Monday, May 28, 2012

The State of Cinema 2012 - Starring The Avengers

It’s mid-May and I’m sure by now you all are aware of this film called The Avengers.  Knowing my particular fondness for the nerdier side of life and in particular this group of super heroes you might be wondering if I was going to blog about the film, well I am, so get ready.

Marvel is a well built universe of comic characters.  Most of them reside in real locations, New York in particular, and throughout the history of the company characters have constantly appeared in each other’s respective stories.  Now I know DC has had plenty of Superman/Wonder Woman/Batman interactions and the Justice League has been around for damn near ever, but well DC has never been as cool as Marvel.  I’ve been waiting for an Avengers movie for the better part of my life, and when my particular favorite Iron Man came out in 2008 I was given the first little tease that the dream of an Avengers movie was soon to be a reality.

Now over the course of the last four years since Iron Man proved to be a hit there were a lot of things that could have happened to make this Avengers movie either never happen or be a disaster.  Not all Marvel movies are created equal (Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider which all seem to have gotten uncalled for sequels), but this new batch was sticking to the comic format of interacting.  It was clear that this was a long term plan and I’d have to anxiously wait for everyone to get their proper introduction before the big show.  It’s not really like the X-Men who were always a group and grew as superheroes and learned their powers as part of a group.  The Avengers were formed by a group of already established super heroes who when necessary would band together to tackle major problems. 

Some people might wonder why the Hulk would be part of this group.  After all he’s by far the least social member of the group and his power is generally a sign of severe chaos, but well way back in 1963 he was a charter member of the group.  Granted he quit almost immediately (by issue #2 to be accurate) but yes Hulk was an original Avenger.  So was Hank Pym (aka Ant Man, Giant Man, Yellowjacket, etc) and his wife The Wasp but well not too surprised they didn’t make the cut. 

The films although acceptable to a mass audience seem particularly geared with the nerd at heart.  We got a glimpse of Hawkeye in Thor as he grabbed a bow and arrow, Terrence Howard looked at the suit of iron and said “Next time”, here patience was the key.  My point is that not only do these films benefit from prior knowledge of the comics (the Leader origin in the last Hulk film, the Mandarin teaser in the first Iron Man), they also benefit from having seen all the previous films.  In the same way Star Wars helped build on what came before and how the pre-quels were supposed to serve as the backstory of things mentioned in the good films.  Walking into one of the random films might be fine, but it would be better if you saw what came before.  The fact that there virtually is no origin for the Avengers, simply the assembling (pardon the pun) of the group from previously established characters.  It helps allow the film to dig into the action more or less because by now we should know all about S.H.I.E.L.D and Nick Fury, we’ve seen Loki in action, and we know all about the cosmic cube (or whatever they decided to change the name to here), the fact that Captain America was thawed out, Hulk and his knowledge of gamma radiation, Iron Man and his self sustaining energy source, etc.  Likewise without knowledge of these things, a few times you might be inclined to scratch your head.

This is in direct contrast to last year’s X-Men:  First Class which went back to establish the group and how the mutants fit on each side.  Which made it infinitely better than the first X-Men film made in 2000 which seemed to skip right past a lot of those little details that made the last film so fantastic.  So perhaps because I'm measuring the film on a different level that I hesitate to say it is a masterpiece.  For once though I do feel like Hulk in CGI form just might work, although I still would prefer some juiced up body builder to play him.

Now I’ll admit the time I started writing this and the time I’m posting it has turned out to be quite a difference so if I’m re-treading on familiar ground my apologies.  As we hit Memorial Day, The Avengers has finally been toppled at the box office by a rather unwarranted Men In Black sequel, but whatever, does anyone outside of a movie studio give a shit about box office these days?  The thing I was reading in a recent Tribune article mentioned that The Avengers was crippling the competition as films like The Dictator, Dark Shadows and Battleship in particular opened to disappointing returns.  Well I wanted to mention this and say that it is hardly the fact that The Avengers is just this all powerful beast that’s keeping those films from finding their audience, the fact is no one really seems to give a crap about those films.

For starters The Avengers was an idea as a film that’s been brewing for a good four years, meaning in that time you’ve gotten little teasers and slowly building to a monumental release.  Not to mention even without the prior film’s tying in I’d still be stoked as shit for an Avengers movie simply because I’ve been an avid comic fan for the majority of my life.  So let’s look at these other three films and why they aren’t living up to expectations:

The Dictator - I’ll be honest I actually do want to see this.  For starters I didn’t even know when it was released.  Avengers I had my calendar marked for months waiting for it, and well I’ll be certainly on top of the next Batman film when that comes out.  Now this isn’t anything new with Mr. Cohen’s films.  Borat I saw probably two months after it was released, and was one of only two people in the theater.  Bruno I likewise saw several weeks after release so you might say for various reasons I’ve never made a point of catching his films opening weekend, despite the fact that I am a fan.  Other people I know have mentioned that the film looked rather terrible in previews and the fact that the character is an entirely new one (as opposed to his other three characters that came from Da Ali G Show) it doesn’t have a built in fan base or familiarity with it.  Instead of seeing Bruno or Borat because of the skits with those characters on the show, here you’d be seeing it largely because you liked what he did before, completely separate of this character.  Truthfully the film seems to be making steady money, so if anyone thought this would be some $300 million juggernaut they were probably kidding themselves.

Dark Shadows - Where do I begin?  Ok there are plenty of people of the older generation, or at least my parents and anyone in their late 50s-early 60s that remember the soap opera with vampires from it’s original run.  Perhaps you have a fondness for it, or even remember the prime time reboot of the show in the early 90s.  Ok but that’s where the familiarity ends, I can’t imagine too many people thinking that would be a fantastic thing to drag up for another reboot on the big screen.  Then we have the “please make them stop” combo of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.  Ok, Edward Scissorhands was great and so was Ed Wood but can you honestly say another one of their collaborations was spectacular?  The Corpse Bride was the only remotely original idea these two have made in the past decade, and Tim Burton’s best film of the last 15 years is not surprisingly the only one made without Mr. Depp (Big Fish, go see it if you haven’t).  This is simply another reminder that once upon a time Tim Burton used to have a great vision and was a clever inventive filmmaker.  Now he simply rehashes someone else’s idea, casts his wife and Mr. Depp and proceeds to put him in pale creepy makeup and act eccentric.  Considering how boring and downright bad Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland were, I’m giving up on Mr. Burton for now.  I mean how many times can you be burned with the same lackluster duo.  I mean Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have been churning out gold for the past decade, but even they decided to take a break while Scorsese made Hugo, but well comparing any director to Scorsese isn’t exactly fair.  This film bombing is simply inevitable.  Up next for Tim Burton, another remake, this time of his own film Frankenweenie.  I mean really how long before he decides to remake Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure with a 56 year old Johnny Depp?  I’m shuddering because I could totally see him doing it.

Battleship - Ok in the long line of movie based on board games we pretty much have Clue and  . . . . Ok so maybe the sub-genre of board games turned into movies is about as remarkable as video games turned into movies, so this one is really a head scratcher.  Let’s make a movie about the game battleship but let’s put aliens in it, wtf?  Who comes up with this shit and who decides it’s a good idea.  It’s like someone did some market research and realized their studio somehow bought out Milton Bradley at some point and wondered if those games could make good movies, then they got a focus group together and decided that aliens are cool, and people seem to really like this Rihanna singer, so let’s throw it all together and make a big pile of putrid filth and charge people $12 a pop to torture themselves.  Well apparently overseas the movie is going considerably better, so much for the rest of the world having better taste than Americans.  I admit I only saw one preview for the film but I really, really wanted to wash my eyes out with bleach after those five minutes of agony.  I’m not sure I’ve seen a film look worse since Jack and Jill. 

So how could the Avengers bury all this “competition” well I’m amazed these films made any money.  Now who knows if Rock of Ages can clean up?

Is there hope?

Well around the mid-point of the year I find it necessary to offer some insight as to the best films I’ve seen thus far.  Typically I expect to find a couple of decent pictures by this point but well pickens are slim this time around.  In fact the few good films that can be considered 2012 releases I actually saw last year.  So I’ll offer a few recommendations of films that good or great are at least worth watching.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia - Ok I’ll come right out and say it, I didn’t get it.  This film can try your patience as not a lot happens in any dramatic sense.  Incredibly long shots and scenes of real time boring police procedural work, it does start to slowly build to something and if you have the patience to get through it you will be rewarded, but it’s a film I somewhat hesitate to recommend because well it’s not for everyone.  If you saw Distant or Climates and enjoyed them, this would be worth checking out if you’ve never heard of those films, rent them first then decide if you want to proceed to this.

The Kid with a Bike - Belgium’s Dardenne brothers have been making neo-realist dramas for quite awhile now.  Maybe you saw La Promesse, Rosetta, L’enfant, The Son, or Lorna’s Silence but either way they’ve done some damn good work.  I was particularly fond of Lorna’s Silence and it just missed my top 10 in 2009.  This film damn near made my top ten from 2011 until I realized that technically it’s a 2012 release, but sometimes foreign DVDs make their way here before an American distributor decides to release a film.  Opinion on this film is somewhat divided, but I consider it one of their strongest efforts.

The Turin House - Well if you know who Bela Tarr is I don’t need to say anything else about this film.  If you don’t well you may or may not find this to be a groundbreaking masterpiece.  Again Tarr loves his infinitely long takes, and in 1987 he pretty much decided he was never going to shoot a film in color again.  So if you’re partial to slow paced black and white Eastern European films with extraordinary cinematography he might just turn out to be your favorite director.  I’ve seen his 7 ½ hour Satantango twice so that might tell you how much I enjoy even his longest work.  I found this film to fit in with his canon quite well, some thinking it’s his finest film in ages, and most agreeing it was an improvement over The Man From London.  Either way I’d watch this 25 times before I sit through even the trailer for Battleship again.

Kill List - This film has me in a bind.  I can’t recall the last time I saw a film where I really, really, really wanted to discuss it with every living soul I could find, but this is that film.  Unfortunately I don’t personally know anyone else who has seen the film.  This puts me in a bind.  I’m not sure if it’s a masterpiece, and despite the brief description I read of the film before watching it, I wasn’t entirely convinced it was a horror film.  When something new, original, and ambiguous hits the horror movie circuit people generally seem to lose their minds over it.  After all no genre is more starved for anything worthwhile quite like horror.  This is why some people may go overboard with praise of an original idea (I admit I was perhaps guilty of this with Paranormal Activity).  I won’t say a damn other thing about the film, except, see it now, immediately and then we shall discuss.

And that’s all for now, I’ll have the month of May’s film journal up in the next couple of days so stay tuned. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Film Journal 2012 - April

We are now in the merry month of May.  Before too long Memorial Day will signal the un-official beginning of summer and cold weather will be a thing of the past (or so we all hope).  April was the month where baseball begins, and the NHL and NBA playoffs kick off.  I know you may think this is my preface to saying “here’s why I didn’t watch as many movies this month”, but hell I haven’t watched that much sports either.

Progress on the Rosenbaum front has been a little slow this month.  Only a handful of films I was able to cross off, so it’ll be some time before I polish that one off.  Of the films I watched however, I was quite impressed with Alex Cox’s Highway Patrolman and Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue.  The Hopper film was certainly a downer but it makes me wonder just why he was kept from directing movies for so long.  An interesting time capsule that still seems surprisingly in touch.  Granted Hopper’s character might easily win worst parent of the year awards (the mother coming in a close second) but as a film of troubled youth it’s very solid.

The Cox film has that slightly surreal dark comedy vibe that makes several of his films worthwhile.  I wouldn’t necessarily call it a masterpiece, but as a tale of how simple corruption can be it gets comical without ever really being a “laugh-out-loud” type of film.  For fans of Walker and Repo Men this would be right up your alley.  Too bad it doesn’t seem nearly as easy to find as those others.

I'm also trying to appreciate Manoel de Oliveira but that's for another blog.

Now the new project I’m unofficially working on will help explain why I’ve been watching what I’ve been watching.  I’ve blogged before about The National Society of Film Critics A-List, going so far as to offer my own alternative group of 100.  Now perhaps I’m discrediting my own selection but after looking over the original book I realized that me and my girlfriend have watched a whole hell of a lot of them.  So I started thinking, wouldn’t it be something if we watched ALL of them?  We’re a long way away, and it frankly doesn’t help that she likes to fall asleep during every single movie, but we are making progress.

Considering I first found the book in late 2001-early 2002, it’s been nearly a decade or more since I’ve seen some of these films.  Many of the films I only remember segments of, forgetting large chunks of plot and in some cases it feels like a whole new movie to me.  Just this past month we watched L’atalante, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Nosferatu, Chinatown, The Seventh Seal, The Thief of Bagdad, Unforgiven, Written on the Wind, 42nd Street, The Passion of Joan of Arc, La Strada, Ugetsu, and Pandora’s Box.  I’ll post on each of these now:

L’atalante (1934)

I finally get it!  Wow after a decade and three viewings I finally seem to understand just why every damn critic whoever lived loves Jean Vigo and this film in particular.  I was also amazed that Kate happened to enjoy the film, but I think the absurd abundance of cats had a whole hell of a lot to do with that.  There is a just slightly off kilter almost surreal quality to everything in the film.  Nothing seems to be grounded in reality, from the random clutter Jules has in his cabin, to the cats that have overrun the ship, to the famous “love scene”, everything has a dream like edge to it.  There is also a humorous undertone to everything, again not a comedy in any direct sense, but nothing should be taken too seriously here.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)

The A-Lists’s lone Australian film was the bane of my existence for years.  This was the last film on the list I was able to see, and it wasn’t until I found it had been released on DVD that I purchased it and finally crossed off my final film.  Well after a couple years I felt it wouldn’t be a bad film to sit through again.  The film is sort of an Australian version of the Nat Turner story, especially considering most of the victims are women and children.  Obviously slavery is different than Jimmie’s brand of discrimination.  There’s something that seems downright rewarding when awful people get what’s coming to them, but rather than make this film be about Jimmie’s retribution it paints him as a rather complicated character that isn’t entirely sympathetic throughout.  We can understand the initial outburst but things quickly go off the dark end where even his closest friend can’t stand by him.  Still a landmark in Australia’s “new wave” and thankfully it is no longer the hardest film on earth to find.

Nosferatu (1922)

You know what?  I don’t think this is quite a masterpiece.  Murnau’s unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel is incredibly slow paced and through no fault of Murnau Kino’s DVD has two horrible musical scores to choose from.  We had to laugh when the villagers warn of the werewolf and there’s a cutaway to what looks like a cross between a dog and a fox with a fluffy tale, and anything but a menacing werewolf.  I do think the film is fantastic and there are some wonderful touches that I love, I can’t help but be a total dork for silent movie special effects, but I think from start to finish this just lacks that little something extra.

Chinatown (1974)

The last time I watched Chinatown I proceeded to talk through the first hour of it and realized that although I knew what was going on, my friend probably didn’t.  This time I kept my mouth shut, but well Kate was none too impressed, and actually went so far as to say “nothing happened”, to which I nearly pulled out my hair wondering if we spent the last two hours watching the same film.  Some people love mysteries where a little detail leads to another clue, which unravels another mystery, and so on, and other people well just don’t seem to have the attention span to keep all those little details together and stick with the unraveling process.  As a neo-noir mystery Chinatown is probably the greatest of all time, it is Roman Polanski’s masterpiece, and that’s saying something considering how many excellent films he’s directed.  This is probably the fourth or fifth time seeing it, and well it never ceases to amaze me even if I was the only one impressed this time.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Well clearly the time to introduce Kate to Ingmar Bergman was now.  This is actually the first Bergman film I ever saw and well considering how much I love his work, I’d say it was a good first impression.  After being unimpressed with Chinatown, I admit I was a little suspicious to try this film, where it is anything but “action packed”.  However Bergman is a little better at getting your mind working, and with questions of faith to go along with a plague, a game of chess, and even a troupe of actors who are always the same any time or place gives the viewer more than enough to contemplate.  I may lean towards Persona as his greatest film, but I’ll never turn down a chance to watch this again.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

A few years back I decided to watch a bunch of Douglas Fairbanks films.  The first one I had ever seen was this gem.  So it had been a good decade since, and it was interesting returning to it with a knowledge not just of Fairbanks other epics, but of his early comedies as well.  The film is great because as I mentioned before I’m a total nerd for silent movie special effects and this was loaded with them.  For the NSFC it also doubled as a representation for Raoul Walsh, although calling this a Walsh film seems something of misrepresentation.  Not because the film is soft whereas Walsh’s other films were known for being masculine, no this is a misrepresentation because it is Fairbanks film.  He wrote (under his real name Elton Thomas) and produced the film and is making a point of chewing as much scenery as allowed.  It is his show start to finish, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Unforgiven (1992)

Almost forgot about this one.  I’ve seen a lot of Clint Eastwood films.  As a director though, I would say this is still his best.  Granted it’s been awhile since I last watched Million Dollar Baby, but well even after 3-4 viewings Unforgiven still ranks as one of the all time greats.  It serves the distinction of being one of the most recent films on the list and a rare film that also happened to win best picture.  To be honest the list is fairly Western heavy (we still have to watch High Noon, Winchester ‘73, and the Wild Bunch), but I wonder if any film has ever shown the difference between the legend of the West and the “real” West better than this.  What’s interesting really is that Eastwood’s William Munny is a horrible person, and he’s the first to admit it, yet somehow we can’t help but feel like he’s in the right.  I can’t think of any film that breaks down the real life guilt associated with killing someone however justified.

Written on the Wind (1956)

Douglas Sirk was the master of melodrama.  Written on the Wind was one of the first times I was introduced to his work.  Like All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life I found this film to be too melodramatic for my tastes, but I recognized that it might be the best of the bunch.  Well a decade later and several other Sirk films seen, I guess my frame of reference was expanded.  Watching it again perhaps I felt that some of the problems were more relatable.  Sure Robert Stack’s character’s alcohol abuse is the type of thing that you’d find only in melodrama, but the never ending string of triangles keep things interesting, and well did any director in the 50s have as much style as Sirk?

42nd Street (1933)

I always loved this film.  Hell when posting about 1933 I just mentioned how much I loved it, but also threw in that I hadn’t seen it for a long time.  Watching it again I was still enamored with is primitive charm.  Sure this is more advanced than say The Broadway Melody, but in terms of plot this is as formulaic as it gets.  Over the next three musicals featuring similar cast members and Busby Berkley choreography things would get more complex, particularly the dance numbers but here things seem just as simple as can be.  Basically a show is put on, people are worked like dogs, a temperamental star breaks her ankle, and a newcomer has to step in and become a star over night.  Well throw this out and you have a story about a lecherous and incredibly creepy sugar daddy, a tyrannical boss willing to sacrifice his own health because he lost all his money in the stock market crash, a chorus girl who only said no once, and she didn’t hear the question, and well those dance numbers still are fantastic even if they could never take place on a real stage.  Doesn’t hurt that the trio of songs in the Pretty Lady musical are still memorable numbers, particularly the title track.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Few films in the history of cinema are as blatantly brilliant as Dreyer’s ultimate masterpiece.  Hailed upon it’s premiere as possibly the greatest film ever made, and considered by many to still rank among the all time greats, I wonder if anyone alive thinks this film isn’t a masterpiece.  So much has been said about the shot selection, the framing, the claustrophobic feel of it, but well at the end of the day it is just a powerful film.  I like the fact that Dreyer cast the ugliest people imaginable for his would be executioners, and the only person that doesn’t seem to be cartoonishly monstrous is the one sympathetic character who seems to genuinely feel for Joan’s plight.  I also watched Otto Preminger’s much maligned Saint Joan this month and I wondered why?  Why have so many directors good and bad taken a stab at telling the tale of Joan of Arc?  I mean all of these directors know of Dreyer’s version, and I wonder how anyone can have the audacity to think they could possibly do a better job?

La Strada (1954)

Ever since I saw a Fellini film he’s been one of my favorite directors.  Now I may say that 8 ½ should have been on this list rather than La Strada/Nights of Cabiria, but well would I have revisited it this month?  Probably not.  I liked La Strada when I first saw it, but I didn’t think it was a masterpiece.  I much preferred Nights of Cabiria, and still thought his later more surreal films were better.  Now after seeing this again I was blown away.  There’s a reason many regard this as Fellini’s first masterpiece.  It was the first of two films in a row to win a best foreign language film Oscar, which I know isn’t that wonderful, but it still says something.  It’s not a very likeable film, but neither is Nights of Cabiria.  The film is great, if not heartbreaking, its characters are sympathetic and yet Zampano is still a monster, but there’s a slight bit of redemption somewhere in the end.  Nearly everyone is pathetic in some way, but well there’s that wonderful beauty in suffering that characterizes Fellini’s early films.

Ugetsu (1953)

Last month I revisited Sansho the Bailiff so why not give Ugetsu a third try?  Now I’ve always loved this film and well depending on what day it is I may say it’s Mizoguchi’s best.  Thanks in part to this book it was the first film I had ever seen from Mizoguchi.  His style and ever roaming camera were somewhat lost on me the first time around.  After all his sense of style is so subtle that you hardly notice it the first or even second time around.  The more you know of his work the better all his films seem to be by comparison.  Ugetsu is heartbreaking but there is a redemptive quality about it.  Sansho seems more like a film of loss and suffering, and well let’s not even mention Life of Oharu, but here the women do suffer as a result of their husband’s ambition but at least one is reconciled and well things seem like they just might be alright again.  Interesting how supernatural the film is, considering Mizoguchi removed all supernatural elements from the Sansho Dayu legend.

Pandora’s Box (1928)

G. W. Pabst is a personal favorite of mine.  This was the first film of his I had seen and although I liked it I wasn’t sure it was a masterpiece.  Even after watching several other films I wondered if this really was his best.  Well as you’ve noticed there is a trend with many of these films, they were early first impressions and revisited years later with a greater frame of reference.  This gets at the heart of what the A-List was all about.  It is meant to be a starting point where you can venture from there.  Louise Brooks performance is one of the wonder’s of silent cinema.  Her range from childish brat to long suffering self-sacrificing is remarkable.  Even towards the end she maintains that lovely smile and you get the sense that through it all she really was an innocent that just happened to ruin the lives of nearly all the men she came in contact with.  This film is even better than I remembered it and so is Brooks, too bad I can’t say the same for Diary of a Lost Girl which I found severely disappointing.

Well enough about that, here’s the rundown of what I watched:

The Exile (1947) 6/10
L’atalante (1934) 10/10

Porgy and Bess (1959) 6/10
Komedie om Geld (1936) 6/10
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) 10/10

Divine (1935) 8/10
Rain or Shine (1930) 4/10
Romeo und Julia im Schnee (1920) 6/10

Nosferatu (1922) 9/10
A Great Day in Harlem (1994) 8/10

Out of the Blue (1980) 9/10

Major League (1989) 10/10

Chinatown (1974) 10/10
The Seventh Seal (1957) 10/10

The Famine Within (1990) 6/10

The Anderson Platoon (1967) 7/10
Towards the Light (1919) 6/10

Pennies From Heaven (1981) 9/10
Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979) 6/10
Saint Joan (1957) 5/10

Big Trouble in Little China (1986) 10/10

Highway Patrolman (1993) 9/10

Thief of Bagdad (1924) 10/10

Obsession (1976) 7/10

Unforgiven (1992) 10/10

Written on the Wind (1956) 10/10

A Walk in the Sun (1945) 6/10

42nd Street (1933) 10/10

The Strange Case of Angelica (2011) 7/10
Douro, Faina Fluvial (1931) 8/10
Bonjour Tristesse (1958) 6/10

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) 10/10

Party (1996) 5/10
Inquietude (1998) 7/10
La Strada (1954) 10/10

Ugetsu (1953) 10/10

Pandora’s Box (1928) 10/10

Best Film of the Month - The Passion of Joan of Arc
Worst Film of the Month - Rain or Shine