Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: May 2009

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Writings on Cinema

I've always meant to talk about this, and thanks to MovieMan0283, of The Dancing Image, now I get my chance. In discussing books that have influenced his exploration of cinema, he tagged me to do the same, saying:
In his fairly regular comments on this and other blogs, Tony utilizes a strong sense of history and a passion for context in discussing a given film. I'm curious as to where this information came from; and for whatever reason, I have trouble guessing his favorite books (except, of course, for Guide for the Film Fanatic, which he explicitly mentioned earlier today when responding to my Great Movies post...).
I post this quote because it speaks to the way I look at all film. If one looks at cinema as art, whether its a crappy flick like Drop Dead Fred (1991) or a shining instance of world cinema like The Conformist (1970), then one must never forget to look at it in context. Art does not exist in a vacuum, and so, neither does cinema. A cinematic work is an expression influenced by the forces extant at the time of its creation. It is always a reaction to the current politics, economy, cinematic movements, or artist's biographical circumstances. Often times, this reaction does not reveal itself to the film's creators. It can even evolve with the passage of time. Hindsight has definitely changed the regard for many a film, and still continues to do so. But it is a rich area for those of us who "read" films to mine. So in perusing the documents that I've chosen - because they have held the greatest sway over the way I look at movies - consider that all of these have something to offer in the way of contextualizing cinema. Guide for the Film Fanatic by Danny Peary (1986) - This is the book that never leaves my side. Better known for his Cult Movies book series, Peary is into sports writing now (he is a writer-researcher for The Tim McCarver Show), but I just found some recent film-related posts by him at Brink. Film Fanatic has a bit of a cult following around the intertubes, and with good reason. Peary's concise reviews are illuminating in a scholarly way while excising the pretentious language that readers often get mired in when reading a journal. His often quirky takes on well-dissected classics may sound eccentric at first, but he is usually able to back up his claims with some persuasive points. Here's his take on Taxi Driver (1976):
Film is a reworking of John Ford's The Searchers, with De Niro assuming John Wayne's Ethan Edwards role. Again we have a war veteran, a social misfit, an outcast, who is obsessed with rescuing a young girl (after failing to rescue a young woman) from her long-haired lover - although she is happy where she is - in order to purify his own soul (on the pretext of purifying the girl's soul). Like Ethan, he was on the non-victorious side in what he believes was a war of liberation. That's why they are so fanatical about liberating young girls from foreign camps.
And his humor can be devastatingly acute, evident in his very positive - yet mildly sarcastic - review for The Terminator (1984):
Still, the film has appeal to the soldier-of-fortune crowd and guys who like to crush beer cans on their head. They consider the Terminator their (fascist) hero, enjoy the spectacular gunplay, and are aware that the film is punctuated by pain.
Peary's best quality is to treat all films democratically. Be they the cult films he specializes in (Pink Flamingos), porn flicks (Deep Throat), or canonical cinema (Citizen Kane), all merit a slot in his book - which covers over 1600 titles. Film Comment (1990-2000) - Though I still pick up the occasional copy (the latest one has a great piece on Jarmusch's The Limits of Control by Kent Jones), the high point in this journal's lifetime is the 10 years in which Richard T. Jameson was the editor. Published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the issue pictured above (July-August 1991) is a great example of the quantity of greatness one could find in each square inch of this seminal magazine. Here's a short rundown of some of the stories found in this issue's pages: An analysis of Delusion (1991) by Donald Lyons; a tribute to Billy Wilder by Andrew Sarris; an exploration of Graham Greene by David Thomson; a Brando appreciation by Richard Schickel; Nestor Almendros on Sergei Eisenstein; Scanners' Jim Emerson on Hanna Schygulla. And I only randomly picked this issue up from my basement. Under Jameson's watch, the magazine's annual roundup of the best films and notable performances (as put forth by numerous critics polled) was frequently upstaged by "Moments Out of Time," a roundup of the best cinematic moments of the previous year, by Jameson and Kathleen Murphy (both now contribute to Parallax View) which they now publish over at MSN Movies. The 100 Best Films to Rent You've Never Heard Of by David N. Meyer (1997) - Well, the title may be a bit of an overstatement if you are a serious film buff. The style in which the book is presented, in which each film is sub-categorized by attitude and mood, is a little too EW for me (Meyer, in fact, did write for Entertainment Weekly). But the films recommended in this book are spot-on in terms of their cult appeal. From foreign classics like Godard's Contempt (1963) to American neo-noir like Mann's Thief (1981), his choices run the gamut of cinematic genres. And he focuses on details others miss, as when he discusses the latter film, "Caan's thief is as American as can be: He distrusts language, derives his identity from his work, and has a chip on his shoulder the size of Mount Rushmore." Currently Meyer posts film reviews at The Brooklyn Rail. Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman (1983) - Academy Award-winning screenwriter Goldman describes how one should approach screenplays:
I write screenplays to be read. So does Jo Jo, The Dog Face Boy, obviously. What I mean is that, from the very beginning, I've tried to make my screenplays reading experiences, much like a book or play. So I don't mess around much with intricate camera instructions. (At least i don't think I do. I talked to a star once who said, "You goddam screenwriters - putting in all that camera crap - trying to direct the picture is all you're doing. I hate all that camera crap. Just put down the words, I'll do the rest." I later had occasion to read a screenplay this star had done. It was so full of "camera crap" you could throw up.)
Goldman's sage advice, dishy anecdotes, and practical writing instruction merge to form a helluva read. And makes you long for the days when screenwriters were actually conversant with the English language rather than just spitting out reconstituted scenes from films they have watched. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind (1998) - Did I say Goldman was dishy? Biskind, a former executive editor at Premiere and former editor in chief of American Film, offers more gossip in one page than Goldman does over the course of his entire book. Some may have a problem with this, but I find it relevant to establishing the evolving mores of the time while covering the close camaraderie of the film school generation:
Brian [De Palma] brought his friends over, and others came as well. On any given weekend, [Actress Jennifer] Salt found herself cooking for De Palma, [Steven] Spielberg, [Peter] Boyle, [screenwriter Jacob] Brackman, John Milius, Richard Dreyfuss, director Walter Hill, Bruce Dern, writer David Ward, and so on. Even [Bob] Rafelson occasionally came to the beach. They grilled steaks, ate spaghetti, tossed salads. Recalls Salt, "I was always thinking, Should it be chili and the three-bean salad and the cheesecake, or should we barbecue chicken - Oh, Steven doesn't like it when I cut up zucchini in the salad, Marty [Scorsese] likes the chili - that was where I was at. I cooked for these boys, gave lots of parties, made them take drugs and take their pants off and get down." Adds [Margot] Kidder, "The reality was that we always got the drugs and we always got the food and we basically served our guys, the whole time putting down the notion that we as women would do that. There was a real contradiction in what we perceived ourselves to be doing and what in fact we were doing."
Enlightening and gripping, Easy Riders brings the seventies American film movement into focus by revealing how the changing times left their mark on the new Hollywood. Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris (2008) - In the age of "New Media," where trained journalists are losing ground to many of my fellow bloggers - some of who are quick to print unsubstantiated rumors - EW writer Mark Harris' book stands as a paean to the rewards of good research. His meticulously footnoted volume looks at the beginning of the New Hollywood through the prism of the Best Picture-nominated films of 1967, the year in which many say the release of Bonnie and Clyde launched "the seventies" if not literally, then in spirit. Here, Harris sets the record straight on Pauline Kael's "discovery" of the film:
Kael's statement that "the whole point of Bonnie and Clyde is to rub our noses in it, to make us pay our dues for laughing," her understanding that "we don't take our stories straight anymore - Bonnie and Clyde is the first film demonstration that the put-on can be used for the purposes of art," and her awareness of the "eager, nervous imbalance" in which the movie intended to hold its audience all seemed uncannily in synch with the intentions of Robert Benton and David Newman. It was no accident. Though she didn't disclose it in the piece, she had taken the screenwriters out to lunch before writing her essay and gotten an earful of their motives, their admiration for the French New Wave, and their storytelling strategy. Her remark that "though one cannot say of Bonnie and Clyde to what degree it shows the work of Newman and Benton... there are ways of making guesses" was deeply disingenuous but very much in line with her pooh-poohing of "the new notion that direction is everything." Unsurprisingly, she made it clear that she didn't see the movie as Arthur Penn's accomplishment, although she praised him for the staging and editing of the dance-of-death sequence, which she called "a horror that seems to go on for eternity, and yet... doesn't last a second beyond what it should."
Pictures at a Revolution is a great book to read before you move on to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch (2006) - Here we get a glimpse into the artistic mind, from a film director whose very impenetrability seems to be part of his allure. Through his exploration of transcendental meditation, and the effects it has had on his own creativity, Lynch reveals tidbits of interest to any of his longtime admirers. On his first film:
Eraserhead is my most spiritual movie. No one understands when I say that, but it is. Eraserhead was growing in a certain way, and I didn't know what it meant. I was looking for a key to unlock what these sequences were saying. Of course, I understood some of it; but I didn't know the thing that just pulled it all together. And it was a struggle. So I got out my Bible and I started reading. And one day, I read a sentence. And I closed the Bible, because that was it; that was it. And then I saw the thing as a whole. And it fulfilled this vision for me, 100 percent. I don't think I'll ever say what that sentence was.
Well the guy has to preserve some of his mystery. But who knew the Bible had ANY influence on Eraserhead. A quick read, this seeming trifle ends up being deeper than it looks. Anyone can join in with their own lists, either on their own sites or the comments section. Please link to myself and The Dancing Image if you follow up with a list at your own site. I would like to tag the following folks: Campaspe the Self-Styled Siren who, in all honesty, I'm most excited about if only to find out where she gets so many of her wonderful Old Hollywood anecdotes from. Ed Howard at Only the Cinema. Ed is a prolific writer, and I'm willing to bet, an avid reader. Fletch at Blog Cabins, because I can never predict what his reaction to a movie will be. Sometimes it's right in line with mine. Other times he is on the opposite side of the spectrum. Jon Lanthier at The Lanthier Powerstrip, whose eclectic tastes and articulate form of expressing himself always lures this writer to his site. T.S. at Screen Savour, a silent movie and Hitchcock devotee that has an astute sense of what goes into great cinema, regardless of genre or era.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Movie Review: Drag Me to Hell

With Drag Me to Hell, director Sam Raimi (Spider-Man) returns to the humor-laced horror subgenre he mined so successfully in his Evil Dead trilogy. Inventive in its staging and photography (credit in part goes to frequent Lynch collaborator, Peter Deming), the movie is clever. But, for better or worse, some of the cheeky humor seems quaint in today's post-"torture porn" era. And though I felt like I was sometimes the only spectator in on the joke, it didn't make me feel smarter as much as it made me feel older and out of step. Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a loan officer, recently transplanted to the West coast, and insecure about her past as a small-town, overweight farm girl. You get the sense that she'll do anything to repress her origins. She has a boyfriend, Clay (Justin Long), who comes from money; she dismisses her cravings for ice cream by pretending she's lactose intolerant; and she's even willing to help her bank evict frail, old Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) from her house to get the promotion she desperately pursues. But Mrs. Ganush, a powerful gypsy witch, places a curse on her. For three days, Christine will be tormented by a goat-demon, the Lamia, before she is ultimately dragged into hell, for all eternity. Raimi and cinematographer Deming collaborated before, on Evil Dead II and Darkman. Like those movies, there's a gag-inflected aesthetic to most of the staging and shot designs. And the jokes are successful. When Christine retreats into her bedroom, as the spirit of the Lamia creeps up the steps, there is a cut to a p.o.v. shot of the locked door from her vantage point in the room. As the long shadow of the Lamia stretches into the room slowly through the crack of light underneath the door, one can't help but chuckle at the poster hanging next to the entrance - of a cat dangling by its paws -captioned, "Hang on, baby." But the humor has an innocent, juvenile nature to it, that seems immature in today's era of horror commingled with gore and sexuality. When Mrs. Ganush attacks Christine in a tool shed, the speedy cuts of the old lady sticking her arm elbow deep into Christine's mouth are more Bugs Bunny than phallic. Evocative of Ash's fight against his demon-possessed hand in Evil Dead II, the camera rapidly gives us the Rube Goldberg-like geography depicting the placement of a hanging anvil, as Christine quickly cuts the rope with an ice skate she finds in the shed, squashing the old gypsy like Wile E. Coyote. Yeah, I get Raimi's brand of comic scares. I've been a casual fan of his for most of his career. But even though Drag Me to Hell's clever frights are a lot more ingenious than much of what you see in horror today, and the film has a phenomenal finale, I was left somewhat sad. For once, I feel like a good filmmaker has pulled out all the stops to impress me, but I've simply outgrown his sensibility. Drag Me to Hell opens in theaters nationwide this Friday.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Year 2001: Counting Down the Zeroes - Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)

David Lynch's Mulholland Drive began life as a TV pilot for ABC, the same network which aired Twin Peaks - Lynch's greatest mainstream success. It would be interesting to see how each show would fare in today's television landscape, one where serialized shows like Lost have succeeded, in part because ratings expectations are much lower and cable's serials lead the pack in competing for viewers' attention. In any case, the TV network was not ready for a mysterious drama set in Los Angeles where the central MacGuffin was two women's search for one's forgotten identity. So Lynch did something similar to what he did for the European theatrical release of the Twin Peaks pilot. He fashioned a lengthy ending, tying up the open-ended plotline, and got the rights to release the film theatrically. Naomi Watts plays Betty, a stereotypical Midwestern woman who moves to Hollywood to become an actress. Naive and overeager, she is determined to prove herself in the corrupt industry town. Meanwhile, a woman receives a head injury in a car accident on Mulholland Drive. Dazed, she finds her way into the apartment that Betty is moving into. Betty runs across the enigmatic accident victim in her very own shower, a woman struggling to remember her identity who starts calling herself Rita (Laura Elena Harring) after spotting a poster of Gilda in Betty's apartment. Subplots and seemingly unrelated characters intrude on the central plot. No doubt these were to be coherent subplots on the prospective TV series. One such storyline involves rising movie director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), whose luck turns for the worse after being threatened by two heavies seeking to cast one Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) as the star of his next picture. These plots would have continued and tied in to the main story had Mulholland Drive gone to series. Instead, Lynch uses them to fold the movie in on itself, tying Camilla and Adam to Rita in the film's climax, bringing up questions of identity and reality versus surreality, themes that recur often within Lynch's work, but are distilled here to their purest form. One can almost see the invisible line that Lynch draws at the point where Mulholland Drive departs from its relatively conventional TV origins to the surreal realm in which he frequently wanders. It is about an hour and a half in when the movie metamorphoses from a neo-noir Nancy Drew to a haunting exploration of the obsessive ardor Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts again) feels for Camilla Rhodes (Laura Elena Harring again). Diane awakes into a nightmare of a life, as if the first part of the film was a desperate dream formed by her fragile mind to put things right in her sad existence. Whereas Betty and Rita make love after bonding over the mystery of Rita's identity, Camilla rebuffs Diane, choosing director Adam instead. The promise Betty displayed as an actress in the first part has evaporated, with Adam giving the lead role in his film to Camilla rather than Diane. Identities transmute into new ones. The real merges with the surreal in the most necessary way yet for a Lynch film. The director even finds moments to comment on the part he plays as a master of ceremonies in these proceedings, as evoked by the stage magician that helps usher in the tonal shift at the point of departure in the film. Consciously or not, Lynch refers to other works of his including those that have yet to be: once, when he enlists Rebekah Del Rio to sing her version of Orbison's "Crying" (Blue Velvet's iconic scene where Dean Stockwell mimes to Orbison's "In Dreams"); once again, when the electrical surges of the magic show help to transmogrify Betty into Diane (Lost Highway, Twin Peaks); and finally, when the actress' descent into madness foreshadows the insanity of Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) in Inland Empire (2006). Mulholland Drive is the apotheosis of Lynch's filmography, transcending its humble TV beginnings to become one of the best films of the decade. This post was first published at Film for the Soul for its continuing series on the best movies of the 2000s, Counting Down the Zeroes, on 5/17/09.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Movie Review: Valentino: The Last Emperor

Valentino: The Last Emperor is a love letter of a sort to Valentino Garavani, the iconic Italian fashion designer. Unfortunately, due to our recessionary times, the type of opulence that the film celebrates - in fact, it seems to be endorsed as a lost quality in the world of haute couture - now feels quaint and anachronistic. And I'm not certain director Matt Tyrnauer, a Special Correspondent for Vanity Fair, was entirely conscious of the irony. The film follows the declining fortunes of Valentino, as his business falls prey to, not only the designer's own taste for excess, but also the rise of corporatism in the 21st century. Valentino exists in a world of dreams and affluence, insulated from harsher realities by his partner, both in business and in life, Giancarlo Giammetti. Giammetti handles the day-to-day aspects of running Valentino's fashion empire, stubbornly refusing to give in to Valentino's petty fits of rage or his capricious whims. But even Giammetti's toughness seems naive when seen in relief to the soulless corporation that eventually takes over the Valentino Fashion Group. Tyrnauer presents Valentino as a man whose ambitions seems to be sufficient to justify his excesses and disregard for the realities of business. But I came away with far less respect for him than for his partner Giammetti. While Valentino had already sent his first fashion house into decline when he met him, Giammetti was instrumental in turning the business around and marketing the fashion brand to the world. To see Valentino treat the man who saved his business and orchestrated some of its past successes with such disdain throughout the documentary, almost bordering on psychological abuse, doesn't exactly endear the diminutive designer to this writer. I can't criticize Valentino: The Last Emperor on the level of entertainment. It definitely is a dazzling behind-the-scenes look at the art of fashion designing - laced with a bit of gossip - that's somewhat enticing. However, it fails in elevating Valentino, harming his image more than putting a shine on it... which is fine. But I'm not convinced that this was Tyrnauer's intention. Valentino: The Last Emperor is in limited release. Opening today at the UA Tara Cinemas-Atlanta, 2345 Cheshire Bridge Road N.E., Atlanta, GA 30324, director Matt Tyrnauer will be on hand to answer questions after tonight's 7:15 and 10:15 p.m. shows, and after all shows tomorrow, Saturday, May 23rd.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Movie Review: Terminator Salvation

With Terminator Salvation, director McG almost makes you forget that he was ever known for the two Charlie's Angels misfires. He reignites what was once THE flagship sci-fi action franchise, and brings it into the 21st century, with a relentless juggernaut of a flick that evokes the same feelings The Road Warrior did so long ago. And just like in that movie, the one to watch is an Australian actor, Sam Worthington. He plays Marcus Wright, a death-row inmate executed in 2003, only to wake up in a Terminator hive in 2018. Finding everything a bit topsy-turvy after a nuclear war decimated most of the world, he soon finds two spunky young resistance fighters fighting cyborgs in post-apocalyptic L.A. One of them, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) is destined to play a major role one day as seen in the first Terminator (where he was portrayed by Michael Biehn). The three journey towards friendlier territory in search of a legendary prophet, resistance leader John Connor (Christian Bale). But when Reese and his fellow fighter are imprisoned in a Terminator fortress, Wright must enlist Connor's help to break Reese out - something, as it turns out, Connor's very existence depends on as well. The Terminator series has always been a mash-up of sorts, a pastiche of all of the sci-fi stories and low-budget effects technology that influenced writer-director James Cameron (Titanic). So it's no surprise that a lot of this film steals from a number of sources. There are little nods to each of the three previous films, including the notable reuse of L.A.'s Griffith Observatory (where Arnold's Terminator first beamed into our time). Chase scenes in apocalyptic landscapes come directly from the Mad Max films. Snake-like robots with red eyes swishing furiously underwater are right out of The Matrix series. And the action setpieces in the Terminator hive are quotes of similar sequences in both the Alien and Resident Evil series. But it's what McG does with these lifts that makes the movie so special. With each scene of the film, he ratchets up the tension, and the stakes, for the heroes. Much of the attraction to this film was the anticipation in seeing Christian Bale play John Connor, a performance that should finally allow us to believe that Connor is the messianic savior the films claim he is. And on this count, Bale succeeds. The intensity and compassion he gives Connor outshines the qualities that similarly animate his portrayal of the Batman. However, the true heart of the film (literally you'll see) is Sam Worthington. Reminiscent of the young babier-faced Mel Gibson (a look which may have been deliberately cultivated by the Mad Max costuming), Worthington is the prime mover of the film's events. And it is through sheer charisma, not the paper-thin backstory of his Marcus character, that Worthington manages to engage us throughout the film to the near exclusion of the always dependable Bale. Can a blockbuster of this kind be so exciting that you wish they DON'T do a sequel? Where Star Trek seems to re-set the table, with the promise of future movies in the series providing the feast, Terminator Salvation completely satisfies one's appetite in this outing. And all of the credit should rest on the shoulder of McG and the film's lead. Sam Worthington, you're a star. Terminator Salvation opens in theaters nationwide this Thursday.

Seventies Cinema Revival: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is out on DVD today in a wonderfully restored digital transfer by the Criterion Collection. The story of Eddie "Fingers" (Robert Mitchum), a gun-runner for the Irish mob facing another stretch of jail time in late middle age, is based on a popular novel of the same name, by George V. Higgins, a former Assistant District Attorney. Rumored to be a roman à clef describing some of the Boston area mobsters he encountered as an ADA, Higgins' tale captures the furtiveness and paranoia that many convicts live with on a daily basis. With morally ambiguous characters in an equally shady milieu; deceptively naturalistic photography that is still elegantly composed; and the conflux of different generations of actors unique to the era of its release, the movie represents all that I love best about seventies cinema. A crew led by Eddie's friend, Scalise (Alex Rocco), is knocking off banks using guns Eddie purchases from upstart gun dealer, Jackie Brown (Steven Keats). But Eddie's distracted by an upcoming sentencing for a crime he committed based on the recommendation of another associate, Dillon (Peter Boyle). As Eddie tries to string a young cop, Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), along with information - hoping to get the cop to speak up for him in court - he spirals down a path that will ultimately box him into a corner. Director Peter Yates (Bullitt) and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper seems to be utilizing the natural light when shooting most of the movie, grounding the film in a "true crime" sort of aesthetic. But this film is a noir if I've ever seen one. With Eddie desperately running out of time as the sentencing approaches, look at the shot above and how it is framed. Eddie is flanked by bars on one side, and the autumn landscape on the other, both reminders of the dilemma he faces. Cop Foley may be in the same shot, but he is separated from Eddie by the clear line of demarcation where the bars meet the wall behind him, demonstrating Foley's detached attitude towards Eddie's predicament. Jordan's Foley is just as seedy as the snitches he often deals with. Jordan (Logan's Run) was a dynamic young actor able to hold his own with screen heavyweight Mitchum. They would soon work together again in Sydney Pollack's The Yakuza (1974). But the casting of these actors, along with Boyle and Rocco, highlight the flashpoint that was the seventies, a moment in time when one could have talented new up-and-comers like Jordan paired with veterans like Mitchum, with stalwart character actors backing them up. Rocco had already famously appeared in another seventies film that benefited from the same approach to casting. In The Godfather (1972), he played the part of Moe Greene alongside a cast of rising thespians, led by Al Pacino, which competed with veterans, like Marlon Brando and Sterling Hayden, for the audience's attention. The conflicting acting styles, the younger generation's Method versus the older generation's classic stagecraft, with the character actors at their most naturalistic, created a verisimilitude that was characteristic of seventies American cinema. Coyle's conclusion displays a certain symmetry that is rarely attempted in today's films. As Eddie tries to run a shell game on the cop, playing confidential informant only insofar that it gets him a get out of jail free card, he has no guilt over making his competition, gun dealer Jackie Brown, the fall guy in the situation. Little does Eddie know that another of Foley's far more experienced informants has the same in mind for him.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Star Trek Podcast, Part 2

This post concludes my Star Trek coverage. It's part 2 of the podcast that has proven to be extremely popular with many of you. For those who didn't hear part 1, I was a guest on the Monster Sci Fi Show podcast. My host, Monster, brings his fanboy perspective. His co-host, Mr. Gene, brought the business angle into the mix. So I served as counterpoint, bringing the Trek purist's viewpoint. After the podcast, I've included links to the rest of the Star Trek coverage. I hope you enjoy the podcast, which you can listen to here: More Star Trek coverage: First Look: J.J. Abrams' Star Trek J.J. Abrams' Star Trek - Speculation on What to Expect Star Trek Week Begins Blu-ray Review: Star Trek: The Original Series - Season 1 (1966-67) Movie Review: Star Trek (2009) Star Trek Podcast, Part 1

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Movie Review: Angels & Demons

I'm beginning to think Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon) should stick to adapting non-fiction. Then he can avoid taking the blame for the types of contrivances and general absurdity so prevalent in Angels & Demons, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code (2006). Or he can at least try harder to sell the viewers the preposterous mechanics that move this thriller. If it weren't for Howard's talent for directing actors, and his fascination with capturing the nuances of Catholic ritual, the movie would be completely without merit. But in this respect, the film manages to avoid some of the less realistic nonsense that pervaded his earlier Dan Brown adaptation. The film starts intriguingly enough, with Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) recruited by the Vatican police to help fight a threat from the Illuminati against the Vatican. The secret society's timing is particularly dangerous because this attack coincides with the papal conclave convened after the mysterious death of the pope. Langdon's skill in translating symbols will come in handy as he tries to solve the riddles that will lead him to a canister containing a rather unusual weapon of mass destruction, antimatter. Yes, that's right. Who would have thought that antimatter would be the MacGuffin in this summer thriller instead of Star Trek? While much lip service is paid to the science vs. religion aspect of the plot, recent reports that the Vatican find little to object to in Angels & Demons are a good indication that this film is only a superficial exploration of the subject. Say what you will about The Da Vinci Code, but at least that movie's controversial assertion that Christ was the patriarch of a whole line of descendants had some bite. Angels & Demons starts and ends with a bit of science fiction hokum, and it's not a strong bit at that. If anything is diverting in the first two-thirds of the film, it is Howard's look at the intricacies of Vatican culture. From the rituals associated with the papal conclave to the hierarchy among the Vatican security forces, a good deal of time is spent devoted to what almost amounts to a sociological examination of a subculture often ignored by American cinema. The cast is uniformly excellent. Tom Hanks is comfortable with this brainier riff on Indiana Jones. Ewan McGregor displays a clean-scrubbed boyish charm that seldom finds its way into his other roles (Big Fish being the only exception that comes to mind). Howard is an actor's director, after all. Notice the natural way he gives even minor parts like Chartrand (Thure Lindhardt) - one of the Swiss Guard - their due, endowing them with distinct personalities in a modicum of time. Meanwhile, crap like X-Men Origins: Wolverine can't even make its main character three-dimensional. But the film falls apart in the third act. Like the first film in this franchise, it suffers from multiple climaxes. That is a particular pet peeve of mine, and always a signal of insecure screenwriters. It is like they feel they must keep building on the ending trying to top each preceding scene with a more suspenseful scene after. Except when the climax involves a priest flying a helicopter, the utter absurdity of such an act means that anything that follows is pure contrivance. Angels & Demons opens in theaters nationwide this Friday.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Star Trek Podcast, Part 1

So, due to my, some would say obsessive (I'd just call it unusual... or embarrassing), depth of knowledge on the subject of Star Trek I've been making the rounds on the intertubes. If you frequent some of the same blogs I do, then you've probably seen my name in the comments sections. But the sheer geeky fun of being a guest on the Monster Sci Fi Show podcast has been unmatched. My host, Monster, brings his fanboy perspective. His co-host, Mr. Gene, brought the business angle into the mix. So I served as counterpoint, bringing the Trek purist's viewpoint. Do I love this film? Yes, indeed I do. But I still find a lot to nitpick, as you'll soon hear... More Star Trek coverage: First Look: J.J. Abrams' Star Trek J.J. Abrams' Star Trek - Speculation on What to Expect Star Trek Week Begins Blu-ray Review: Star Trek: The Original Series - Season 1 (1966-67) Movie Review: Star Trek (2009) Star Trek Podcast, Part 2

Monday, May 11, 2009

I only watch Green Porno

By Lissette Decos By Green Porno, I don’t mean the kind of porno that donates its mattresses and left over lumber to Habitat for Humanity after filming is done. I’m referring to the short films on the Sundance Channel, directed by the lovely, graceful and godly Isabella Rossellini doing ungodly, ungraceful things like dry-humping a praying mantis. In each short film, Isabella dresses up like insects and then very visually acts out how they reproduce. The look of the sets is purposely low-tech, with hand-made backgrounds in which you are allowed to see the strings that make things move. The films all begin with Isabella looking directly at the camera and saying something like “If I were a bumblebee…” or “If I were a common house fly.” My favorite intro, and also, possibly my new motto: “If I were a firefly I would light up my ass at night, and look for a mate.” In the eight short films that make up the first season, Isabella does (literally) a common house fly, a bumblebee, dragonfly, earth worm, firefly, spider and a snail. As a snail, Isabella twists herself into a shell... her anus ending up right above her face. The whole time, I'm wondering, "What in the world is Isabella Rossellini doing dressed like a snail? And, oh my God, now her snail poop is coming out of her snail anus, and falling on her GORGEOUS, DELICATE, ANGELIC, ISABELLA FACE!!!" The only thing crazier than watching insects “get busy” via large papier-mâché penises and vaginas by way of puppetry is watching ISABELLA ROSSELLINI dressed like these animals getting busy with other animals. In an interview, Isabella says that she is finally doing what she has wanted to do ever since she was a little girl. She says she has always dreamt of making short films, and also of making films about animals. Somehow, I doubt that this is what little Isabella had in mind... even growing up in Italy. And that’s because this isn’t just about insects having sex, it’s how they have kinky sex. Who knew? And who knew these stories were so tragic - the bumblebee loses his penis during sex, and then bleeds to death - or so funny? The praying mantis get his head eaten by the female during sex which, of course, does not deter his progress. Now, there’s a new season of Green Porno. This time Isabella takes kinky animal sex under the sea. Aesthetically, the six new short films are still hand-crafty beautiful, and they are still super-educational (FYI, whales have a six-foot-long penis). So apparently there are many ways to tell an animal’s story, and not all of them require the narration of James Earl Jones. For example, if you are Disney and you're making Earth you spend big bucks waiting for weeks in the freezing cold with high-tech equipment - in the hopes that what you believed was a polar bear den would indeed be that - praying that a mama would arise from hibernation with her new cubs. Or in the case of Green Porno you can put on an arts and crafts party and create some wacked-out shit. Don’t get me wrong... Earth is gorgeous, with its aerials of beautiful creatures as they migrate over thousands of miles, and blah, blah, blah... where’s the KINKY ANIMAL SEX!? Surprisingly, both Earth and Green Porno do connect you to these creatures, and help you see the importance of your role in their preservation. They just use completely different techniques. Earth makes you feel guilty. I wanted to beat myself up for being born; flying in planes; driving so much; making the ice melt; and now, the poor polar bear is struggling and starving because of me. I’m so sorry polar bear! I wish you could fit in my New York apartment. I really do. I would care for you, polar bear, and I would share my iced lattes with you. Green Porno doesn’t make you feel sad for these creatures. Heck, in these films they are getting more action than you. earth was meant for the big screen, while Green Porno was meant for the smallest, i.e. the third screen: your computer, your iPhone. On that tiny screen, Isabella takes on one creature at a time, tells their story, and in doing that, she brings them up to our size. Actually, to her size. Isabella-size.

It's Cool to Be a Trekkie Again!

Okay, well Bill's smile above notwithstanding, not really, since it was never "cool" to begin with. But at least I can take my command insignia T-shirt out of the closet after a surprisingly successful opening weekend. I think Star Trek has the legs that Wolverine has already proven to lack. Anyway, Cinema Viewfinder is all Trekked out even if I'm not... and you're not, as this week's articles attracted the most readers this site has ever gotten in the U.S. I still owe you a Star Trek review from the fanboy perspective, which I'll be bringing you in the coming days. This will be in a format that is a first for the site, a 2-part podcast in which I participated along with hosts Monster and Mr. Gene of the Monster Scifi Show Blog. However, with the exception of that last gasp of fanboy geekiness, Cinema Viewfinder is going back to the same eclectic mix of films it has always featured. More on our upcoming features after the jump. Want movie reviews? I have some on the latest films, coming your way including, Angels & Demons, Drag Me to Hell, Little Ashes, Terminator Salvation, and Valentino: The Last Emperor. Also, I've got some nice home video releases I'll be tacking a look at, like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Last House on the Left, and Vanishing Point, which will all be discussed in new installments of my regular feature, Seventies Cinema Revival. The next installment of my Pasolini retrospective will cover Mamma Roma, and you should see that next week. And finally, for all of you David Lynch fans, I'll be looking at Mulholland Drive as part of Film for the Soul's ongoing analysis of the best movies of the 2000s in Counting Down the Zeroes. Anything else you want to see here? Drop me a line, and tell me about it. Come back this evening for Lissette Decos' take on Isabella Rossellini's short film series, Green Porno.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Movie Review: Star Trek (2009)

by Tony Dayoub

J.J. Abrams' Star Trek captures the spirit of Gene Roddenberry's original creation better than any other subsequent spinoff or sequel has up until now. I'm even including the six films which starred the original cast led by William Shatner. This enormously enjoyable summer confection is still lacking the all important philosophical depth of the sixties-era sci-fi actioner. But with the once ailing franchise now reinvigorated by Abrams and crew, it looks like there will be plenty of opportunity to perfect the brew.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Blu-ray Review: Star Trek: The Original Series - Season 1 (1966-67)

"Star Trek: The Original Series - Season 1" was released on Blu-ray last week, and it has been wonderful reexamining the science fiction classic in the run up to today's release of J.J. Abrams' new film. What is truly compelling about the first season in particular is how solid it is dramatically, compared to the show's subsequent seasons which arguably slid into more parodic and iconic iterations. Much of this is due to the easy camaraderie between the series regulars, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and ship's doctor, Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley). The three of them really sell the strong bond of friendship with great aplomb, giving their interstellar heroes a strong dose of humanity, laidback familiarity, and witty sarcasm, making the space opera believable despite its papier-mâché-and-colored-lights set design. Shatner is at his least hammy early in the first season, not having yet fully developed the much maligned staccato delivery that Kirk would so often give in to later in the series. Utilizing considerable stagecraft, he endows Kirk with the relaxed attitude of a veteran space traveller, giving his character bits of business like munching on the bridge while sharing a conversation with McCoy in "The Man Trap," drinking coffee while searching for missing crewmen in "The Galileo Seven," or casually sitting on the railing in the ship's bridge while rubbing his eyes, contemplating a crisis with Spock in "The Corbomite Maneuver." These moments serve to deflate some of the stiff self-importance space operas like Buck Rogers or Lost in Space shared in common. Shatner's Kirk had not yet devolved into the caricature so often mocked nowadays of the guy who slept with the green alien chick to resolve a crisis. Instead he was quite charming as the leading man, and not just a little mythic as this exchange from "The Conscience of the King" proves:
LENORE: Tell me, Captain Kirk. KIRK: Anything. LENORE: Did you order the soft lights especially for the occasion? KIRK: If I had ordered soft lights, I'd also have arranged for music and flowers. Unfortunately, it isn't so. On the Enterprise, we try to duplicate earth conditions of night and day as closely as possible. LENORE: Star light, star bright. I wish I may, I wish I might. Do you remember that, Captain? KIRK: It's very old. LENORE: Almost as old as the stars themselves. And this ship. All this power, surging and throbbing, yet under control. Are you like that, Captain? All this power at your command, yet the decisions that you have to make... KIRK: ...Come from a very human source. LENORE: Are you, Captain? Human? KIRK: You can count on it. LENORE: Tell me about the women in your world, Captain. KIRK: I'd rather talk about you. You must have wanted to perform since you first saw your father act. When was that? LENORE: In the beginning. KIRK: Tell me about it. LENORE: That's not fair. You haven't answered my question about the women. KIRK: What would you like to know? LENORE: Has the machine changed them? Made them just people instead of women? KIRK: "Worlds may change, galaxies disintegrate, but a woman always remains a woman." LENORE: All this and power too. The Caesar of the stars and the Cleopatra to worship him.
There was nothing mythic about the all too human McCoy, on the other hand. DeForest Kelley invested a great deal of gruff sarcasm and good-natured humor in the good doctor, making him a fan favorite. When one viewed the threesome as a unit, a Freudian might find that if Kirk was the Ego, and Spock the Superego, then McCoy was definitely the Id, the embodiment of Kirk's emotional side. Nowhere was this more aptly demonstrated than in Richard Matheson's "The Enemy Within." In this episode, Kirk's decisiveness eludes him after a transporter accident divides him, creating a "good" Kirk, and an "evil" one. With the good Kirk, more ambivalent than usual, he comes to depend on Spock to give suggestions based on logic, while McCoy couches his advice in emotion.
KIRK: Get the transporter room ready. McCOY: Could be, if, maybe. All guesswork so far. Just theory. Jim, why don't you give me a chance to do an autopsy and let Spock check the transporter circuits again. KIRK: That sounds, sounds reasonable. We should double-check everything. SPOCK: Aren't you forgetting something, Captain? KIRK: No, I don't think I've forg--- SPOCK: Your men on the planet surface. How much time do they have left? KIRK: Yes, that's right. The men. We have to take the chance, Bones. Their lives McCOY: Suppose it wasn't shock, Jim. Suppose death was caused by transporter malfunction. Then you'd die. They'd die, anyway. Jim, you can't risk your life on a theory! SPOCK: Being split in two halves is no theory with me, Doctor. I have a human half, you see, as well as an alien half, submerged, constantly at war with each other. Personal experience, Doctor. I survive it because my intelligence wins over both, makes them live together. Your intelligence would enable you to survive as well. KIRK: Help me. Somebody make the decision. SPOCK: Are you relinquishing your command, Captain? KIRK: No. No, I'm not. McCOY: Well then, we can't help you, Jim. The decision is yours.
It's hard to imagine it now, but Spock proved to be a more difficult proposition for actor Leonard Nimoy. His performance was a work in progress for much of the first season, starting off as highly excitable in the second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before,"* before gradually becoming the stoic icon we know today. Seeing the episodes in their production order (you can find the order anywhere on the internet), rather than the airing order in which they are presented, proves to be the most illuminating in regards to Spock's evolution. The Vulcan is more impish, playing into the devilish appearance of the character, making perverse observations such as this one to Yeoman Rand (Grace Lee Whitney) after the evil Kirk assaulted her
SPOCK: The, er, impostor had some interesting qualities, wouldn't you say, Yeoman?
Nimoy worked hard to invest the character with more dignity, coming up with the Vulcan Neck Pinch to avoid Spock getting into the dirtier hand-to-hand fights that were characteristic of sixties television. And he relished underplaying the inner turmoil of the character who wrestled with emotions and logic under the false impression that his people had purged themselves of all irrationality. Kirk and McCoy would eventually teach him by example that this was not the case, demonstrating that tempering intuition with logic, rather than replacing it, was far more effective in achieving inner peace. Notable guest stars such as Ricardo Montalbán and Joan Collins populate this first season, and the Blu-Ray looks spectacular. The vibrant colors of the series are restored to their beautiful saturated glory. In addition to some wonderful extras ported over from its previous DVD releases, there are some new picture-in-picture commentaries that summarize some of the best behind-the-scenes tales for the fans. The best part is that through the magic of seamless branching, one can see the episodes with their original - some would say "cheesy" - special effects, or the spiffier CGI effects created for its recent rerelease in syndication. "Star Trek: The Original Series - Season 1" is a great reminder that the new film has a strong legacy to live up to. *The first pilot isn't in this collection, but is incorporated into "The Menagerie," which is included, and stars Jeffrey Hunter as the Enterprise's previous captain, Christopher Pike. More Star Trek coverage: First Look: J.J. Abrams' Star Trek J.J. Abrams' Star Trek - Speculation on What to Expect Star Trek Week Begins Movie Review: Star Trek (2009) Star Trek Podcast, Part 1 Star Trek Podcast, Part 2

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Star Trek Week Begins

Please indulge me this week as I celebrate the rebirth of Star Trek (1966-69), the show that first got me into cinema in the first place. More after the jump. This week, I'll take a look at the TV series, its first season recently remastered and released in a beautiful Blu-ray edition. And I'll review the film twice, once from a long-time Trekker's view, and once with a deeper, critical mindset. In the meantime, check out Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard's wonderful, and objective, conversation about the Star Trek films from the outside perspective of non-fans. And here's a hilarious look at the new film from the Onion News Network. More Star Trek coverage: First Look: J.J. Abrams' Star Trek J.J. Abrams' Star Trek - Speculation on What to Expect Blu-ray Review: Star Trek: The Original Series - Season 1 (1966-67) Movie Review: Star Trek (2009) Star Trek Podcast, Part 1 Star Trek Podcast, Part 2 Video courtesy of The Onion.