Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Strange cinema incoming!

All sorts of great movies are hitting theaters this fall; I just want to quickly mention two of the strangest, most ambitious projects that have caught my eye.

The first one is 'Black Swan,' the latest film by Darren Aronofsky who is one of the most unique voices working in film today.   His 2008 film 'The Wrestler' famously catapulted Mickey Rourke back into the public eye.  Aronofsky's films are emotionally vivid and honest.  They seem to come from that part of the human psyche that most of us prefer to ignore.  'Black Swan' is a psychological thriller about two young ballet dancers (Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis) competing for the lead in a new production of Swan Lake.  Aronofsky has been working on the project since 2000 and has compared the tone to 'Rosemary's Baby.'  It does look frightening.

Click here to view trailer in Quicktime HD

The second film I want to bring to your attention is Jasper Noé's 'Enter The Void.'  I have not seen any of Noé's other films but I'm told that they are expertly crafted though at times difficult to watch.  His latest work is a "psychedelic melodrama" about the ghost of a young drug addict who wonders the streets of Tokyo watching over his sister.   The first images I saw reminded me of 'Blade Runner.'  I, of course, cannot speak to the quality of the actual film but the trailer is frightening, beautiful and touching.

Click here to view trailer in Quicktime HD

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow!

1939.  A scientist takes a journey across the Atlantic knowing that when he arrives he will be killed.  Why does he go?  Because the secret he knows is so terrifying that it could destroy the very Earth itself!  So begins “Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow” a film that has just about everything a ten year-old boy would love to see.  It’s chuck-full of airplanes, ray guns, rampaging robots, monsters, mystic lands, tiny elephants, and lots of radioactive villainy!  As the saying goes, this movie is so much fun there ought to be a law.

One of the great pleasures in cinema is seeing new technology used to tell an old story.  Released in 2004, ‘Sky Captain’ was one of the first movies to be shot entirely against blue screen.   Though using experimental techniques, first time director Kerry Conran always uses the effects in service to the story, and the result is a ghee-whiz, popcorn confection that could stand next to the first ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark.’  Like those films, ‘Sky Captain’ feels like an old friend right away.  Part of that effect must be due to the film lavish retro style.  The lighting is reminiscent of early two-strip Technicolor films from the period.   The production design more than slightly resembles Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons.

I won’t tell Warner Brothers legal department if you don’t.

The story itself is, of course, absolutely ridiculous and yes, predictable.  I don’t think there’s really any suspense as to whether or not Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law) will be able to thwart the dastardly scheme of the evil Dr. Totenkopf (Sir Lawrence Olivier in a tastefully done posthumous role).  After all, Sky Captain is the kind of guy who saves the world every other Wednesday.  Nor do I doubt whether or not he and his “girl Friday” Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) will settle their screwball bickering and get back together by the end.   The invention is not in the story; it’s in the gadgets and the absurdity.  It is very satisfying to find a movie that is this much fun, that can make me smile so wide and so often.

This movie is like a dream, a near perfect distillation of childhood fantasy.  It excites the imagination in a way few others do.   I find it strange that the general public didn’t seem to connect with ‘Sky Captain’ when it came out.   This is exactly the movie that the Star Wars prequels wanted to be.   However, I have confidence that in time this film will be rediscovered.

If you’re looking for a deep, insightful journey into the human mind, look elsewhere.  But if you’re looking for a top-shelf piece of escapist entertainment that lets you forget your troubles and grin for an hour and forty minutes, well that’s a job for Sky Captain.

Grade: A

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 This 1941 Superman Cartoon by Max Fleischer was undoubtedly a strong influence on 'Sky Captain' and is just as much fun as the movie.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

What follows is the first piece of film criticism I ever wrote. I polished it up a little, but it's basically the same piece I wrote when I was 15. Enjoy.

The first image in Sergio Leoné’s brilliant ‘The Good, The Bad And The Ugly’ is a desolate, rocky, yellow-brown landscape.  The screen is suddenly filled by a giant face.  The face is much like the landscape — dry, ragged and scared.  The face becomes the landscape and in observing it we learn no facts, but we glimpse his entire life.  Then there is another face; his hat casts a menacing shadow.  A third man arrives.  Abandoned buildings loom over them.  The men walk towards the center of town.  The silence is all encompassing except for their soft, rhythmic footsteps that sound like the ticking of a bomb.  They meet in front of a saloon doorway.  They say nothing to each other.  The first man rolls up his sleeve and nods at the others.  Then, as fast as lightning they reach for their guns and charge through the door.  Four gunshots ring.   A dirty bandit with a child like grin on his face jumps through the window and onto the street.  One of his hands grips a revolver and the other holds a half eaten chicken leg.  There is a whooping cry on the soundtrack as all movement freezes.  An invisible hand writes "THE UGLY" across the frozen movie screen in pure Loony Tunes fashion.  The scene is only four minutes long, but every moment is drawn out, played to its height.  The movie never feels rushed like so many others do; it takes its time, but never too much.  The movies actual plot deals with the three titular outlaws searching for buried gold during The Civil War, but it’s not really about that.  It's more about people, and the states of mind that lead to violence.

Almost everything about this movie is different than most other movies.  Ennio Morricone’s score is as riveting as it is downright weird.  The sound is different.  The cast, lacking a common language, spoke their lines in their native tongues.  The result being that when the film was dubbed much of the dialogue didn't match up.  But strangely enough this actually helps the movie.  The hiss of the microphones cutting in and out all the time seems to give all the dialogue this strange, acidic quality.  The gunshots don’t sound like normal gunshots.  Even the people are different.  Leoné didn't cast generic or pretty people in his movies.  Everyone in his international cast has an "interesting" face, they all look like they've lived in the desert all their lives. Leone’s photographs his actors so you can see every pore and crevasse in their leathery, wrinkled skin, and in their eyes you see the pain and sorrow of a lifetime.  That's how Leoné develops his characters, not by telling us their life story, but by letting us just look at them.  Where this pays off the most is in the films depiction of violence.

Filmmakers today know that their audiences are used to violence in movies, and it tends to have a passive, detached feel.  But the violence in this movie feels like a slap in the face.  The people getting shot don’t seem like faceless, soulless thugs. But strangely there is still this joyous glee about it; it's so different its just electric.

Leoné has said that he “Grew up in the cinema.” He was in love with westerns in particular, especially John Ford’s.  But he hated how “clean” they were.  He was always a little too much of a cynic for them. Maybe it had something to do with growing up in Italy just after WWII.  But he loved their look and feel; they spoke to him about this larger then life, almost mythological place called America.  So when he began to make his own westerns he wanted to pay homage to the old school, but still create something very different from the norm.  His concoction here is something dark, turbulent and grand.  The suspense in this movie is terrific, especially in the scenes were not much happens, you feel that at any moment, someone could die.  The people in this movie are immoral killers, and it doesn’t shy away from that.

It should be noted that movie isn't strictly about violence, as much as it's about people who use it.  It never stops being an exciting film but as it goes on you begin to realize how nasty these people’s lives are.  How empty, and pitiful and desperate.