Monday, March 31, 2008

The Amber Spyglass: His Dark Materials #3 (March 27-31)

Two down, 48 more to go. I had started reading this book about a year ago and put it down after getting close to about half-way through. It simply wasn't engaging and I found myself easily distracted. Picking it up again, it became clear that my initial problems with it were very much the same although this time around I seemed a lot more tolerant. The Amber Spyglass pales drastically in comparison to the first two novels of the trilogy bringing an unsatisfying conclusion to what was shaping up to be one of the best of the fantasy genre.

The Bad:

- uneven pacing: The story wasn't as thoroughly compelling as the previous novels where Pullman gets too caught up on description, description, description. The sub-plots that didn't focus on Lyra and Will's journey were dull and frivolous.

- Lyra's transformation from child to adult isn't believable and feels forced. Her "growing pains" are mishandled and she comes off as this annoying, insufferable girl who I just wanted to slap everytime she opened her mouth to speak or went through one of her emotional mood swings. Her precocious sweet-natured innocence present in the first two books was what I found appealing about her character. I understand that this book was intended to illustrate her maturity but it felt rushed and at times ridiculously lame. SPOILERS: Was it really necessary to have Lyra and Will have sex (they are only 13 for goodness sake!) to portray that she has now entered womanhood?

- Deus ex Machina: People complain about this in the Harry Potter series but at least Rowling didn't overuse it and actually gives plausible reasons for such occurences. Whenever Lyra or Will find themselves in peril they always manage to escape with the help or others or some chance occurance that doesn't make much sense. This really kills the suspense.

- Disappointing climax: The entire series was building up towards the battle between Lord Asriel's army and the angels of Heaven which I expected to be one of the most exciting confrontations. Alas, this was not meant to be. For such an epic war it was surprisingly short and unimpressive. Yawn.

The Good:

- Pullman's excellent writing style. The man knows how to tell a story. Unfortunately, with this third book the results are less than satisfactory. He still manages to create such a tangible universe full of interesting people and creatures.

- Not preachy in his religious views. He doesn't condemn the Catholic faith in so much as he exposes its flaws and asks the reader form his/her own beliefs.

Overall, I was glad to finish the series and would still recommend this fantasy trilogy to children and adults despite my lukewarm reactions here.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk (March 24 - March 26)

Lullaby marks my first venture into the dark twisted world of Chuck Palahniuk who has taken on cult status over the last 10 years or so providing his readers with effervescent bizzare fables usually with strong social commentary (which is where the comparisons to Vonnegut come in) and a crude sense of humor. The plot in this book is as strange as they come taking on elements of the fantasmic involving a children's book of poems that when read outloud or even thought of has the power to kill anyone instantly. The protagonist is a journalist reporter investigating crib deaths who ends up forming a relationship with a real estate agent who sells haunted houses. Along with her secretary and boyfriend who are well versed in wiccan religion, they all set off on a road trip across America to trackdown these books of poems to destroy them. With such an interesting premise, Palahniuk spends too much time on nihilistic rants of contemporary society from mass media brainwashing to the apocalypse rather than the actual story. That isn't to say the story is shoved aside entirely for the sake of self-conscious ramblings. It just feels slightly rushed and only starts to get interesting once the climax arrives. This is a quick read that was thoroughly entertaining and although it didn't really leave much of an impression I'd still recommend it as an excellent piece of edgy post-modern literature that tackles some controversial subject matter in a cynical imaginative way.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

New DVD Purchases


Picked both of these up for a 2/$20 at HMV. I have seen the Woody Allen film several times and it remains one of his best from the 90's. Buffalo '66 was a complete blind-purchase and I have never seen anything by Gallo before. It has Christinni Ricci so that was enough to give it the benefit of the doubt. How would you rate these two?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

#90: Fresh (Yakin, 1994)

Part coming of age story and uncompromising social commentary regarding disenchanted youth growing up in the Bronx, Boaz Yakin’s Fresh eschews the cliché ridden faux-sentimentality of life in the ghetto – first and foremost opting to tell a compelling story with characters that don’t fall into the trap of stereotypes whilst providing a powerful message on the importance of family and the social injustices of impoverished communities. Yakin stresses the personal and political change necessary to put an end to the bloodshed and immoral atrocities rampant in these downtrodden places where government institutions are scarcely provided. Above all else, education is the key to positive change.

What stands out in a film like this that deals with subject matter that has been covered time and time again is that the characters come across as real people with complex emotions and depth. Even the murderers and thugs aren’t just mere cardboard cut-outs of familiar gangster-type associations; the way they communicate or react to certain situations reveals much about their personalities. Take Esteban (Giancarlo Esposito) for instance who is a big-time drug dealer that our 12 year old protagonist Michael (Sean Nelson) or Fresh as he is more commonly referred to works for as a drug pusher in the streets of Harlem. Esteban is a family man and not the familiar strung-out mean-spirited criminal that only cares about money even though he is driven by greed and prone to intimidating bursts of rage as complications surface in the drug-trade. He holds loyalty and truthfulness in high esteem and even goes out of his way to treat Fresh like his own son. Esteban may not be the most decent man to be around but he is a man of principles and it’s refreshing to see a crime-lord with some semblance of humanity. Another refreshing aspect is that Yakin doesn’t pigeonhole his characters as “good” or “bad”. The streets are a war zone where drugs, violence and prostitution are rampant. The struggle for survival in such a hostile environment plagues these people especially Fresh who wants nothing more than to save enough money and escape the hustling street life before it’s too late. With minimal government support, these poor souls are left with very few options to make an honest living and continually get roped into this dangerous lifestyle so who are we to judge? The youth is the most vulnerable to corruption and Yakin emphatically points out that education is something that needs to be reinforced in these young children who are falling victim to this perilous lifestyle since they don’t know any better. Until the government decides to put forth the effort to intervene this is a problem that is not going to be resolved anytime soon.

In what is probably the most overlooked child performance of the 90’s or possibly ever, Sean Nelson is spellbinding in the title role and carries the entire film. The emotional range and his ability to portray Fresh as an smart kid that is exceedingly clever without coming off as too precocious is nothing short of masterful. It is a shame that Sean Nelson’s career never really took off after this film and if the heart-wrenching final scene is any indication, this young man showed incredible talent at such a young age. Fresh may be young but living in these conditions has forced him to grow up quickly even though he is still just a kid at heart. The awkwardness of his school-yard crush showcases Nelson at the top of his game; completely in control of his character by switching from his normal rigid imperviousness to a kid unsure of how to approach the situation. The film wears its heart on its sleeve and relies on Nelson’s genuine performance in order to effectively portray its themes and ideas. Fresh has to maintain a firm assertiveness so as to not show weakness because of the sordid work that he does even though deep inside he is terrified and filled with anguish. His relationship with his alcoholic father (Samuel L. Jackson), a skilled chess player who spends most of his time in the park drinking from a brown paper-bag and playing the game is the emotional core of the film. Chess is a game of strategy and during these visits, Fresh’s father offers him advice on the game but looking closer at the dialogue, it soon becomes clear that these are valuable life lessons that he is giving his son. The chess lessons also help to influence the way Fresh cunningly decides to outsmart his opponents which of course are the drug-dealers he sells dope for. The way he goes about doing this is incredibly suspenseful that is intricately thought out making the plot exhilarating to watch unfold. Even though the film can be grueling to watch at times because of how unflinching the violence is depicted, the raw authenticity of the script, perfect pacing, and wonderfully drawn characters makes it difficult to turn away. This film is leaps and bounds ahead of all those other films dealing with similar subject matter because it actually has something positive to say and goes about doing so in a thought-provoking and intelligent manner.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

#24 Female Performance: Renee Zellwegger

Renee Zellwegger
Bridget Jones
Bridget Jones's Diary

Here is where I more than likely lose most of you who have been following my list. Similar to Miranda July, Zellwegger seems like an obscure pick among the A-list power-house performances and her current ranking position may seem questionable but she really is deserving of such adoration. She brings to life one of the most relatable female characters I have ever come across in cinema with humor, sharp wit, gentle warmth and a social awkwardness that makes her completely adorable. Single, plump, pushing 40 and desperate to find a man, Bridget Jones isn’t your typical bombshell beauty typically found in these kind of romantic comedies. It’s refreshing to have a female heroine who is relatably flawed and yet completely sexy by her intellectualism and personality rather than plain looks. Zellwegger was born for this role and immerses herself completely in the role (she even packed on a lot of extra weight for it), brings a level of genuine earnestness to her character that just rings true. Bridget would be the kind of girl I could see myself falling in love with.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The New Layout: Yay or Nay?

For those few who actually read my blog, you may notice that it looks a little different. A sort of spur of the moment decision, I've gone with a whole new different layout and color scheme that is a little less oppressive than my original template which was a hard on the eyes. So, do you like my new look or should I abandon it?

Oh, and I also bought three films this afternoon:

- La Vie En Rose: After Marion Cotillard pulled a major upset at the Academy awards by winning best actress I just had to see for myself if her performance was worthy of such adoration.

- Once: I'm hoping that a re-watch will convince me that my initial vitriolic response towards it was all wrong.

- Sunshine: One of my favorites of 2007. I just had to own it.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Splitting Deathly Hallows

It's semi-old news but it goes without question that this is one of the biggest stories to break in the Harry Potter universe. Let's face it: With the completion and successful release of Book seven last year, Potter related news has been slow or otherwise painfully banal. The construction of a Potter theme park? Bah, who cares. At long last, we have something fans can get excited about. WB released an official statement on March 12 confirming that movie seven would indeed be split into two parts after rumors began surfacing months ago. This creates an interesting dilemma for the most successful franchise of all time since the bar has been set considerably higher for them to finally do the books justice and if it is not pulled of successfully it could mean disaster. The producer David Heyman was quoted as saying in the LA Times that "I swear to you it was born out of purely creative reasons," Heyman said during an interview in a converted airplane factory outside London that has been home base to all of the "Potter" productions. "Unlike every other book, you cannot remove elements of this book. You can remove scenes of Ron playing quidditch from the fifth book, and you can remove Hermione and S.P.E.W. [Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare] and those subplots . . . but with the seventh, that can't be done."

That may be all fine and dandy Mr. Heyman although it's diffcult for me to fully embrace this decision since it does feel like a marketing strategy to milk the franchise for everything it's worth since there will be no more Potter films after this one. Why wasn't the decision to split Goblet of Fire or Order of the Phoenix ever followed through? The latter is the longest book in the series and yet you decided to make it the shortest film in the series by massively excluding various plot lines/characters that are integral to the story. That sure makes a whole lot of sense.

My two cents is that right from the get-go, Warner Brothers should have gone the Lord of the Rings route by releasing both the theatrical version (with a slightly longer running times that don't rush the story) and an extended version. That way there would be less pressure once Deathly Hallows is released and everyone wins. It would help to satisfy the hardcore Harry Potter fans and for those who haven't read the books but go to see the movies will at least have a more thorough understanding of what is going on. The main problem with these films is that they focus on time constraints rather than the actual story. Now, WB realizes that this past mistake is going to bite them in the arse because of how the previous six books build up towards Deathly Hallows and since they decided it would be wise to overlook the importance of Rowling's story, they now have to fill in the missing gaps. They could rise up the challange and manage to pull it off except this creates another problem: Where do you make the split and retain continuity without alienating the audience? It is interesting to note that both parts will be released six months apart. During this time will Part 1 be released on DVD to get people excited to go and see Part 2? If not, excitement will dwindle and there is the possibility that many will lose interest. WB may have good intentions to finally do the books justice but splitting it into two parts puts the narrative in jeopardy. Wouldn't it make more sense to release a three and a half hour movie instead without a disruption of the story-telling act structure. There could even be an intermission. Presumably, the first part will lack a satisfying climax unless they come up with some ingenious way of leaving a cliff-hanger because of the way the book is structured. The first half deals with Harry's learning of the Horcruxes which means that it will more than likely be many scenes of exposition. The second part involves Harry taking action and the climactic battle at Hogwarts. There lies the dilemma. How are they going to pull it off successfully without hurting the narrative? I suppose we are going to have to wait and see. Any thoughts on this?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Honorable Mention #2: Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984)

Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis looking a lot slimmer as the Ghostbusters.

“We've been going about this all wrong, this Mr. Stay Puft's okay, he's a sailor, he's in New York, we get this guy laid we won't have any trouble.”

Here we have what I consider to be one of the best comedies to come out of the 1980’s. With a great cast including Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis, there is non-stop laughs sprinkled with thrills. It may just be the nostalgia factor, but this was one of the defining films of my childhood and I find myself enjoying it even more so today. Before Ghostbusters was released as a motion-picture, there was the hit cartoon show that I remember getting up extra early to watch and the cool action-figures. According to my parents, this was the first film that we owned on VHS and apparently, I would watch it on a regular basis. I clearly remember getting frightened during some of the sequences especially the beginning with the ghost in the library. Even today, this scene still manages to make me jump as the three professors investigate a disturbance in the lower level of the facility. As a kid, I was mainly interested in the action and the ion blasters that the Ghostbusters use to capture the ghosts. Not to mention, the film also scared the hell out of me even though it is more of a comedy. Plenty of the humor, jokes and underlying social themes flew right over my head when I was younger but now I can appreciate it more.

The comedic premise has always interested to me. Three University science professors start up their own business of catching ghosts, ghouls, monsters and other supernatural beings that just happen to be terrorizing New York City. Unfortunately for them, demons from another world have no entered the realm of Earth and are launching an assault on the Big Apple. Who can forget that mischief making green ghost named Slimer, or the Stay Puft Marshmellow Man? The collectible figurine of the latter still rests on my shelf to this day. With New Yorkers in a state of panic, who will they turn to for help? Well, as the catchy theme song goes, “Who, you gonna call? Ghost Busters!”

The special effects seem a bit dated but it is all campy fun. The script is sharp and funny providing lots of memorable dialogue. It takes on a rather sarcastic tone and works perfectly to Bill Murray’s advantage since he specializes in dry humor. For instance, one of the funniest lines in the entire film is delivered by Murray: “It’s official. This man has no dick.” His performance Venkman is also one of the best roles of his career. The film is obviously a collaboration of great actors but it’s really Bill Murray who is the star here. Sigourney Weaver plays his love interest and even though many would disagree with me, I don’t think she has ever looked sexier than in her role here as Dana Barrett, the woman whom the evil forces have an interest in. Special mention also needs to go to Rick Moranis who provides a belly full of laughs as the neurotic little dweeb who is infatuated with Weaver’s character. His encounter with the scary-looking demon dog is hilarious and even though it is a small role, it is probably his best performances. Let’s be realistic here, his career has been rather shaky and he tends to star in mediocre or just downright terrible films (The Flintstones, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, etc). This is one performance he should be remembered for alongside Darth Helmet in Mel Brook’s Spaceballs.

If you are looking for a great comedy, action, or thrills and chills, you can’t go wrong with this film. This is big-blockbuster entertainment at its best. Mixing elements of horror, action and humor with a vast array of comedic talent, Ghost Busters is a blast and a definite 80’s classic.

(This review was written on January 3rd, 2004)

#91: Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, 1999)

Another cut-and-paste review.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

#92: Johnny Guitar (Ray, 1954)

Down there I sell whiskey and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head. Now which do you want?

Having seen this film on DVD and a restored 35mm print, I’ve come to the conclusion that in order to experience the full effect of Ray’s vision is to watch it on the big screen. Either that or someone needs to release a better version of it on DVD since the current version that is out now simply does not do the film justice. Taking full advantage of CinemaScope with a tapestry of elaborate color schemes that seem almost irreverently crude, Ray is able to maximize the amount of space in the frame; his sets are cluttered and pervasively cumbersome. He has a tendency to shoot many scenes where a large group of people fill up the screen. The outdoor scenes are overly bright and expansive.

Joan Crawford’s Vienna in Nicholas Ray’s incendiary Western is one of domineering strength and unbridled determination. She is one of the rare female heroines of the genre that isn’t a harlot or controlled by male ascendancy. The swapping of gender-roles makes for a much more complex and introspective character study opposed to the standard archetypal characterizations adopted by the genre. It’s refreshing to finally come across a female protagonist in a Western with nerve and independence capable of making the rules. Taken at face value, it is an entertaining little Western that masquerades as cautionary tale towards industrialization laced with gunslingers, outlaws, bursts of violence and romance. This is only scratching the surface since what makes the film so fascinating is its evocative portrayal of femininity and its rebel spirit permeating just below the surface. More importantly, the film has a hidden political agenda and is actually a scathing assault on McCarthyism with particular emphasis on the importance of democracy. The local town authorities have become highly suspicious of a group of so-called “troublemakers” and are ruthless in pinpointing the blame on them for a supposed bank-car robbery.

Vienna owns a saloon, hoping to cash in when the railroad comes through. This is much to the disapproval of the local authorities led by a mean-spirited Sheriff and a malicious woman named Emma (Mercedes MacCambridge) who has a personal vendetta against Vienna that is far more complex than the film initially alludes to making for a fascinating character study of the two women. Vienna also happens to be friends with Dancing Kid and his posse who frequent her saloon. Since this group of individuals fails to conform to the established principles upheld by this community, it seems a safe bet according to the authorities to use them as a scapegoat. Enter Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) who comes to town hired by Vienna to work in her saloon as a musician. What follows I dare not reveal only that Ray serves up plenty of melodrama as a way of accentuating the sexual politics on display. The title of the film is ironic in the sense that Johnny isn’t the main character of the film at all whose role is to merely highlight Vivian’s sexual control. The final showdown is unique in that it is between two dominant bad-ass women (Vienna vs. Emma) where the men are powerless to intervene – a true cinematic moment for feminists everywhere to rejoice in.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Honorable Mention #1: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Cuaron, 2003)

Harry Potter (Daniel Radclife) gets a little close with Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) in the "Forbidden Forest."

Hold the phone. Why the hell is a Harry Potter film appearing on a top 100 list? Before suggesting that I am clinically insane (which you would probably be partially correct) let me try to explain. This is a very personal list and don’t I expect many to agree with my selections. In order to narrow it down, the re-watchability factor played a significant role and it just so happens that I have seen the Potter films more times than any other film, even Star Wars. I’m not ashamed in expressing my absolutely love for everything Harry Potter. As a rabid fan-boy of J.K. Rowling’s books, it would be dishonest not to include at least one of the of film adaptations especially when the third installment is a visually exceptional film.

Just because I may be overly bias doesn’t mean that the inherent flaws can be ignored. The plot-holes are numerous, a lot of key story-material was cut or rushed over, some technical errors are slightly distracting and the acting is a little rough around the edges (albeit a major improvement over the first two films) but these slight distractions are not enough to overshadow Cuaron’s unique vision of capturing the imaginative wonder of the source material while at the same time, adding his own artistic creativity. To give credit where credit is due, the insipid offerings by Columbus were the most loyal to the books but were so painfully dull. Entertaining as both pictures were, they felt over-stuffed; unable to fully encapsulate Rowling’s universe. Cuaron takes the Potter franchise to a whole new level of artistic achievement that has yet to be equaled by his successors Mike Newell and David Yates.

My hat goes off to Cuaron for not merely doing a page-by-page adaptation and instead focusing on the development of the three characters as they experience the growing pains of adolescence. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has to face unspeakable evil in the outside world; that much is obvious. As threatening as his opposing forces may be, Cuaron is much more interested in Harry’s internal struggles as he comes to terms with his past and his identity. Learning from the mistakes of Columbus and building upon the universe which was previously created, Cuaron is able to shift his attention away from just mere spectacle to a more character driven story fleshing out the trio (as all the hip kids call them these days) in the process. Their personalities are becoming more distinct and the close friendship they share becomes even more vital. They are teenagers now going through the motions and discovering their own sexuality. All of the sexual subtle innuendos and phallic imagery Cuaron employs throughout the film seem innocent upon first glance but don’t be deceived. Take the beginning scene for instance, which has Harry practicing magic with his wand under his bed sheets at night. What about Ron’s comment to Neville about “stroking it”? Cuaron really pushes the limits of the PG-rating with this film.

The brooding atmosphere, shadowy camera angles and ominous imagery bring a level of maturity as the story of Harry’s life grows darker. Before returning to his third year of Hogwarts, he nearly gets suspended for taking out his anger on his Aunt Marge with hilarious consequences. There’s also an escaped convict on the loose named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) who was a close follower of Voldemort and apparently wants his head on a platter. Oh, and don’t forget the cloaked specters known as Dementors who suck the souls out of people. There is such a radical change in the level of growing darkness in comparison to the first two films here and yet, there is still humor to be found. Rowling’s novels always have a great sense of humor no mater how gloomy or chaotic the situation. Order of the Phoenix director David Yates can take a lesson from Cuaron in balancing humor with all the drama and horrors that befall the boy wizard.

Full of sparkling vivid imagery, Cuaron uses images to tell the story and no other film in the series thus far has managed to equal or surpass its visual splendor. It’s about time we got a Harry Potter film that can be considered cinematic. With a vast improvement in CGI over the last few films, he is given the opportunity to flex his creative muscles. Using the Whomping Willow tree to indicate the change in seasons, zooming through the moving gears of the giant clock in the tower or making Harry’s flight on the Hippogriff the most magical scene in the entire series; every frame is just beautifully crafted.

The Prisoner of Azkaban finally delivers as close as we can hope for in a Harry Potter adaptation balancing all the disparate elements in Rowling’s work that makes it so fascinating to read. The wonderfully drawn characters, the intriguing story-line, the humor, the imaginative wonder, the thrilling action, it’s all here. Even though hardcore Potter fans know the story inside out, there are still plenty surprises to be found here too. Let’s just hope WB decides to bring Cuaron back for Deathly Hallows because that is a book which desperately needs his creative talent to give it justice.

#93: Interiors (Allen, 1978)

Made in between Annie Hall and Manhattan, it’s no surprise that Interiors is a profoundly forgotten work by Woody Allen. Rarely is it ever brought up when discussing the director’s best films and while not the most underrated in his oeuvre, it has failed to receive the recognition it deserves. Oscillating between Bergman homage and familiar Allen eccentricities, the end result is a mature piece of filmmaking distinct in itself. Purposefully clinical and sterile with particular emphasis on soft-lighting to create a cold entrapped environment, it’s as if characters from Allen’s macrocosm have been transported directly into a Bergman film. What could have easily become a precarious facsimile of the Swedish director’s craft, Allen is wise enough to intrinsically stay true to his self while offering a paean to his cinematic hero.

Interiors marks Woody Allen’s first venture into “serious mode” where he abandons the witty humor entirely for the sake of intense melodrama. The film itself is relentlessly bleak; almost lifeless at times. The shot compositions and mise-en-scene take on a hollowness quality; the interior settings drained of veracity reflecting the vapidity of their lives and feelings towards one another. Allen frames his shots with a lot of empty space, positioning his actors where they appear to be suppressed by their environment. Gordon Willis’ exquisite cinematography and lighting techniques perfectly contrast Allen’s imperturbable technique especially during the scenes that take place outside of the somber interiors of the beach house in the Hamptons where the film pre-dominantly takes place. The story centers upon a wealthy family consisting of three sisters Renata (Diane Keaton), Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) and Flynn (Kristen Griffith) as they each try to cope with the divorce of their parents who had been married for over 25 years. Eve is the matriarch with the family played by Geraldine Page in a remarkable performance full of despair and overwrought anxiety. With a history of mental illness, the husband’s impetuous decision sets her spiraling into a state of misery where she becomes a nuisance to her daughters and a threat to herself. It’s no coincidence that the bulk of Woody Allen’s oeuvre deals with similar themes and subject matter that Bergman obsessed about during his career such as relationships, artistic integrity, faith, life and of course, death. This film is no different in those regards except it is exclusively unique as anything Allen has ever done because of how austere he is in his methods of displaying such a piercing representation of his characters in crisis.

#94: High Fidelity (Frears, 2000)

Another cut-and-paste of an older review just to keep the ball rolling.