Monday, November 29, 2010

Thrillers That Thrill (and Those That Don’t)

  
“When I came home there was a man in my house.  You FIND THAT MAN!”  (Harrison Ford, The Fugitive)

         
          From the last spine-tingling moment of Vertigo to the crap acting/plot of Law Abiding Citizen, thrillers have thrilled and bored audiences far and wide.

AFI (The American Film Institute for all you non-fanac’s) puts out best 100 lists for pretty much every genre.  I cheated and read some of their stuff to jog my memory, but here are my own picks on thrillers (and since I’m such a feel good person I added a second list): those that rock and those that suck.  Ass!


The GREATS (in no real order)

·         The Fugitive.  You just can’t get any better than that.  Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones in his Oscar role, killer story (no pun intended), and kick-ass heart-stopping direction.  A classic.  Must-see-it!

Air Force One does NOT make this list because though Ford rocks the plane, it’s still cardboard round the edges.

·         The Conversation: under-rated and much better than Hackman’s more famous French Connection, which also gets cut from my top picks.  The fact that Harrison Ford pokes his head in has almost nothing to do with it!  I was on the edge for most the movie.  The drama is excellent, the suspense – real pins and needles stuff.  Enter a world you’ve never seen before and will never see again as only Hackman (who otherwise always annoys me) and Coppola (that Godfather guy) can take you to.

·         The Sixth Sense: should be on every movie all-time-greats list, truly paramount (who made that again?).  Shyamalan has not even come close to this level since and neither has anybody else ever.

·         Okay, AFI put Raiders of the Lost Ark (my favorite movie, yeah laugh it up) on their top thriller list and it’s on mine as action/adventure.  Just couldn’t leave that out and create unnecessary confusion.  Right.  Moving on…

·         The Third Man: classic Orson Wells (acting), from the Greene novel adapted also by him.  Yeah it’s black and white, get over it.  Some of the best films are, including (99% of) Spielberg’s 1993 Schindler’s List3M is comparatively slow but gripping and resolves fantastically in Eastern European grandeur that became a landmark for future film.

·         The Silence of the Lambs: psycho-thriller but still the very best of that genre!  All it’s sequels and prequels failed, but the Anthony Hopkins/Jodie Foster duo lashes out at the audience (pun intended).  I mean, when a film wins Best Actor, Actress, Picture, Director, and Screenplay – it’s time to see it!  If you dare.

     Spy Game.  Very good, but it doesn’t make the list.  Besides, what genre is that anyway?  Spy?  James Bond and all that.

      I also like what Guy Ritchie did for the modern attention span with Sherlock Holmes, but no go either.  Deal with it.


          And a note on genres.  Thrillers are not to be confused with action flicks, though many are very close and perhaps there’s an overlap somewhere (let me know).  Lethal Weapon and Die Hard (both 1-4!) are action – purposefully unbelievable and fun, and sometimes funny.  LW1 is great here.  Another blog post for another time.


The thrillers that SUCK!

          Many of these are because of overused special effects (as opposed to story), cliché, or just way too over the top.  I immediately add 88 Minutes in the spur of the moment because that was way too contrived.  Like pulling a rabbit out of a hat with a covered rabbit cage.  We are not impressed.

·         The DaVinci Code and Angel’s and Demons: not just because it’s bullshit (and fiction but hell, would you want someone to write fiction about your Mom?  I love that guy, dammit!).  Both SUCK just as films.  Okay, we can tell Ron Howard (great director) had a hand, the actors are top notch, there’s money behind this, but damn – just watch it for yourself: was not on the edge of my seat at all and the resolution in A&D was like, what’s the opposite of Deus ex machina so as not to offend the atheist Dan Brown?  Leave a comment.

·         I love Sam Jackson in the right movies and Kevin Spacey is AMAZING in The Usual Suspects (get that off this list, it’s great) and also his perfect role in American Beauty – both of which got him Oscars; but The Negotiator sucks man (/woman).  Just kept going when it never turned me on, movie wise.  Dumb, flat thriller.

·         Enemy of the State: everything The Conversation wasn’t: over-hyped, terrible.  Why I usually don’t like Gene Hackman (that and The Voyage of the Posieden) and why Will Smith sometimes looks like a poser.  But he is talented (Ali, MiB, Pursuit of Happyness!!!).

·         The Rock.  Shoot me.  I don’t like it.  Plastic, they insult the Marines, Nicholas Cage sucks.  It’s on the top lists of many guys.  I don’t really know why.  There’s a lot of guy stuff in it but it could have been great as a movie.  I said “could have been.”

·         Face-Off: I couldn’t even finish it.  I have a new respect for John Travolta thanks to Pulp Fiction and Quentin Tarantino, but I hate Nicholas Cage (his acting: that know-it-all put-me-to-sleep eye crap).  He is great in Adaptation (and I mean GREAT!) and I want to see his Oscar win Leaving Las Vegas because of Adapt.  Maybe I will shoot myself afterwards.  But Face-Off sucked!  I couldn’t finish it, and I always finish movies.

·         The Island: more sci-fi, and I love Ewan McGregor, but a tanker.  Interesting concept.  I fell asleep, not because I was tired either.

·         Firewall: Harrison Ford is in it.  Yeah, that’s how much it sucked.  I – the biggest HF fan condemn an HF movie.  He rocked, but it sucked.  Enough said.


Unfortunately, I believe there are more bad films than good ones and when I say “bad” I mean artistically.  Morally is another story.  If the point is to push a moral, usually it’s cheap and incredibly stupid.  I gave it a number once: like 90% of films that come out suck.  Maybe that’s a little overstated.

There are many films missing on both lists but these are picks not all-inclusive, AFI organized.  Somebody send me a million dollars and I’ll give you one of those.

Enjoy the movies!

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Cera

“McLovin? What kind of a stupid name is that, Fogell? What, are you trying to be an Irish R&B singer?”  (Superbad, 2007)


One more thing to add to the “Good Things That Came from Canada” list: his name is Michael Cera.


I’ve never seen such awesome subtle humor.  Having worshipped Bill Murray and memorized every line from Ghostbusters as a kid, Michael Cera was off to a good start to create a humor of his own.  Frequently playing the awkward, nerdy good-hearted type kid, Mike seems to squeeze the laugher out of every shot with his electric underacting.


#1 on Entertainment Weekly’s “30 Under 30” actors and an icon in his own right, Cera humbly states that, “I'm not really trying to make 'great art,'” though many would argue that’s where a lot of great art comes from in the first place.


          Like most early-rise actors, Cera began in commercial and bit roles, including the young Gordy (Jim Caviezel’s friend) in Frequency, almost landing the role that went to Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, which Osment was great in.  I am grateful for that, which perhaps saved Cera from tragically becoming a failed serious typecast like Osment.


          Mike’s breakout came in TV’s Arrested Development, which I still haven’t seen (crazy about movies, just don’t watch TV) – acclaimed (with uncontrolled laugher) by pretty much everyone I talk to that’s seen it.


          From there, Cera hit the movies with Superbad, the Seth Rogen supernaughty-superfunny comedy that co-starred Jonah Hill and skyrocketed both of the young actors’ comic careers.



Gym Teacher: Evan, get into the game.
Evan (Michael Cera): Kick it over... to me.
Gym Teacher: Seth, get off the field!
Evan: Dude, get out of here. There gonna make me run laps again.
[…]

Gym Teacher: [Blows whistle] Seth, get off the field!
Seth (Jonah Hill): [Kicks soccer ball into the stands] Goal!
Gym Teacher: You're getting that!
Seth: No I'm not. (Superbad)


          Juno, the serious but entertaining flick that was nominated for Best Picture showed Cera’s more dramatic side, while holding on to the humor of it all.



Like I'd marry you! You'd be the meanest wife ever, okay? And I know that you weren't bored that day because there was a lot of stuff on TV, and then 'The Blair Witch Project' was coming on Starz and you were like 'I haven't seen this since it came out and if so we should watch it' and then 'but oh, no, we should just make out instead la la la.' (Juno)


          The flops I haven’t seen because all I hear is crap about them are Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist (cliché teen chic flick) and Year One with Jack Black (crude and no comedy), though I highly doubt Cera’s acting is to blame.


          He made Paper Heart with his then-real life girlfriend Charlyne Yi, a humorous docu-drama which is fair, but which Cera shines in.


          His most recent Youth in Revolt and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World are priceless hilarious films: the former being more funny and well made, the latter showing his cult following in the various filmmaker tributes to the Cera himself.


Nick Twisp and Francois Dillinger: I'm gonna wrap your legs around my head and wear you like the crown that you are.
Nick Twisp and Francois Dillinger: If that's OK with you. (Youth in Revolt)


          He enjoys playing guitar, which plays a part in Scott Pilgrim as well as Juno and according to Ellen Page, his Juno co-star, “He’s quite good at it.”


“I sort of gave up my ambition to be handsome,” he says, “I was excited about people thinking I was an idiot.

          On his love of awkward silences: “Yeah, that's my favorite thing. I always kind of end up in situations where I don't know too many people, and I'm not very social, and I feel, you know, extremely uncomfortable. But there's some secret pleasure I take in things like that, in things going horribly wrong.”



If anyone is getting raped in that van, it'll be a guy. (Nick & Nora’s)

No, I don't like Katrina. She smells like soup. Have you ever smelled her? I mean, her whole house smells like soup! (Juno)


Nick Twisp: Sheeni, hi, nice to see you. I was just going for a walk, and I thought I'd drop by. I remembered that you lived here. I'm sorry I got so upset about Trent. It was very immature of me. I'm not normally like that. He sounds like a great guy. I'd love to hear more of his neat poetry. Say, do you want to go to the beach or get breakfast?
Sheeni Saunders: Actually I'm going on a hike. I'd ask you to come along, but you haven't got any hiking boots, provisions, survey maps, or a compass.
Nick Twisp: Fine. I do all of my hiking free form. Like John Muir, I enter the wilderness with nothing more than my journal and a child-like sense of wonder. (YiR)



Up next for Mike?  An Arrested Development movie and hopefully an acting career beyond teen kid roles.  Leonardo DiCaprio has continuously broken out of child-acting, a rare feat.  It’s my guess Cera’s goanna do it too.  God knows he’s got the talent.

Mr. Ferguson: Nick, why are you naked too?
Nick Twisp: Solidarity? (YiR)


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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The New Animagic

          You’ve seen the flashy-slick trailer for the new Harry Potter flick due to pack theaters this weekend.  You may even be one of those who helped break Fandago’s advance sales record.  Pumped right?


          Now imagine that movie without computer-generated special effects.

          Not cool.

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          From the first time you were enchanted by Disney watching Cinderella, The Great Mouse Detective, or Beauty and the Beast while eating your Cheerios©; to the claymation stop-motion of Chicken Run; the CGI Yoda in Star Wars, Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, the whole new world in Cameron’s Avatar; up to the fully animated CGI features (Shrek, Toy Story, and Antz) – you’ve been struck by animagic!


          With the technical advancements that brought us from cheap robots in The Terminator to fully acted and animated features like The Polar Express, the cost of animated films has raised more than a few executives’ eyebrows considerably.  However, with an average of $100 million and considerable time invested in CGI animated films, producers are making sure scripts are perfect and stories are golden (“Plot being the most important element of fiction.” –Aristotle).

          The results are win-win: everybody loves the films and the movies make five times their cost.


          It’s no Hollywood secret that kids’ films makes the most money, especially those that also appeal to adult audiences (Shrek, Up, Toy Story), cause the whole family goes, twice even.  Every teenager knows you can’t even (are not supposed to) get in to an “R” rated film without an adult guardian, though it is usually a film of this age-level that gets the Oscar.


          Not all CGI is magic.  Already, the market is widening to include flat note flops like Madagascar and A Shark’s Tale (story sucked), and Final Fantasy which brought in less money than it cost (characteristic of computer game based movies to totally suck).


          There is hope.  Anyone who saw Up!, Toy Story 3, Despicable Me, or Avatar know that we are entering a beautiful brave new world where directors can catch any angle of any actor in any indefinite possible universe.


          Though someday, “Humphrey Bogart” will star (CGI) in a new classic, and nothing will replace original real cam Casablanca’s and Saving Private Ryan’s, CGI is here to stay.  And I think it is the start of a beautiful friendship.


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Friday, November 12, 2010

Quentin Fiction


          "Sure, Kill Bill's a violent movie. But it's a Tarantino movie. You don't go to see Metallica and ask the fuckers to turn the music down."[1]

          In case you were wondering, this post is about Quentin Tarantino.


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          Besides being my second favorite director, he’s the unabashed eccentric that was sued for $5 million for assaulting a guy in a restaurant, ranked high on the “want to work with directors” lists of most actors, and was a guest judge on the 2004 version of American Idol.[ibid]  In other words, he’s talented and takes no shit.  An understatement.


          His 1992 breakout film, Reservoir Dogs won him instant fame and both commercial and critical success.  His unmatched screenwriting skills introduced us to his famous signature dialogue: long, real, deep, and knock-your-pants-off.  His cinematography: realistic, precise, and brutally mesmerizing.


Tarantino also introduced us to the rare phenomenon of a director successfully acting in his own films, taking more than bit-roles but coming off as real as the top-flight actors that had memorized his golden words.


          By the time Pulp Fiction rolled around in ’94, he could already attract an all-star cast and give new life to old numbers.  John Travolta got his Oscar nomination alongside Sam Jackson’s for supporting male.  Travolta’s performance is incredible, vivified by QT’s epic script and direction.  If not for Forrest Gump, Q’s Fiction would have cleaned house at every awards’ ceremony of the year.


"[Y]ou go to the awards ceremonies all year long; you keep losing to Forrest Gump! It's really annoying the hell out of you - what do you do? You go to the MTV Awards!" (Tarantino at the MTV Awards Ceremony)[ibid]


He did manage to get the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes for PL, about which he humbly states: “There's only one list that's more illustrious than the list of directors who won the Palme d'Or. It's the list of directors who didn't.”[ibid]

Pulp Fiction remains one of my favorite films for its ingenious and transcendental storytelling.  As a novelist-turned-filmmaker, Tarantino intro’s his films (especially Inglorious Bastards) with book-like grandeur and, especially in the case of Fiction, he plays with the timeline so as to capitalize on a seemingly unimportant conversation between Tim Roth’s petty thief and Sam Jackson’s ruthless hit man at his finest moment.  I won’t spoil the film for you, but if you can overcome “shock and awe” (magically artistic in the line of great noir painters) you may experience the cathartic redemptive ending.  Awesome.  Nuf said.

Kill Bill (Volumes 1&2, 2003 & 2004, respectfully) were films of a different color.  A rebirth of the Japanese style action flicks and hybrid spaghetti western, KB is the truly epic story of the justice and vengeance of a woman who had everything taken away.  It keeps you rooting for her every step of the way like you’ve never rooted for a hero(ine) before!

Quentin’s awesome (just can’t put a different adjective there) usage of Japanimation and spec effect fighting are, well, awesome.  And I almost cried at the dramatic dialogue at the end of Volume 2.  Okay, I won’t say anymore, you just have to see it!

On the epic battle scene at the end of Volume 1: “Funny.  Solemn.  Beautiful.  Gross.  All at the same time.” (QT) [ibid]

On the violence in general (graphically brutal and in your face), classic Tarantino:

Quentin:                       When I was on The View, Barbara Walters was asking me about the blood and stuff.  And I said, “Well you know it’s a staple of Japanese cinema.”  And then she came back,

Barbara Walters:          But this is America.

Quentin:                       And I go, “I don’t make movies for America.  I make movies for planet Earth.”[ibid]


As my brother would say, “Owned!”

For Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s ’97 “between greats” flic, Tarantino attracts an all-star cast and writes an interesting miss-mash of events story, Pulp-style.  Viewers consider it the lesser of his major films but still good among movies.  The final elongated sequence of Jackie Brown staring out the window of her getaway car demonstrates to me the unrivaled genius of QT’s music usage in his films.  I still get that cathartic rush remembering Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” playing over the still and masterful acting of Pam Grier.



On language offensive to African Americans, especially in Brown which showcased a small part of the black underworld, Spike Lee publically criticized Quentin; to which Quentin retaliated on Howard Stern characteristically saying Lee would have to “stand on a chair and kiss my ass.”[ibid]

Samuel L. Jackson also defended Tarantino:


Black artists think they are the only ones allowed to use the word. Well, that's bull. Jackie Brown is a wonderful homage to black exploitation films. This is a good film, and Spike hasn't made one of those in a few years.[ibid]


        Denzel Washington confronted QT on the same matter, but added Tarantino was a “fine artist.”[ibid]

          Inglorious Basterds was another explosive QT film that won both fans and critics, receiving nominations for various major Oscars including Best Picture, garnering the supporting award for Christoph Waltz as the incredibly cold Col. Hans Landa.[2]

On Basterds being not just a revenge fantasy about World War II, but a torture and terrorism fantasy:

Definitely. You took it right out of my mouth. Yes. I mean, basically what they're doing - you described it really, really well. To put in even shorter nutshell, they're actually doing literally the Apache resistance, but against the Nazis, against the Germans. […] We've never seen it before. I was trying to do like a spaghetti western but using World War II iconography. So in my re-imagining of this whole thing, I kind of placed the Jews as the Indians in this scenario. And that is part of the whole thing. You know, when they say they ambush a German patrol of six guys and then they scalp them, maybe even take their shoes off, so when they are found there is even less dignity in the death - all these little things that they do.[ibid]

          On critics: “It feels like the critics are IMDB-ing everything I do. It just rubs me the wrong way because they end up using it as a stick to beat me down with.”[ibid]

On how a remake of The Dirty Dozen is impossible: “Ernest Borgnine.  Charles Bronson.  Those guys were real men, […] a different breed.  Many of them had been to war.  Today’s young actors are soft.”[ibid]

On Late Night with Conan O’Brien, responding to how he comes up with such great writing: “Well, not to be facetious or anything, but… I’m a good writer!”[ibid]

QT fans are already very hopeful about his announcement of Kill Bill 3 (2014, groan!) which undoubtedly will reach record-breaking status on Rotten Tomatoes’ anticipated polls.  You can bet I’m going to see whatever he puts out next.

His advice to aspiring filmmakers: “"If you want to make a movie, make it. Don't wait for a grant, don't wait for the perfect circumstances, just make it."[ibid]  Whoa.


On "rival" Guy Ritchie’s marriage to Madonna: "I guess I'll have to marry Elvis Presley to get even."[ibid]


A high school dropout, despite being 60 points above average I.Q., whenever asked whether he went to film school, the great screenwriter/director replies, “No, I went to films.”[ibid]