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.


TRANSFORMERS 3 Hates You Back.

4 07 2011

Michael Bay’s two-hour-and-forty-minute TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON has two good minutes. Let me describe them for you. Chicago is under siege by robuts, and an Army platoon whooshes down by ‘wingsuit’ into the windy city to do battle, like so many enlisted flying squirrels. It’s cool – and it stands out from the rest of the film for one reason: these are the only two minutes in which human beings actually do something interesting. Yes, we’ve got humans running and hiding behind things in the foreground as robuts duke it out, and we’ve got humans looking at video-screens and saying ‘those other humans don’t stand a chance against the robuts,’ (I’m paraphrasing,) but this wingsuit sequence is the one time in this action movie that humans are engaged in unique physical action.

At approximately the 2hr 15min mark, I began taking cellphone photos to amuse myself.

The miscalculation of many genre films in the last 20 years is based in the wasteful notion that computer-generated effects actually make entertainment more entertaining. But as long as people can tell the difference between what’s real and what’s impossible by sight, (as of 2011 we still can,) CG in ‘action movies’ will remain antithetical to the intended effect of the genre. We know when a punch is landing – and when a punch has been painstakingly digitally rendered to resemble landing… The TRANSFORMERS series, with barely a frame untouched by CG, is this folly taken to the extreme. At least I hope it’s the extreme.

Ahead of his newest, director Bay has been trumpeting 3D technology, claiming that he made this TRANSFORMER ‘specially – specially for you, America, ‘cause he loves you girl, with his warm non-demon heart… But the summer of 2011 finds us in a 3D backlash. (Why? Because my ticket was $20, that’s why.)  So, Bay’s hard selling, because he’s really made nothing new here but a movie that costs $5 more than his last one. Content-wise, trucks killing other trucks may have struck a chord in 2007, but since then, it’s just been more dead trucks: four years, three TRANSFORMERS, deal with it. OK Bay, as long as you’re this cravenly transparent in your greed, I salute you. Asshole.

There's so little actual transforming in this movie I don't even wanna talk about it.

Unfortunately, now Bay says his next film is going to be a “dark comedy.” My god. He actually thinks he’s funny, doesn’t he? The first hour of TRANSFORMERS 3 is filled with wild stabs at ugly humor; be it sexist, racist, or homophobic – yes, whichever of the three known types of humor you prefer, this movie’s got it! The jokes are so manic and mean-spirited it all makes you ask, did screenwriter Ehren Kruger actually sit down and type this darkness? Or was it Bay, shouting “gimme ‘broad and racist,’ and riff, Malkovich! Go!” Either way, Michael Bay does not know funny, and will never make a funny comedy. On that you have my word.

Reprising the role of Sam Witwicky in TRANSFORMERS 3 is a Shia LaBeoueuf, who looks easily 75 years old. His biggest trait this time around is a newfound sense of entitlement – which, though it’s not a good choice for a hero character, is probably the closest Bay’s ever come to autobiography. As Sam’s love interest Carly, model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley resembles the most beautiful camel I’ve ever seen. But definitely a camel. The previous female lead, actress of our time Megan Fox, is absent, after speaking ill of her director. Bay fired her for her insolence, but is now claiming that it was executive producer-slash-cinematic-emperor-uncle-figure Steven Spielberg who demanded Fox be let go after she compared Bay to Adolf Hitler. See, these TRANSFORMERS films, they’re decent, moral films. But Megan Fox crossed a line… Regardless of the truth of this new talking point, Bay’s repulsive tactic is just the same as Sarah Palin and her ilk use, claiming victimization to mask their own hate-spew. Hey, speaking of hate-spew, did I mention Bill O’Reilly’s in TRANSFORMERS 3? It’s pleasant.

Run, Shia! Run from 'Even Stevens'!

Steven Spielberg has changed the summer season at least three times. He more or less created the ‘high concept tentpole,’ marrying impossible premises with technological advancements year after year – and taking everybody’s money. And though he himself has never made anything as bad as this, TRANSFORMERS is Spielberg product, a malignancy on his body commercial, but also a natural outgrowth of it. The guy who had E.T. snarfing down Reese’s pieces in ’82 continues to put his name on state-of-the-art movies about aliens, and product placement – but TRANSFORMERS is the Spielberg algorithm in the hands of the wrong people; it’s as if the Nazis got the Ark after all. (Oops, is that a Hitler comparison? Am I fired?) It’s all technology, and no point, except profit. Spielly, look upon what ye have wrought… And as for you, Michael Bay, at this point no one is asking greatness – only a little competency. Yet here we blockbuster hooligans are, wishing for the ball to be moved down the field, and instead watching something so generic that the action is literally interchangeable.

I’m tired of Bay’s defenders saying things like “he doesn’t care about emotion or characters or plot, but he’s just so great at blowing things up.” Because it’s not that Bay doesn’t care. It’s that he doesn’t get it. It’s not a choice, it’s a mistake. Bay mistakes excess for excitement. Big and loud and ready to be lanced, TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON has no visceral effect whatsoever. Just – nothing. This movie is nothing.


Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

Friday, July 1, 7:30pm showing


10 01 2011

TRUE GRIT was the #1 film in the country this past weekend – and the Coens’ first ever to pass $100 million at the box office, mazel mazel fellas – so likely, you’ve already seen it. But, if you haven’t, stop reading.

Joel & Ethan Coen’s last film, A SERIOUS MAN, opened with a religious epigram: “Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you.” A suburban re-telling of Job, SERIOUS was a black comedy about the futility of seeking to know divine will, and the perils of attempting to; its preamble cryptic, and not a little sarcastic, considering the twisted parable that followed. And though the Coens’ follow-up, an adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel TRUE GRIT, also opens with an epigram, this time from Proverbs, its opening narration invokes an idea that’s fairly opposite the stance the boys took in their last outing. “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another,” announces our narrator, 14 year-old Mattie Ross. “There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.” To hear this put as natural fact is jarring, coming from the Coens. Apparently, after an entire career reassuring viewers of the underlying chaos of the universe, they’ve finally embraced the inescapable order of things. (Apparently, there is one.) ‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.’ This from the guys who let off friendo of the devil Anton Chigurh with just a broken arm.

Mind if I do a J?

Mattie, played by newcomer/keeper Hailee Steinfeld, goes after her father’s killer, Tom Chaney, (a strangely unrecognizable Josh Brolin.) To track him, she hires the most lethal Marshal she can find, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges.) What follows is all entertaining, humorous, gorgeously performed and photographed, but for the purposes of this lil’ blog entry, let’s skip right to the ending, shall we? (See: above spoiler warning.) In GRIT’s climax, Mattie gets her man with a shotgun. The blast propels her down a cave. In keeping with the film’s opening statement, it’s Mattie’s own squeeze of the trigger that sends her tumbling back. Once in the cave, she drags a nearby corpse toward her to access its blade – but in doing so, she unleashes a nest of vipers slumbering in the dead man’s chest. It all has the feel of a parable, as last time, but the Old Testament causality of A SERIOUS MAN was impossibly mysterious, and the brothers’ follow-up is too faithful to its Western genre roots to pose such open-ended questions. It’s a given, in GRIT, that violence begets violence: an unambiguous relationship.

Barry Pepper (right) co-stars as "Ned Pepper," apparently by sheer coincidence.

Though Cogburn saves Mattie from the pit of serpents, she’s already been bit – and ultimately loses an arm. Each of the characters of the film is marked by and according to their sins; equal and opposite reaction physicalized. Mattie the revenger draws death closer, and loses her limb. Grandiloquent Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon, terrific,) bites through his tongue – the price he pays for letting pride send him from his companions. Cogburn himself has one eye; the killer is a natural dead shot.

Unlike the Coens’ usual variety of killer, though, Cogburn actually reaches redemption through violence. (See: genre fidelity.) But lest you worry “redemption” translates to “softening,” the Coens of course know better, and Cogburn doesn’t get any nicer as TRUE GRIT goes, he stays satisfyingly gritty. Yes, Cogburn saves Mattie in the end, arriving in the nick of time – but when the girl is first taken by Ned Pepper’s gang, and Cogburn leaves her, he stays gone. LaBeouf explains later that the sole reason this plan came together was that he found Cogburn coming down the ridge, and only then did they decide to return together. In other words, Cogburn wasn’t about to turn around, he was leaving the girl for dead. Mattie’s rescue has as much to do with luck as with heroism.

Any visible change in Cogburn is held off practically until his last on-screen moment. The penultimate scene has Cogburn carrying Mattie on her horse, ‘Little Blackie,’ as he rides through the night to get help for her snakebite. Green-screen effects are very clearly used – artificiality that reminded me, for some reason, of the end of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, the escape downriver on an obvious soundstage. Both sequences are quiet, sharing a serene, fairy tale quality that highlights their characters’ connection with the natural world. When Little Blackie bucks, Cogburn stabs it in the haunches to spur it. And when it finally collapses, exhausted, he puts a bullet in its head – a choice that’s unnecessary, not to mention cruel. By modern limousine liberal standards at least.

Fear not, Matt Damon will return in 'True Grit 2: Too Grit.'

Having killed his ride, Cogburn picks up Mattie and carries her. Roger Deakins – don’t leave home without him – places Cogburn’s feet in the same shot as he did the horse’s feet. I mean hooves: we track, above and behind. Cogburn finally drops, too, and says, “I’ve grown old.” Equated with the horse, Cogburn’s taken the place of the thing he kills – not reducing the number of living in the world. A child’s life is saved, natural balance is restored, Cogburn is redeemed, and so concludes the most purely emotional portion of any Coen film – by about a four miles, I’d say. We’re a long way from the shock and awe of NO COUNTRY, or the noir amorality of MILLER’S CROSSING… or THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE… or THE BIG LEBOWSKI… or BLOOD SIMPLE…

It’s worth mentioning here, TRUE GRIT is the first Coen film on which this blog’s namesake appears. Yes Spielly himself is a credited executive producer here – and it’s fitting that of all the brothers’ films, this is the only one that even comes close to resembling a Spielberg product: the protagonist a kid in jeopardy, the antihero made whole, and justice served. Make no mistake, this is new territory for the Coens, who keep managing to do what they haven’t done before. At this point, the only kind of movie they have yet to make is a bad one.


Criterion Cinemas, New Haven, Connecticut

Saturday, December 25, 7:30pm showing


17 03 2010

At a time when our nation is so polarized, and its future so uncertain, I’d like to devote this blog post to something all Americans, regardless of partisan affiliation, should be able to agree upon: GREMLINS 2 THE NEW BATCH is an even better Gremlins film than the original GREMLINS.

Come come, you say, we have more important issues to address, more important debates to resolve than just those revolving around 1980’s & 90’s kids film rankings. But, reader, there are myriad other websites on which to engage in those crucial policy debates. Here on the Spielblog, we have our priorities completely fucking backwards – and that’s the way we like it.


Joe Dante (left) (I mean right)

GREMLINS 2 THE NEW BATCH has been a favorite of mine since I was in its target audience, so certainly some of my feelings toward it are tinged by nostalgia – but after a deeply mature and analytical re-visitation last night, I’m confident that this is a lasting gem of the horror-comedy genre, one full of treats not just for the casual viewer, but specifically for the cinephile. Here’s a movie packed front-to-back with movie references, from everything to RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II to MARATHON MAN – and the great majority of the in-jokes land with quick-fire consistency.

Director Joe Dante, an unsung hero of eighties pop filmmaking, came up alongside the very-sung hero of eighties pop filmmaking, Mr. Steven Spielblog- uh, berg. And though Dante became a lieutenant of Spielberg’s, so to speak (along with Chris Columbus and Joe Johnston,) helming the Spielbergian films that Spielly himself either didn’t have the time or inclination to shoot himself, Dante’s roots were always more deeply in the B-movie world than Spielberg’s. Dante’s first job out of college was cutting trailers for Roger Corman, and his first successes as director were the tongue-in-cheek creature features PIRANHA, and THE HOWLING. His love for B- or even Z-cinema, I think, is as undeniably infectious as it is undeniably prevalent in his body of work, which, it’s worth noting, is quite solid: following the original Spielberg-produced GREMLINS in 1984, Dante made EXPLORERS, INNERSPACE, and THE ‘BURBS, none of which are capital ‘G’ great films, but all of which are, yes, Great B-movies.  (He also directed a sizable chunk of the excellent and unseen 90’s TWILIGHT ZONE-esque young adult TV series EERIE, INDIANA…)


Dante’s masterpiece, and his most heartfelt paean to the B-movie industry, however, is 1993’s MATINEE, a film made with love, and a film to love. Here, John Goodman stars as larger than life schlockmeister Lawrence Woolsey, who arrives in small town America like a snake-oil Hitchcock, peddling his newest feature MANT! (half man, half ant, obviously) and in the process, manages to turn the town upside-down amid the Cuban Missile Crisis. Seek out MATINEE. It’s as fun as they come.

“Fun” really is the key descriptive in Joe Dante’s filmography. Though Spielberg and Dante’s most personal films were both released in the same year, they’re about as different as two personal statements can be. And while Spielly’s cut a somewhat darker path since ’93 in the second act of his American auteur-ship, Dante, the journeyman, has managed to make hay from a number of hokey premises. Though the 2000’s wasn’t nearly as strong a decade for him as the 80’s or 90’s, Dante’s name on the credits is always a guarantee of a very good time.

I refuse to believe I'm the only one aroused by this.

Nowhere is this truer than in GREMLINS 2 THE NEW BATCH, which I find myself gushing over this morning in the midst of several fever-pitch national crises. Sometimes, friends, it gets so bad all over, there’s nothing else to do but talk GREMLINS 2, if only to keep one’s self from reading Drudge and giving one’s self an ulcer… So! Before I go back to reading Drudge, I’ll just say this: apart from its rare Phoebe Cates sighting, and the hilarious John Glover as loopy Trump figure “Daniel Clamp,” what I love, really love about GREMLINS 2 THE NEW BATCH, is the fact that as a sequel, it fundamentally changes the format of its franchise – something even Spielberg’s own sequels haven’t ventured to do. (TEMPLE OF DOOM being the exception.) GREMLINS 2 THE NEW BATCH is a film not made to the specifications of its original. Sure, the same rules apply to the little buggers (say it with me now: no bright light, don’t get ‘em wet, and no food after midnight,) but this is a film that amps up the comedy of its premise to an almost Mel Brooksian level, while cutting back on the horror element of its significantly scarier predecessor. A wise decision; once you’ve seen the Gremlins metamorphose once, it’s diminishing returns from there on out. Dante and writer Charlie Haas clearly understand this – so rather than duplicate beat-for-beat that thing that made them rich the first time, they take a different tack, essentially switching genre, and garnering superior, though less financially lucrative results. That, Spielbloggees, is called risk-taking. And it’s something you don’t frequently see in studio filmmaking.

So, Joe Dante, god bless you. And god bless America.

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