Friday, May 1, 2015

End of Week roundup, May 1st

--Everyone's talking about the Avengers movie (including our friend Rohan, who just can't take it anymore). But we keep getting distracted by thoughts of another superheroic fancy. You see, an infographic keeps making the rounds of which movie studios own the rights to which Marvel super heroes. Since establishing itself as a studio in its own right Marvel has reacquired the rights to many of its own properties.

But we're kind of charmed that Namor, the Sub-Mariner remains stubbornly at Universal.

--Marvel's ruler of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis is one of the company's oldest heroes, making his first appearance in 1939. His intense pride, mutant heritage, and status as defender of Atlantis often put him at odds with human civilization, though just as often he's joined the side of good, notably joining the Invaders in their battle against Axis powers during WWII. He's usually identified as an uneasy ally of the Fantastic Four, though character rights mean he's unlikely to appear in any of those movies.

--His weird holdout status at Universal seems hilariously in keeping with his inherently ornery nature - he has been Universal's sole Marvel holding even when those heroes were scattered across Hollywood, and we love that Universal continue to maintain a stranglehold on their one point of entry in the Marvelverse. We keep hoping that they'll pull the trigger on a Namor movie, and our mind wanders to a classic Universal-horror style movie featuring the Sub-Mariner. Let it be a moody swamp Gothic in the style of Creature of the Black Lagoon, and then let our cranky hero unleash watery carnage against the world in the second half.

--Meanwhile, back in reality, we're listening to the Beach Boys' SMiLE Sessions, in anticipation of a screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival tonight. Love and Mercy is a two-tiered biopic of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, played in the 60s by Paul Dano and in the 80s by John Cusack, and though we're not a soft touch for biopics the subject matter and angle taken on it intrigues.

--Our offerings at the festival have taken us all over the map, happily. Andrei Konchalovsky returned to his native Russia for The Postman's White Nights, a quietly humorous and moving story of a rural mailman seemingly fading into obsolescence (a far cry in mood and tone from Konchalovsky's Hollywood work, including Runaway Train, Tango & Cash). Controversial Berlin awardee Black Coal, Thin Ice was a modest but solid Chinese neo-noir, in which a retired policeman contends with a murder case that won't stay closed. A somber look at a grey, occasionally neon-lit China, yet with a coda that registers as the biggest belly laugh of the fest (even the killer cracks up).

Which seems plenty for the roundup today - more notes from the 'Fest next week!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Avengers: Rohan's Age of Indifference

(Our friend Rohan Morbey got to see The Avengers: Age of Ultron in advance of its US opening, and yet does not seem to have relished the experience. His original review, which appears in edited form here, can be found as always over at Rohan's site Closing Credits - do follow him on Twitter!

I looked back at my review of The Avengers from 2012 and the opening paragraph struck me as one which I’d never consider writing now:

“Firstly, I love films based on comic book characters and I enjoy many summer blockbusters, so I cannot complain that I wasn’t part of The Avengers’ target audience. Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, Batman, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, X-2, X-Men: First Class, Superman Returns (yes, that’s right) and the greatest superhero film of them all, Superman: The Movie, all range from very enjoyable to truly outstanding in my opinion. It’s interesting to note that all but one of these were released before 2008 when Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were made and paved the road to The Avengers.”

Whereas this still holds true for me, the fact is this new entry into the never-ending production pipeline of Marvel films arrives in a week where trailers for several other franchises have dropped, the seventh film in an pitiful series of films just crossed the billion dollar mark at the global box-office, and fatigue has set in for me as far as all of this ‘world building’ is concerned. I’ll be honest and say it set in many years ago. It makes no difference if I liked comic-book films pre-Iron Man much more than majority of those released now. No one forces me to watch these movies; I watch them because I want to like them. I really do. I’d have to be a masochist to spend time and money watching films which I want to dislike.

My opinion on The Avengers: Age Of Ultron is of course in no way linked to what other films may be coming out in the future, but this feeling of utter boredom from start to end (and at 141 minutes this film drags for anyone not fully invested) is indubitably linked to all which has come before it. Three Iron Man films, two Thor, two new Spider-Man stories, two Wolverine spin-offs, four Transformers, three from The Hobbit, the last four Fast and Furious, thankfully only the one Man Of Steel so far, and now two fully blown stories from The Avengers – what’s the difference aside from the character names and the digitally created backgrounds which the actors stand in front of? What of the basic goals: having something at stake, showing audiences new and unique set pieces, a plot which keeps us guessing, and above all else a directorial vision of excitement and adventure to stand up and say ‘THIS film is something you’ve never seen before!’ In 2012 at least Joss Whedon could say audiences have never seen all these characters together on screen at the same time, but his new film can’t even make that claim.

Considering this is coming off of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the most recent film featuring an Avenger, Joss Whedon has taken a giant step back. The Winter Soldier was such a pleasant surprise with the handling of its many action sequences that it ended up being in my top 35 films of 2014 – from a total of 134 titles. Everything that film did so right with its action scenes, especially in the first two thirds, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron seems to purposefully go in the opposite direction.

If seeing [insert any character name here from comic books or 1980s toy lines] is enough to make one care about the mayhem unleashed on the screen, regardless of the coherence or tension it may or may not create, then great for that person. And that’s not meant to come across as anything but genuine; if I don’t enjoy a film then I hope at least others can. But it looks and feels the same as most other mega budget films from the past seven years which on its own is disappointing enough. But it further baffles me how audiences can give a pass to 45 minutes of action which is never once feels like it’s happening in the world in which it’s set, or looks not much different from a film which opened last year, last month, or even last week.

Monday, April 27, 2015

del Toro takes San Francisco

Filmmaker/fantasist Guillermo del Toro was in San Francisco Saturday night to accept the Irving M. Levin Directing Award from the San Francisco International Film Festival. Prior to a digital screening of his spooky allegory The Devil's Backbone del Toro engaged in a lively, often profane, always illuminating chat with Film Society exec director Noah Cowan.

Little did we know that his announcement that Silent Hills, his long-gestating video game project, was "dead" would be considered breaking news, and that it would fuel discussion this morning of the freefall of Konami, the game company that would have produced it. And yet it was just one of many tidbits that rose during the pre-movie discussion. Including, but not limited to, the following:

--del Toro's much-derided urban sci-fi/horror opus Mimic underwent further derision, mainly by del Toro himself, who lamented that a movie with a once-brilliant script would be subject to such meddling. And yet he also allowed that all of the movies of his that were successful since improved Mimic, since they allowed one to better understand his vision, and see elements of it poking out in moments of that troubled film.

--Talking creature design, del Toro allowed that he never let his movies be influenced by other movies. That rather than watch other monster movies to spur his own imagination, he found more substantive and original inspiration in visual art, from Bosch and Goya to present-day fantasy artists.

--Bleak House, del Toro's famous library/studio/collectors space, was mentioned numerous time. del Toro allowed that he was forming a foundation to fund an artist residency, keeping Bleak House together after he dies and allowing artists in multiple disciplines to do research and create work there. We're in no hurry to have del Toro leave us, but we can't wait to see the work that Bleak House will inspire.

--Repeated mention was made of del Toro's adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, a steampunk/Western adaptation of Dumas' famous novel undertaken for Francis Ford Coppola. It sounded unlikely to ever happen, but it's damn tantalizing. 

--Regarding the dissolution of the Silent Hills project, del Toro seemed to regard it with equanimity, and said that he was pretty much leaving video games behind. His immediate goal, in the wake of the Silent Hills collapse? "Direct, direct, direct."

--Asked by an audience member if he intended to return to San Francisco in the near future, del Toro promised: "I'm gonna get medieval on San Francisco in Pacific Rim 2."

--We got a premiere look at an extended trailer, intended for distributors, for del Toro's forthcoming romance/horror movie Crimson Peak. The stunning imagery, including the gorgeous interior sets and the vague but truly frightening shapes that slithered through them, whetted our already strong excitement for the movie, which brings del Toro's Gothic sensibilities (which inform even his big-budget offerings like Pacific Rim) firmly to the fore, turning from Jane Austen in its first half to Bluebeard in its second.

--del Toro wrapped up the evening expressing his genuine concern over the situation in Mexico, and entreated the audience to keep abreast of developments, to discuss and share what they discovered. So here you go.

Friday, April 24, 2015

End of Week roundup, April 24

--Dismayed to open the internet this morning to find the new of the passing of film critic Richard Corliss. He's a familiar presence to readers of both Time and Film Comment, and in his long career covered a number of beats and topics, in always illuminating fashion. Our favorite pieces of his work show the breadth of his expertise, including his monograph on Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (which apes the structure of Nabokov's Pale fire - a poem, then extensive commentary - to comment both on Nabokov's novel and Kubrick's adaptation) and his in-depth piece on Mystery Science Theater 3000, looking at both the making of that colorful cult program and its unspoken function as film criticism. He was a hell of a writer, and his work remains. Dive in.

--On a happier note, and ever forward, the San Francisco International Film Festival kicked off last night, which is like two weeks of Christmas Day to us. You can expect to read reviews of what we're seeing (looks like around twenty programs)(good lord) both here and on our Twitter feed.

--One movie I can tell you about right now is Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent, which has its sole screening at the festival on Sunday. It completely destroys the bio-pic format while giving life to its subject (thanks in no small part to the performance of Gaspard Ulliel in the title role) - feels like we learn more about Yves Saint Laurent just watching Ulliel at work in his studio than we would watching a more standard pic ticking off the well-known career highlights. Bonello's movie follows a deliberately Proustian, non-linear path through Saint Laurent's life, grabbing as much from contemporaneous cinema as from fashion. It feels like a Visconti history filtered through the split-screens of Richard Fleischer, giving the normally staid bio-pic a welcome infusion of pop energy. The climactic fashion show is the most thrilling thing I've seen in a movie this year. It's informative, entertaining, tragic, sexy, and maybe one of the great movies of 2015.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Recommended!: Ishtar (1987)

Readers of a certain age might be shaking their heads over reading the title of this post. Elaine May's Ishtar, a Hope/Crosby style road movie starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, became one of the most reviled movie of the 1980s. The rumors of difficult shooting, bloated budgets, and studio interference (as well as a very real conflict between Beatty and an executive who took over the project during post-production) fed the movie's reputation as an outsized failure, leading to it being extensively reviled by people who never even bothered to see it.

A generation after its release, it's easier to see Ishtar for the low-key, funny, and very charming piece that it is. Beatty and Hoffman are winning as a pair of none-too-bright songwriters, whose gamble on a tour of the Middle East puts them on opposite sides of a brewing revolution, and in the gunsights of a contingent of dingbat CIA operatives (led by a bemused Charles Grodin). May writes and directs the movie with a light touch that contrasts beautifully with the movie's darker elements, including the growing, painful rift between its protagonists and America's clueless interference in Middle Eastern politics. (The movie made the rounds for a revival in the early 2000s, and in those screenings seemed a prescient picture of Bush's Iraq bunglings.)  And the duo's songs, by Paul Williams, are both deliberately dire and tellingly, wickedly hilarious.

The fallout surrounding the movie meant that May would never direct another. It seemed a sad, implosive climax to an incredibly strong run as a comedienne, performer, and filmmaker, though she did return as a writer on a couple of movies by longtime collaborator Mike Nichols. After a career as a brilliantly funny comedienne into the 60s, May took up acting and playwriting before directing her first film, A New Leaf, in the early 70s. Her filmmaking process was a deeply collaborative one, and the resulting long shoots, miles of footage, and blown budgets did not endear her to studio executives (though one suspects that a male filmmaker guilty of the same transgressions would be praised for his integrity). But though her directing oeuvre only includes four movies, they're all worth seeking out for their off-kilter sensibilities and deep, deep humanity. And they only scratch the surface of the total life's work of this fiercely intelligent and insanely funny person. If you're looking to explore the work of a female filmmaker, or just want to be entertained by a movie balancing a unique style with strong characters and a knowing, human sense of humor, the work of Elaine May in general, and Ishtar in particular, is a great place to start.

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