Thursday, March 23, 2006

Requiem for a lazy blogger

Yup, I'm still yet to be cured of this slacker blogging syndrome. I was trying to pin down the reason this week and thought that it might be the fact that I've seen way too many disappointments this month, films that aren't exactly inspiring me to write. That doesn't mean I haven't seen some good ones, but the stud:dud ratio was clearly at an all-time low in February-March, so come with me as I take you on a tour of the hits and misses I've seen lately.

Biggest Dud: 'Creepshow 2'
My God this one was bad, and I actually had some modest expectations for it. I remember seeing the previews for it as a kid and always was intrigued by the potential of the vignette The Raft, which is the main reason I finally watched it. Based on three of Stephen King's short stories, Creepshow 2 also included George A. Romero as director. So there's definitely some potential here, which is subsequently ruined by the curious directing decision to play the whole movie slightly sarcastically, with a half-smirk to inject some element of comedy into all three stories. While it might have looked good on paper, the laughs are never there and subsequently, neither is the horror.

Making matters worse is the awful animated segments that preclude each of the stories. We begin as some sort of Cryptkeeper dude drops of the latest issue of Creepshow at a comic book store, where it is picked up by some slimey kid. Through the magic of animation that reaches previously unheard of lows, we see the kid's adventures with the comic in between readings and are introduced to the Cryptkeeper's generic castle as he introduces each story. Before the previously mentioned Raft story, we get a worthless vignette called 'Chief Wood'nhead' about a wooden indian who sits in front of George Kennedy's store, until one night when some hoods rob the place and he goes on a killing spree. It is devoid of any fright, comedy or entertainment value. Luckily after it was finally over I got to see the reason I even popped in this atrocity (which regularly sells for $5, wonder why): The Raft.

The story is vintage King: three teens on a raft haunted by a strange creature in the water that slowly kills them. The thing in the lake resembles a floating oil spot and can reach up through the cracks in the raft and kill them. This is a good premise, but the whole segment is ruined by more awful direction. When the first teen is sucked in and horribly killed, her friends react more like she dropped a glass of milk. It could have been played out like Cujo, which has a similar plot, but instead plays out like a bad Amazing Stories episode. In the end, 'Creepshow 2' was so disappointing I couldn't even bear to watch the final vignette (some trash about a woman and a zombie hitch hiker).

Biggest Hit: 'Elephant'
After watching Gus Van Sant's masterful Elephant, I couldn't believe there isn't more hype about it. 'Elephant' is one of the most original and unique movies I've ever seen. Most will dismiss it when they hear it's about a Columbine-style high school massacre, but it's more of an experimental film about life than anything. Using a voyeuristic lens and toying with the chronology of a day at a generic high school, Van Sant leads us through characters we get to know deeply, while never succumbing to overly expository dialogue. One of the characters, Carrie, has extensive screen time, but maybe two lines. Finally, she is given a quick and emotionless death just like the others, showing what little concern the teen killers had for their victims as they probably knew her just as we did: a face in the hallway.

Van Sant uses extremely long shots from a lens that routinely drifts away from characters and into other conversations like it was some ghost wandering through the school. The chronology Van Sant uses is creative, as in one scene we see three characters pass by each other in the hall and eventually see through each of their paths how they got to that intersection. At no point until that deja vu shot was it apparent that we were watching a flashback. The killers themselves are not portrayed as hell-bent Satanic kids, but as a couple of punks who anyone would know. Both know they are going to die and that they will kill many of their classmates, but never seem overly excited about their prospects. The only real emotion any of them show is when one is walking the halls and is frustrated that most of the students have already fled the building.

Van Sant makes it a point to show that he has no answers, just like anyone else, for the ghastly phenomenon of high school shootings. Using a controversial and unsexy topic, Van Sant created a very simple movie that creates a powerful message by being just that.

Biggest surprise: 'High Anxiety'
I was surprised by Mel Brooks' tribute to Alfred Hitchcock not in how much I liked it, but just as how it is not your typical Brooks comedy. He's at his always-zany, but it's not exactly overflowing with jokes like Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein or as daring as Silent Movie. And most of all, it's not really a parody, but as the opening prologue says: a tribute. If you're not familiar with Hitchcock, this might not be for you, as you won't catch the note-perfect takes on his scenes, or jokes like Brooks' character checking into a hotel as Mr. McGuffin. It's not the funniest Brooks comedy, but it just feels so right, such as the setup for the best joke in the movie: Brooks repeatedly asks for a newspaper from a bellhop, who finally enters Brooks' room while he's taking a shower and 'stabs' him with the newspaper, leading to the exact shot from 'Psycho' where we see black ink (the same color the blood in Hitchcock's black and white movie was) swirling down the drain.

Other misses:
Rio Grande
As the closing movie in John Ford's 'Cavalry Trilogy,' I really wanted to like Rio Grande, but it never seemed to capture the lively spirit that Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon did so well. Sure, John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara are in it and Victor McClaglen plays Victor McClaglen again, but the pieces never seem to come together as well as they did in the other two. Hurting its cause is that Lt. Col. Yorke isn't the best kind of character for Wayne. It's essentially the same character Henry Fonda played so well in 'Fort Apache,' whereas Wayne was always at his best when playing men with a slightly lighter and synical side, not a stone cold disciplinarian as Yorke is.

The Devil's Rejects
This wasn't so much a disappointment, as it was entertaining, but it seemed like it should have been better. The sequel to Rob Zombie's tremendous House of 1000 Corpses (which will be even better when a director's cut is finally released), The Devil's Rejects seems more like made-for-TV spinoff of a once-popular series. We get the best characters from 'House' back and go with them on more of their adventures, but it always seems like it's a 109-minute movie made with a 45-minute story. There are subplots and inflated scenes everywhere that seemingly do nothing to better the movie than to up the running time. And in that running time we never really get that good a glimpse at Captain Spaulding & Co. We're with them the whole time but never get the sense that we know them, or find out much more about them than we did in the original.

The Haunting (1963)
Again, a good movie but it never once lived up to its hype as a genuinely scary film. I watched it at night and never found it even remotely creepy. I wouldn't sayI'm immune to scares, as I am quick to give a movie credit for having genuine chills, but it may be a case of simply becoming desensitized to the 'what's that sound' kind of scare that this movie apparently makes its living on. That's not to say 'The Haunting' is not entertaining, as its use of brilliant setpieces (the towering spiral staircase -- wow!) and lighting make for plenty of eye candy, but the lack of scares makes this movie truly drag at times.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Another end-all box set

Us Western fans are getting spoiled again. If you were floored by the long-overdue Peckinpah set, feast your eyes on this. On June 6, Warner is set to release the John Ford-John Wayne Collection. The ten disc (!) set is headlined by two heavyweights: an Ultimate Collector's Edition of The Searchers (2006 representing the film's 50th anniversary) and a two-disc set of Stagecoach. 'The Searchers' alone will retail for $35 since it will contain a load of goodies including a 36-page booklet, a reproduction of the original comic book, behind the scenes photos and even a mail-in one-sheet poster. In addition to these two blockbusters, the set will come with Fort Apache, The Wings of Eagles, The Long Voyage Home, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, They Were Expendable and 3 Godfathers. How much for this treasure chest? How does $80 sound?!?

The new discs of 'The Searchers' and 'Stagecoach' will retail for near $50 alone, and for another $30 you can six more classics, with nary a dud among them? Too good to be true. Actually my only quibble is that it does not contain Rio Grande, the finale to Ford's 'Cavalry Trilogy' that also includes 'Fort Apache' and 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.'

To understand what a great release this is, compare it to Universal's recent Alfred Hitchcock set, which contains 14 films at a bargain price, but gives us discs of movies many of us already had, in many cases hardly improving upon the original. The Ford-Wayne set presents two exhaustive special editions and the best examples of the featured genre (no 'Torn Curtain,' 'Topaz' or 'Frenzy' which bogged down the Hitchcock set). Also, keep in mind that $80 is the MSRP for the set, which means Amazon will probably sell it for $65 or $70!

Though 'Stagecoach' and 'The Searchers' are what will really sell this set, I can't wait to finally have 'Fort Apache' on my shelf, which is my favorite Ford-Wayne film. A meaningful and original tale of military ethics with a cast featuring Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple (with one of the best character names ever -- Philadelphia Thursday), Ward Bond and even a 'hell yeah!' role by the one and only Victor McLaglen help push 'Fort Apache' into the cinematic stratosphere. The most memorable scene in the movie is Wayne's closing monologue, which is regarded by some as his finest moment.

So now that Western fans can check Peckinpah and now Ford off their DVD wish lists, when can we finally get special editions of Leone's For a Few Dollars More, A Fistful of Dollars and Duck, You Sucker that we have long been promised?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Your basic Oscar prediction post

Yeah, I've been slacking off lately in terms of posting, but that's neither here nor over there because the Oscars are coming up this Sunday. You won't find all the categories here (does anyone have a preference for 'Best Sound Mixing'?), but you will find plenty of second-guessing and semi-informed opinions.

Actress in a supporting role
Nominees: Amy Adams, Junebug; Catherine Keener, Capote; Frances McDormand, North Country; Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener; Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain

This is probably the least glamorous of all the major categories this year. Nobody saw 'Junebug,' there's little remaining buzz over 'North Country' and Philip Seymour Hoffman is who everyone remembers from 'The Constant Gardener.' I see it as a two-person race between Weisz and Williams. Both are also in the I-Can't-Believe-Charlize Theron-Is-Actually-Nominated! category, since the two actresses have had a fairly dubious career up until this point (Weisz in both 'Mummy' movies; Williams was in 'Dick' and even starred as Wilson's girlfriend in an episode of 'Home Improvement'). But Williams was the main reason 'Brokeback Mountain' was pushed from a pretty good movie into a favorite for Best Picture.
Who I want to win: Williams
Who will win: Williams

Actor in a supporting role
Nominees: George Clooney, Syriana; Matt Dillon, Crash; Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man; Jake Gyllenhall, Brokeback Mountain; William Hurt, A History of Violence

Wow, what a lineup. Can't remember the last time this category was so packed with stars. A few quibbles: how did Gyllenhall find his way onto this list when his role in 'Brokeback' was at least equal to Heath Ledger's, who is nominated for Best Actor? And Hurt was good in 'A History of Violence,' but he was only in one scene and had maybe 15 minutes of screen time, how does he get the nod over someone like Mickey Rourke in 'Sin City'? I think this is Dillon's to lose, since 'Crash' has all the hype and he is the lone acting nominee from it, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to see Giamatti come away with it since many felt he was robbed for not winning for 'Sideways.' I won't be let down with any of these choices, but will root for Hurt as an underdog that will give attention to a film that should have been nominated for Best Picture.
Who I want to win: Hurt
Who will win: Dillon

Actress in a leading role:
Nominees: Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents; Felicity Huffman, Transamerica; Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice; Charlize Theron, North Country; Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line

I'm going to throw out Theron and Knightley immediately, since the memory of Theron winning the award is still fresh and classic roles (like Knightley's) rarely win. I can see Dench winning, as she is an easy person to vote for, but I don't see her or Huffman overcoming the momentum that Witherspoon still has with Walk the Line. The first thing people talked about with the movie was Witherspoon's performance, which was much more complicated and driving than Joaquin Phoenix's. It will help her that there's really no other homeruns in this group. Witherspoon plum deserves the award, as even taking on the role of June Carter-Cash was a brave move for her, since she had never had a role like that before.
Who I want to win: Witherspoon
Who will win: Witherspoon

Actor in a leading role
Nominees: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line; David Strathain, Good Night, and Good Luck

For anyone who has seen 'Hustle & Flow,' you know that Terrence Howard absolutely deserves this award, and you will also know that he will not win it. The movie itself has so little buzz, and it was nominated for no other awards, that it's a given, and a shame, that Howard will not win. And it's too bad, because Howard perfected a completely original and complicated character who carried an inspired movie from beginning to end. I see this as another two-person race between Hoffman and Ledger, as Phoenix's performance was somewhat overrated and nobody knows who the hell Strathain is. While Ledger's performance is easily second-best to Howard this year in my book, Hoffman is an actor who many people will vote for partly because of his many great past roles.
Who I want to win: Howard
Who will win: Hoffman

Director/Best Picture
Nominees: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Crash, Good Night, and Good luck, Munich

This is one of the few years recently where the Best Director nominees are identical to those in Best Picture, so I combined them. I have two thoughts here: Ang Lee should win for Best Director and 'Crash' is the weakest link of the Best Picture noms. Watching 'Brokeback,' it's clear how tenuous a picture this was, how if it was mishandled in any way, its significance would be lost. The subject of Gay Cowboys in Love seems like it would walk the line between satire and fetish, but instead it's one of the best interpretations of forbidden love. Whereas 'Brokeback' is original and of rare quality, the hype 'Crash' has enjoyed is mostly because it has dared to touch on racism. It is a commendable subject, but it's another thing to present it in the most heavy-handed and predictable way possible. The Matt Dillon rescue scene and the ending between Ludacris and Terrence Howard are the most egregious offenders, as both scenes come off as completely unbelievable. We've also seen the Sandra Bullock character before in tons of movies, a person (usually a woman) who stereotypes a class/race, but by the end must change her views. I wasn't impressed at all, and I saw it when it first came out before all the hype. Of all these candidates, I thought 'Brokeback' was the best, but feel that 'Capote' will win because I have the feeling that the voters will give this award back to an artsy, small-budget film, unlike past years.
Who I want to win: Brokeback Mountain
Who will win: Capote