fake butter you'll share with your grubby handed friend. (Yeesh, I think I just threw up in my mouth a little just thinking about that.)
AMC's Smart MovieSnacks snack pack
MORE THEATERS NOW HAVE DIGITAL PROJECTION
Technically, Digital Cinema Projection is a method replacing traditional film with an electronic copy stored on a high-capacity hard drive and server. Instead of projecting light through film, digital cinema utilizes technologies such as DLP and LCOS to accomplish the task. What does that mean? Quite simply it means clearer, crisper, more vivid viewing. Sort of like HD television. Believe me, your eyes will never be happier when the lights go down.

“HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN” IS SO BAD IT’S GOOD
Oh, what 2007’s GRINDHOUSE wrought! Directed by Jason Eisener, HOBO WITH A SHOT GUN was initially a fake trailer made for an international contest to promote the release of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’ exploitation double feature. It won the contest and has now been turned into a feature-length version. It is gory, cheaply made, badly acted…oh, and did I mention, hilarious? It’s now showing in various markets like The Music Box in Chicago where it has a midnight screening this Saturday, June 18th. How perfect. If sleazy features are your cup o’ bile, check it out. It is a hoot!

The poster for HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN recalls exploitation film posters from the 60's and 70's
“TOO BIG TO FAIL” ON HBO IS AS GOOD AS MOST MOVIES
 Okay, it’s a bit of a cheat, but some of the best movies that you should see are being done by HBO. Currently in its channel rotation is the darkly comic TOO BIG TO FAIL. You may think that the 2008 Wall Street bailout is too complicated to understand or too depressing to find entertaining. You’re wrong on both counts. This movie is easy to follow and easy to laugh at. It plays practically like a comedy of manners, a BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES for our troubled times. Here the bankers are portrayed like Bond villains as much as bond villains. And William Hurt works slow-burning wonders in his key role as Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, President Bush's cabinet member who did his damnedest to keep the country from collapsing into financial ruin. He almost comes off as sympathetic. Almost. 
William Hurt in HBO's  TV-movie TOO BIG TO FAIL

SOME CURRENT RELEASES ARE AVAILABLE AT HOME 
Being parents with small children doesn’t mean you have to wait for NetFlix to see the hottest theatrical releases. On Demand releases some movies on cable the same day as in theaters. Two of note? The superior Kung Fu action picture13 ASSASSINS and the indie romance LAST NIGHT starring Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington & Eva Mendes. Hollywood continues to experiment with how to release films to reach the most people. For parents, big screen TV aficionados and agoraphobes, On Demand was made for you.

The poster for the independent feature LAST NIGHT

“THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO” TRAILER ROCKS
It remains to be seen whether or not David Fincher’s take on the Stieg Larsson bestseller can best the popular Swedish film with the amazing Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander. But if you catch the trailer, which is currently showing in theaters, I think you'll be quite hopeful. It looks tense, nasty and fun. And you gotta love a movie that has enough self-awareness of its pulp origins to describe itself as “the feel bad movie this Christmas.” I know I'll be there on opening day. (And in case you can't wait to see the trailer on the big screen I've embedded it here for you.)

So experience the movies this weekend and tell me what impressed you. And as always, thanks for following.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

SHAME ON YOU, RALPH MALPH!

When I was a teenager I was furious that a number of characters on HAPPY DAYS wore seventies haircuts even though the show was supposed to take place in the late fifties. (I guess I was a rather righteous kid back then. Perhaps I still am today.) I figured that if Ron Howard, the star of the show, could wear his hair short, what the hell was Donny Most’s problem? Why was Ralph Malph’s hair so long and fluffy and hanging over his ears? Donny Most was what, sixth or seventh bill? My guess is that he wanted to look cool and wore his hair like he did offstage, thus thumbing his nose at the show’s period setting. Sadly, the show let him get away with it. Today, Hollywood is still cheating period pieces left and right. And to me, it’s still just as infuriating.
Scott Baio, Anson Williams, Ron Howard, Henry Winkler and Donny Most in HAPPY DAYS.
As a general rule, Hollywood producers and studio execs tend to loathe “period pieces.” They’ll tell you that they cost too much. They’ll gripe about the expense of reproducing all those old clothes and antique décor. And they’ll go on and on about those damned kids in the audience who find history to be one big turn-off. Maybe that explains the glaring period errors in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. I saw it this past weekend and really enjoyed it but boy does it fudge 1962. Take a look at the picture of the youthful cast below and you’ll see grooming styles that are hardly exemplary of the sixties. 
Nick Hoult, Caleb Landry Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Jennifer Lawrence, Lucas Till  and Edi Gathegi in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.
For starters, no male, and I mean not one fella back then, wore a long shaggy mop. Nor did they wear their hair over their ears. And certainly none of them had that product-heavy "Team Edward" hair. You’ll remember that the Beatles caused an outrage in 1964 when they came over to this country because they wore bangs. Bangs, people. These X-Men wouldn’t have been ostracized because of their mutant powers. They’d be shunned for having such contemptible hairdos. 

Unfortunately, the X-girls are no more accurate. The women of the early sixties wore their hair up, or short, or styled in that Toni home perm sort of way. No locks were that free flowing, not until the hippies started influencing fashion in the latter part of the decade. These girls from X-MEN could be starring in GOSSIP GIRL, but then, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Their look is designed to make them more relatable, more today. But it’s grossly inaccurate as you can see from these more authentic sixties hairstyle photographs.
A typical female hairstyle from the sixties.
The studio exec would qualify the more contemporary hairstyles on Jennifer Lawrence and Zoe Kravitz as a concession to attract more of the teen audience. One can readily imagine how hard it was for him to buy into the whole reboot taking place fifty years in the past to begin with. (“The Cuban missile crisis? Really? And Magneto’s hunting Nazis? Dammit, this is X-Men, not The Boys From Brazil!”) So the exec agrees to make the film, but only with certain concessions. The filmmakers will get their Cold War backdrop while the studio ensures its young cast is groomed to look like today’s teens. 

And somewhere Donny Most is smiling.


Hollywood really should know better. MAD MEN approaches the same sixties period with utter conviction, no pulled punches. And it's a great success. But for Hollywood, they still go on fearing the time machine. And they want their concessions if they're going to do films set in yesteryear. Look at what happened with SHERLOCK HOLMES (2008). Jude Law played a very period Dr. Watson in look and feel, but the Holmes of Robert Downey, Jr. was groomed with contemporary morays and an entire jar of Bed Head. On Showtime’s THE TUDORS, which ran for four seasons starting in 2007, the sets and costumes were beautifully loyal to the sixteenth century. However, their hunky male cast members had short, spiky hair, shaved chests and three-day stubble. They looked more like models from a Calvin Klein trunk show! 
But there are some productions that get it spectacularly right. TV tends to do the job best at it. The HBO miniseries MILDRED PIERCE looked lush and was spot-on in its period accuracy. The BOARDWALK EMPIRE series didn’t shirk from the dandified collars and puffy bodices of the roaring twenties. And throughout the run of THAT 70’s SHOW the haircuts were thick and shaggy, the pants were tight and bell-bottomed, and the interiors were dressed with avocado green paint and ornate, gilded wallpaper. 
Kelly Macdonald and Steve Buscemi in BOARDWALK EMPIRE.
Some movies really nail it as well. One of the best examples of such a feat in recent years was ATONEMENT (2007). The production values in that film were spectacularly appropriate right down to Keira Knightley's costuming in a swimming scene. Another costumer might have opted to maximize more of Knightley's beauty, but Jacqueline Durran put her in a shapeless white one-piece and matching bathing cap. It was a bit frumpy, but ultimately accurate. (Nonetheless Knightley still looked stunning!) 
Keira Knightley in ATONEMENT.
But how many times do you see films that don't get it right? How many Hollywood westerns have you seen where the actors all have perfect Crest White Strip smiles? How many sword and sandal epics have spray-tanned characters groomed and waxed like they’re from the pages of Playboy? And how many times is Disney going to make a PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movie with grizzled, salty men done up very period while the women look as modern as a Revlon ad. (Oh, that’s right. Penelope Cruz is a Revlon model.) Maybe I expect too much. After all, Hollywood thinks they can shoot in Vancouver and convince me it’s New York. How wrong they are! I’d just like them to try a little harder. Commit to the script, commit to the period.
Barry Pepper in TRUE GRIT.
Thank God for the Coen Brothers. They’re always sticklers for period detail. Rent their 2010 remake of TRUE GRIT and you’ll marvel at the thoroughness of their roughhewn western world. The buildings are ramshackle. The clothing is filthy. And the dingy cowpoke teeth would make Austin Powers cry. The rest of Hollywood could learn a lot from their willingness to embrace period pieces so wholeheartedly. 

At the end of the day, what makes any movie relatable to its audience is a good story. Even if the characters have mutton chops or powdered wigs or crew cuts, that truth remains the same. And it shouldn't be lost on the powers that be who greenlight productions. The sooner they realize that the better. And then we'd have some really happy days.   

Friday, June 3, 2011

OF GODS AND MONSTERS AND MUTANTS


When it comes to man versus beast, men usually are far more vicious than any animal. Hollywood has always understood that truth and that’s why in most of its monster tales, be it King Kong, the werewolf or the Thing, man is always the greater threat. And it’s certainly true with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, the newest movie from 20th Century Fox’s lucrative X-Men franchise. It’s an origins story that pits humans versus mutants once again. And this time, like all the others, the monsters have nothing on the horrors of man.  

The good guys in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (Caleb Landry Jones, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy and Lucas Till)
After four movies in the franchise, Fox decided to reboot the series by starting at the beginning, in 1962, when a young Charles Xavier (soon to become Professor X) first met the young Erik Lehnsherr (soon to become Magneto) and the whole world was just becoming aware of mutants in their midst. How fitting considering the seminal comic book series by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first hit newsstands in the early sixties as well. X-Men were not your typical comic book heroes then, worshipped like gods as Superman was. They were troubled outsiders, born with an extra gene, an “X” gene that rendered them the next evolution of man. They could read thoughts, walk through walls, time travel, and start fires with their evolved minds. Despite these gifts they were persecuted for being different and X-Men quickly became a metaphor for all the other oppressed people in the sixties, like minorities and women, fighting for their place in society.


The story here starts with one beleaguered mutant named Sebastian Shaw (a smarmy Kevin Bacon) who’s decided he’s had enough of the ruling class. He orchestrates a scheme to rid the world of those who haven’t evolved, mentally or physically, by pitting Russia and the USA against each other in the waters just off of Cuba. While the CIA tries to figure out what’s going on with this Cold War plot, a smart young agent (Rose Byrne) discovers Shaw’s plan and hires good mutants to take out the bad one. She rounds up Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) and they in turn recruit a handful of young mutants to help them fight the good fight. Chief amongst them are Jennifer Lawrence, in a sly turn as shape-shifting teen Raven Darkholme (aka Mystique), and Nicholas Hoult, all sweetness and vulnerability as Dr. Hank McCoy, the scientist with gangly ape feet. Soon it’s a Mutant-palooza in the Straits of Florida as the good guys try to prevent the missiles of October from starting World War III.
Kevin Bacon and January Jones play two of the bad guys in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.
Despite the nuclear age theatrics, and the obvious themes of oppression, these serious motifs never bog down the film. Director Matthew Vaughn and his team ensure that this is fun entertainment from first frame to last.  A lot of the flair comes from the cheeky sixties production values referencing everything from DR. NO to DR. STRANGELOVE to MAD MEN. (Not for nothing was the ex Mrs. Don Draper herself, January Jones, cast as Shaw’s moll Emma Frost. She looks Tiffany brilliant in her skimpy white ensembles and diamond-skinned appearance.) The writing is exceptionally clever throughout and finds all kinds of witty ways to introduce X-Men staples like Magneto’s helmet, the Cerebro device and Charles’ eventual chrome dome. The film even finds time for some superb self-mockery by working in two hilarious cameos from previous franchise favorites. (A certain hirsute hero uses the F word here and it gets the single biggest laugh in a movie I’ve heard all year long.)
Jennifer Lawrence plays the mutant Mystique in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS a movie that is both old school and new school simultaneously. Like the previous X-Men films, a lot of secondary characters are kids. (Evolving mutant physiology also works as a metaphor for teen hormones and their maturing bodies, natch.) Jennifer Lawrence in particular shines in her teen role. She really makes a lot out of this supporting role, building on the great promise shown by her Oscar nominated work in last year’s WINTER’S BONE. She never lets Mystique’s blue make-up overwhelm the character. Her performance is one of great sensitivity and her yearning eyes speak volumes, even with yellow contacts in them!

If there’s one criticism I have for the movie it’s that despite the sixties settings and new cast, a lot of this feels very familiar. There’s a thin line between reverential cameos and repeating bits that get an audience laughing in recognition and that which appears to be so “been there, done that’ already. I hope that as they move forward with the next films the powers that be tap some of the two dozen other X-Men characters created over the comics’ fifty years and let them stand at the center of a movie or two, not just be peripheral presences. I love Professor X and Magneto as much as the next guy but others need to take center stage. Please give Wolverine’s claws a rest and give Mystique or Emma Frost their own movie.

Still, for my money, this is the best monster franchise going these days. And like all of the best monster sagas, this one has a lot to say about the real world we live in today. At the end of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, the most appalling villains aren’t the egomaniacal Shaw and his minions, or the revenge driven Magneto, but rather the super powers that aim to oppress. In 1962 their hubris nearly ended the world in a mushroom cloud. Today government leaders balk at bailing out Joplin tornado victims while saving the bacon of their rich buddies on Wall Street. We too are oppressed, just like those mutants, fighting the real monsters in our midst. Only we can’t penetrate their minds like Professor X and knock some sense into their frontal lobes. Frankly, I’m with Magneto on this one – wrap the villains in metal chains and throw away the key!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

WHY WOODY ALLEN IS OUR GREATEST LIVING FILMMAKER


 I just saw MIDNIGHT IN PARIS this week and it confirmed to me that Woody Allen is our greatest living filmmaker. Sure there are bigger and better directors working today: Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and David Fincher, to name just four. But as far as someone who directs and writes his own films no one can compare to the incomparable Mr. Allen. 
Original caricature of Woody Allen by Jeff York (copyright 2011)
Woody Allen has been writing and directing movies since 1969 when he filmed his first original comedy TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN. Since then he’s done it forty more times. In just over forty years. That’s an amazing amount of creativity in a business where everyone knows how difficult it is to get just one film made. And some of the greatest films of the last four decades are on his resume. Consider if you will:

SLEEPER (1973)
ANNIE HALL (1978)
MANHATTAN (1979)
ZELIG (1983)
BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984)
THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985)
HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)
ANOTHER WOMAN (1988)
CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989)
HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992)
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994)
MATCH POINT (2005)
VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (2008)

One could also make the case for a place for SWEET AND LOWDOWN, MIGHTY APHRODITE, RADIO DAYS and ALICE on the list of Allen greats, but no matter, all of them were written and directed by the incredibly prolific Mr. Allen. And more often than not, he has starred in them as well. He’s one of our most indelible film actors yet his talent in front of the camera is often overlooked because of his talents behind it. But make no mistake, Allen is one of the funniest and most moving screen clowns ever, in that rarified air with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Groucho Marx. Allen’s not only a comedian he’s an icon. And his acting resume alone is that of a major film star. 
Woody Allen with Mia Farrow in BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984)
Allen's work is incredibly distinctive too. His films have their own instantly recognizable style: the recurring themes of love and death and artists struggling to make sense of the world; the early 20th century jazz that usually plays on the soundtrack; the distinct rhythms of his writing. The sound of a Woody Allen movie is both old school and utterly contemporary. His Borscht belt roots shine through in the Jewish cadences, but so do the casual tempos of modern conversation. Woody Allen writes some of the sharpest movie dialogue ever, filled with hope and cynicism, scathing wit as well as deeply neurotic anxieties. It’s the voice of modern man trying to find an explanation for all the irrationality in the world.

And his voice is mostly expressed through comedy. It has often been said that comedy is harder to do than drama, as you have to keep the audience laughing in comedy, and it’s extraordinary that Allen has been so successful working in this most difficult of realms. And he has mined that vein successfully over and over and over again. So why is he not heralded more than say a Scorsese or Kubrick? Is Allen too reliable and too good? Does the fact that he makes a movie every year, unlike Kubrick who took forever to make a film, make him seem less special? For those who argue his work is too frequent or too repetitive, they need only look at two of his most recent films: MATCH POINT and VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA. Both were startling in how far they strayed from the typical Allen comfort zone. MATCH POINT is a dark thriller about an adulterous English social climber. VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA is a story about two American women at a crossroads in their lives who discover what they want and don’t want while vacationing in Spain. Anyone who thinks that Allen only writes elitist New York stories simply hasn’t been paying attention lately.
Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson in VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (2009)

Perhaps the reason that Allen doesn’t quite get his due can be directly attributed to his own doing. Allen lost a lot of good will in the late eighties when he left Mia Farrow for Soon-Yi Previn. (He’s still with her, by the way.) And Allen has always been notoriously private and shy with the press. He doesn’t do the late night talk shows. He doesn’t give a lot of interviews. (However there is an excellent one in the current issue of Film Comment.) Perhaps if he’d sit for the American Film Institute lifetime achievement award dinner or accept the Kennedy Center Medal of Honor, he’d be  lauded more. But my guess is that all that doesn’t matter too much to him. He’s all about the work and he puts it out there year in and year out. He’s got a lot to say and having an annual forum is probably enough.

So for now, his work and his work alone is proof of his legacy. And what a body of work it is. If you haven’t ever seen some of his seminal films, or haven’t watched them in a while, you owe yourself the pleasures of ANNIE HALL, the definitive romantic comedy of the seventies; or the bittersweet character study that is BROADWAY DANNY ROSE; or the provocative dissertation on morality in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. In that, what I consider to be his greatest film, Allen stirs the pot especially when you consider that the criminal of the story (Martin Landau) gets away scot-free while the misanthrope (Woody) loses almost everything. 
Martin Landau and Woody Allen in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989)
Then you should go see MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. His latest is whimsical, clever, charming and touching. In it, a writer (played by Owen Wilson doing the best variation on the Allen archetype in decades) travels to Paris to find inspiration for the novel he’s writing. And while he’s there he finds himself time traveling back to the Paris of the 1920’s where he ends up rubbing shoulders and debating ideas with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dali, Gertrude Stein and a beautiful muse played by the iridescent Marion Cotillard. (To whet your appetite I've embedded the trailer below.)

It's a beautiful little film that made me laugh, cry and really think. It just might be one for the ages. Just like so many of Woody Allen’s films. Just like the man himself.