Friday, December 28, 2012

Brief thoughts on Django Unchained




Warning: Spoilers abound throughout

Quentin Tarantino is always up to more than mere aping. Yes, he’s a filmmaker that speaks to the film geek inside all of us (how many of us check off the references in our head while we watch his films?), but his best films have always been about more than the thing he’s referencing. Jackie Brown (more than a love letter to the Blaxpoitation film), Kill Bill  (has depths that reach beyond simple homage to his favorite of subgenres, the kung-fu movie), and Inglourious Basterds (as perfect a film Tarantino has made, only Jackie Brown comes close, is so much more than being just some homage to B-level WWII movies) are his best examples of this; they're also his best films because they are so much more than what they seem to be on the surface. I always appreciate that about Tarantino. Even though Django Unchained isn't anywhere close to being in the same category of his three best films, I found myself liking a lot of what Tarantino was up to with his homage to Blaxpoitation and Spaghetti westerns. I want to see Django Unchained a second time before I approach the film with a more conventional review. So for now, in fear that if I don’t get something written down now I never will, here are a few, jumbled (and probably repetitive) observations about Tarantino's latest:

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Catching up with 2012: Magic Mike



Steven Soderbergh once again makes a film that is about the body as commodity. Magic Mike ties in nicely with his 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience.  Even though I thought the unconventional casting of then-porn star Sasha Grey in a legitimate movie was more interesting than Channing Tatum/Matthew McConaughey in a movie about male strippers, there’s a lot to admire about Magic Mike even if it sometimes delves into oft-trodden territory. I didn’t care much about the whole A Star is Born narrative arc (mostly because I thought Alex Pettyfer, who plays the young up-and-comer Adam, was pretty terrible) or the way a subplot involving drugs predictably plays out, but there’s a lot to admire about Mike (Tatum) and Dallas (McConaughey) and the keen observations surrounding their dynamic – how they interact with other dancers, how seriously they (and Soderbergh) take their business, and how they aspire to be more “respectable” – and the performances that went into making these characters stand out.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Sabrina



Coming out in the same year as the Rob Reiner/Aaron Sorkin fairy tale The American President, Sydney Pollack released his own fairy tale, Sabrina, a remake of the Billy Wilder classic starring Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, and Audrey Hepburn. Reiner and Pollack’s sought to make films that stood out as a stark contrast in an era of cynicism and conglomerates; they are escapist films about characters that escape themselves into fantasy worlds. They are both great examples of films that elicit the kind of response where one waxes nostalgic about how, “they don’t make ‘em like they used to." But I’m here to talk about Sabrina, and to watch Sabrina is to be absorbed by a film where time simply melts away. To watch Sabrina is also to watch a film where we understand that everything depends upon the performances. The story – an ugly duckling fairy tale with a “once upon a time…” opening narration – is familiar, the results of the story are definitely familiar, and the tone – and how Pollack will visually convey that tone – is also familiar to anyone that’s either seen the original Sabrina, seen a Sydney Pollack movie, or knows of Pollack’s love for ‘40s/’50s cinema. It’s a touch on the long side at 126 minutes, and even though the film feels like its spinning its wheels in the third act, I’m never bored by the film because I just love spending time with these characters and the extravagant milieu they inhabit. It reminds me of Tootsie in that it’s pure cinematic comfort food.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Sydney Pollack: The Firm



The sins Pollack committed with his previous film Havana, he more than atones for with his adaptation of John Grisham’s massively popular novel The Firm. Oh, sure, the length of the film is still unnecessarily close to the three hour mark, but here, unlike in his previous film, he doesn’t waste opportunities with his large cast of characters (played by great character actors) by making sure that he gives them all more than enough time to showcase their skills in an interesting enough way that I never really ever felt the length of the film. The efficacy in which he unfolds the labyrinthine plot is the sign of an old master in control (again), the way he was with previous paranoid thriller Three Days of the Condor. It’s easy to see why The Firm was Pollack’s biggest hit (hint #1: Tom Cruise at the acme of his popularity), commercially speaking: it’s just a fun summer thriller filled with great performances. Yes, The Firm has a convoluted plot and a lot of flaws when one begins to critically think about it, but it's also damn entertaining if you just let the move play you and go along for the ride. Pollack handles the silly plot like the old pro he is (with help in the writing department of longtime collaborator David Rayfiel and old-pro-himself Robert Towne trying their hardest to cram the massive plot from the novel into movie length). With the aide of those great performances and a wonderful musical score by Dave Grusin, it all adds up to The Firm being one of my favorite Pollack films. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Catching up with 2012: Lawless


I really wanted to love Lawless. Everything is in place for me to be gushing over this movie: John Hillcoat, Nick Cave script and music, Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography, a great cast headlined by Tom Hardy, and, of course, Jessica Chastain. However, it never coalesces into a cohesive film. I admire the craft, but there’s not a whole lot here to give a damn about. It’s a bunch of interesting, violent vignettes (it almost feels like Cave wrote the songs first and then he and Hillcoat decided what scenes would look neat accompanying those songs) that doesn’t feel as mythic as it’s trying to come off as. I hate to compare it to Hillcoat/Cave/Delhomme’s previous collaboration – the brilliant, ultraviolent, McCarthy-esque western The Proposition – but the 1930s Virginia just doesn’t come off as being as interesting – or successfully feeling “of a place” – as The Proposition’s violent outback setting does. Maybe I’m “prohibitioned” out right now with “Boardwalk Empire,” but I just never felt like the film was really that stimulating. I was never really fully engaged with the film. It just kind of sits there on the screen feeling so unnecessary. There’s a lot here for fans of Cave and Hillcoat to like – especially its ties to Cave’s biggest literary influences Faulkner and O’Conner – but Lawless really is the most frustrating kind of film: a film that should work; a film with so much talent working on it, telling a not-so-well-known true story with great costume and set design, tommy guns and gangsters, and a sure-fire interesting milieu…yet it just doesn’t work.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Catching up with 2012: Safety Not Guaranteed



I was not expecting much from Safety Not Guaranteed. In fact, I was downright wary of it (as I mostly am now with Sundance fodder). It looked like nothing more than one of those quirky indie comedies filled with cynicism/snark masking as charm that wins over Sundance audiences. But oh no, this tale of time travel plays it straight. Like, it's both Sundance-y in its rom-com sensibilities but also a science-fiction film about time travel. Not once is the time travel aspect of the film snickered at. And I appreciate that so much from a film of this ilk. When I heard about this movie, it sounded like nothing more than a film for TV actors to try their hand at a movie. Okay, let me step back a second because Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”), Mark Duplass (“The League”), and Jake Johnson (“New Girl”) have all starred in films (Duplass writes/directs his with his brother Jay), but nothing prepared me for actually liking all three of them here. I catch “New Girl” every now and then when I’m in the room while my wife watches it; the show is not my cup of tea, and Johnson’s enthusiasm is noticeable even if he does grate on me at times. Duplass is on “The League” – a hit and miss (mostly miss) show that so badly wants to be a raunchy version of “Seinfeld” – but he’s mostly forgettable on a forgettable show. Plaza is the only thing that attracted me to seeing this movie, and I’m glad I gave it a shot because I found myself liking the other two (especially Duplass) a lot. I was expecting Safety Not Guaranteed to be another Diablo Cody-like Indie film, but I was more than pleasantly surprised to see that it actually has more in common with Spielberg.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Catching up with 2012: The Dark Knight Rises



So yesterday I wrote that I had finally seen The Avengers, and how it probably didn’t matter what I said about it – comic book movies will go on, make money, and have its fans regardless of what I convey in a two paragraph blurb. So whether I think Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises – the final installment in his ambitious Dark Knight trilogy – is good or not probably doesn’t matter at this point. The fact that I am going to convey an opinion five months after the film’s release seems fruitless since most of what does work and what doesn’t work has been talked to death by this point. So I’ll try to make this as succinct as I can: I didn’t like The Dark Knight Rises...

...But I'm not a succinct person, so I have to spend a few paragraphs venting. I apologize for the lack of "reviewing" that's about to occur. 


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Catching up with 2012: The Avengers




“A movie like "Marvel's The Avengers" doesn't need critics and critics don't need it.”

 “[T]he movie has some of the easygoing charm of "Rio Bravo," Howard Hawks's great, late western in which John Wayne, Angie Dickinson, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson did a lot of talking on their way to a big and not-all-that-interesting shootout. The difference is that, in keeping with the imperatives of global franchise entertainment, the big shootout in "The Avengers" must be enormous, of a scale and duration that obliterates everything else.”
So, I finally saw The Avengers. Two things: the first quote is from Jim Emerson in this piece here. Everything he says about the film is spot on (although I think I like the CGI shot at the end more than the one he mentions in his essay). The second quote is from A.O. Scott’s article found here. I like that he mentions how some of the scenes involving Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Black Widow, and Captain America reminded him of the “easygoing charm” of one of Howard Hawks’ greatest movies. He’s right: there’s a certain amiability that is infectious throughout the middle of The Avengers. There isn’t a cynical note in the film. I appreciated that. Oh, and you don’t have to be a comic book fan, geek, nerd, or whatever do enjoy it. Lord knows I have little to no knowledge of the vast Marvel Universe, yet it doesn’t seem to matter as writer/director Joss Whedon just kind of comes right out (well, he has his characters come right out) and says what the audience is thinking, “we don’t need the logic; just give us what we came for: the crème-de-la-crème of Marvel superheroes teaming together – sharing the same frame – to jape and jest and smash things real good.”

So, yes, Emerson is right in that a movie like The Avengers doesn’t really need anyone to say whether it’s good or bad (especially someone getting to it as late as I am). But, here goes: I liked it. I liked the breezy way it moved through its exposition. I liked the cast and the quips and the tone. I even liked some of the CGI. My favorite shot is in that big finale (which Scott is right: it goes on way too long) when the camera follows the action without cutting so that we can see each of the Avengers in some kind of heroic moment. The camera starts by showing us Iron Man swooping in to help Captain America fight aliens on the streets of New York. And then without cutting, the camera (or the computer) moves from setpiece to setpiece catching glimpses of each Avenger at work. My favorite moment within my favorite moments has to be when the camera moves from Hawkeye battling aliens on a rooftop to the Hulk fighting on top of some kind of alien aircraft with Thor dropping in off frame to join him. It’s encouraging to see CGI being framed in a way (it actually comes across as if your eyes were moving from panel to panel in a comic book) where the audience can actually tell what the hell is going on.

I checked my cynicism at the door (I fully understand what the studio’s intent is with The Avengers; I also think that Whedon and co. do a fine job making the film come off as something more earnest than its “hey, let’s get together all of our 100+ million dollar superheroes and make a movie that we know people will shell out big bucks to see numerous times” exterior suggests) and found a film that I was more than glad to spend a little over two hours with. Huzzah. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Havana



Sydney Pollack doesn’t instill fervency within one to go back and look at his films with fresh eyes in the way many have recently been passionately singing the praises of damned-upon-released films like Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate (the latter, especially, has seemed to be piquing interest in the blogosphere, thanks to its recent Criterion release, with many claiming that the film is some kind of misunderstood masterpiece). I don’t sense the urgency for bloggers and critics to run out and say, “oooh, I should revisit Havana because, gosh darn it, people were just so unfair to that movie when it was released in 1991.” Now, I’m a bit cynical with all this revisionist criticism stuff (what’s next, Howard the Duck or Hudson Hawk are masterpieces, too?), but I have to admit something: the minute I decided to do a retrospective on Pollack’s career, I was most interested in watching Havana for the very reason that it seemed so unfairly maligned at the time.  I mean the film couldn’t be that bad, right (“Seinfeld” even took a little bit of a jab at)? I was kind of excited to take a recent look at Havana in hopes that it might reveal itself to be one of those forgotten masterpieces – one of those films people like to go back and talk about now as if we were all crazy for thinking the film was bollocks to begin with. Well, I’m here to tell ya’ll: Havana is no such film. The film – everything about it from the performances to the faux Scorsese-esque energy Pollack tries to inject his film with – is inert. A lifeless film filled with lifeless performances and a lifeless romance at the heart of it.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Out of Africa



Out of Africa is one of those “sweeping epics” the Academy loves so much, so it’s no wonder that it – and not better films like Three Days of the Condor or Tootsie – won Pollack his Oscars for directing and producing. I put "sweeping epic" in scare quotes because Out of Africa, although decent at times, is painfully ordinary in how it tries to win the audience over as a big, 'ol fashioned epic. It wants to be big in scope and sprawling in its love story; however, Out of Africa is not even close to being Pollack’s best film (in fact, of the five films nominated that year, it’s easily the fifth best of the bunch). It’s too satisfied with its “scope” to be anything more than a pandering awards season picture. It has some nice, quiet moments between its two leads (nothing new for a Pollack film), but the episodic nature of the narrative left me feeling cold. In fact, while watching Out of Africa, my mind was drawn to 1995's The English Patient (another film that feels like a false epic): an apt comparison in that it too was just an okay movie with some decent performances that isn’t nearly as romantic or sweeping in its scope as the Academy hype wants us to believe. I certainly didn't have any Elaine Benes outbursts while watching Out of Africa, but it did fill me with a kind of apathy that I've rarely felt while working my way through Pollack's films (the only thing that really comes close is Absence of Malice or Bobby Deerfield).

Friday, November 30, 2012

Catching up with 2012: Haywire



After seeing Haywire twice in two weeks, I’m convinced that it’s one of Steven Soderbergh’s very best films. I’m also convinced that Soderbergh should only make films with Lem Dobbs writing the screenplays. The two previously collaborated on my favorite Soderbergh movie, The Limey (and famously had a heated audio commentary session for that film), and after 13 years the two reunite for this modern thriller that has little-to-nothing to do with thrills or spying or the sexy lifestyle we usually associate with films that cover such things. The action, though, is something else. Soderbergh wisely shoots the action not in the manic Bourne style, but in a proscenium style. By staging the action in long shot, two things work better than they do in other modern action pictures: one is that the action sometimes happens in the background just like he did in The Limey, making it far more interesting for our eyes to follow the action than your normal action film. The second thing is showcased in the film’s fantastic final fight scene which is cut just as quickly as a Bourne film; however, instead of cutting quickly and shaking the damn camera all over the place to give the illusion that we’re in the fight, Soderbergh strings together multiple long shots to give the illusion that there’s quick movement. It’s a neat little effect and a pleasant change to what we normally get with modern action films.

Gina Carano – the UFC star – is great in the lead role (she even gets to use a few arm bars), and as usual with a Soderbergh film, Haywire is littered with great supporting performances from A-list actors (my favorites being Michael Douglass and Antonio Banderas, who sports an amazing beard). Haywire reminded me a lot of the tone found in Soderbergh’s uber cool films Out of Sight, The Limey, and Ocean’s Twelve; he paints the screen in his usual greens, yellows, and blues; and he moves most of the narrative (which is pretty silly with the little plot it concerns itself with) with his typical French New Wave stylings as montage and jazzy music move the narrative more than exposition. We get a lot of layered scenes where characters talk while other action – either via flashback or parallel sequences – take place, and the film just kind eases its way through all of its setpieces without a care for modern action film conventions. Haywire feels like a mashup of the aforementioned heavily stylized Soderbergh films as well as Jim Jarmusch’s anti-thriller The Limits of Control. Effortless in how cool it is, Haywire made me giddy in the same way Out of Sight and The Limey did when I first saw those two films. It’s such a fun movie to watch (and watch and watch), rivaling Soderbergh’s very best. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Catching up with 2012: Bernie



Richard Linklater’s Bernie has a ceaselessly entertaining opening 30 minutes, but then it devolves into something that the opening sequence could never portend: normalcy. Bernie loses steam after its fantastic opening, which includes a fantastic introduction to our main protagonist Bernie Tiede (Jack Black). Bernie is a funeral director (“No one uses the word ‘mortician’ anymore” explains Bernie) who we’re introduced to as he gives a lesson to a college class of future funeral directors on how to prepare a corpse. Bernie is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to funeral directing: he dresses the corpse, sells the coffins, designs the funeral parlors so they “seem more holy,” and even subs for the pianist when they’re nowhere to be found (one of my favorite moments of the movie, and a natural fit for Black). Whether it’s the aforementioned musical performance from Black, the moment when he sells a coffin to a couple (upselling them so he won’t have to make a “leg adjustment” because the coffin the couple really wants is too small), or the way he stages a live-action PSA for driving drunk for teenagers outside of their high school (my favorite moment: telling the kid playing the dead teenager not to laugh as Bernie lifts him up on the gurney), Bernie is worth seeing because of how Linklater uses Jack Black.

Bernie belongs to Black. Yes, Shirley MacLaine as Marjorie Nugent, the wealthy widow Bernie befriends and moves in with (despite the uneasiness of the surrounding Carthage, Texas community), is great; Matthew McConaughey is also great as Danny Buck, the DA that prosecutes Bernie for the murder of Marjorie, especially in the scenes at the end during the trial; and the costume (Kari Perkins) and production design (Bruce Curtis) feels spot-on and of its place – the film still is worth your time if only to see Jack Black’s best performance and to see him work for a filmmaker that really knows how to utilize his talent.

Linklater isn’t making some kind of snarky film, here. There seems to be a love for this little pocket of Texas – away from the “hairy-legged women of Austin” and the Mercedes driving citizens in Dallas as one character explains – which has a real small-town southern charm to it. However, Bernie begins on such a high note that as the film progresses and settles into its normalcy, we begin to notice the air is slowly leaving the balloon. McConaughey helps keep things afloat for a bit, but I was just disappointed after the film’s amazingly off-beat and hilarious opening 30 minutes that film settled into a “normal” narrative. Still, it’s worth a view, but it could have been so much more than it ends up being. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Catching up with 2012: The Grey




I haven't seen this pointed out elsewhere, which doesn't mean it hasn't been, but: The Grey stars Liam Neeson as a man who responds to the tragic and premature death of his wife by journeying to extreme places to take jobs that require him to kill things. I shall absolutely not go so far as to say that it's a deliberate self-commentary, particularly since Neeson wasn't the first actor attached, and since his new career as cinema's favorite aging badass was ignited with 2008's Taken, before the shocking death of his wife Natasha Richardson; but surely we can all agree that he turned into a full-flung action star in The A-Team, Unknown, and the upcoming Battleship (and if you really want to push it, Clash of the Titans) with eyebrow-raising speed; the pop-psychologist in me can't help but wonder if just a tiny part of that is the rage of a man against how goddamn unfair life is, expressed in a series of splashy and pornographically violent fantasies about getting revenge on all the bad guys.
                                                                                                           ---- Tim Brayton

I tend to side with Tim on this one (his review can be found here). When thought about in the context of Neeson's own life and personal tragedy surrounding his wife's death, The Grey becomes so much more than its pathetic trailers suggest. I love that the film plays with the idea of "A Liam Neeson Action Movie" (and how weird, even after all of these post-Taken action films he's starred in, that we're used to the notion of “Liam Neeson Action Star" in the same way we are used to, say, "Bruce Willis Action Star") where instead of getting Neeson Versus Wolves (NVW?), we’re presented with a much more bleak, contemplative film about life and death and the will to keep going even though there's nothing really left to move towards. Yes, that sounds trite, but so what?  The Grey is intense and earnest in all of the right places; it plays like more of a cerebral adventure film than a fight for survival action movie as it applies a slow burn approach as the film moves towards an inevitable: an incredibly bleak existential coda that I absolutely was not expecting when I sat down to watch the movie. I like the simplicity of The Grey, and I was damn shocked to be so moved by its melancholy opening, especially considering the film’s director, Joe Carnahan, has never shown the ability to pull that particular club out of his bag. The film still punches you in the face the way Carnahan’s earlier films do, but its intensity and dourness is also nicely balanced by the performances (I especially liked Dermot Mulroney) in the same way his great Narc was. It’s not some surprise film that will sneak its way onto my year-end list, but it’s a helluva a lot better than it had any right to be considering the way the studio was selling this thing to potential viewers. It’s worth checking out for the fantastic opening, Neeson’s performance, and the way the film works on you with an existential sadness that pervades the film as you start to realize that there can be no happy ending here; a sadness made all the more resonant and affecting when thought about within the context of Neeson’s own tragedy. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Vote!


I've got a handful of films left to review for my Sydney Pollack retrospective, but it's time for me to start thinking about what to do next (so I can load up my queue with the movies I'll need). And that's where you all come in. I know Pollack doesn't elicit the most excitement, but I've enjoyed watching, and writing about, his films. However, I want to turn it over to you, my dear readers, to decide which filmmaker I cover next. On the right side of the blog is a poll. You'll notice the selection of filmmakers varies greatly. So, you can either be nice to me and choose quality, or, if you want to see me go crazy, you can choose Michael Bay. I figured either way we would have a lot of fun with this next round of the retrospective. So go ahead and vote; I'll leave the poll up for a couple of weeks.

Sydney Pollack: Tootsie



When films are usually credited with more than two writers, there’s a consensus that something is fishy. The idea that a script needs three or four or sometimes even five writers usually doesn’t bode well for the quality of the film. Generally it is believed that the more writers the film has to its name, the more troubled the process was of getting it ready to shoot. I mean, just look at something like Armageddon: here is a film that many would agree is one of the absolute worst films of the ‘90s; it had more than five writers. Lethal Weapon 4 supposedly had 12 writers; The Flintstones – rumors have it – had over 60 (!) writers take a stab at the screenplay; and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – one of the worst films in recent memory – had more than four writers to its name (some simply getting credit for “adapting” due to WGA rules). The point? Well, in 1982 Sydney Pollack would try his hand at making sense of the oft-bounced around script for what would become Tootsie. Everything about the film’s pre-production would point towards it being a failure; however, Pollack – the old pro – would piece together the scraps that were left from all of the previous writers who tried their hand at making the script work. Prior to its release, there was no way of predicting that Tootsie would be the second highest grossing film at the box-office (behind E.T.) and would be one of Pollack’s most popular and successful films.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: Postscript


Well, that seemed to go by fast. I want to thank everyone for their participation in this year's blogathon. Every year I do this blogathon, I am amazed at the amount of participation and enthusiasm for it. I had a horribly written, humble little blog that started in 2008, and after a year of figuring things out (and another two before I finally figured how I wanted to write), I decided to run a blogathon. My first love has always been the horror film, specifically the Italian horror film. So when I decided to run an Italian horror blogathon (thinking that it would just be my brother and myself participating), I was shocked to find two things: 1. People read my blog. 2. These people were interested in participating in a blogathon about Italian horror. I had to postpone the blogathon the second year, but I brought it back last year and was, again, surprised and humbled by the interest people seemed to have in it. This year was no different. I don't know if more people read the entries of those that participated (or if more people read my entries), but I know that I took to Twitter to help promote it in hopes that more eyes would be reading all of the great submissions that came my way.

And this is really what I want to get across in this post: Thanks for helping me promote this thing. I'm not the best at self-promotion. It's nice to know that people read the blog and comment on it, but I don't do what I do on here for page hits. And so I've never been one to go out of my to promote things; I'll do the basics needed to get the word out. My horrible MS Paint created blog banners promoting the blogathon should be proof that this isn't some kind of professional movie blog; however, what I lack in professional photoshop skills I'd like to think my effort more than makes up for. And so I thank you all for helping me promote this thing, for helping me feel good about putting the effort by participating, and, more than anything, thanks for the quality of these pieces. I feel luck to have people that want to do this every year, but I feel even more fortunate that the quality of the submissions are always top-notch. So, thanks! Let's do this again next year.

In case any of these got buried on the front page, links to all of my reviews are after the jump. You can check out all of this year's submissions here.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: Links


Use the comments section of this post to link to your entries; I will then update the best I can throughout the day. However, the full update will show up each morning around 7 (Pacific), so if you send me your link and don't see it up here right away, it probably just means I'm at work. So, check this post throughout the blogathon for all of the latest links. I'm excited to get this thing started and read people's submissions. My own contributions will go up on the blog at the same time as the updates and will appear beneath the daily links post. All links will appear after the jump...

(Updated 10/31): Happy Halloween, everyone! Final update is posted. Thanks for your contributions, everyone! I will throw up a postscript to this thing tomorrow.


Italian Horror Blogathon: Opera (aka Terror at the Opera)



Dario Argento’s Opera is aptly titled. Operatic in its aesthetics, this is the Italian maestro’s most gruesomely violent aria. A swan song of sorts for an aging diva; a final showcase for a once great entertainer (with hindsight we say this) to remind us one last time just why we rushed out to see whatever their name was attached to. This is Argento at his most gloriously indulgent; visually and aurally throughout, the viewer is bombarded with an excessiveness that can only be compared to the onslaught of neon and shadows and Goblin found in his 1977 masterpiece Suspria (and in some cases Inferno). Don’t get me wrong, Opera isn’t even close to being the stone-cold masterpiece that Suspiria is (a swap of Goblin for shitty ‘80s metal is the first thing that will tip you off); however, they both share that they’re utterly, truly trying to be art films that masquerade as horror films. Much like Suspiria, Argento is being really showy here with his camera. Of course we could say that about a lot of Italian horror films, but Opera in particular feels like something people could get behind as a transcendent art-house horror film.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (aka La dama rossa uccide sette volte, Blood Feast)



The previous two years I’ve done this blogathon I’ve always wanted to make sure that I had time to see something that I haven’t seen or heard of before. The first year I did this blogathon it was Pupi Avati’s The House with the Laughing Windows; the second year it was Francesco Barilli’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black. This year I wanted to make sure I had time for Emilio Miraglia’s The Red Queen Kills Seven Times. Boy, am I glad I made time for this gem. Miraglia’s film is a masterpiece of the genre; something akin to the best of Bava. A hybrid Gothic horror picture/giallo, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times is a prime example of why I love this subgenre so much: there’s always some kind of gem like this unearth.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: Aenigma



To watch a Lucio Fulci film post-1981 is to see a film by a once visionary genre director totally devoid of effort or care. It is with much sadness that I write this review for the Italian horror blogathon. I always try to get in one film from a major contributor to the subgenre that I haven’t seen, and this year I picked a late(r) era Fulci. Aenigma is the most clichéd kind of Euro-horror flick: shamelessly ripping off other movies (most blatantly Carrie and Patrick), straining to appeal to American audiences (for example, Fulci finds a way to get images of Snoopy, Sylvester Stallone, and Tom Cruise in his movie), and even lazily reverting to famous gore setpieces from his own films (the spider scene from The Beyond is used here, only this time with snails). I don’t know if Fulci’s health was declining by this point or if he was just disillusioned with the whole lot of it, but Aenigma is a depressingly pointless movie that is uninspired, boring, and just plain hack filmmaking.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: Anthropophagus (aka Antropophagus, Anthropophagous: The Beast, The Grim Reaper, Man Eater, The Savage Island)



Directed by the infamous Aristide Massaccesi (better known as Joe D’Amato, which is the name I will refer to throughout the rest of this piece) and containing a gleefully maniacal performance from Luigi Montefiori (better known as George Eastman; again, the name I will use throughout this piece), Anthropophagus is one of the most notorious Italian horror films. Unfortunately, it’s not very good. When one sees “Directed by Joe D’Amato” at the beginning of the film, the expectations drop, and everything from that point on becomes, “okay, that’s not so bad…I mean, it is Joe D’Amato.” Anthropophagus is no different. The film is excruciatingly boring, but for a Joe D’Amato film it’s nice that the film isn’t littered with awful sex scenes. There’s a lot of wandering around by the characters, but for a Joe D’Amato film, it’s nice that the characters are walking around surrounded by a moody atmosphere instead of spouting off horrid dialogue. Anthropophagus – despite its reputation as being one of the nastiest of the “Video Nasty” films – is quite tame throughout save for two scenes as it is more about tone than visceral gore. If there’s one thing I can say about Anthropophagus, it’s that at least old Joe is trying here. But even when the man is trying, his films are still chores to get through.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: Contamination (aka Alien Contamination, Contamination: Alien on Earth, Toxic Spawn)


One of the more entertaining and endearing aspects of Italian genre cinema is its proclivity for piggy-backing off of the successes of better films. They would do this by either doing a straight copy of the film or by using their titles to suggest that their film is a sequel to the more successful American film. Whether it was Fulci claiming his Zombi 2 was a sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead; Great White being nothing more than a Jaws rip-off; Beyond the Door as the Italian version of The Exorcist. And lest you think the Italians only ripped-off American horror films, let’s not forget 1980’s Patrick Still Lives – the unauthorized sequel to the Australian film Patrick. One of the most notable amongst these copies/unauthorized sequels was Luigi Cozzi’s 1979 Star Wars rip-off, Starcrash. This quickie cash-in came just a year after Lucas’ film and did pretty well at the Italian box-office; it’s also considered one of the best so-bad-it’s-good cult movies alongside films like Troll 2 and The Room. Just one year after Starcrash, Cozzi turned his attention towards another wildly popular Science-Fiction film: Ridley Scott’s Alien. Hoping to repeat the success of one shameless rip-off, Cozzi was at it again with Contamination. Now, depending on your mileage for these types of movie experiences (specifically Italian genre movie experiences like those of Nightmare City and Hell of the Living Dead), you will either find much to abhor about Contamination or much to love. I, as I’m sure you’ve guess by now, am of the latter mindset.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: A Blade in the Dark (aka La casa con la scala nel buio)



After working as an assistant on Dario Argento’s Tenebre, Lamberto Bava (Mario’s son) made this boring giallo/slasher hybrid, A Blade in the Dark. Unlike his debut film, Macabre, Bava the younger doesn’t show much in terms of originality, here, as he seems too content just making a lower-rent copy of the film he just left the set of. Bava gives us a film that essentially shows us that he paid enough attention as Argento’s AD to make a serviceable film that looks and feels like someone doing their best Argento impersonation.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: Seven Bloodstained Orchids (aka Sette orchidee macchiate di rosso, Puzzle of the Silver Half Moons)



Before he made his infamous cannibal films The Man from Deep River, Eaten Alive, and Cannibal Ferox, Umberto Lenzi was more known for his gialli. A Euro-Horror cult figure known more for the aforementioned cannibal films and for his wacky atomic zombie flick Nightmare City, Lenzi was actually pretty adept at the classic giallo film, and one of his best and most competent film is 1972’s Seven Bloodstained Orchids. Considered a lesser giallo by some, Lenzi’s film is one of the better entries into the subgenre that was oh-so-popular in ‘70s Italian cinema.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: Blood and Black Lace (aka Sei donne per l'assassino, Six Women for the Murderer, Fashion House of Death)


A painter and cinematographer turned director, a craftsman turned celluloid dreamer, an industry veteran who created, almost single-handedly, the uniquely Italian genre of baroque horror known as “giallo,” he directed the most graceful and deliriously mad horror films of the 1960s and early 1970s. Always better at imagery than explanation, at set piece than story, Bava’s films are at their best dream worlds and nightmare visions. Check your logic at the door
                                                                                                      --- Sean Axmaker

It felt appropriate to kick this whole thing off with a Bava flick. The reason is simple enough: just read that great paragraph above from Sean Axmaker; it says it all. Everything we associate with Bava we associate with all of Italian horror. It is in Bava’s films that we come to an understanding of how to approach the later entries in the subgenre. You want to leave your logic at the door and just enjoy the fever dream of a Fulci movie? Look to Bava. You want to enjoy the beautifully choreographed gore scenes and baroque aesthetics of an Argento film? Look to Bava. You want plot and character development to take a back seat to a heavily stylized, ethereal tone a la the films of Soavi? Look to Bava. What’s most interesting about the maestro is that no matter what your fancy may be – cannibals, zombies, or witches – he pretty much laid the foundation for it all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon is tomorrow!


We're just one day away from a third year of Italian horror goodness. I'll put up a post tomorrow around 7am Pacific for you all to comment on with links to your posts. I'll keep the links post at the top of the page every day and update it every morning at 7. My own posts will be going up at the same time and are going to be underneath the links post. If you're wanting to still contribute something, it's not too late. Here are the details.

I'm really looking forward to this year's entries. See you all tomorrow!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Italian Horror: A Primer


Now that I’m on my third year of hosting this-here blogathon, I figured now would be as good a time as any to write up a proper introduction to the subgenre I love so much. I have invited many people to participate in this humble project the last couple of years, and one of the things I love hearing most is that people were introduce to Italian horror through this blogathon. I hear quite often that people were always apprehensive to try out Italian horror because they knew so little about it (aside from the fact that narrative structure was meaningless). Inevitably, whenever I hear from or read something by someone that encounters Italian horror for the first time, it’s almost always in the vein of, “Wow, that looked really great – it was illogical and frustrating at times – but it sure was nice to look at.” So, on the week before the blogathon, I thought I would throw up on the blog this little primer about the history of Italian horror, where one might want to start, what one should expect from an Italian horror film, and some of its major contributors. Remember, the blogathon begins next week on October 24, so if you’re still on the fence about contributing or what to write about, maybe this will help.


Monday, October 8, 2012

Blog Announcement


I know I have more banners to use than the one above (which I already used in my initial announcement of the blogathon and have on the side of my blog), but I just can't get enough of those crazy Bruno Mattei zombies from Virus. Anyway, I figured I should let you all know that posting will be slowing down -- if not completely stopped -- in prep for the Italian Horror Blogathon coming up in a couple of weeks. When October is over, I will resume the Pollack retrospective (covering the second half of his career). I will try to continue my countdown of my favorite episodes of The Office, but expect that to resume in November as well. For now, I'm in full Italian horror mode. See you all in a couple of weeks! And don't forget, details (and more banners) for the blogathon are here.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Office: #22 -- "The Surplus"




22) The Surplus
Season 5, Episode 10

Every Thursday during the final season of The Office, I'll be counting down the best episodes of the series' previous eight seasons. Follow me on Twitter @StiglitzMovies to see my thoughts on the ninth and final season. Below are links to previous entries in this retrospective.


Pre-Title Sequence:

In the cold open – which ties in with the A-story –Oscar tries to explain to Michael about an office surplus that must be spent at the end of the day or it will be deducted from next year’s budget. Michael, not sure how this actually works (Carell does a great job of looking totally confused), asks Oscar to explain it to him as if he were eight years old. When Michael still doesn’t get it, he asks Oscar to explain it to him as if he were five. Oscar tries to convince Michael that the office needs a new copy machine, but Michael remains confused about the surplus.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Announcing the 3rd Annual Italian Horror Blogathon



The Italian Horror Blogathon returns! Many people have helped in making this a success in the past. I hope you'll all return this year. As you may know, I have no set criteria for what you need to write about. It could be a film about cannibals, zombies, or black-gloved killers. Some people like to focus on the giallo and the films of the ‘60s and ’70s – specifically Bava, Martino, Deodato, and Argento; while others prefer the ‘80s/early '90s era of Italian horror focusing on films by the likes of Argento, Michele Soavi, Lamberto Bava and Lucio Fulci. Whatever it is that you want to cover, it’s okay by me as long as it follows this simple criteria: it’s horror, and it’s from Italy.  All I ask is that you link to the blogathon in your post; I’ll keep a running links post at the top of the page every day during the blogathon.

If you can please let me know what you’re interested in writing about in the comments, it may get others to think about an alternative route if too many people are covering the same film. Below, you'll find details on how to participate and banners (located after the jump) to help promote the blogathon. Thanks again, everyone! I'm really looking forward to this year.

Here are the details for you to copy and paste on your blog if you'd like:

When: October 24-31
Where: Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies
What to do: Write about Italian horror and promote the blogathon on your blog
How to participate: Simply think of something you want to review and send it to me via email or comments section with a link to your piece.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Absence of Malice



Pollack described how he came to make Absence of Malice as a “screenplay my agents gave me; it’s as simple as that.” This kind of rare, personal detachment from the project is evident throughout the film and makes for one of the most painful viewing experiences of Pollack’s oeuvre. Oh, not because the movie is bad or even boring, there’s just something missing here (I think it’s primarily conviction and energy in its subject matter) that makes it quite the lacking experience when held up to other famous procedural films. But it’s also lacking in the conviction found in almost all of Pollack’s previous films. In Jeremiah Johnson, The Yakuza, and Bobby Deerfield, that personal attachment is evident as Pollack often stated that those films were a labor of love. Here, Pollack may have thought Absence of Malice was a good film – the commercial success of the film makes a case that something worked in the movie – but there’s also a sense that the film was a stopgap for Pollack before he begin production on his two most critically successful films that rounded out the ‘80s, Tootsie and Out of Africa.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Office: #23 -- "A Benihana Christmas"



23) "A Benihana Christmas"
Season 3, Episode 10

Every Thursday during the final season of The Office, I'll be counting down the best episodes of the series' previous eight seasons. Follow me on Twitter @StiglitzMovies to see my thoughts on the ninth and final season. Below are links to previous entries in this retrospective.



Pre-Title Sequence:

Dwight brings in a dead goose declaring it a “Christmas miracle.” Toby’s reaction (“Dwight, we’ve talked about this…”) is great, and I’m always a fan of Dwight when he’s trying to do something nice for the office but remains socially inept as he’s completely unaware of how ridiculous (or in this case, kind of disgusting) his nice gesture comes across as.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Master



Edited to add: After three different drafts, I finally settled on this one. Because of that, I probably didn't expand on some claims I made throughout this jumbled rumination. Some have pointed out questions they have for me in the comments; I suggest you look there for more (hopefully) lucid thoughts on the film and why I compare the editing to that of a Malick film and why even though I understand that the cyclical (what I call redundant) nature of the film is probably Anderson's point on a much larger theme, I still don't know if that's enough to clear up some of the murkiness of the film's thesis.

One of the most apt images of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master, occurs during its opening minutes. The man we come to know as Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) dry-humps and fingerbangs a sand-sculpted woman; he then goes and masturbates by the ocean. Two things: we laugh at the absurdity of these actions – bored sailors during World War II on what we assume is a short "R and R" on an island – and then as they continue we kind of groan at the aimlessness of it all. It’s a fitting metaphor for the effect the film had on me: it’s as fleeting as masturbation. Sure, I may have enjoyed it while it was on, but when it was over, I realized that what I had just seen really didn’t mean anything. In fact, I think Roger Ebert’s quote about the film sums it up nicely: “[The Master] is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.”

Sydney Pollack: The Electric Horseman



If you follow this blog at all, then you probably know that I am not someone who favors plot or story over other elements in film. I don’t need a mind-bender to keep me interested; in fact, I have no use for movies like The Usual Suspects, Inception, and films of their ilk. Mostly it’s because I feel like a lot of those kinds of films (with the exception of Inception which had great stunts) use their twisty storylines as a way to mask their film’s deficiencies. Sometimes the actors can make it work, and sometimes the film just falls completely flat because I’m spending the entirety of the movie trying to figure out just what the hell is going on instead of getting invested in the characters. There are countless filmmakers that I don’t need to waste your time by listing their names that can balance this, but I generally don’t look for films with “interesting” storylines” to draw me in.

So what am I getting at? Well, by selecting Sydney Pollack as my director for this retrospective I have dug myself into a bit of a hole compared to the other two filmmakers I’ve previously covered in this projected (truncated retrospectives on Oliver Stone and Ken Russell) because of the fact that I love the simplicity of Pollack’s films so much (there really is nothing “twisty” about his plots; they’re simple, classic storylines) I often find myself lacking for content beyond the general plot synopsis. The Electric Horseman is no different: a film with all of Pollack’s favorite themes, two great lead performances, a storyline that is nothing new, and a small chase scene to break up the monotony. It’s not that it’s a bad movie (just like Bobby Deerfield wasn’t a bad movie), but it lacks the elegiac tone of something akin to it like Junior Bonner. Where Peckinpah’s film was an elegy to the Old West as the New West pervaded it, The Electric Horseman is similar in tone (Las Vegas artifice/corporate exploitation of an old cowboy’s morals is similar to the ever-changing rodeo circuit and quickly evolving New West Junior confronts in Junior Bonner)  but acts more as an adventure/buddy picture; a little more light-hearted than previous Pollack/Redford collaboration, Jeremiah Johnson, but very similar in tone (both films were shot at Zion National Park in Utah, so there is a similar feel in setting).

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Office: #24 -- "The Deposition"


 
24) "The Deposition"
Season 4, Episode 12
  
Every Thursday during the final season of The Office, I'll be counting down the best episodes of the series' previous eight seasons. Follow me on Twitter @StiglitzMovies to see my thoughts on the ninth and final season. 

Pre-Title Sequence:

Pam explains that Michael once received a message while he was in a meeting and told Pam that he’d call them back. Since then, Michael has always wanted to relive that moment, so he tells Pam to interrupt him whenever he’s in a meeting with a note so he can say, “I’ll call them right back.” Pam explains that he doesn’t get that many calls, so we get a montage of her bringing Michael random messages on post-it notes (my favorite being the little impressed look Jan gives the camera) until we see the plan backfire when Michael is in a meeting with super jerkass, VP Ryan, and when he tells Pam he’ll call the fake person back (this time in the guise of hot dog saying “hi buddy”), Ryan insists he takes the call. Cold Opens often have nothing to do with the main storyline and feel like little bits the writers pitch and love but struggle to find a place for, and this was a perfect example of one those amusing bits. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Office: 50-25


My countdown of the 50 best episodes of The Office begins with a look at numbers 50-25. Starting Thursday, a new episode will be unveiled in conjunction with episodes from Season 9. Read the intro to this series here. This will just be a quick list with some quick thoughts on each episode listed. A more coherent format will begin on Thursday with individual selections. Enough yakkity yak yak, on with the list!

List after the jump...


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Goodbye, The Office




Blog Note: It’s been hard tracking down a copy of The Electric Horseman since it’s no longer available on Netflix Instant. The Pollack Retrospective will return shortly once I’ve corralled a copy of the film and can continue on. For the three of you reading it, I haven’t given up on it.

When NBC decided to finally pull the plug on The Office and make this upcoming season its final one, I knew I wanted to do some kind of retrospective on the show. However – as you can no doubt tell with all of these blog “projects” I “do” – I don’t really have the time to go through and do a retrospective proper, so I figure I would fall back on the simple list. Since there are a lot of great episodes of The Office, I figured a top 50 would suffice. So, when the new (and final) season starts up on September 20, I will post an episode per week until the series’ final episode. Look for selections 50-25 to be grouped into one post and then I’ll post each subsequent selection in conjunction with the airdate of the new episodes from the final season.  More thoughts on the series after the jump…

Monday, September 3, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Bobby Deerfield



We last left this retrospective with one of Pollack’s best and most popular films, Three Days of the Condor, and we now come to one of his least popular and most maligned: Bobby Deerfield. Oh, there is so much to say here, but I suppose I should just get this out of the way right now: I don’t hate this movie. It’s nothing special, contains no memorable moment, has little of Pollack in it other than his languid pacing – and yet I can’t help but admire the film at arm’s length for its earnestness. This is one of the ones that Sydney Pollack loved the most, and it actually shows through quite plainly: Here, behind the camera, is a man that genuinely loves the film he’s making.  It left me with a feeling that is something akin to Jeremiah Johnson, another film I didn’t care all that much for but also appreciated for Pollack’s earnestness behind the camera.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

My own stab at this whole Sight and Sound thing


Thought I would jump on the whole “if I had a ballot” thing making its way through the blogosphere. This is in no way a definitive list; I still have so much to see and so much to learn about film. This is a reflection of how I feel now in 2012. I hope you enjoy.

About this list: these are the films that make me happy. In essence, this falls more into the “favorites” kind of list rather than “the best” (isn’t that always the inner-debate with lists like these?). I tried to pin down the films that have shaped how I watch and think about movies, and (most importantly) how I think about life; I've opted for these kinds of films over more obvious, erudite selections. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Summer of Slash: Happy Birthday to Me




Note: This is the final entry for this summer’s Summer of Slash series. Thanks for following along and reading! More horror reviews will return in October with the 3rd Annual Italian Horror Blogathon. Until then…

Before I begin with the review proper, allow me to give a brief history of the Canadian slasher: Canadian slashers are a different animal – they favor character development and plot over grimy aesthetics and gore effects – so it’s no surprise when one sits down to watch Happy Birthday to Me that not only do we get a slasher that nearly clocks in at two hours (!), but we get a film that is interested in following through on all of the plot points it introduces instead of just rushing through The Meat with bloody killing after bloody killing. In fact, Happy Birthday to Me boasts "SIX OF THE MOST BIZZARE MURDERS YOU WILL EVER SEE!” on its poster, and it’s true, they are quite creative (the coverbox has always been a favorite of mine), but they’re very tame in contrast to what people were seeing from slashers thanks to the work that Tom Savini was doing in the early ‘80s. So then, it seems that the biggest difference between Canadian slashers and American slashers is the preference for tone and pacing and character development over gore and gratuitous nudity. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

8 1/2



Edited 8/4/12: I wrote this a little over a year ago, and, in light of the recent S&S polling, I thought I would repost my thoughts on what I feel is the greatest film ever made (in lieu of new content while I'm on vacation). Enjoy.

"His film is as whole, as simple, as beautiful, and as honest as the one that Guido, in 8 ½, wants to make."
                              ---- Francois Truffaut


From its first surrealistic seconds of asphyxiation, synec doche, and eerie silence that hovers over the action, Federico Fellini's 8 ½ states its thesis clearly: Fellini is cutting the umbilical cord to his neo-realist ways and introducing his postmodern, dreamlike (not to mention carnivalesque and farcical) motifs that would be found in all of Fellini's films post-La Dolce Vita. Fellini's style would venture into the baroque with films like Roma and Juliet of the Spirits; however, it was with 8 ½ that the auteur was at his most Jungian. It is within the dream world of 8 ½ that Fellini becomes a cartoonist (Terry Gilliam, in the Criterion DVD introduction to the film, says this, too) who mixes the absurd and dreamlike aesthetic with a narrative that is poignant and effective. Yes, the aesthetics are impressive (I believe whole heartedly that Fellini's film is just as important a visual textbook as something like Citizen Kane), but for this viewer it is the narrative that continues to impress and affect with each subsequent viewing.