Friday, June 25, 2010
Saturday, June 19, 2010
That leaves three openings. Let's see what's got me checking the release dates calendar this month.
The American - Clooney has shown impeccable taste in projects for the past few years with one solid flick after another. (I will now politely ignore Men Who Stare at Goats) The fact is the idea of playing a hitman out for one last hit doesn't exactly thrill me, but it's all in the execution. And that beautiful throwback poster suggests they got their heads on straight.
The Conspirator - After his last two sleeping pills, Bagger Vance and Lions for Lambs, I'm a little surprised to be putting a Robert Redford film on the chart. But I admit it, I'm just a sucker for the subject matter - in this case a court room drama about the Lincoln assassination. Here's hoping Redford has another Quiz Show level effort in him.
Another Year - Mike Leigh is always worth checking out and his run of two absolutely brilliant films means he might be entering one of those zones directors get into when they can do no wrong. Strong buzz out of the Cannes Film Festival for this film about a year in the life of a happily married couple and their more unstable friends suggests Leigh is still at the top of his game. Plus it's Jim Broadbent back with Mike Leigh! Last time he starred in a Leigh film was the magnificent Topsy Turvy. So, yeah, definitely seeing this one.
Friday, June 18, 2010
- The Top 10 are, in order, The Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather I & II, The Good The Bad and The Ugly, Pulp Fiction, Schindler's List, 12 Angry Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Dark Knight. This is, to my mind, a pretty solid list. Even if you think that one or two of these have no place on a list of the ten greatest (I do) it's hard to accuse any of being an egregious lapse of taste. Only the first Godfather and Schindler's List overlap with the AFI top ten. None overlap with my own personal ten, in case you were curious, but Pulp Fiction probably comes closest.
- The influence of the young male geek bloc becomes pretty glaring at 9 through 12 which features two Star Wars films, Batman, and The Lord of the Rings. As far as fanboy films go it's hard to complain about these, but I still wish they weren't all there cluttering up the top, elbowing Seven Samurai out of the top 10.
- In addition, the 250 heavily favors new films over classics. In the top 50 only Citizen Kane and Casablanca represent pre-1950's cinema. Conversely, approximately 1 in 4 films on the list were released in the last ten years. Unless you believe that filmmaking suddenly achieved perfection around the release of Erin Brockovich and never looked back, this is a pretty clear kink in the IMDB's formula.
- Likewise, early enthusiasm for new releases cause them to shoot up the list before they flame out and drop off never to return. Of the three 2010 releases currently occupying the list - Kick-Ass (154), How to Train Your Dragon (170), Shutter Island (241),- I doubt if any of them will remain at this time next year.
- Currently trading the bottom spot back and forth: Edward Scissorhands, The Lady Vanishes, My Neighbor Totoro, and Ikiru. I know I said at the start not to take the list too seriously, but the idea of Ikiru walking the plank to make room for Kick-Ass fills me with the desire to see the IMDB, if not the whole of the internet, completely destroyed.
- Carping aside, the 250 is littered with gems. You could do a lot worse than rent any random film off the list you have yet to see. Have you caught Wages of Fear at #171? You should.
- Other films I'm very pleased to see on the list which could have been easily overlooked: Downfall (79), The Battle of Algiers (226), The Lives of Others (56), Diabolique (178), Anatomy of a Murder (237), In Bruges (189), Nights of Cabiria (193).
- On the other hand, here are some films that, I submit, have no place showing there face on this list or any list like it - Gran Torino (90 - Really? Wow), Sin City (94), Snatch (132), V for Vendetta (168), Good Will Hunting (196), Big Fish (200), Crash (217), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (229)
- Most baffling inclusion on the whole list - Changeling at #230. Forgive me if I missed something but who the Hell feels passionately about Changeling? According to Box Office Mojo it finished 80th for the year behind such beloved favorites as Max Payne and Speed Racer, and it rated a middling 61% at Rotten Tomatoes. Where is this outpouring of love coming from? Odd.
- Unlike the movie-going public in general the IMDB voters are not afraid of subtitles with several dozen completely or largely subtitled movies populating the list.
- Silent films are still holding on with a respectable seven titles making an appearance, although I think one mention, The General (135), is not nearly enough for the great Buster Keaton and you should all take a moment to throw some tens his way if you haven't already.
- One genre that seems to be totally out of fashion with the IMDB voter is the musical. The only straight-up musical that manages to find any love is Singin' in the Rain at #76. Only three other musicals make the list - The Wizard of Oz, The Lion King, and The Nightmare Before Christmas, and I think they would accurately be described as hyphenates, (musical-fantasy, musical-animated adventure, musical-Tim Burton, respectively) Not present are any of the acknowledged musical classics such as Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Cabaret, West Side Story, The Red Shoes, etc. With the young male market so dominating the multiplexes is it any wonder there are so few musicals getting made.
- Speaking of The Lion King I'm somewhat shocked to find that it is the sole representative of Disney animation on the 250. None of the Disney golden age (Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia) or rest of the early 90's Renaissance (Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast) made the cut. Especially surprising considering the list is pretty animation friendly with no less than seven Pixar titles among the ranks and three titles by Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki.
- More notable omissions: E.T., Do the Right Thing, The Searchers, Nosferatu, The Passion of Joan of Arc, La Dolce Vita. When I find these titles are absent, but Guy Ritchie occupies two slots, I'm reminded of something Johnny Depp once shouted at Bill Murray in a film thankfully represented on the list, "Show a little taste!"
- It is a truth universally acknowledge that Billy Wilder kicks cinematic ass. He lands four titles in the Top 100 - Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard, and The Apartment - as he bloody well should. Also Witness for the Prosecution (147) and Stalag 17 (212) are on the list with Ace in the Hole poised to join if it can get its vote count up.
- While we're at it The IMDB Top 250 can prove a fascinating barometer of which directors are in and out of style. Aside from Wilder, Kubrick is still immensely popular with all his major works except for Eyes Wide Shut and Lolita making the grade. Similarly, Scorsese, Hitchcock, Tarantino, Spielberg and Leone all rank multiple titles. Kurosawa and Fellini remain the giants of foreign cinema followed by Fritz Lang and Bergman. Who's on the outs? Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges are nowhere to be found, nor, shockingly, is Robert Altman. The master John Ford marks a single, lonely entry for The Grapes of Wrath. The reputation of Capra and Coppola remain in fine shape, but the names Renoir and Lubitsch seem sadly forgotten. Spike Lee's contributions to the last quarter century of film are going under-appreciated and Wes Anderson appears to be too divisive to break in.
- I cannot spot any documentaries even though some such as The Cove have the required number of votes (3000) and ranks higher than some films on the list (The Cove is at 8.5 and the lowest rank to make the list is 7.9). I hope this is due to some vagaries to do with the ranking formula and not because docs are disallowed, which would be a shame.
- Big Box Office ≠ Enduring Popularity. According to Box Office Mojo, of the 20 biggest box office hits of the last ten years only a handful- Avatar, Dark Knight, Nemo and LOTR Trilogy - have translated to lasting affection. Box office titans like Jurassic Park and Iron Man haven't lasted. Other bonanza franchises not found - Spidey, Shrek, Transformers, Twilight, and Harry Potter. The opposite holds true with the poll being very kind to low grossing cult favorites with films such as City of God, Memento, and American History X landing in the top 50. Even Shaun of the Dead makes it under the wire.
- Unlike box office results, the taste of Oscar voters seems to align reasonably well the IMDB regular user, with 12 of the last 20 Best Picture represented. Hurt Locker looks like it missed by a hair.
- Is a critical reevaluation due for some of these films? There are many that did not receive much love from the critical establishment upon release, but have broad support based on the results of this poll: Casino, Rope, The Professional, The Prestige, to name a few.
- Shifting tastes and trends are interesting, but I get the most enjoyment out of the random tidbits you pick up scanning the list. The most popular Pixar film? WALL-E at #46. Scorsese's best? Goodfellas at #15. Alien (43) is slightly more popular than Aliens (53) while T2 (41) is considered vastly superior to The Terminator (158). The full Star Wars trilogy rank, but the first and third Indiana Jones don't have coattails enough to bring along Temple of Doom. Christopher Nolan has landed his last three films in a row on the list. I have a feeling Inception might make it four for four. He could end up within striking distance of the current top winning streak - Kubrick with six films in a row. I'm so grateful the Top 250 is here to let me know these things
Monday, June 14, 2010
Daniel Plainview lingers in the mind long after most other characters have shrank from memory. Like that other famous fictional tycoon, Charles Foster Kane, he is a character at once straightforward and mysterious. Both men proceed from youth to reclusive old age with a monomaniacal fixation on obtaining wealth and power. If anything, Plainview is more obsessed - Kane had this life thrust upon him as a child, whereas Plainview chose the path himself, personally clawing it from the Earth. But what are they thinking? Do they have second thoughts, considering the closer they get to their goals the more they lose the capacity for happiness? If Kane had Rosebud, one word to sum up all the innocence and subsequent happiness he lost on his way to gripping that snow globe on his lonely deathbed, what does Plainview have?
Unlike Kane, there is no youthful blush of idealism for Daniel Plainview from which we can trace his decline into corruption. Plainview is already completely Plainview when we meet him - totally isolated, locked in a struggle to extract his riches from the land. Nor will there be any round-up of friends and colleagues to comb through their memories once Daniel Plainview dies, regardless of any enigmatic last words he might leave behind. His closest associate, Fletcher, means nothing to him in the end, and is unceremoniously dropped from the movie the moment he is no longer relevant (I always find it a bit sad how his last words in the film question whether he's being pushed aside, and then - poof - he's gone). The two who would no doubt have some great tales to tell about Daniel, Eli Sunday and Daniel's "brother" Henry, are destroyed by him. He leaves behind no noticeable love affairs, at time appearing borderline asexual, romanctic love just one more repulsively human thing to keep at a distance.
The only connection of any real depth he forms is that he makes with his "son" H.W., and it is there we catch glimpses of the man beneath the industrialist machine. After the events of the movie, H.W. would no doubt be glad to go his whole life without ever again discussing the man who raised him, although it already tells most of the story that all the people listed as Daniel's family members have quote marks around their titles. It is no accident that Eli is desperately claiming to be family right before Daniel caves in his skull.
Daniel Plainview is a man who in dire need of both giving and receiving human affection, of experiencing the unconditional love of a child for his father. By the end of his life he's warped his mind by solitude and alcohol to the point he can convince himself and H.W. that not only does he not love his adopted son, but he never did, and was only using him as a sales prop, "a sweet face to buy land" as PT Anderson memorable puts it. He says it with such frightening conviction that we in the audience almost believe it as well, that is until we think back on shots like the one above. It's then we can see the full scope of the man's demons. There is no faking the love Plainview has for his child in that moment. It's the loss of the emotion felt here that makes the famous baptism histrionics feel true, rather than gratuitous scenery chewing.
Robert Elswit won a well-deserved Oscar for There Will Be Blood's cinematography. It was the culmination of a brilliant run of work that includes such beautifully shot films as Good Night, and Good Luck and Michael Clayton. If the story of Blood echoes Citizen Kane, the photography recalls Kubrick, specifically 2001: A Space Odyssey. The alien feel and texture of the landscape most resembles 2001's scenes on the surface of the moon, and it's a testament to Elswit and PT Anderson that even the intimate shots like the one above, of people and faces, reverberate with the same grandeur as the shots of gushers and mountains.
If I picked this shot out of so many memorable images from the film, it's because it's moments like this that let visual poetry approach the ideas that the film never broaches verbally, although Daniel's "I see the worst in people" monologue comes closest. We see father and son drenched in oil, with Daniel doing his best to pour love and care to his adopted son to no avail. H.W. is turned away from him, oblivious to his father's efforts. That H.W. loses his hearing is just salt in the wound, mocking his most earnest attempt to care for somebody else.
This is no mere "bastard in a basket." This was his son, only by the time his son gave him what he needed there was not enough of a man left to receive it.
Monday, June 7, 2010
The first Iron Man was a wonderful surprise. In a masterstroke of casting they plunked down Robert Downey Jr. with his whip-smart quicksilver persona in the middle of a Summer action behemoth and instantly deflated all the portentous seriousness that has dragged down many recent would be blockbusters. (Parts of Hancock played like In the Bedroom) In addition, Favreau's steady hand at helm kept the whole show zipping along at a great clip. Iron Man was breezy where most mega-action films lumbered, witty where they were lame and obvious. They could almost have skipped the action altogether, so cheerful was the tone of the whole production.
So it is with no pleasure that I have to report Iron Man 2 is a big step down, falling prey to the problems you hope sequels like this avoid, the story overstuffed and cluttered to vastly diminishing returns. Iron Man moved in clean, pleasing lines. Iron Man 2 spins madly in place.
It's bad enough when a movie steps wrong, disappoints, or otherwise botches the job. Infinitely more frustrating is when it gets it right and doesn't even realize it. Iron Man 2 gets it right with the villian, Ivan Vanko, aka - Whiplash. Along with Favreau and writer Justin Theroux, MIckey Rourke creates a formidable nemesis for Tony Stark, charismatic and genuinely threatening, and Iron Man 2 flies right past him in a great hurry to get nowhere in particular. Watching the movie I had the urge to scribble on the screen with one of those electric pens the sports commentators use, circling and triple underlining Mickey Rourke. "Here is your movie -HERE."
Iron Man 2 starts well enough. Downey is still in top form, and if his work as Tony Stark doesn't have the benefit of being fresh, that doesn't make it any less entertaining. The sequel picks up where the first film left off, with Stark confessing to the world that he's Iron Man, thus sparing millions of grateful moviegoers two hours of secret identity handwringing. Stark gives a defiant grandstanding performance at a Senate hearing probing the implications of Iron Man, but we quickly learn his outward showboating hides private dread. It turns out the arc reactor that powers his suit and keeps him alive is also not-so-slowly killing him. So far so good.
In a parallel story line we are introduced to Ivan Vanko, Russian mobster and physicist with a grudge against the Stark family. We grasp that he is the intellectual equal of Stark when he slaps together a replica of Stark's power source out of junk shop bric-a-brac, and we can also tell that he is palpably dangerous because - well, because he's played by Mickey friggin' Rourke. Rourke's career renaissance continues here unabated. Most actors take comic book villain roles as an opportunity ham it up - to turn the dial up to Pacino and tear down the scenery. Rourke does the opposite, turning the energy way down he implies enormous power with his stillness and his seeming indifference to the superhero shenanigans transpiring around him.
So at this point, about 25 minutes into the film, everything is rolling along nicely and I was settling in to see my strong yet deeply flawed hero confronted by his capable adversary - and by extension his misspent, unscrupulous past. Then the narrative sputtered to a stop and the film attempted to go in half dozen directions at once, noisily treading water for about an hour of screen time. Let's look at the varety of the ways Iron Man 2 gets stuck in the mud:
- The first major action scene gets off to a promising start with Vanko brazenly stepping out on to a race track and using his electric whips to eviscerate Stark's car in motion, but sloppy editing lets the air out of the scene - way too much time passes with Stark cowering and bickering with cohorts while Vanko should be juicing him like John Coffey in The Green Mile.
- There are several conversations with Don Cheadle, who takes over for Terence Howard as Starks best buddy. Cheadle could not look more bored if he was reading a script for the next Oceans sequel on screen and his scenes lapse into reptitive nagging. That goes double for Pepper Potts who does nothing but turn up every ten minutes to give Tony Stark the frowny face treatment while Scarlett Johansson gets to do all the fun stuff Pepper should be doing.
- Speaking of Johansson the movie has to stop dead so we can spend time getting to know Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson's Avengers characters. I could complain at this point how studio greed damaged Iron Man 2 by insisting that it essentially run previews for future franchises right in the middle of the current one, but honestly the idea might have worked. The real problem is that it's a bad preview. I doubt anyone is going to get jazzed about an Avengers movie based on Iron Man 2 as the Avengers aren't particularly interesting or exciting and pop in mostly to tell Tony Stark to get his head out of his ass. Scarlett is provided with a decent fight scene at film's end, but what she isn't provided is a personality. Neither is Nick Fury for that matter, but luckily Sam Jackson supplies his own.
- Much screen time is given over to Justin Hammer, Stark's incompetent rival weapons manufacturer amusingly played by Sam Rockwell, and his plan to recruit Vanko to one-up Stark. Hammer is fun comic relief but he is too buffoonish to be a serious threat and his presence comes at the expense of Rourke who is reduced to tinkering with an army of Iron Men knock-offs. In the film's worst scene we are treated to a long -long- sales pitch as Justin Hammer tries to sell weapons to Don Cheadle's Lieutenant. At the point of the movie when the villian should really be putting the screws to hero - it was about this point in The Dark Knight when Maggie Gyllenhaal was being blown to bits - instead we get Sam Rockwell giving an elaborate tech demonstration with precious little relevance to the story, while Vanko hangs around a warehouse hitting robots with a wrench.
- With no bad guy activity to speak of for most of Act 2 the movie follows Tony Stark wallowing in self-pity as his health rapidly deteriorates. Downey is still wonderful in the part, but he needs more to work with and he has a drunken party scene that veers dangerously close to embarrassing.
- In what is supposed to be one of the film's dramatic high points Stark attempts to discover and synthesize a new element to save his life. This is dressed up with a lot of slick tech stuff involving Stark's computer system and ivolves some of Stark's random half-baked daddy issues, but if you look closely you will notice that dramatically nothing is happening. Stark isn't put to the test in any meaningful way, he is simply aquiring some new info. Without the neat whiz-bang effects the same plot point could have been accomplished with a trip to the library.
- In a serious miscalculation, the film's action finale involves Iron Man battling an incredibly underwhelming robot army. Look- we show up to Iron Man because we like Tony Stark and want to see him put to the test against a worthy adversary. We don't go to see him sink into routine battle with a mass of ineffectual CGI robots. The robot army here is like a bulkier version of the terrible, filmsy battle droids of the Star Wars prequels. When fifty of them start blasting away simultaneously, and do little more make the set go Boom! KaPow! behind the hero, it quickly gets deeply boring. Imagine if instead of Luke confronting Vader, The Empire Strikes Back climaxed with Vader ordering wave after wave of storm troopers after him and you get the idea.
- Rourke eventually shows up in a robot suit himself to engage in some too little, too late battle with Stark. Here I'd only ask what the point is of casting Rourke just to cover him up in a fakey robot battle suit. This should be obvious, but the more you want Rourke to be intimidating the less you cover him up.
Compare all this with the powerful, direct beats of the first film: Tony as amoral shark, Tony imprisoned, Tony perfecting Iron Man, etc., and you can see what the sequel has lost track of. I go into all this detail not because Iron Man 2 is a disaster that deserves pummeling but because there's still a lot of potential in this franchise and it can easily shake off this weak entry and rally for a strong third film. Here's hoping.
Verdict: Not a fatal misstep like Batman and Robin or the Pirates sequels, but still a cause for concern, Iron Man 2 feels like a film that has buckled under the weight of expectations. It must be difficult to maintain a lively tone when you have a dozen studio executives demanding it not only deliver for one blockbuster franchise, but for several. I suppose under those circumstances it's surprising the film is as enjoyable as it is. Favreau and company need to clear out the clutter for the next installment. This time around the franchise, like Tony Stark, has trouble keeping it together. 5 out of 10