Monday, April 28, 2008

Movie Review: Futurama: Bender's Big Score

Like so many other members of the ever-growing geek culture, I was stricken with sadness when Matt Groening's animated sci-fi satire Futurama was pulled from the airwaves. If there was one show that succeeded in mocking the absurdity of the genre while still honoring it, this was surely it.

So when I discovered that Groening was reviving the show in a series of direct-to-video releases, I was overjoyed at the prospect of watching the antics of Fry (a modern day human trapped in a futuristic world), Leela (the cycloptic but strong-willed alien woman), and Bender (the wisecracking, alchoholic robot) once again.

Unfortunately, the first feature-length release from the show, Bender's Big Score, proved to be somewhat of a let-down in my opinion. The premise (a group of nudist aliens plant a virus in Bender that compels him to travel through time and steal all of the most priceless artifacts in history) was interesting, but there have been countless episodes of the show that proved to be more entertaining and much more clever. Overall it appears that Futurama is still capable of producing an entertaining viewing experience, but its first experience with a feature length format showed considerable signs of growing pains. Some of the gags suffered from running far too long (with Bender's frequent travels through time being the primary example of this), and there were times that the story itself fell flat.

That is not to say that this was a poor film; in fact, most of the film was highly amusing. This series has amassed much of its audience by parodying science fiction while also honoring it, and that trend continued in this film. One of the best running gags in the film concerns a ridiculous product named "Torgo's Executive Powder" that is used for everything from seasoning to delousing to the care of patients who have undergone head transplants. This is an obvious reference to the infamous science fiction film Manos: The Hands of Fate, which is notoriously hailed as one of the worst feature films ever made (and having seen the picture, I must stand in agreement with this title). There are also a number of other homages to the genre, with perhaps my favorite being Bender's re-enactment of the first Terminator film as he attempts to locate and destroy Fry. But the film does not completely rely on these allusions, for it has a number of funny moments on its own original merits. The nudist aliens provide a number of comic moments, as does the always reliable cast of characters. While I certainly had issues with the film, and would certainly place Groening's recent attempt at a Simpsons movie high above it, the film still proves the series has a long and fruitful life ahead of it.

Does the film have its problems? Certainly. Is it a masterpiece of animated satirical cinema? Certainly not. But in the end, it is still Futurama. It still manages to provide much more comedy fodder than most of what is currently on television. And while I think Groening and the rest of the creative team were met with some difficulties when transferring to the longer format of direct-to-video film, I have faith that most of its flaws were a result of this transition. I look forward to the next feature, The Beast with a Billion Backs, with great anticipation.

Manos: The Hands of Fate and the Necessity of Awful Films

One of the most amusing moments in my college career concerned one of my English professors and his frustration over a key scene in Dead Poet's Society. The scene in question was the one in which teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) tells his students to rip out the introduction of their English textbooks, for he views it as a poor example of writing. When I asked the professor why he took this particular scene to task, he told me that it was just as important to analyze poor writing as it was to analyze excellent writing. Otherwise, how could we have a full appreciation of the greatest works of literature if we did not have substandard writing to compare it to?

Ever since that theory was first presented to me, I have come to accept it as a logical practice. And the world of film can be greater appreciated by applying this practice to the medium. Which is exactly why I have always suggested to my friends and fanatical devotees of film that the film (and I use that term quite loosely) Manos: The Hands of Fate is required viewing. Since its severely limited release in 1966, the film has been widely hailed as one of the worst films ever created; and honestly, the film has truly earned this moniker.

The plot, which involves a couple staying the night in a sinister-looking house, only to be attacked by a devilish cult, is preposterous. The actual development of the film was also very poor; the film was completely shot with a hand-held camera that could only film for approximately 30 seconds at a time, and resulted in the film being one of the most poorly edited features ever shot. In addition, the entire audio track of the film was overdubbed by only three people. The acting didn't salvage the film either; not only does the audio track poorly match the actual individuals in the scene, but it also appears the actors have no concept as to how one emotes in a tense situation. Many people try to claim that Plan 9 From Outer Space and the rest of Ed Wood's filmography should be considered among the worst films ever made; but in all honesty many of those films are highly entertaining. Manos is such a failure of a film that it is actually monotonous and quite painful to watch.

With that said, I truly believe anyone who admires the art of film should consider it required viewing. Not only does it stand as the awful movie against which all other awful movies must be compared, but it will also compel you to notice the beauty in wonderfully crafted films. The way the shower scene is edited in Psycho will never look more fantastic until you have seen the poor editing of the nauseating driving sequence at the beginning of the film. The virtuoso tracking shots of the best Scorsese films will be even more breathtaking after experiencing the the abyssmal framing of the shots throughout the film. The legendary performances in a film like Casablanca or Lawrence of Arabia will never seem as masterful as they will after watching John Reynolds in his cringe-worthy performance as the satyr Torgo in the film.

I have since developed the opinion that viewing a true failure of a film will train one to focus on the construction of a film more intensely, and develop an even healthier respect for film as an art form. To provide an artistic comparison, would one truly recognize the brilliance in the works of Van Gogh if they had never seen a poorly conceived piece of art? I believe that it is doubtful. As a society, we all can recognize that some things are inherently beautiful; however, we have a greater perception with beauty when we are exposed to something that is truly heinous and grotesque. We cannot fully appreciate the wonders of love without having been exposed to the horrors of hate. We cannot truly enjoy the fruits of laughter as much without ever having experienced the pains of sadness. By this rationale, we also cannot exalt brilliant, masterful works of film without having been exposed to truly awful examples of the form.

It is no secret that having to suffer through a truly bad film is a considerably frustrating and disgusting task; I felt intensely uncomfortable last year as I suffered through the horrors of Hannibal Rising and Happily N'Ever After. But the miserable experience of viewing such films made me even more appreciative when I viewed films like Juno and No Country for Old Men months later. Therefore, to those who share my love and passion for the beautiful form that is film, I implore you to expose yourself to the horror that is Manos: The Hands of Fate. Just remember to view it with extreme caution...

Movie Review: Rope

(previously published on Whenever the fine art of film editing is discussed within the confines of film classes or critics' circles, it is not uncommon to hear the name of British director Alfred Hitchcock. Many of the most beautifully edited shots in film, such as the scene in North by Northwest where Cary Grant is pursued by an airplane, or the infamous shower scene in the horror classic Psycho, are attributed to Hitchcock.

It is for this very reason that his 1948 suspense film Rope is something of an anomaly among Hitchcock's works. Rather than achieve suspense and simulate visceral action through the use of advanced editing techniques, Hitchcock chose instead to craft a solid mystery that abstains from hardly any editing and instead relies on strong performances to supply the tension.

The plot of the film is rather morbid, especially for its time. At the start of the film Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan, two intelligent (but naive) young men who exist in the upper echelon of most social circles, choke one of their colleagues to death with a length of rope. Afterward, they place the deceased inside a large chest, so that the guests they have invited for dinner that night do not discover the body. In an act of either macabre humor or blinding arrogance, they decide to place a dining room cover on the chest and serve their guests on top of the makeshift resting place of the corpse.

One of their guests, their former teacher and intellectual peer Rupert Cadell, gradually suspects that something is awry, and the two young men begin to fear that their secret might not be as safe as they presumed. As the film progresses, the two young men become more and more concerned that their vicious act will be discovered, and Rupert finds himself closer and closer to the truth that is hidden in the chest.

Hitchcock's skill in creating a nervous tone in his film that exists within the viewer as well as the film is done very effectively throughout the course of Rope. The performances in the film, especially those of the two young men (John Dall and Farley Granger), create an atmosphere of paranoia and throughout the film it feels as if the truth is just one moment away from being exposed to all.

Often Hitchcock created this type of emotion in his films with masterful editing techniques, but this film is perhaps his sole exception. The entire length of the film is composed of a mere ten edits (in comparison, the shower scene alone in Psycho has nine times as many cuts), and Hitchcock joined the scenes together in a way that made them appear to be one long take. This is achieved using a number of clever techniques, such as zooming into someone's back until the lens goes dark, and then zooming back out; such a scene appears to be one long take, but in actuality it is a split shrouded by the darkness. This required Hitchcock to create a pacing that would carry the film, for the technique that usually supplied this effect was extraordinarily minimal. Therefore the entire story is told in real time, and the audience is allowed to watch the events unfold as they happen. Furthermore, this effect succeeds in creating somewhat of a first-person perspective of the film. Whenever Brandon and Phillip feel a tinge of fear over the suspicions of Rupert, the audience is allowed to experience those emotions as they occur. The fact that the audience knows of the crime that has been committed and yet is seemingly a part of the action allows each viewer to have a slightly voyeuristic point of view.

One of the greatest joys of watching any Hitchcock film is seeing how Hitchcock attempts to try something unique and unconventional with each film. Unlike many directors who choose to rely on the same techniques that have repeatedly brought them success, Hitchcock constantly sought to change his style, sometimes to a dramatic degree. It is apparent that with this film (which also marked Hitchcock's first foray into color film) Hitchcock continued his penchant for taking unimaginable risks in the hopes of making another bold and groundbreaking cinematic statement.

5 out of 5 stars

Film Analysis: The Last Temptation of Christ and the Human Perception of Christ

(previously published on Whenever a filmmaker decides to pursue the topic of Christianity for the purposes of making a compelling film, it's often met with strong controversy. This is likely because those who are strong in their faith have preconceived notions as to what is correct and what is incorrect in relation to their beliefs. As a result, any idea or opinion that may be in opposition of those preconceived ideas is often greeted with apprehension.

Legendary director Martin Scorsese had some experience with this mentality when he released his long-gestating passion (no pun intended) project The Last Temptation of Christ. Adapted for the screen from an equally controversial novel by author Nikos Kazantzakis, the book portrayed Jesus Christ in a more human context than many previous films. It brought forth the suggestion that Jesus Christ faced all of the same doubts, fears, and inner conflicts as the people for whom he died, and yet still lived a life free from sin. The consistently brilliant Willem Dafoe portrayed Christ in the film, and Scorsese regulars Harvey Keitel and Barbara Hershey portrayed Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene, respectively.

The performances in the film are, for the most part, very strong (with one exception being David Bowie as a rather stoic Pontius Pilate), and the technique and presentation of the film is astounding. However, this article is less about the presentation of the film, and is more about the ideas and concepts presented therein. While the film received strong critical acclaim (even securing another best director nomination for Scorsese), many religious organizations objected to the portrayal of Jesus in the film as a man with very human struggles. However, I would contest that many of the scenes that were looked upon as heretical may in fact present a more intriguing view of faith and Christian understanding.

One scene in particular that drew the ire of fundamentalists groups was a sequence where Satan comes to Christ while he is on the cross, and he presents Christ with a vision of what his life would be like if he did not perish on the cross. During the sequence, Jesus is shown marrying Mary Magdalene and producing children, and leading an average domestic life. I have always found the rejection of this concept to be quite peculiar. I myself possess a strong belief in the existence of God, and the sacrifice of his son for the sins of man. And if anything, many of the ideas in this film provide me with an even greater respect and admiration for the Passion of Christ. The text of the Holy Bible repeatedly informs the reader that Christ was 100% God, but he was also 100% man. In so many portrayals of Christ, it seems the emphasis on Jesus as God repeatedly overpowers the fact that he was also a man of flesh and blood.

Many cinematic portrayals of Jesus make it difficult to remember that he was tempted by the same sins that all men face. Scorsese succeeds in presenting Jesus as a man who constantly faced the temptation to turn away from his purpose as the Messiah, but ultimately never rejected it. It is hard for many people to believe that Jesus would have any longing to marry and produce children rather than be the savior of mankind; but in many ways, doesn't this make his sacrifice more meaningful and beautiful? I for one prefer the idea that Christ was tempted to forsake his purpose and live as one of us, with a normal domestic life, a normal occupation, and a normal family life. For me, it makes his sacrifice even more meaningful, for not only did he sacrifice his life, but he sacrificed the joys of a normal human existence as well.

Another element of the film that prompted much contempt was the portrayal of Judas as a more honorable character in the film. I will confess, this is a hard concept to come to terms with, but it also presents an interesting argument as well. If Jesus was meant and destined to perish on the Cross for our sins, was Judas not in some way an integral part in our ultimate salvation? If Judas did not betray Christ, would Christ have died for our sins? Or would we as people still be nothing more than filthy rags in the eyes of God, still unclean with sin that was never forgiven? And if God is indeed an omniscient, omnipotent entity, would that not suggest that it was already known and decided upon that Judas would be the catalyst to the Passion?

Overall, I believe Scorsese was attempting to create a film that sought to help us better understand the challenges that Jesus faced by making him a more human figure than any other film had attempted before or since. In doing so, he perhaps made one of the most accessible and fascinating portrayals of Christ that has ever been committed to film. The actors in the film do not speak in the cadence of the King James Bible, but instead speak in a modern style, which makes it much easier to relate to them, which only adds to the appeal. Many have argued that the film is wildly inaccurate, and provides a poor representation of the actual crucifixion. Those who make such decrees are missing the point of a film such as this; it is not meant to present a documented account of what actually occurred, but instead is attempting to present new ideas and concepts concerning a very familiar event in our history. If that was Scorsese's ultimate goal with this film (and I believe it was), he succeeded on a monumental level.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Movie Review: Ratatouille

In recent years, the world of animated film has had a drastic increase in quality and acceptance by a wide audience. The genre, which seemed exclusive to children and the young at heart, has evolved into a form that can express ideas that both juveniles and adults can identify with. And the famed animated studio Pixar is likely the most responsible figure in this transition.

With their recent computer-animated feature Ratatouille, it would appear Pixar has taken an even greater leap ahead in terms of crafting an amazing story that can appeal beyond the typical family-friendly audience. It stands as a wonderfully fun tale about the potential for greatness in anyone (or any rat). I was further surprised to discover by utilizing the cooking process in a symbolic sense, director Brad Bird also says much about the process of composing and directing a film.

The plot of the film concerns a confused but intelligent rat, Remy, who has an unusually sharp palette. This fact causes him to seem drastically different than the rest of his rat family and friends, and feels alienated from the rest of his rat family. When an unfortunate accident separates Remy from his family, he finds himself at an upscale French restaurant named after his late cooking idol, Gusteau. He quickly befriends a young man who has just gotten a position at the restaurant, and their secret friendship enables the man, Linguini, to achieve massive fame for Remy's work in the kitchen. Yet as the friendship continues, Linguini becomes more unappreciative of Remy's skill, and Remy becomes more disenchanted by the fact that his appearance is requiring him to be hidden from the rest of the restaurant employees.

This is director Brad Bird's third animated feature film after The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, and like those two previous efforts, this film is an animated masterpiece. The first thing that is very apparent is the visual style of the film; not only does the art of computer animation continue to become finer and more enchanting, but Bird takes the technique further by utilizing very skilled live action camera techniques for a number of the animated sequences. This provided the film with a live action feel in many scenes, despite the fact that it is an animated feature. But the film's appearance is not its only strength; story has always been the driving force to Pixar's success, and this film continues that trend. Bird was likely intrigued by the subject of cooking by its parallels with directing; it requires seeing a final result that has yet to exist, and directing a number of unique and different elements to make the final result successful. Can Fellini's 8 1/2 be remade with a rat serving as the protagonist? With Brad Bird at the helm, it might be a possibility.

Whenever each new film is announced from the studios of Pixar, I have always felt that for film lovers, this is a joyous occasion. Pixar has yet to truly fail the general public with one of their films, and if Ratatouille is any indication, they actually succeed in raising the absurd expectations of their fans even further. Perhaps the most amazing fact is that they have made a series of films that are appeal to the parents of children as much as to the children themselves.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Movie Review: Auto Focus

There is a substantial amount of brouhaha that is made concerning the decadence of Modern Hollywood, and many have argued that they long for the innocence of Hollywood. But can that assumption about celebrity life really be constructed when there are so many examples to the contrary? Silent film star Fatty Arbuckle was suspected of sexually assaulting and murdering a woman with a piece of ice. Errol Flynn was an alcoholic, a womanizer, a brawler of Russell Crowe-like proportions, and had a number of arrests, one for statutory rape. Countless other celebrities have proven to have less than reputable personalities when the layers of their characters are peeled away.

In the film "Auto Focus" directed by Paul Schrader (who, having written the films Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Bringing Out the Dead, obviously has a skill with darker material), we are invited into the private life of "Hogan's Heroes" star Bob Crane (skillfully portrayed in this film by Greg Kinnear). Crane built a strong reputation during his tenure on television as a family man and a likeable role model that charmed television audiences worldwide; however, Crane was also a man consumed by very disturbing personal demons. When he encounters an excitable video technician on the set of "Heroes" named John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe, no relation to the horror director), Carpenter brings him into a world of strip club, pornography, and orgies that begins to consume everything else in Crane's life and slowly begins to draw his career into a downward spiral as well.

While watching the film, there are a number of things that becomes very apparent about Schrader's filming techniques: first of all, while he doesn't begin to match the technical virtuosity of his frequent colleague Martin Scorsese, Schrader is no slouch, and knows how to structure a film correctly in an a visually intriguing way. However, to focus on technique alone would be a disservice to the performances and story of the film. The basic plot, based on the Robert Graysmith book of the same title, is paced quite well, and progresses in a way that quickly delves into Crane's decadence and yet still doesn't feel forced or unbelievable. Part of this can be attributed to Schrader, but the main credit for this can be attributed to the acting, especially award worthy performances by Kinnear and the always reliable Dafoe. Granted, this film is not for a mainstream audience; if you were pleased by the wholesome quality of "Hogan's Heroes", this is undoubtedly not the film for you. However, if you are interested in a thoughtful commentary on how fame corrupts even the most seemingly decent of men, the film provides an interesting yet unsettling film experience.

4 out of 5 Stars

Movie Review: M

The number of films that have been composed concerning the notorious exploits of serial murderers has been pretty substantial since the inception of the art form. Some of the films, such as Silence of the Lambs, have been absolutely sublime; others, in fact many others, have been forgettable and dull. The ones that do succeed usually do so because they try to achieve some form of human element with the topic at hand, rather than simply exploit the surface trappings of the horror inherent in the situation. This has been true since the beginning of this sub-genre.

This fact is further supported by one of the earliest films in the genre, the 1931 German classic M. The film, which was directed by German film legend Fritz Lang and starred famed character actor Peter Lorre as a child murderer (predating his Casablanca and Arsenic and Old Lace fame for a number of years), tells the story of a pedophile who is terrorizing the streets of German town. When the whole town becomes terrorized by the actions of the criminal, law enforcement begins to infiltrate every element of life to pursue him. This causes the criminal underground of the town to feel threatened, and they too stage their own attempts to hunt the wanted man down. This creates a very intriguing shift in the film, for when the criminal element of the city joins the search, the terrorized denizens of the town no longer seem to be the threatened entity. Instead the child murderer that paralyzed the city with fear is no perceived as a hunted animal, and in a stroke of moral ambiguity, a more sympathetic figure.

The concept of the film, especially the idea of the criminal world staging their own efforts to solve the crime, were unique and original for the time, and a strong film with the same theme has yet to be made since; of all the horror films that seem ripe for a remake, this one is it. The film boasts a strong level of emotional power, despite the black and white appearance and the flaws in the sound (this was filmed during the early day of sound mastering, and therefore a mono recording track is used for the majority of the film, and many of the scenes are actually silent). Director Fritz Lang also proves why he was one of the greatest cinematic voices of Germany; many of the overhead shots were pretty daring for the time, as well as the ominous lighting for a number of the scenes. The sequence where Lorre is being pursued by the criminals and police of the city in particular was very impressive; the chase begins in an open environment, and as the chase continues, the scenery becomes smaller and more enclosed. It is as if the very city walls themselves are conspiring to trap this murderer like a caged animal.

Very special recognition must be given to Lorre for a tour-de-force performance as the murderer; the final scene where he pleads his insanity before the townspeople and the criminal underbelly of the town is still mesmerizing to this day. It is also slightly embarrassing when you reflect on the number of films portraying murderers and child molesters today. So many of these films portray these figures as nothing more than another hackneyed stock character, and here in its infancy is one of the most amazing portrayals of a murderer ever committed to film. He succeeds in the early stages of the film in really being an unnerving and sinister figure (and his whistling of Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 predates the ominous breathing sounds in Friday the 13th by over 45 years). At the conclusion of the film, it is hard to comprehend whether or not the petty criminals or the child murderer are the more honorable figures of society. Such dualities only enhance the brilliance of this film.

The ever-popular "serial killer" genre in film had much of its origins in this film, which is pretty amazing. What is even more amazing is how much better this film continues to be than most of the films in the genre that have been released since. Many will likely be turned off from the film because of the subtitling and German language, and that is a shame. Despite these differences, this is an amazing film that continues to be an entertaining watch even 70 years later.

5 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: The Searchers

Westerns have for so long been a film genre to tell simple tales of simple people searching for meaning in the battle of good vs. evil, and has not traditionally been a place to explore complex themes. Because of this long-standing fact, when the timeless John Ford film The Searchers arrived in theaters in 1956, it was viewed as a weak entry into the genre. However, the message of racial tensions and the idea of honor and responsibility have not only earned it acceptance, but have caused it to be hailed as one of the greatest Westerns ever made. While it is not my all-time favorite Western (one of Sergio Leone's many spaghetti westerns likely wields that label), the film is still nothing short of a masterpiece.

The film follows the troubled and difficult path of Ethan Edwards, a Confederate soldier with a blinding hatred of the Comanche Indian tribe who returns to his extended family; when most of his family is murdered by Comanches and his niece Debbie is kidnapped by the tribe, Ethan begins a grueling 5-year journey to find the missing girl that becomes a dark and disturbing obsession. When Ethan discovers that she has been taken in and accepted a place with the tribe, he is compelled to murder her for having associated with the very people he despises. Only in the end does he finally find redemption for himself, but at the cost of the family he loved so dearly.

This film is nothing short of beautiful in its production; the West has never seemed so enticing, and the natural beauty of the land provides a startling juxtaposition to the cruel attitude that Edwards has concerning the world around him. John Ford is held by many acclaimed filmmakers (including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas) as one of the greatest of all time, and he is particularly admired for his mastery of the Western genre. While Ford was respected for his skill at filming in black and white, he proved to all naysayers he was just as talented behind a color lens. He also had a keen sense of symbolic value in film; the concept of doorways and the use to reflect Edwards' journey is astounding. The film opens with Ethan entering into the home of his family, finding peace with the few people he truly cares for; in the final shot, we see the exact opposite, as Ethan is framed walking out the doorway, with it being very apparent he may never return.

The message concerning racial tensions between the American settlers and Native Americans has rarely been as controversial as it was in this film, and it was made even more shocking by allowing American hero John Wayne to play a man that was in many ways despicable. Wayne's hatred of the Comanches from the beginning seems more severe than needed, and when he even goes as far as to consider murdering his own for associating with them, it is apparent that he is a man consumed and blinded by his hatred. This movie was released only a year after the start of the American Civil Rights Movement, and it would not be difficult to see the parallels between Edwards attitude towards the Comanches in the same light as the treatment of Black America during this period. While it is not certain that Ford was expressing his own views on this growing issues through this film, it certainly provided a unique perspective on this issue during a very confusing time in history. The film still holds up today as a fascinating film and should be considered required viewing for film enthusiasts everywhere.

5 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Clerks 2

When the rise of the independent film movement occurred in the early 90's, director Kevin Smith was upheld as one of the founding voices responsible for the growth of the movement. His debut film Clerks was a vulgar, obscene, low fidelity film that became a sensation, primarily because in addition to these qualities, it was also extremely smart and funny. Since that time, Smith has matured as a director, and though his films are still primarily low-budget affairs, they are certainly more than the $27,000 price tag of his first film. When Smith chose to revisit the film that started his career, many were skeptical he could meet the same level of success, or would merely create a pale imitation of the original.

Fortunately, Smith not only matched the magic of the first film with this second entry, but he may have very well exceeded it. In the second film, Dante and Randal (played once again by Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson) still feel imprisoned in a job they hate, this time in the fast food restaurant Mooby's (a fictional parody of McDonald's which has appeared in many of Smith's other films). The film occurs on Dante's last day, as he intends to move to Florida with a fiancee (Smith's wife, Jennifer Schwalbach) and a life that he honestly doesn't truly want. Resident wiseass Randal secretly is conflicted by this fact, as he feels his closest friend will leave him behind with a life that feels empty without Dante's companionship. The film details the dilemma Dante feels faced with: should he leave for Florida to fulfill a hollow expectation of a life, or stay in New Jersey with his best friend and his boss (Rosario Dawson) who he has fallen for?

For a film that is bursting with this many obscenities and vulgarity, one would think that it would be rather desensitized and shallow; however, the film succeeds at being a touching story of the love that two friends share for one another, and how important it is to the development of the characters as people. It also addresses the notorious Gen X question as to whether or not it is best to do what one wants with their life or to merely do what is expected of them. Very rarely has a film that would be deemed offensive by many carried so much heart.

I, however, was not offended by the film; in fact, I adored it. I have found all of Smith's films (with Jersey Girl possibly being the only exception) to be hysterical, but this may be his funniest effort yet. Jeff Anderson's Randal is still achingly funny as the eternal anti-social register jockey, and Brian O'Halloran's Dante plays a perfect foil to his antics. But the real superstar of this film is newcomer Trevor Fehrman as the sheltered, religious nerd Elias. His diatribes with Randal concerning his love of the Transformers and Lord of the Rings, and his description of his girlfriend's "Pillow Pants" were some of the funniest moments in the film. And the climactic Donkey Show was nothing short of comedy gold. And as always, Smith and his longtime friend Jason Mewes have memorable cameos as the mischevious stoners Jay and Silent Bob.

Smith has never set out to make Citizen Kane, but instead has always cared more about making entertaining films that are entertaining at fun. But he certainly deserves more credit as a serious filmmaker, for even in the midst of deviant sex, rampant political incorrectness, and an overall-demented world view, he has crafted a film that is truly personal, and even sweet. In the end, that is more than most comedies these days.

4 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Peeping Tom

The Criterion Collection line of DVDs has become a figure of adoration for film enthusiasts everywhere for many years now. The series, which actually begun on laserdisc, remasters and releases culturally relevant and significant films for the general public. While some of the choices have been met with some level of controversy (look, I enjoyed The Rock, Armageddon, and The Life Aquatic, but I would certainly not deem them "culturally significant"), for the most part it has allowed films that would otherwise be largely unseen to find a mass audience.

The classic British thriller Peeping Tom is a valid example of an important film that has been given the honor of the Criterion treatment. The film, which was directed by British legend Michael Powell, tells the story of a mad camera operator who seeks to film the last moments of the lives of individuals by killing them as he operates his camera. The film developed a wildly notorious reputation in Britain for its disturbing subject matter, and it is often credited for destroying director Powell's career. Yet, like so many great films, the film's influence and importance has grown with time. Unlike most horror films, the plot of this film was strikingly complex and unique, and proved to stand as more intriguing than your standard horror fare. The film was also successful in utilizing some very unique camera techniques to capture the eerie perspective of John Barrard's murderous filmmaker. The first person perspective shots in the film effectively evoke the idea that you are watching the action through the eyes of the murderer himself. It was likely this voyeuristic touch that alienated so many British viewers when it was first released; however, it is highly effective in this horror setting, and has since been emulated repeatedly (I would not be surprised if John Carpenter was inspired from this scene, as the opening shots of Halloween have a very similar style).

The legacy of a bold film like Peeping Tom is often not given the respect and admiration it has earned until enough time has passed to see its influence on other films. This has proven true for a number of American films; Citizen Kane was considered a failure upon its initial release, yet time has exalted the film and placed it at or near the pinnacle of filmmaking. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, we now have the opportunity to view films that were ahead of their time and reflect upon how they have successfully altered the landscape of film for today.

4 and a 1/2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 10, 2008

List: The Top 15 Films of 2007

Most years, when I am reflecting upon the countless cinematic experiences I have taken part in during the year, it is often difficult to find a group of films that can necessitate a top 10 list that I truly "loved". A few I adore, and then the rest, were movies I simply liked. 2007, however, was a different story. This was a great year for film, and so many of the films I saw this year were genuinely great. Though there are still a number of films I haven't seen yet that I yearn to see (There Will Be Blood, Juno, Michael Clayton, and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead top that list), I still found myself loving many more that I did have the pleasure of viewing. The following films listed are my top 15 of 2007 in order of appeal:

Top 15 Films of 2007

15) Rescue Dawn- Director Warner Herzog has made a name for himself for many years with his excellent documentary films, his most recent effort having been the fascinating Grizzly Man. With this film, Herzog decided to try his hand at feature filmmaking, adapting his own Vietnam POW documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. This tale of a POW camp escape orchestrated by German-American pilot Dieter Dengler (portrayed by the always thrilling Christian Bale) brought a fresh take to this familiar genre, and also kept a strong current of suspense throughout the film. Also, look for an exceptionally strong serious performance by perennial comic actor Steve Zahn as a fellow prisoner.

14) The Mist- Frank Darabont has built a very respectable career out of film adaptations of horror writer Stephen King's dramatic works, such as The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. With this film, Darabont attempted one of King's horror tales, this one pulled from the short story anthology Skeleton Crew. The result was a thrilling yet original take on the "monster in the shadows" genre (with a thick cloud of mist replacing the said shadows in this instance). The film's monsters are thrilling, but the real nightmare of this film, is the chilling performance by Marcia Gay Harden as a manipulative religious fanatic. The horror film-as-social commentary is still alive and well, and this comment on the maddening effects of mass hysteria shined brightly this year.

13) Away from Her- After viewing The Notebook, I was under the impression that the horrors of Alzheimer's had pretty much been thoroughly covered through the medium of film. I was pleasantly surprised to see I was mistaken, and even more surprised that the masterful acting of the legendary Julie Christie showed me otherwise. As an elderly woman succumbing to the crippling disease and not recognizing her once adulterous but now firmly devoted husband, Christie gives what I considered the best female performance this year. First-time director Sarah Polley (better known as the resourceful blonde in the Dawn of the Dead remake) set the bar remarkably high in her first effort.

12) Knocked Up- If Judd Apatow ruled as the King of Comedy this year, Seth Rogen also was found strong success as his Clown Prince. This story of a one-night stand-turned-transition into parenthood could have been another dull adult comedy with a weak script and bad dick jokes. Instead, it shined as a witty, intelligent coming-of-age tale (complete with GREAT dick jokes). It seems that the days of mind-numbing comedies with little substance are in their dying days, making way for funnier movies with much more heart.

11) Across the Universe- Often times, the accessibility levels of a musical tend to be injured by the music itself, and the unfamiliarity with it. With Across the Universe, this is not an issue; the entire soundtrack is revised versions of classic Beatles songs. And this fact adds an element that most musicals cannot claim; an adoration for the music before one even steps in the theater. Julie Taymor succeeds in making a striking visual poem to the sounds of history's most iconic rock band.

10) Zodiac- Though this film is dedicated to the actions of a notorious unsolved serial murder case, this film is more of a drama than a horror film. Rather than focus on the exploits of the murderer (though they are presented in a graphic and starkly realistic way), the film instead focuses on how the search for the identity of the Zodiac killer consumed the lives of all that were involved. Jake Gyllenhall does well as a newspaper cartoonist who neglects everything else in his life in pursuit of the truth, and Robert Downey Jr. steals the film as the sarcastic alcoholic journalist Paul Avery.

09) 300- Some may claim that this film is nothing more than an over-the-top, overblown action film depicting the last stand of the Spartans against the Persians at Thermopylae. And the observation would be correct. But as ridiculously grandiose as it may seem, it is a film that wildly entertains from start to conclusion.

08) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street- I always look forward to Tim Burton's latest foray into the bizarre gothic world that is his body of work, but Burton went in a different direction with this film, while still staying true to his unique and beloved style. In his adaptation of Steven Sondheim's popular horror-musical, Burton created a bloody great film that revealed to the world that yes, Johnny Depp can sing. It also revealed to the world that Sacha Baron Cohen is not only adept at terrorizing unwitting bystanders with acts of comic genius, but is one hell of a great singer.

07) The Bourne Ultimatum- With the creation of the Bourne trilogy, fans of spy films have the official thinking man's Bond. Carrying an everyman quality while still seeming convincing as an unstoppable badass, Matt Damon's Jason Bourne has proudly seized the title of Action Hero of the New Millenium. This third film did not succumb to the dreaded sequel curse, and in actuality may have surpassed the two previous efforts. I still cannot watch the insane car chase sequence without feeling a rush of adrenaline.

06) Grindhouse- This pair of short films placed together with fictional exploitation trailers did not fare well at the box office, which is a shame. After all, how can you not enjoy the absurdity of a four-perspective car crash, a peg leg sex scene, and enough camp glory to keep you laughing and cheering for days? In both embodying and satirizing the most prominent qualities of trash cinema, Tarantino and Rodriguez created something fresh and original that succeeded in being a true cinema experience. For those who were not able to view it in theaters, the way it was meant to be watched, watching it on DVD just isn't the same as viewing this sexy, sleazy masterpiece on a giant screen.

05) Shoot 'Em Up- There is nothing more nauseating than watching an action film that insults the audience by attempting to pass off completely inplausible gunfights and fight sequences as "realistic". That is the beauty of Shoot 'Em Up: it does not even attempt to portray realistic action and is filmed in a way that states to the audience "don't take this too seriously". Clive Owen is great as the stereotypical badass British nanny (if there is such a thing), and Paul Giamatti is very funny as Owen's arch-enemy who has to balance his own evil plots with the nagging needs of his wife.

04) Superbad- Though this film proved to be a great year for comedy movies, no film made me laugh nearly as hard as this rauncy but somewhat sweet teen comedy. The film managed to have the charm of the 80's John Hughes film, with characters that both teens and adults alike could identify with and view as very real characters. However, it also managed to be uproariously funny, especially the antics of geek god McLovin (played to perfection by newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and two slacker cops (Seth Rogen, who co-wrote the film, and SNL's Bill Hader).

03) I'm Not There- Chronicling the illustrious life of rock legend Bob Dylan is no easy task as he has represented so many things over a very rich career. How to solve this dilemma? Simple: have 5 talented actors and one exceptional actress portray the classic rock Bard in Todd Hayne's amazing art film-as-biopic. Everyone here puts in a strong performance, but the standouts are Christian Bale as the protest singer and Christian artist Dylan, and Cate Blanchett in a performance as an outcast Dylan that is so dead-on it borders on disturbing.

02) Lars and the Real Girl- When one of the sweetest, most wholesome films of the year is the story of a man who falls in love with a sex doll, you know you have witnessed an odd year in film. Ryan Gosling matches his tour-de-force performance in last years Half-Nelson with this touching story of searching for something to love, and how that love may be real and pure, even if the thing you love is not. A truly heartwarming film and further proof that Gosling is one of the most talented young actors of the new independent generation.

01) No Country for Old Men- Is it a modern nightmare, a morbid morality tale, or just a simple thriller? It may have been all three, but nevertheless it made for a masterpiece of a film. The Coen Brothers, having seemed to lost their madness and their greatness after Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, The Coen Brothers returned with a vengeance with this tale of greed and the ever-darker reality of the changing world. Tommy Lee Jones put in one of the best performances of his acting career as a sheriff disturbed by the horrors he is watching unfold before him, and Josh Brolin finally found a role that will elevate him to the A-list. Yet no one in the film can compete with the chilling tour-de-force role of Anton Chigurt, played without remorse by Javier Bardem. The Hannibal Lector of the 2000's was created in Chigurt, and his relentless quest to take what was his and destroy all in his path made for the most entertaining film of the year.

List: The Worst Films of 2007

(NOTE: I had at one other point in time attempted a blog, and found that I was less than thrilled with the end result; so to avoid sounding as if I have yet to live in the present, I must inform any humble reader that this blog was composed at the beginning of January) For film enthusiasts, 2007 was a very exciting year. Whether you interests gravitate towards fascinating art films or larger-than-life popcorn movie affairs, there was a smorgasboard of entertaining films to experience. However, the year also produced it's share of awful films as well. For that very reason, I have decided to list the 7 films that I unwittingly suffered through the past year. Hopefully my personal sacrifice may encourage others to avoid the pain of experiencing these films for themselves.

The 7 Worst Films of 2007

7) Blades of Glory- I intentionally placed this film at the bottom of the list because there were some moments in the film that were mildly amusing, and most of them belonged to Will Ferrell. However, this film's substandard quality can be attributed to one man: Jon Heder. Now, this may seem like a controversial comment to make concerning the beloved "Napoleon Dynamite". Do not fret, Dynamite devotees, for I enjoyed that film as much as everyone else. However, I have not enjoyed anything else Jon Heder has been involved in. I thought he wasn't very good in Just Like Heaven (honestly, there wasn't much I considered good in that film), and I felt his character in The Benchwarmers was a pale Diet Coke version of Napoleon Dynamite. In this film, his chemistry with Will Ferrell is nothing short of appalling. Here's hoping he soon learns to play more than one role in every film he's involved with.

6) Ghost Rider/Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer- With the recent critical and commercial success of the comic book movie genre (with the Spider-man series and Batman Begin reigning supreme), almost immediately every comic book license has been greenlight for a motion picture. While many of them are good films, or at the very least, decent, there are still plenty that have been truly terrible. But none can truly challenge the complete failure of these two films. The first, a Faustian tale about an undead hero biker born out of the flames of hell, finally provided avid comic fan Nicholas Cage to enter in the genre; it probably would have been better for everyone involved if he had declined. After the 23rd bad "fire" pun or wooden performance (with Eva Mendes being the main source of contention), I almost longed for Son of the Mask. A few months later, the second Fantastic Four movie further exposed me further to the horrors of bad comic book adaptation. I didn't even think they could do much worse than the first Fantastic Four, but apparently I hadn't counted on a Silver Surfer character who had a television in his stomach like a cosmic Teletubby, an even more metrosexual Dr. Doom, and a final major enemy Galactus that turned out to be.......a giant cloud.

5) Norbit- Attention to all filmmakers: a black male comedian wearing a fat suit and playing a woman IS NOT FUNNY ANYMORE. It was barely funny in The Nutty Professor. It wasn't funny in Nutty Professor 2. Or Big Momma's House. Or Big Momma's House 2. Or Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Or Medea's family Reunion. Or the next 5 movies that I am sure will use the same plot device. We all know the drill: at some point they are gonna sit on a chair that will break, they will randomly break other items because of their girth, they will smother any lover or potential mate during an intimate moment, and they will eat, and eat, and eat throughout the entire movie. Please let this crappy Eddie Murphy vehicle be the death nail in this irritating trend.

4) Epic Movie- This film is a parody film from the people who brought you Date Movie. And it was much, much worse than Date Movie, and that is saying a LOT. Look for the follow-up, Meet the Spartans, to be on this list next year.

3) Pirates of the Carribbean: At World's End- With the exception of The Bourne Ultimatum, most of the "threequels" released this past year were disappointing to most people (though admittedly I enjoyed the Shrek and Spider-man entries). But the one that stood head and shoulder's as the largest failure was the closing chapter of the Pirates trilogy. With a plot so convoluted few could understand it fully (and the ones that did really didn't care anyway), the story alone should have been enough to sink this ship. However, in addition to the plot issues, the audience was subjected to a secret pirate weapon that was nothing more than a 50-foot black woman, a mindless ending that cheapened the two previous films, Keira Knightley seemingly channeling Kill Bill fight tactics all of a sudden, and the always brilliant Johnny Depp seeming to phone it in for this film. And most of all, after so many double-crosses and backstabs the audience is left with no character to truly care about.

02) Hannibal Rising- An interesting premise (How did Hannibal Lecter become the monster he is now) made for a truly boring film. This vapid prequel was so bad it may have actually lowered the quality of the original films by a small margin. The one quality that made Hannibal Lecter so terrifying was his ability to seem charming and likeable will still remaining positively chilling. In this film there is nothing chilling about him, and he manages to have absolutely no charisma whatsoever. Sadly, it seems this year Hannibal Lecter finally passed on, only to be reincarnated properly in the Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurt in No Country for Old Men.

01) Happily Never After- There is no simpler way to state this: Happily Never After is the worst film that I have ever seen. I decided to take a chance on the film because the producers of Shrek were involved and the concept sounded interesting (all of the fairy tales don't have a bad ending rather than the conventional happy one). But the film failed miserably by trying to seem trendy and hip but also maintain a kid-friendly sweetness. This film could have been great if it was done as an animated dark comedy, but instead it was done as a truly dumbfounding film that not only was a disgrace for every actor involved (George Carlin, a man I have always admired, is a part of the debacle), but it has also visually scarred the audience for all eternity.