Cinema News and Reviews for the Rest of Us

Archive for March, 2010

Dennis Hopper is Dying

Dennis Hopper is getting his much-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame today, but in the unlikely event that me makes the dedication, it could be the last time we see him alive.  According to the actor’s lawyers, Hopper’s is succumbing to cancer and could pass away very soon.  He’s undergoing radicalized treatment for advanced prostate cancer, but he’s in a very weak state (he supposedly weights a little over 100 pounds) and his prospects for survival look bleak.

Hopper has been one of the most charismatic and colorful figures in cinema over the past half century.  He’s turned in electric performances in classics like Easy Rider and Blue Velvet, and he’s exuded a combination of energy and fearlessness that seems to be a depreciating commodity in an overly cautious modern Hollywood.  Whenever he must leave us, he’ll leave us as a one-of-a-kind great.


Review: The Ghost Writer

The release of Roman Polanski’s latest film has been muted, overshadowed by the ongoing legal problems of the erstwhile filmmaker.  And that’s a shame, because Polanski has crafted an elite throwback thriller in the tradition of the genre’s incredible run during the 1970s, when Polanski made his untouchable masterpiece Chinatown.  While The Ghost Writer is not quite of that pedigree, it is one of the finest films the genre has seen in years, employing elements of mood, subtle paranoia, and intelligent suspense that seem to be lost hallmarks in modern thrillers.

The film works as well as it does thanks to the incredible work done by Ewan McGregor.  As a quizzical ghost writer hired to finish the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister embroiled in a war crimes scandal (after his predecessor washes up dead), McGregor is given almost nothing to work with in terms of back story or character network.  We don’t know his history outside of a couple prior writing projects, and he doesn’t have any close personal connections to let us know more about him than is seen on his face.  The performance is entirely dependent on McGregor’s ability to craft the character on the fly.  He believably works as the viewer’s curious eye, wading into a murky world of suspicious rules and nervous glances.

He’s aided by some very impressive work by the mature and elegant supporting cast.  Pierce Brosnan has never been better as he plays the besieged former Prime Minister (clearly a stand-in for Tony Blair).  He proves yet again that while the Bond films may have been great for his notoriety and his pocketbook, they undercut his reputation as a truly fine actor, and he does a fine job portraying a groomed and arrogant character that while he seems to be the behind the dark goings ok, you can’t help but kind of like.  Olivia Williams also turns great work as the Prime Minister’s wife and confidant, levying more power with a single word or a cold stare than any bullet could muster.

But the real star here is behind the camera.  With an infrequent and spotty track record over the last couple decades, it’s great to see Roman Polanski return to superb potboiler form.  Much like Scorcese did this year with Shutter Island, Polanski uses the paranoid thriller genre that he mastered so many years ago as a sandbox in which to play with cinematic tricks of the trade.  There’s the fog-covered Massachusetts island where the writer goes to work, the cold and menacing beach house filled with odd angles and ample spots to listen around corners, and the nervous help staff that all seem like they know something they shouldn’t.  But while those tropes have all been seen before, in the hands of a master they become invisible devices that lead the viewer along a tense and frightening journey of discovery.  Though the scenario is modern, dealing with issues like prisoner torture and a slave/master relationship between Britain and the U.S., this film would fit conformably in the 1970s with genre highpoints like The Conversation and The Parallax View.  It derives its suspense from atmosphere and subtle character interaction, and in that manner it’s a welcome return to principle from lesser modern entries filled with cheap jolts and frantic editing.

The film does suffer somewhat from moments of unclear consequence and, despite the great work by McGregor, the feeling that the protagonist isn’t quite relatable, his curious actions unjustified in a shady world so blatantly uneasy and hostile.  As the tension increases and the stakes are raised, the film can feel cold and mechanical, which would be more distracting if those machinations weren’t so expertly constructed.

Much like Shutter Island, this is a filmmaker’s film, a chance to watch a proven auteur play with all the toys he’s picked up over a lifetime of making movies.  And in that sense, it’s nothing short of masterful.  Polanski has some major personal problems to confront these days, not to mention that at 76 he’s getting up there in age.  But The Ghost Writer suggests an artist still at the top of his game.  The Roman Polanski of Chinatown and The Tenants is back…possibly for the last time.

Most Anticipated Films of 2010

We’re almost to the end of Hollywood’s ‘garbage’ period, and so far the only film I’ve seen worthy of serious praise is Scorcese’s ‘Shutter Island.’  But soon the good ones will start coming, and I thought it would be a good time to lay out my ten most anticipated films of 2010.  I’m really excited about this year’s slate, which offers a mix of attractive films by trustworthy directors and exciting films helmed by relative newcomers.  Let’s take a look at ten potentially great films yet to come out this year.

10.  The Adjustment Bureau

Adaptations of stories by science fiction master Philip K. Dick have run the gamut from lame (‘Paycheck’) to legendary (‘Blade Runner’).  While the presence of an unproven director will likely keep this one out of the latter category, a promising premise and a terrific cast lead to me to believe this could be a really good one.  Matt Damon and Emily Blunt navigate a typically complicated Dickian plot involving an average man trying to get by as his reality crumbles around him, literally.

Due: July

9.  Iron Man 2

I’m just not as huge a fan of this franchise as many seem to be, though I do think that star Robert Downey Jr. and director Jon Favreau are doing a great job with the character.  This sequel looks appropriately badass, as our hero publicly embraces his robotic alter-ego, only to have a tarrying new villain arise to take him on (Mickey Rourke as Whiplash).  The trailer looks great, but I’m not quite in the fan-boy tizzy that surrounds the film’s release.

Due: May

8.  True Grit

This one has been creeping along under the radar, but it involves the Coen Brothers revamping the John Wayne classic with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon in the lead riles. Ho-ly-Shit.  If ‘No Country for Old Men’ is any indication, the Coens can do Westerns with the best of them, and the talent on board for this picture could put the brothers in contention for another gold statue to put atop their mantle.

Due: December

7.  Robin Hood

The pitch for this is fantastic: proven badass Russell Crowe working for proven auteur Ridley Scott in a bloodier, grittier retelling of the adventures of our favorite bandit.  The problem for me is the recent track record for these two, which isn’t bad but has dipped into noticeable mediocrity.  Hopefully they bring back the ‘Gladiator’ magic and make this one a winner.  I’m betting they will.

Due: April

6.  Tree of Life

The next release for the least productive genius in cinema; reclusive auteur Terrence Malick.  Brad Pitt and Sean Penn make for an excellent core cast.  The details of this are as vague as you’d expect from Malick, but it involves something about a family’s multi-generational journey through time, which may or may not involve a magic tree.  If you’re like me and consider Malick one of the most brilliant filmmakers of the last 50 years, then it doesn’t matter what this one’s about.  Any Malick release is worth ample notice.

Due: TBA

5.  Never Let Me Go

This adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s amazing novel promises a science fiction drama like we’ve really never seen before.  It’s an incredibly moving and heartbreaking story that I won’t fully divulge here, but Kiera Knightley and newly minted Oscar-nominee Carey Mulligan have the opportunity to create something really special here.  The script has been gathering kudos for years, and finally it’s getting put up on the screen.  Director Mark Romanek (‘One Hour Photo’) is the big question mark, but I sincerely hope he’s up to the task.  This film is begging to be great.

Due: October

4.  The Expendables

Wow.  Is there any film in history with more potential for ungodly amounts of badassery than this?  Sylvester Stallone has rounded up a who’s who of action movie icons to mount this grand sendoff to the lovably bombastic films that highlighted the 1980s.  In addition to himself, he’s got Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundren, Jet Li, Steve Austin, Bruce Willis, and Arnold fuckin Swarzenegger on board for the carnage.  I can’t wait.

Due: August

3.  The Social Network

The story of Mark Zuckerburg’s founding of internet titan Facebook is a tricky one to tell in a film, but if anyone can do it, my money’s on the ultra-talented tandem of director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin.  Starring gifted youngster Jesse Eisenberg, who’s been on a fine run of late (Adventureland, Zombieland), will play the cocky and mercurial young CEO, and I’m very excited to see how this one turns out.

Due: October

2.  Tron: Legacy

I only became interested in this recently, but now I’m just insanely psyched about it.  The released teaser footage and the new trailer look absolutely incredible, and it looks to me like they nailed the look and the feel that this one demands in order to be great.  The project’s rookie director has been doing a busy circuit to prove his potential to doubtful fans and movie onlookers, and I’m starting to believe.  The stark visuals and unsettlingly dark tone look much more Kubrick than ‘Speedracer,’ and the return of Jeff Bridges brings an added legitimacy to a sequel that’s taken almost three decades to reach the screen.  Not to mention some superb score work by Daft Punk that could elevate the entire thing.

Due: December

1.  Inception

We know even less about this film than we do about ‘Tron,’ but what we do know is enough to prop this up as the most exciting release of 2010.  Christopher Nolan, fresh off the spectacular success of ‘The Dark Knight,’ has been given $200 million to create a spy mystery of the mind.  The cast is about as can’t-lose as it gets (Leo DiCaprio, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Paige, even Tom Berenger!), and the visuals look astounding.  The director and cast have been extremely tight-lipped about the story specifics, but the trailer is great, the scope looks breathtaking, and the promise is off-the-charts.  Also keep in mind that Nolan has never made a bad movie.  He’s never even made one less than awesome.

Due: July

Top 10 Actions Scenes Of All Time

The action scene is a cornerstone of cinema spectacle, a playground for directors to pull out their favorite visual tricks and wow their audiences in ways never before accomplished.  This list is made with an eye for how the scenes changed the game for action sequences, as well as how incredibly they’re put together.

You might notice that some of your favorite ‘shootouts’ aren’t on the list.  Well, I’m planning another list of the Top 10 Shootouts ever put to film, so this is comprised of scenes not as focused on balletic gunplay.

10.  ‘Children of Men’ – Through the Siege

Rarely has an action scene contained such brutality and yet such emotive power.  The temporary ceasefire as the pregnant girl is taken from the besieged apartment complex is a world-class cinematic grace note.

9.  ‘Kill Bill: Volume 1’ – The Crazy 88

One of sweetest movie treats is watching Quentin Tarantino throw caution to the wind and just go 100% balls out.  The Bride’s slaughter and dismemberment of 88 Yakuza gangsters is the greatest and bloodiest example of that.

8.  ‘Tron’ – Light Cycle Race

Modern viewers jaded by the leaps in special effects made since this one’s release may groan at the dated visuals.  But this digital death race is still as exciting as they come and expertly crafted, and it changed the way computer effects were used in film.

7.  ‘Come and See’ – Forest Bombardment

Elem Klimov’s visceral World War II masterpiece captures the unbearable psychological strain of war.  This scene of artillery raining on a boy soldier in the forest gives you as much of that strain as cinematically possible, from the brain-rattling explosions to the ringing in your ears to the terrifying inability to even see your opponent much less fight it.

6.  ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ – Chase Through the Bazaar

Many cite the rolling boulder escape as the action highpoint here, but for me it’s this exciting chase through the sandy streets as Indiana desperately tries to rescue Marion.  It also features the greatest one-sided duel ever (sword does not equal pistol).

5.  ‘Battleship Potemkin’ – Odessa Steps

The sequence that spawned so many imitators, Eisenstein redefined what an action scene could be by crafting this riveting and powerful vision about the brutal force of oppression.  It pioneered visceral filmmaking in a big, big way.

4.  ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ – The Battle of Hoth

The Star Wars franchise is loaded with memorable action sequences, but my vote goes to the one featuring one of the most menacing machines in science fiction cinema; the lumbering AT-AT.  Their slow, hulking pace only makes them more terrifying, and the scene is made more powerful by the fact that it’s a battle our loveable rebels cannot and will not win.

3.  ‘Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ – Battle of Helm’s Deep

Weta Digital’s rise as the premier visual effects house really came about here, where they assisted Peter Jackson in putting together the greatest epic-sized battle ever seen in a film.  The final clash in ‘Return of the King’ may have been bigger, but it didn’t pack the same punch as this dark, dirty, exhilarating grudge match.

2.  ‘Ben Hur’ – The Chariot Race

Even 50 years late, this one is still amazing.  One of the classic mano-a-mano duels in cinematic history, and we’ve rarely rooted for someone as hard as we’re rooting for Charelton Hester as he battles his nemesis before the cheering throngs of bloodthirsty ancient Rome.  Grand spectacle of the highest order.

1.  ‘Saving Private Ryan’ – Storming the Beach

After more than decade of imitators trying in vain to match its unparalleled visceral impact, some might forget just how stirring and groundbreaking this sequence was when it was released in 1997.  The truth is that it’s still the best of its kind.  War has never been brought to such realistic, horrifying life as Spielberg managed with his virtuoso depiction of the Normandy landing.  Shaking cameras.  Blood raining on the lens.  The panic-inducing wail of bullets as they bounce of metal and slice through flesh.  They’ve been done since but they’ve never been done anywhere near as well.  This is the greatest dramatization of war ever committed to celluloid.

The new ‘Tron’ movie might not suck

The moment I heard about the new ‘Tron: Legacy’ film coming out next winter, I immediately had horrific visions of ‘Speedracer’ and other such tepid over-CGed affairs, and feared the inevitable tainting that the sci-fi classic of my childhood would endure.

But you know what?  This trailer looks pretty damn badass.  The visual work is incredible, and we have an early front runner in the race for next year’s Visual Effects Oscar (though ‘Inception’ promises to blow us away as well).  The sound is also superb, and the theme music by Daft Punk is absolutely PERFECT.  The great and newly minted Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges returning gives me a lot of hope, and thanks to his inclusion and and this stunning trailer, I’m actually getting really excited about this movie.  It’s clearly going for the stark, foreboding side of this computerized world that gave the original such haunting undertones, and the spacial composition of the shots look Kubrickian in their unsettling sterility.  The fact that the director is an unknown newcomer gives me pause, but if this look is anything to go by, he may have something special going on.

Well, the 2010 Academy Awards are in the books, and I have one overriding thought on the whole affair…

The 2010 Academy Awards were terrible.

Not because of who won or didn’t win.  I’ll have more on that later.  But because the whole event was just pretty damn bad.  The Oscars had a chance this year to deliver a really great show.  The producers even promised one all the way to the telecast, and they kind of fell flat on their face.  They made bad decisions all over the place that sucked life out of what really were some very nice moments.

So what did I dislike about the 2010 Academy Awards?  Here’s the rundown:

-What the hell happened with the hosts?  They started out pretty strong, but midway through Alec Baldwin just disappeared and Steve Martin started acting more and more awkward, like he didn’t even want to the be there for the second half of the show.  When Baldwin did come back out, he looked visibly pissed about something.   The chemistry just imploded for these two, and that’s a shame.  The ‘Paranormal Activity’ sketch was great, but most of the rest was just awkward.

-As a matter of fact, the whole show was really, really awkward.  Ok, so you replace the Original Song performances with one long dance number for the Original Score nominees to save time.  Fine.  Lame, but fine.  Then you concoct a dance routine so strange and so awkward that every nominated composer in the audience must have been hiding their faces the entire time.  A guy in a yuppie suit doing the robot to the ‘Avatar’ theme?  Men and women pole dancing to the beautiful and innocent theme music from ‘Up’?  What the hell.

-Apparently the Academy mandated that only person speak for each win, and that the one person should include an important anecdote or life lesson instead of a laundry list of “thank you”s to make their speech more moving.  This is a nice idea, as we all grow tired of those thank you lists, but the result was a bunch of winners not only terrified about getting in front of the cameras for the biggest moment of their professional lives AND saying something profound in the process, but actually fighting over who would be the one to speak.

Of course, people who watched know I’m talking about the incredibly awkward acceptance for Best Documentary Short, when the director of the film was rudely interrupted by a woman who hadn’t been involved with the film for a year.  Apparently she’d separated from the project long ago over creative differences, but the Academy still had her listed as a producer on the nominee list.  She clearly felt shafted by not getting to be the one to speak on behalf of a film she had little to do with polishing into the great final product it apparently was.  And she responded by making a complete ass of herself and probably closing a lot of professional doors in the process. Well done.

-Playing ‘I am Woman’ after Kathryn Bigelow won her Best Director award?  Really?  She’s been dealing with gender questions this whole awards season, hell her entire career, and her great moment when she’s being awarded for her skill as a filmmaker has to be pontificated by Barbara Streisand and ABC’s band of hack ceremony producers?  If she wants to make her win about gender (which she didn’t), that’s her right.  But she doesn’t need everyone else telling her what her award should mean.

-Speaking of song choice during introductions, did I really hear “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” playing when Best Actress nominee Carey Mulligan entered?  By the way, her film ‘An Education’ is about a teenager girl who sleeps with an older man.  Very clever, producers.  Wow, just wow.

-And did ABC really have to go into each commercial break with lead-outs like “Wait and see if the first woman or African-American wins the Academy Award!”  Like it’s some cheap game show where you win by turning over your Prejudice Card and seeing what prize you get.  These Awards did a whole lot to bridge gaps and move the industry beyond old prejudices, but ABC and everyone else associated decided to treat us little kids and make damn sure we knew it at every opportunity.  Classless.

-So apparently we’re not allowing the winners of LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARDS to take the stage and accept their incredible honor?  Poor Roger Corman and Lauren Bacall were forced to stand by their seats and wait awkwardly while the audience gradually came to their feet, and then weren’t allowed to make any sort of acceptance speech for their LIFETIME OF FUCKING WORK.  Awful.

-And then there’s a movie-of-the-week tribute to the late John Hughes, with Brat Pack alums and everything.  Which is cool.  I love John Hughes.  But it seems kind of strange that he gets an indulgent half-hour ovation while everyone else who died gets their normal one second of face time during the ‘In Memoriam’ segment.  Seems off-balance to me.

Aside from all of this, there really were some special moments at these Academy Awards, but they happened in spite of the set-up of the show and the clumsiness of the producers.  In addition to Bigelow becoming the first woman to win Best Director, which is a huge achievement and a long time coming, we also had the first African American screenwriter win an Oscar when Geoffrey Fletcher won for ‘Precious’.  This was one of the few major upsets of the whole show, and though I loved Jason Reitman’s script for ‘Up in the Air,’ it’s a well-deserved honor.

I’ll post more of my likes in another post, but overall, a very disappointing show.

Steven Soderbergh directing epic plague drama

One of my favorite genres is the “plague” genre, so I’m ecstatic that a great filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh is tackling a sweeping drama about a worldwide viral pandemic in a film titled ‘Contagion.’  Pitched as ‘Traffic’ meets ‘Outbreak,’ it’ll have an incredible cast that features Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, and Lawrence Fishburne.  Talk about bringing a prestige pedigree to the plague-apocalypse genre.  Can’t wait to see how this one shapes up