Academy DVD Screener Round-Up!

5 12 2011

In Hollywood, there are two types of people: those who’ve risen through the ranks, paid dues, gained industry-wide respect and been recognized with membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences… and then there are assholes like Steven Spielblog who go over to the homes of A.M.P.A.S. members, and watch all their Oscar-season screener DVD’s. This past weekend, I shamelessly devoured a metric ton of them. Here’s my report:

J.J. Abrams (right) directs SUPER 8

With SUPER 8, J.J. Abrams attempts the acrobatic feat of remaking every single Steven Spielberg film all at once, and again proves that he’s a better student of film than he is a filmmaker. Lose the near-constant lens flare and chock-a-block nostalgia, and the story here barely qualifies as a full one. Not for adults, anyway. As a Spiel-worshipper, I should say that it’s commendable that Abrams made a children’s film that’s meant to be a contiguous addition to the 80’s Amblin catalogue (with the man’s name on it, no less,) and if SUPER 8 turns kids onto CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, well, terrific. But in every other way, this is just a faithful footnote that strikes a grown-up fan as puny alongside the classics.

Johnny Depp as Donald Rumsfeld in THE RUM DIARY

Johnny Depp does Hunter S. Thompson proud in his portrayal of Paul Kemp, the protagonist of Thompson’s long-gestating semi-autobiographical novel THE RUM DIARY. The meandering but likeable film built around him has its highs (Richard Jenkins) and lows (Amber Heard,) but it hangs together – barely – as a result of a few choice lines, some priceless Depp deadpanning, and perfect costuming by the great Colleen Atwood. Still, crack open a Webster’s to the word “rental,” and this is what you’ll see.

Yeah, didn't make it to this part.

I didn’t make it through PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES. I shut it off. And no I will not apologize. Next!

The stuffy, overlong biopic J. EDGAR relies on the same narrative framing device as screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s last film, MILK. It’s the “OK now let me tell you my side of the story” approach, in which the main character actually says the line “OK now let me tell you my side of the story” (or some minor variation of it,) and we then launch into a series of flashbacks. In J. EDGAR’s case, the flashbacks fare better than the ‘present day’ material, if only because in the role of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio’s aging make-up is so hilariously wrong. The only believable aging anywhere in J. EDGAR is on America’s childhood crush Lea Thompson, who shows up in a small role. Lea, bless her, now without aid looks almost exactly like Lorraine McFly circa 1985 in BACK TO THE FUTURE. For your consideration in the category of Best Makeup: Time!

THE SKIN I LIVE IN is so good, you too may lick your TV screen.

Take Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, turn the ‘that’s fucked up, yo’ meter to eleven and dub it en Español, and you’ve got an idea of the treat you’re in for with Pedro Almodóvar’s newest, THE SKIN I LIVE IN. In SKIN, Antonio Banderas stars as an obsessive doctor whose live-in experiment (the gorgeous Elena Anaya) holds a dark secret… dot dot dot. Only Almodovar could pull something as twisted as this off and still make it so darkly hilarious, which does with typical style. THE SKIN I LIVE IN is weirder than anything he’s done in years, and what it lacks in the empathy of one of his masterworks like ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, it makes up for in inspired macabre suspense. I loved it.

When brothers fight, we ALL win.

A manly melodrama, or “man-o-drama,” Gavin O’Connor’s WARRIOR casts Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as estranged brothers who enter an ultimate fighting championship in Atlantic City. Hardy’s the brooding/brawny Iraq vet, Edgerton the family man who can’t pay his mortgage, so he turns to professional bludgeoning. (And what’s more American than that?) The fighting on display is repetitive, but no matter, it’s the brothers’ emotions and motivations that take center stage, and in that arena WARRIOR clicks, particularly when booze-battling father Nick Nolte’s on screen. He makes a believable pops to both, and a believable alcoholic too, turning in his best work since AFFLICTION. But WARRIOR’s a film primarily for guys who think ‘Affliction’ is a clothing brand. Don’t worry, it’s safe to cry here, Ed Hardy Boys. No one will see you weeping inside the UFC cage…

Evil nazi gynecologist Jesper Christensen in THE DEBT

It’s no secret my favorite genre is ‘sexy nazi hunt thriller,’ so John Madden’s THE DEBT lands squarely in my sweet spot. It’s a suspenseful piece that builds to a gripping climax, with a superb cast playing characters in early days and later (Jessica Chastain turns into Helen Mirren, Martin Csokas turns into Tom Wilkinson and Sam Worthington turns into Ciaran Hinds,) a choice on Madden’s part that underscores the sense that our heroes’ dealings with the brutal Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen) totally change them as human beings. Even so, the back-and-forth is just this side of distracting, with one too may inconsistent accents – and, you know, the fact that Sam Worthington looks absolutely nothing like Ciaran Hinds. But regardless of your affection for the ‘sexy nazi hunt thriller,’ this one’s worth your money. Or in my case, it’s worth – free! Ah, the joys of watching someone else’s Academy screeners! Sincerely, boo-yah.


CLASH OF THE TITANS: Remake the Kraken!

1 04 2010

The original CLASH OF THE TITANS was released a year before I was born, and I’d like to think that I’ve aged somewhat better than it has. What may have seemed spectacular then, now seems beyond cheese. Certainly, cheese can have value, but what’s telling about putting CLASH in context is that it was made three years after STAR WARS (A NEW HOPE,) but looks like it came twenty years before it. In spite of it being the work of special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, 1981’s CLASH is a pretty tepid piece of pop. In fact, given how dated it looks now, the only way to know it came after STAR WARS is the fact that it swipes from that film so frequently… You’ve got your Luke in the form of Perseus (Harry Hamlin,) a wide-eyed farm boy who yearns to take his place in the universe. You’ve got your Obi Wan in the form of Burgess Meredith’s Ammon, your magical sword, hell you’ve even got your R2-D2 in Bubo, the friendly/godawful mechanical owl.

A long long time ago in a galaxy far far- OK, it’s Greece

Of course, Perseus is actually the forbear of Luke Skywalker, by about – what is it now – 6,000 years? But culture continually re-casts its classics in the molds of what’s recently popular, hence, CLASH’s resemblance to STAR WARS in ’81… And in 2010, now that the movie gods have seen fit to re-make CLASH OF THE TITANS again, what influences will color it? Louis Leterrier’s new film is Greek myth by way of LORD OF THE RINGS and GOD OF WAR on Playstation, but if there’s one film in whose shadow the new CLASH stands, it’s James Cameron’s AVATAR. That’s not because CLASH tracks a similar storyline really, nor that it shares its hero in Sam Worthington, professional Australian-pretending-not-to-be-Australian. What puts the 2010 CLASH squarely in the post-AVATAR universe is that it’s being released simultaneously in traditional 2D, and in digital 3D, the format Mr. Cameron recently redefined.

I got the chance to see CLASH OF THE TITANS at an advance screening last week. (I know. IMPRESSIVE.) And though 3D glasses were handed out at the door, it was then announced that all we would actually be seeing in 3D was a six minute highlight reel, which itself was only 80% finished. The rest of the film would be shown in boring old 2D. 2D! If I want 2D, I’ll shut one eye and look out a window … CLASH, it turns out, had been shot completely in 2D, and only after the success of AVATAR in January did Warner Brothers executives decide to make it their first experiment in 3D retro-conversion. Other words, nobody planned on a 3D CLASH OF THE TITANS until, like, two weeks ago. Expect more of this funny business, Spielbloggees – albeit not at this breakneck a pace. If a studio can charge $18 for a movie you’d normally pay $13 for, they will do what it takes to score those extra five bucks. That’s sushi money, people.

Fig. 3 - Sushi

So the question you’re going to have to ask, in this newly complicated movie marketplace, is two-fold: is a film worth your time and cash, in either 3D or 2D. And the answer for CLASH goes something like this: “no, probably not,” and “yeah, why not,” in that order.

This CLASH OF THE TITANS, it turns out, is a marked improvement over its original version, at least for someone (me) who has no nostalgia for the original. That it’s almost an hour less than AVATAR is one of the best things about the film; whereas AVATAR was predictable and long, CLASH is predictable, but brief. The plotting is brisk and action-packed, eye-roll dialogue is kept minimal, and, it’s good, stupid fun watching Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes partake in the time-honored tradition of great British actors slumming it for blockbusters. As divine brothers Zeus and Hades, these guys are clearly havin’ a laugh, just as Sir Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith did in ’81 when they screwed around Mount Olympus for a hot shilling.

The Kraken

It almost goes without saying that the special effects are top shelf. They’re plainly the reason this remake exists. More important, though, are the numerous well-chosen design elements throughout the film. The underworld, with River Styx boatman Charon is a standout, as are the mystical Djinn, with their char-wood skin and blue flame eyes. Other choices are less advisable: Fiennes’ Hades has a nifty cape of souls, but a lousy makeup job. (Apparently, the underworld gives you eczema.) The Stygian witches turn out to be a blatant PAN’S LABYRINTH – uh – reference – and for all the build-up to the Kraken, when he’s finally released, he’s more or less Roland Emmerich’s GODZILLA. Thankfully, though, the Pegasus chase built around mister monster is a winner. It’s worth 2D money, at least.

Big Ern' McCracken

As for Sam Worthington, his brooding Perseus is my favorite performance of his – which is kind of like saying I enjoy Quaker Oats more than other, different brands of oats… Even after a landmark year, Worthington hasn’t answered the basic question “why exactly are you in literally every single movie now, sir?” Let’s face it: AVATAR was about Pandora, just as CLASH OF THE TITANS is about releasing that ollll’ Kraken, and TERMINATOR SALVATION was about a buttnaked CG Arnold Schwarzenegger stalking around a power plant, or something… Worthington may have been the protagonist of each film, but he wasn’t the star. Perhaps that really does make him the actor of the moment; he’s so unremarkable in three dimensions that he gives the eye nowhere to go but into the scenery.


Mann’s Chinese Six Cinemas, Hollywood

Saturday March 20, 6:30pm showing

OK, why did nobody tell me about AVATAR?

28 12 2009

I’M PISSED. Why did nobody tell me about this AVATAR movie? Apparently it was released last week after like twelve years of development at the hands of James Cameron, with a price tag of around $300,000,000 (out the door) and, word has it, it’s not only going to revolutionize the way films are made, but also make all religion obsolete. Somehow, I managed to miss all this. Fortunately, this makes me the The Perfect Critic™, as I had absolutely no expectations at all going into this film. Swear to god.

AVATAR, I’m only now learning thanks a lot, is a film like no other, one not so much filmed as it is built, using motion capture technology and three-dimensional doohickery. And AVATAR is, to that end, the most wicked 3-D movie ever made… In every other dimension, however, the only astonishing thing about this film is how average it is.

The plot involves a U.S. Marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington,) whose consciousness is implanted into the body of an alien warrior on a faraway planet, where a war is being waged on the native Na’vi people by trigger-happy earthlings dead set on extracting a valuable ore from beneath the Na’vi’s size 39 blue feet. Sully, in learning the ways of the Na’vi, falls in love with their very hottest daughter, Neytiri. For anyone who’s ever seen a movie – and I once did – the inevitable showdown between human and Na’vi, with Sully torn between two cultures, is as obvious in minute ten as it is when it finally arrives, bam pow, two hours and many moons minutes later. The action is split into three movements, eliciting one reaction a piece: Act One: ‘Oh wow,’ Act Two: ‘Oh no,’ and Act Three: ‘Yahoo.’ (Depending on how much you enjoy the film, you may want to add one or more ‘o’s to that Yahoo. I’ll stick with two.) And though I suppose that with all the time and cheddar invested in this behemoth, you can’t blame Cameron for playing it safe, for all the new technology presented in AVATAR, this is ultimately the sight of a man doing what he knows. The state of the art’s on display here, no doubt, but it’s been poured into a rigid, ‘epic’ mold. As such, AVATAR is the cinematic equivalent of Jell-O: shit’s delicious, but even three heaping courses of jigglers can’t be called dinner.

MAVATAR bears similarity to many epics, but of all of them, its setup is closest to ERNEST GOES TO CAMP. Sadly, I’m not kidding.

Throughout it all, Cameron pays tribute to his favorite director James Cameron, giving a crisp upgrade to elements of his own older films: from THE TERMINATOR, there’s the narrative device of the protagonist’s dictated journal (no longer in cassette tape form.) From ALIENS, there are the load lifters, now, inexplicably, with giant knife fighting capabilities. Also from that film, there’s pilot Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez,) a succinct combination of the characters of Vasquez and Gorman. And the setup of the entire affair on Pandora (a malicious corporation taps into a natural resource on a distant planet, crossing its dangerous inhabitants) makes AVATAR, in a sense, a bluer, less awesome ALIENS. The climactic battle, with Sully diving across plane wings and dangling from missiles, recalls TRUE LIES. Even the song that plays over the closing credits sounds surprisingly similar to ‘My Heart Will Go On’ from TITANIC. I don’t know, but assume its title is “My Heart’s Still Going On.”

Cameron, it appears, doesn’t have any real interest in contributing to cinematic dialectic apart from advancing its technology. He fills his brave new world with recognizable characters, well-trod arcs, and stock themes. Take for example “Saheri,” the electro-chemical bond that flows through the Na’vi, into all living things on Pandora. In one scene, as Sully attempts to ride a wild creature (one of several,) and Neytiri shouts out “Saheri,” Cameron might as well have subtitled it ‘use the force!’ That’s not to say all this doesn’t work as it should, just that the feeling one gets when sitting through the exposition of Saheri isn’t awe, it’s a gentle sense of déjà vu. And, though it’s not exactly ill-conceived, (Cameron set out to make a record-breaker, and that he has made,) this inescapable familiarity works against the capital ‘N’ Novelty that’s the only real triumph of the film.

Is it racist to say all the Na’vi look the same to me?

All right I admit it, I’m no Perfect Critic™. How could I be?! Of course my expectations for AVATAR are high,  (though when you’re talking about the man who made T2, I can’t say they were too high.) Let’s have some perspective. Compared to, say, this year’s preposterous continuation of Cameron’s TERMINATOR franchise, his newest is clearly a work of rigor and ingenuity; nor is it the product of a man so self-deluded and hopelessly lost in his toybox that he’s forgotten how to tell a tale that actually makes sense. (Click that link, seriously.) Perhaps if he’d made another interesting film in the past decade-plus since TITANIC, I might be more serene about this latest achievement. But all that’s memorable about AVATAR is how it looks. There are no indelible scenes, characters or relationships – only images… Jim, I sincerely hope you buy yourself something really special with my $15… $30 when I do AVATAR again in IMAX. After that, though, I’m fairly confident I’ll never see it again – not on anything less than the big screen. What would be the point?

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original publication of this post referred several times to James Cameron’s AVATAR as James Cameron’s MAVATAR. This error has since been caught, and mostly corrected.


Showcase Cinemas, North Haven, Connecticut

Saturday, December 26, 3:00pm showing