Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Maybe it’s my love of westerns that made me fall so hard for John Singleton’s Four Brothers, his 2005 Detroit-set revenge film and his best work since Boyz N the Hood. I didn’t realize it then, or even the second time I watched it, that it’s essentially a modern urban western. The lawlessness of the open land and small towns has been replaced by the gutted and run down Motor City. Instead of some evil landowner there’s a crime boss (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor early in his Hollywood career and long before his star turn in 12 Years a Slave). Replacing the heroic gunslinger is a criminal and his three brothers, in town for their mother Evelyn’s (Fionnula Flanagan) funeral and to exact revenge for her murder in what appears to be a convenience store robbery. Many of the western tropes are there. There are gunfights. There are shots establishing the landscape, in this cast derelict buildings and snow-swept (as opposed to wind) open spaces of frozen lakes.
From the annals of long since forgotten films comes Fat City from 1972. Every calendar year is overloaded with movie releases that, even if modestly successful at the time, are destined to recede into memory as the years pass. The status of classic or cult classic is reserved fro only a handful of films each year. You need only go back eighteen years to find a Best Picture nominee called The Full Monty, for example. It was a small British film that found great success in the United States. But how many people think of it now? How highly regarded is it by those who do recall it? Now consider that film’s status with another twenty-five years of age. So The Full Monty is no Fat City, of course, if for no other reason than the latter was directed by John Huston, a Hollywood legend. But even his fame never elevated the film above the level of New Wave Hollywood footnote.
Saturday, June 13, 2015
In honor of the late Christopher Lee, whose June 7 death was reported yesterday, I took a first look at the first of his series of iconic career-defining roles as Dracula. Lee is best known to modern audiences as the wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies or as the Sith Lord Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones. But in the 50s and 60s, he starred in many of Hammer Films’ British horror films.
His first turn as the vampire was in Dracula, which was re-titled Horror of Dracula in the United States to avoid confusion with the Tod Browning-directed version from 1931 starring Bela Lugosi. The Hammer Films series was the second big iteration of attempts to bring Bram Stoker’s novel to the screen. Universal had made the Lugosi film and a few follow-ups, but Lee became a new generation’s face of Count Dracula for several years. Since the late 70s pop culture has been inundated with vampire stories ranging from the grotesqueries of John Carpenter and Stephen King to the comedy of Once Bitten starring Jim Carrey and then finally landing at teenage soap opera thanks to Stephanie Meyer by way of Anne Rice.
Tuesday, June 9, 2015
Upon a second viewing of last year’s Selma, Ava DuVernay’s film about Martin Luther King and his leading the protests in Selma, Alabama, that would ultimately lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I have warmed up to it more than when I first saw it. There was some outspoken backlash bout the Academy’s failure to nominate DuVernay for an Oscar. The same for David Oyelowo, who portrays King and carries the movie through most of its emotional highs and lows. The paltry number of nominations (a Best Picture nod and one for Best Song for which it won) was attributed by some to Hollywood’s refusal to accept black stories or to afford them the same status as stories about white people. These were rich arguments coming the year after 12 Years a Slave won the Best Picture Oscar. That film was about a challenging as they come. No, I think Selma was little recognized in the awards season because it simply wasn’t as good as other movies last year. Unless people believe in affirmative action for movie awards, I see no reason Selma and its director should have bumped other worthy nominees from their recognition.
Monday, June 1, 2015
Does it really matter what anyone thinks of a movie like Avengers: Age of Ultron? These kinds of movies don’t live and die by either critical or popular opinion. They are guaranteed to rake in huge revenue not only at the box office, but through merchandising tie-ins. The hype and excitement, the feeling of its being a cultural event THE movie you must see this summer (or early spring as it opened in early May) ensure that hordes of people will go to see it. And those multitudes have been programmed from decades of action-packed, effects-laden event movies to believe that all they have to do is stimulate the physical senses. As long as lots of stuff blows up, implodes, collapses, cracks, breaks, splinters, and crunches accompanied, of course, by appropriately deafening sound effects, then the movie has accomplished its primary goal.
Tuesday, May 5, 2015
David Cronenberg’s films have always been a bit of an acquired taste. If you can bear sitting through stories about emotionally and (often) physically scarred people who continue to be tortured by and torture themselves over their trauma, and you like it all presented in the harsh cold of the distance the filmmaker puts between his audience and the film’s subjects, then you might keep returning to his work. His films are rarely short of intriguing and boundary-pushing. At least it was through his first two decades or so. It’s getting harder and harder to shock people. Once you’ve done exploding heads, nude bathhouse knife fights, and people whose sexual fetish involves car crashes, where is there room for turning stomachs? His recent spate of work resides in a heightened glossy reality. He had a mainstream renaissance with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Those two are among the most accessible pieces in his body of work, but they still require a suspension of conventional expectations.
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Whatever stage in life he’s at, Noah Baumbach has not stopped writing characters who fret about their own lives, where they’ve been, and where they’re headed. I get the feeling he’s a man who is always in tune with some level of dissatisfaction with his life. One shouldn’t confuse that with unhappiness. I think it’s probably natural to wonder about what you’ve done, the choices you’ve made, and whether you could be doing something better or more important. What separates Baumbach from most other people is that he’s attuned to those feelings probably in everyone around him. That’s why he’s so good at writing dialogue and characters that so precisely and concisely sum up complex emotions.