31 Days of Oscar Blogathon: The Snubs – Defunct Categories

Introduction

Oscar Envelope

Film is an ever-changing artform, so it stands to reason that the awards that Hollywood created to help celebrate the industry should evolve. It’s more apparent when you realize that the Oscars began when the industry was in flux as sound was in its infancy.

Film has twice adapted itself in competition with other media arts. Synchronized sound came on the heels of the popularity of radio and a shift in aspect ratio, away from 1:33 to widescreen formats was introduced to distance itself from television. The same competition with television helped push films away from black and white film and towards color. With just these technical changes its natural that some award categories would fall in an out of favor over time, some aren’t so obvious. Some, surprisingly, should have never left. I will discuss the categories that are no longer around.

Best Picture, Production and Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production (1929)

Sunrise (1927, 20th Century Fox)

The Academy Awards began with two different iterations of Best Picture. In 1929 the winners of these two respective categories were Wings (Production) and Sunrise (Unique and Artistic). My interpretation of these trophies is that one is more akin to a PGA (Producers Guild of America) award. Whereas, the logistics, accomplishments and merits of the production are highly impressive and well-executed even if the picture mat not be the best overall. Unique and artistic would then be a more narrative-award with special emphasis on creativity. This is a distinction that could’ve proved highly useful in later years. Imagine if it had been around in 1998 (the first year that jumps to mind) give Production to Titanic and Unique and Artistic to As Good as It Gets or L.A. Confidential or Good Will Hunting. Or earlier maybe How Green Was My Valley could get Production and Citizen Kane can get Unique and Artistic and everyone can leave the former alone already, and stop hating it for something that’s no fault of its own.

Ultimately, I understand how the two awards would forever cause confusion and why they needed merging, but it is interesting to consider.

Best Director, Comedy Picture and Dramatic Picture (1929)

Frank Borzage

The Golden Globes still have Comedy/Musical and Dramatic categories for Films and Actors, but not directors. The directing job is highly different in both aspects. Are comedies far too overlooked when it comes to award shows? Yes. Does each year really merit having both categories? Probably not, and surely enough it was not a category the following year.

Best Title Writing (1929)

The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1927, First National Pictures)

To be quite honest considering that the industry was already in flux awkwardly transitioning from silent to talkie I’m a little surprised this was a category at the first awards. Granted some were trying to dismiss synchronized sound as a fad, but it was clear it was coming. Some categories held on longer, but silent films in the end virtually vanished quite quicker than black-and-white fare or 4:3 aspect ratio films.

Yes, titles were crucial in the silent era, and silents did win Oscars, but it’s slightly unusual that this was actually a category for one year.

Best Cinematography, Color and Best Cinematography, Black and White 1936-1939 (Special Achievement) 1940-1966

Psycho (1960, Universal)

This split became a mainstay of the Academy for 27 editions of the Awards. This is quite a long time and indicates that despite the business-related impetus for color cinematography the necessity of occasionally going into more ethereal monochrome remained and undeniable siren’s call for filmmakers for many years to come.

As wide as the gap between color productions and black-and-white ones have become they are not extinct as recent films like Ida, The Artist and The White Ribbon indicate. Yet, color cinematography in unquestionably ubiquitous enough such that the split no longer makes sense. It most definitely did at one time: color and black-and-white are two different ways of seeing the world. The reason for splitting the two was due to that and the fact that they were fairly equally split. With little equality superlative black-and-white films do have to compete against chromatic ones be it fair or unfair; it’s just a reality.

Best Effects, Engineering Effects (1929)

Wings (1927, Paramount)

The awards for Special Effects were ones that had many names an iterations before becoming a mainstay. A category for “Special Effects, Engineering Effects” existed at the first ceremonies. They returned in 1938 with and Honorary Award. From 1939 to 1962 Visual and Sound Effects shared an award titled Special Effects. In 1963 Special Visual Effects took over. From ’72-’77 it was awarded under Special Achievement Award. The current Special Visual Effects title debuted in 1995.

However, going back to the original trophy it puts me in a mind that perhaps the Academy does need to encourage and reward different kinds of effects work. Maybe split it between practical and computerized. It actually would encourage creativity and be fair. For example many of the most impressive feats in Inception (like the spinning hallway) were done practically. This could highlight those creative moments but still reward highly-creative, ever-evolving computerized effects work.

Best Writing, Achievement 1930

The Patriot (1928, Paramount)

This was the category introduced for the 2nd Annual ceremonies and for that year only. It was an attempt to transition away from three categories (Original, Adaptation and Title Writing) to just one. The only other award I ever saw merge all screenplays into one category was my own for a while. However, adaptation and original screenplays are games with similar rules but different approaches and need different skills. They should be separately awarded and this change is one that was needed.

The Juvenile Award (Awarded intermittently from 1935-1961)

The Window (1949, RKO)

This is an award I’ve already written about at length here. In that post I chronicled those young people who were honored by the Academy. I also followed-up on that by listing who since 1961 would have earned the honor, or could have, if it was still something awarded. Since my personal BAM Awards have started offering parity (meaning the same categories for mature and young performers) I have become convinced the Academy could fill a roster of five nominees a year for a category with this same concept. The term juvenile may be dated, and have poor connotations now, but the idea is one worth revisiting.

Best Short Subject, Cartoons (1932-1957) Short Subject, Comedy (1932-1937), Short Subject Novelty (1932-1937), Short Subject Color (1937-38) Short Subject One-Reel (1937-1957) and Short Subject Two-Reel (1937-1957)

The Dot and the Line (1965, MGM)

You can almost always look to the Academy for some kind of indication as to what the state of the art at least in terms of trends. One thing that would be apparent to someone looking solely at the Oscars with no other film knowledge would be that short films used to be a much more integral part of Hollywood films than they are now. For six years Live Action films were split into Comedies and Novelties, which featured, as the name implies varied subjects and approaches. Starting in 1937 animated films (then referred to as Cartoons by the Academy) were split off and Live Action films were bifurcated by length either one-reel (about 10 minutes or less) or two-reel (about 20 minutes or less). In 1958 Live Action was introduced as the only short subject category for live action, Cartoons still the term used, and the category changed to Best Short Subject, Animated Films in 1972. It is notable that serials never had a category somehow. Maybe because Poverty Row and “lesser” majors specialized in them.

Best Assistant Director (1933-1937)

Imitation of Life (1934, Universal)

Assistant Directors back at the beginning of the film industry had a far different role than they do as the industry and art evolved. There used to be far more directing for assistant directors. First ADs now are far more administrative and keep the production running, most of their direction geared at background performers. Therefore, its interesting that the Academy once underscored the greater level of responsibility this job had with an award.

Best Dance Direction (1936-1938)

Show Boat (1936, Universal)

There are a few instances of the Oscars highlighting the elevated place that the film musical once held. This category specifically aimed at choreography on film is one.

Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration Black-And-White and Color 1940-1966

Christmas in Connecticut (1945, Warner Bros.)

This is the second of three categories that for year offered two prizes owing to the unique challenges and distinct differences in working in black-and-white and color. In simplest terms in color there are temperature, palette and tone considerations but in monochrome there is a transliteration of actual colors to gray tones for desired effect that must be considered and calculated by all department heads.

Best Music, Scoring of a Drama or Comedy (1946-1957) Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (1942-1945) and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture (1942-1957)

 

bernard-herrmann5

Here’s one more testament to the potency the musical once hand in the cinematic landscape of Hollywood’s output. In 1958 the distinction in scoring ended. For 16 ceremonies musicals were a category apart. They were so prevalent, significant, and thought to be so different that it had its own category for scoring.

The issue with genre-splitting is: where does it end? Comedy was excluded for three years, and then added. If musicals had stayed at their zenith would further scoring splits have occurred? Unlikely, but it may have been clamored for. Clearly, the loss of a category did not shut the door on the musical winning Best Score, The Sound of Music jumps immediately to mind, but it’s fascinating that it was a class apart for years.

Costume Design Black and White and Costume Design Color (1948-1966)

Jezebel (1938, Warner Bros.)

If there’s one thing that you can laud the Academy for it’s that there was uniformity in when categories stopped being subdivided by color and black-and-white. In all cases when there was such a division, either from the inception of a category like costume design, or later in the game like with cinematography, that split ceased after the 1966 Awards.

Similar to Cinematography and Art Direction costuming for both media is a different game. Black-and-white requires a more abstract understanding of colors and textures and how they’ll read when exposed. Thus, its a bit more intuitive, at times counterintuitive, and far less literal than working in color. Again the time had surely come for the category to merge due to ubiquity but the task is by no means an easy one in monochrome.

Conclusion

 

Oscars (AMPAS)

In most of the these cases it is just interesting and important to note how far the artform and industry have come. It’s important in aesthetic appreciation to note some things that used to be taken for granted and to acknowledge different trends and forms of the past. However, in some of these cases these categories could still be highly useful and be brought back today.

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61 Days of Halloween: Die Farbe (The Color Out of Space) (2010)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of 61 Days of Halloween, and a list of previously featured titles, please go here.

Die Farbe (The Color Out of Space)

As I have discussed in two prior posts, the 61 Days of Halloween features on both The Curse and Die, Monster, Die!; H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space is not only a great horror story but also a tremendously malleable one. When I happened upon this title at a Second and Charles (a secondhand media retail chain) I just had to jump at the chance to see it, and I’m very glad I did.

The malleability of the tale again shines through as in this rendition while the tale begins in Arkham, Massachusetts; the protagonist is in search of his father who vanished in Germany after World War II, and that is where he will spend most of his time. As he arrives in his last known whereabouts he meets a man who starts to tell him of the strange events that had occurred in that town. These events make up a bulk of the short story.

Now the film being transplanted to Germany is already a bold decision that works out quite well. The next emboldened choice is that the film is predominantly in black and white. It’s a great choice for Lovecraft’s antiquarian style, but also aids in selling a majority of the effects work that is needed to render this tale. Yet, in a tale about color it is further brave – and without putting to fine a point on it, does serve a purpose.

There is some English dialogue in the film, but a vast majority of it is in German, and due to that performances are usually spot on. Both the cinematography and the edit do tremendous things to build the atmosphere of outre and foreboding that is one of Lovecraft’s hallmarks. Things in this tale are slightly askew and on a precipitous decline leading to one earth-shattering moment and it moves there almost unerringly.

The workmanship in this tale rivals what the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has been able to do with its films. It really is quite a work and proves that The Colour Out of Space is what I would refer to as one of the great stories, meaning that I can view many renditions of it and revel in the tweaks an modifications each brings to the table.

What’s odd is that apparently this film was released on video in the US in August of 2012, however, I never heard of it until the day I found it, so I think I will enter it into the mix for this year’s BAM Awards. It is available to stream free for Amazon Prime members and on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Mini-Review Round-Up March 2013

Here’s my standard intro to this post:

I had quite a review drought to end 2011 so I think the remedy for this kind of post would be to have the post be cumulative monthly. Therefore, after each qualifying film a short write-up will be added to the monthly post. The mini-reviews will be used to discuss Netflix and other home video screenings. Theatrical releases, regardless of how they are seen whether in an auditorium or on VOD, will get full reviews [That is when deemed necessary. As I wrote here I do want to focus more on non-review writing wherever possible].

For a guide to what scores mean go here.

Bestiaire

Bestiaire (2012, Kimstim Films)

This is a film that qualifies for this year because, though I heard of it last year, I had no legitimate chance to see it. I learned of it through a coming soon postcard while I was in New York, the soon it was referring to was not while I would be there.

What’s interesting is that I was anticipating seeing another documentary free of significant dialogue prior to this one, but when I saw this pop up on Netflix instant I had to jump at it.

Bestiare plays out like a non-fiction version of Le Quattro Volte inasmuch as the structuring of the very slight, and completely open to interpretation, narrative is nearly invisible. The description of this film on Netflix is appropriately stripped down there are extended sequences of static shot either of animals observing humans, vice versa or sometimes they seem to be staring right at us.

Some of the shots are framed beautifully to convey either claustrophobia or just how nestled some animal enclosures in the modern world are be they farms, ranches, zoos or what have you. As I mentioned, it doesn’t insist upon deciding for you what the interpretation of the film should be, believing instead that the audience is the ultimate arbiter of meaning.

I found the film very effective in places with some great cuts and angles that underscored a harsh indifference. The incessant rhythmic banging of a zebra against a wall, or the frantic pacing of an ostrich, and the, to me, disquietingly laid back work of a proficient taxidermist were scenes that really shocked me out of the lull that this hypnotic film can get you into.

It’s not a long film but it is deliberate. I would qualify it as experimental, and I think more times than not the scenes work, so I believe a 6/10 is fair for now.

The Awakening

The Awakening (Universal Home Video, 2011)

I will elaborate on this point in a separate piece, but this film is a testament to my theory that drama is the foundation of all other genres. To be brief, even if this film fails to affect you with its creepy atmosphere, it is an effective character piece that delves into psychology as well as the supernatural.

When telling with a ghost tale, especially one that deals with characters who have been so greatly impacted by the sightings, or even suppositions thereof, the acting needs to be up to snuff. This film brings much more than that to the table, there are four top notch performances, one of each “award type” both lead and supporting.

Rebecca Hall, in the lead, is someone I personally I have seen far too little of since Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and she carries this film brilliantly with a fine double-edged performance as a now skeptical ghost hunter. Dominic West plays a character who also has a facade, as seemingly everyone in this film does, his stoicalness is matched by his private pain in this work. Imelda Staunton, is nothing short of riveting. Then there’s Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran on Game of Thrones, where he’s shown flashes of his capability) whom steals scenes and redoubles the impact this film has.

This is a film that eases into its narrative, it never gives its answers away too easily and stays nebulous about some things. Its timing of reveals is perfect and just when you think you’ve lost it, or it’ll flatline, there’s always one more turn than you expected.

10/10

Sleep Tight

Sleep Tight (2012, Dark Sky Films)

Upon conferring on his IMDb page I am missing one feature from Jaume Balaguero’s filmography after having seen Sleep Tight. His films that worked for me thus far have worked exceedingly well, namely The Nameless, [REC] and [REC] 2. I barely recall it, but judging by my score of Darkness that was more of complete miss than either of his apartment tales (To Let and Sleep Tight).

Balaguero is still a director I’d put at the vanguard of the current Spanish horror scene due to his voice, and it’s why I want to complete his current filmography and why his name being attached to something still garners my interest.

With regards to these apartment tales, a lot of To Let‘s struggles I attribute to a restricted timeframe for an intimate, nebulous portrait to be painted, which is why half the Films to Keep You Awake titles are amazing, and why the other three are forgettable to poor. Here it’s not that there is anything inherently wrong, it’s more a question of insufficient build, unmoving voyeurism and predictable plot points with minimal impact. The actions and motivations are always fairly clear, which in a way makes this film less engaging than his other ventures. There’s a stark blandness and removal of encumbrance that’s supposed to compound the impact but instead dulls it.

In the end, Sleep Tight presents a portrait of a psychopath with out an excess of depth, engagement or shock; it’s sadly flat.

4/10

Leviathan

Leviathan (2012, Cinema Guild)

If you scroll to the top of this post you’ll note that in my review of Bestiaire I stated that it was not the first doc of its kind I was anticipating seeing. The one I thought I’d see first was this film, Leviathan.

Why that came first boils down to chance, but I am glad I saw it first. Both these films have similar constructs in that they’re documentary features with no narration, and practically no dialogue of any significance. Both deal, in part, with the interaction of modern man with animal kingdom, but Leviathan offers a more focused, kinetic, at times dreamlike, other times haunting, look at the subject.

If one were to enter the film completely cold, and watched all the credits through to the end, virtually the only tidbit of information left out of the synopsis was that fisherman were given cameras and told to shoot with them.

The location comes though the end credits, and as nebulous and surreal as some of the early images of the film are, you soon start to see what’s happening.

The most impressive things about Leviathan are: first, the sound design, which more so than the images most of the time, drive home the uneasy balance between monotony and danger of the job. Second, how the Bible passage at the beginning sinks in after it’s done, as does information disseminated in the end credits.

Without knowing what to expect precisely, I found myself retracing certain visual passages and started coming to grips with what I had just seen through the lens.

Leviathan, much like the aforementioned film Bestiaire, is not for everyone, but it is certainly a unique experience and it’s a more immersive, less observational take of this particular documentary niche.

7/10

A Dark Truth

A Dark Truth (2012, Magnolia/Sony Home Entertainment)

More and more in modern cinema, in part because audiences sense it and in part because it’s been seen/done, stories with a moral, considered important, or that have some sort of social or political statement, are harder and harder to make. As enthusiasts of film or sociopolitically aware individuals, there are things you’d like to see on screen. The wants of the latter group can be said to be more altruistic and deserving of representation, regardless, a good film is required to support the aesthetic or activist statement it seeks to make.

To be clearer, here are some hypothetical examples: a film fan can say I’d love to see a serious take on rabies as a horror motif, it’s been too long. Now, outside the world of film that has no real weight. Whereas, if you were to say it’d be great if a film could show the negative aspects of privatizing water, there could be real life impact and eventual change.

Now for either rabies to become a popular horror motif or for privatization of resources and utilities to garner serious attention, the film espousing these things has to be good. Which brings me to A Dark Truth, which deals with the latter subject matter. The film has some very good touches, and the finest intentions in the world regarding the aforementioned issue. However, the anti-corporate, water-should-be-free-and-here-are-the-consequences-if-it’s-not messages, which are very valid viewpoints, are squandered in a film that’s poorly executed on some technical levels, is overlong, has some unfortunate and questionable dialogue and a few questionable casting choices and some good actors in uncomfortable surroundings. The extra-long lead-in to this piece is essentially due to the fact that I like the concept and the goals, but the end product failed to live up to the promise, which is sad.

4/10

Straight A’s

Straight A's (2013, Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment)

A review of this film can be found here.

Storage 24

Storage 24 (2012, Magnet Releasing)

One certainly cannot complain that Storage 24 doesn’t try to develop its characters. However, it does so to such an extent that it very nearly turns the plot detailed in the synopsis into a MacGuffin. The tale is essentially a couple that recently broke up and their friends meet by chance in a storage facility. They make it there despite a suspected plane crash that shut down most of central London. The cargo was an alien creature that’s not trapped in there with them during a power outage. It’s a good set-up.

The sound design, however, isn’t always great and makes the characters seem more oblivious than they are to what is going on. The effects work is pretty good, as is the design of the creature. The alien does end up being a dominant story force you expect it to, but in a film that runs under 90 minutes about half the time is spent mostly in repetitive discussions that are cited as such, and don’t move things along quickly enough. When things do happen it gets better.

Another failing is that the film tries to have character-based connections to the creature à la Super 8, and to be not about the creature, but is more blunt about it, and far less successful for as much time is spent in development, there aren’t many facets to the characters created. They’re fairly basic.

The scenario doesn’t end up being a MacGuffin, but the narrative pendulum swings very wildly and ineffectively in the film. Lastly, the pace, which isn’t bad overall, takes a hit from one too many tracking establishing shots down the corridor, which are void of significance save to try and build suspense, but it doesn’t. Storage 24 tries its hand at a few things, but is too uneven and unsuccessful with regards to most in order to work.

4/10

61 Days of Halloween- Village of the Damned (1960)

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Village of the Damned (1960)

The original Village of the Damned is an exercise in dealing with a lot of story with quick, precise strokes and keeping the pace moving. If one were to contrast it to its remake, what this film does it keeps a lot of the mystery about why these children are gifted and terrifying for as long as possible.

It examines aspects of mob mentality but addresses its central issue mostly with a few characters only. Its implications are far-reaching but it never gets bogged down or spreads itself too thin. Similar incidents elsewhere are alluded to in dialogue but not touched upon and the moralistic struggle, is rendered with the same tautness as the horrific concluding struggle is.

This film also excels in using the mind, mind-control and telepathy as its fear factors. The possibilities that it allows story-tellers are nearly endless and it set the stage for many other tales of the like to follow suit. The clandestine nature of the killings: the odd circumstances combined with the unproveable assumption of the children being responsible, are what give the film a lot of its drive.

The compromised nature and moralistic quagmire that the protagonist finds himself is aided not only by the fact that he is the man who knows the case of these mysterious simultaneous births, and supernaturally gifted children so well, but one of them is his own child.

George Sanders plays the lead and is perfectly sympathetic in this scenario. We see him as a man, husband, scientist and patriot; be challenged. He’s a man of reason, which allows for the situation and its ramifications to be debated intelligently and for his uncovering of the fact, those he does get to hit home harder and to make his battle that much more engaging.

The Village of the Damned does a lot with not much in terms of effects, techniques and outlandish production value. Its biggest boon is the successful and fully wrought implementation of its ideas in a brisk, efficient manner.

Rewind Review- Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

As those who know me, and if such a person exists, cyberstalk me, know I created this blog after writing on another site, which shall remain nameless, for a while. The point is, I have material sitting around waiting to be re-used on occasion I will re-post them here. Some of those articles or reviews may have been extemporaneous at the time, but are slightly random now, hence the new title and little intro, regardless enjoy!

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant is in large part a victim of a poorly thought out unoriginal marketing scheme as much as Paranormal Activity is the product of brilliant marketing. Having said that we will discuss that later and deal first with the film at hand.

The Vampire’s Assistant is by no means a perfect film, however, I did enjoy it quite a bit and it did leave me wanting more if perhaps a bit too much. The major flaws are the quickly drawn and superficially defined characters. We get enough on each to start such that the story is able to function and begin, yet the information disseminated is given to us clumsily and easily through dialogue. We instantly find out that Darren (Chris Massoglia) is a good kid and Steve (Josh Hutcherson) is a tough guy with a chip on his shoulder and all the reasons therefor.

The things conveyed through voice-over, like their individual obsessions, would have been much better conveyed with more visual information. An example, Steve’s dad left and his mom is an alcoholic so he feels he has nothing to live for when a crucial decision comes about. We learn all this through his dialogue, and have seen neither hide nor hair of his father or mother throughout. Even a flashback quick would’ve enhanced that emotion a bit which was very effectively conveyed by Hutcherson. Both young leads, in fact, elevated the story through their convincing portrayals of their sketched characters. Again each has an obsession that sets them on their path that sets them down their course but we learn this mostly through voice over.

The last issue was that of the character of Mr. Tiny. He’s an enigmatic villain and an interesting one, and his words and the opening title sequence make it clear he is only interested in being a puppet master in the battle between two rival factions of vampires. However, why he is only interested in that, what his timetable is, what his real motivation is, and why he chose Darren and Steve is nebulous at best. There is a mention of a prophecy but it is ill-defined.

Now having said all that the film does have quite a bit going for it, and knowing that Universal was hoping to launch a franchise does explain some of the lack of detail. The first part is that it does not take itself too seriously. There is a quite a bit of good humor had with the vampire genre as it turns some of the vampire clichés on their ear.

Aside from supporting turns by John C. Reilly, Salma Hayek, Ken Watanabe and more the film does have an essential conflict at its core that is quite interesting. You have in this story two best friends who become enemies and a rivalry that could’ve been avoided. You also have hilarious cartoonish portrayals of the adult characters at the beginning, which are deftly altered by Weitz when they re-emerge later on and the tone of the tale has changed. The parents reappearing looking concerned and real the teacher seeming confused and frightened, both merely shells of their formerly goofy selves.

The effects were quite good, which is more than can be said for most films, and this one based on reports didn’t cost an arm and a leg. The cinematography was composed and contained even in heavy action sequences which also can’t be said of a lot of films.

To return to the marketing, this is a film that was pushed into October and then had its title altered to include The Vampire’s Assistant, which is the title of the second book in the series. The use of the word vampire a calculated attempt to try and capitalize on Twilight‘s popularity. These are mistakes because this movie is nothing like, and never tries to be, Twilight. The target audience is different, the conflict at the center of it is completely different, and none of these ploys yielded box office results with the film finishing 8th with just $6.35M in gross. This is a shame because all these questions that came to mind wouldn’t have held any water had it not been interesting, and so now it seems they will be unanswered in celluloid and left only within the pages of Darren Shan’s novels.

6/10

Review- The Avengers

So here it is at last, the convergence of all the Marvel has been working for with its recent films. It’s the make-your-head-explode conception sure to delight many a film geek and comic book nerd the world over. Surely almost any film would implode under these nearly insurmountable expectations and such deafening hype, right? Wrong.

What we turn to summer movie fare for are spectacles. It’s where we want the ultimate in escapism, and have been let down over and over again. The Avengers name is in some ways a meta-textual one as it avengers many of the over-hyped bombs of the past but it really does is delivered as expected and so much more.

The tale is a simple one wherein the Tesseract, a stone that is a source of renewable energy and power, has fallen into the hands of the megalomaniac Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Enter S.H.I.E.L.D., headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who has had small appearances in the previous Marvel films building to this event, the assemblage of the Avengers, a superhero team to combat a super threat. The tale being rather straight-forward is a great thing here because it allows the film to do something these films don’t usually do: introduce and build the characters, create conflict and investment on behalf of the audience. In the end, you want the heroes to save the world, of course, but you also want for the heroes to succeed to avenge their enemies and vanquish their demons. A rare feat, and colossal when you consider how many characters this applies to.

The common thread that applies to all the characters and actors in this film is that even though they’ve all had their own film(s) none of them have been better in their given part than they are here. Which is slightly a contrarian thought because you’d think with less screen time each and so many characters it’d end up being insufficient and watered down, nothing could be further from the truth.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth), due to the fact that Loki is his brother, has the most invested in this cause. His entrance into the tale is spectacular and one of the many memorable moments this film offers.

Captain America (Chris Evans) is great here in many ways. Not only is he perhaps the most idealistic of the characters in the context of this story but he also has similar baggage to Thor in as much as he too is a bit displaced, Thor in place and Captain America in time. His moments come both in dialogue and in a few battles.

Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is back and better than ever. I’ll discuss Whedon’s writing and directing more later, but having Tony Stark be the one who is confrontational and snarky about the team is one of the film’s best touches. It gives him a journey as first he’s arrogant, the most informed on the dossier and then has to make it work with this crew because that’s the only way it’ll happen. I cannot describe his best moment as it’d be a massive spoiler if you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen it yet.

As for The Hulk, I did trudge through the previous two attempts to make his character work in a full-length motion picture. It didn’t work at all until now. This character was really the gamble, he’s a major “new addition” to characters who had recently gotten their own successful big screen ventures. They could’ve pulled someone else in but they went back to the the Hulk. This time it pays off big time. This is all thanks to both the way the character is written, again to not say too much, and also Mark Ruffalo’s tremendous performance.

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) also makes a return after first appearing in Iron Man 2, however, here is where her character really develops and quite frankly she’s amazing in this. Not only in the fighting scenes but she’s also playing subtext and conveying emotion brilliantly. As the girl in the group she’s outnumbered but by no means outmatched.

Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is an example of impeccable casting. Due to the way the film structures itself he suits the role perfectly well and does some pretty awesome jumping about and target shooting.

Every superhero film needs a villain and the best thing this film does is it has one and one only. We know who he is early and focus on him. He gets his thralls but is allowed to flex and posture and does his darndest to convince us that things won’t work out in the end. Tom Hiddleston far outdoes himself in this encore.

Joss Whedon is someone I’ll admit I didn’t know a lot about until very recently. I knew the name but I had not seen a lot of his work. However, in light of his role as co-writer and producer of The Cabin in the Woods I’ve started to see some more and I can say that his contributions to this film are massive. He clearly has immense respect for this material but also knows how to play with it. The respect is evident in that despite the fact that this film end with a massive, near-cataclysmic, jaw-dropping action sequence it takes the time to get these characters together see how they gel or create friction, sort through some of their baggage and get people moments that they earn.

The effects in the film are, of course, tremendous. I did happen to see the movie in 3D and I would say that it’s one you can enjoy just as much without it. The difference made is negligible.

So to those of us who wondered if a super-group superhero film could work, the answer is a resounding yes. Anticipation quenched and all we wonder now is where it’ll go from here.

10/10

Review- Wrath of the Titans

Sam Worthington in Wrath of the Titans (Warner Bros.)

The first film in this newly reborn series was passable, but barely. There was a rote nature to it that held it back from being all it could have been. While this film doesn’t maximize the full potential of Greek mythology, it does implement its gods and demigods in a much more enjoyable fashion than the prior installment did. What minor stumbles occurred in this installment were more just missteps than an over-aching approach that was slightly off, so the end result is very enjoyable.

To start with the elements that are slightly off: one of my pet peeves that makes suspension of disbelief rather difficult in many films, (and it is truly a question of accents more so than performance) is the unwritten cinematic tradition in the US has stated that British accents substitute for foreign tongue when the film is shot entirely in English. The first installment adhered to said rule, so it was fine. Here it is sketchy. Sam Worthington is speaking with a full-on Australian accent. While I applauded the decision in the Narnia series that took Caspian from sounding Castilian to using his natural voice, it’s more forgivable in a fantasy, and at least in the Narnia series there was a conscious attempt to make the Telmarines sound like they were from another country in a fantastical realm, hence the affectation. Here there’s no basis in logic for the switched accent.

Yet, despite that distraction, the performances are good. Worthington is slightly more engaging than before; Fiennes and Neeson are allowed to strut their stuff more than they were. Meanwhile, Rosamund Pike adds a much needed tough-girl factor and John Bell, as Helius Perseus’ son, gives an effective performance which acts as Perseus’ catalyst in part.

The beginning of this film means well by establishing that Perseus has had it with the gods and their games and he should be reticent, however, the stakes introduced are far too high for him to ignore. We end up knowing he’ll resist but concede to the quest so the first act is rather bereft of tension. To the film’s credit, tension does come eventually but this beginning holds it back, and despite all the past experiences he has seems uncharacteristic.

Once the obligatory resistance is overcome the story really kicks into high gear and becomes very entertaining indeed. There is an ease with which the story flows in this installment that was not quite as present previously.

Similarly, and this is crucial, several different mythical elements are introduced in this film, and barring the occasional bit of expositional dialogue, they are folded into the mix much better. This more seamless blending of mythological tropes makes the story far more engaging and enjoyable than the predecessor.

I can’t speak for the 3D as I did not see it as such, however, the effects work is definitely an upgrade and when you consider the fact that much bigger creatures, both in stature and importance, are tackled than this is also a very welcome change.

The score of the film also does its part to churn the film along while adding the necessary tension to the mix.

The new incarnation of Greek Myth films has not yet been perfected but this most certainly is a step in the right direction and very much worth checking out.

8/10

Review- Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (Columbia/Marvel)

Last year saw a rash of superhero films and I believe the consensus was that we as a moviegoing public were pleasantly surprised with how they turned out. While each of us may have had a different favorite overall, as a class, the superhero films of 2011 faired rather well. Now the number of films in 2012 I believe is less but the expectations are greater, which makes it a little strange that it kicks off with Ghost Rider. Now as is the case with any of these films I do preface it with my personal history with the character as I feel it does matter.

So far as Ghost Rider is concerned, though I have returned to the comics fold in the past few years, I know nothing about him coming into this film, which I think is likely the ideal for any of these films but it was a strange experience. Strange in as much as I can’t say I disliked this movie but only barely. I certainly found it very flawed and wanted many things to be better but I didn’t hate it. Not a ringing endorsement but a true and modest one.

Part of the reason I decided to watch this film was that it was reported in trades and elsewhere that it’d be a reboot and it kind of was but bearing that in mind it really skimmed over the pretty decent backstory this character has. Of course, owing to my ignorance of the character maybe the origin is even better than indicated here but it’s rushed through in a voice over. Granted we’re all weary of origins at this point but if you commit to something touted as a reboot you’re committing to re-sketching the character for dopes like me who know next to nothing about him.

The other issue is that much of the story hinges on two rites one religious and one irreligious that are really rather simplistic and anticlimactic considering how high the stakes are and how huge the tasks. Such large accomplishments with obstacles so small are rather silly.

This contributes to a certain inoffensive flatness in this film. It’s never really un-enjoyable but in this sequel that should’ve been the fix it seems the risk-taking is non-existent and the peaks and valleys of emotion are kept at a bare minimum.

In a similar vein to the above rite issue there’s also the problem that our hero gets a temporary reprieve from his gift/curse and that too is granted and reversed a bit simply. This dichotomy should be allowed to build and perhaps shouldn’t even be tackled in the “first” film of a storyline but the saving grace is that it is corrected cleverly.

I’ve written quite a few times on the conundrum of Nicolas Cage. A Nicolas Cage who is locked in can be a great thing. A Nicolas Cage just going through the motions can be very hard to watch. This turn is much closer to the former than the latter, which is good because aside from Ciarán Hinds, as his nemesis, and relative newcomer Fegus Riordan who is caught in the middle of the battle, he gets little help from the supporting cast.

The special effects in the film are pretty good but the 3D is not as good as one might expect a native 3D film to be.

In summation, I did like the story both of the character and that the character is in. Clearly, the way in which it is rendered leaves something to be desired. Essentially, it’s sin is not quite enough ambition as opposed to The Green Lantern but I do find it to be an adequate, enjoyable and not dissatisfying film.

6/10

Review- Underworld: Awakening

Kate Beckinsale in Underworld: Awakening (Screen Gems)

Going into this film in all sincerity I wanted the ceiling of its potential quality to be much higher than I expected it to be. To be fair I only saw the last installment prior to this so I came in dreading a similar experience and hoping for a better one. While I’ll concede it was a better film it wasn’t by very much at all.

The film starts immediately on the wrong foot with a tired recap that relies too heavily on voice-over and not enough on montage. Granted it is a storytelling crutch to introduce new viewers and/or refresh the memory of fans but even the Friday the 13th series, which practically invented the technique, was more visual and inspired than this attempt at backtracking.

The tonality of this film is, from the very first, off. When you combine the desaturated color palette with the icy, stiff performances and flat-lining storyline you’re in a situation that no stakes can raise. I do grant this film raises the stakes from the last chapter but everything is so rote and done with such little aplomb it has no impact whatsoever.

Essentially the problem that plagues this film is the same that plagued the last one: the conflict seems created to support the action sequences and the action does not seem to flow organically from the conflict. We are given the minimum information and development and expected to be fat and content from that as we watch yet another tiresome action sequence where we as an audience have little to no investment.

Upon looking at the cast list one can easily ask “What is Stephen Rea doing here?” Sadly, that question does not dissipate in my mind as the film progresses. It seems as if Rea wanted nothing to do with this film and that perception makes itself evident in every frame.

In technical terms the films fares slightly better than the narrative does. The 3D is serviceable but rarely exploited and hardly worthy of the upcharge incurred. The effects are decent in execution but in conceptual terms the same unfortunate choices are made and exacerbated like big, hairless, “werewolves” and so on.

The film like the prior installment overdoes gunplay and downplays chase and is always trying to be more action then horror and achieves neither. All it ends up being is an incredibly tedious exercise that minimally advances a muddled mythos.


4/10

61 Days of Halloween- Amityville II: The Possession

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Amityille II: The Possession

Jack Magner in Amityille II: The Possession (Orion)

While it may have been very tempting after the great flashes to tell the tale that made the Amityville house infamous on this occasion the result is comically bad and it was a tale better left untold at least the way it transpires here. There still is potential here that is completely untapped.

Now while in the first installment you could draw comparisons to The Exorcist there was definitely a tenuous but definite line of delineation separating the two. Mainly being that the priest was never heavily involved in the families plight and couldn’t be. Oh yeah, that and there was no exorcism performed.

There are other issues though. One of the talking points of the original film was about how the patriarch of that family looked like the previous assassin. Now this film doesn’t establish any prior history with the house so we are left to assume, especially by the construct of the family and who the killer is, that this is a prequel. So not only are the actors poorly cast in terms of appearance and ability but it totally changes the series by having someone trying to save his immortal soul.

So you have all that going against this film as if the idea of combining a haunted house film and an exorcism plot in a bifurcated tale wasn’t hard enough to pull off. You also lose the subtlety that the first film had and you wonder why the family spends even one night there.

There is also not one character who remains likable through the whole film and but one scene where the struggle of our protagonist/antagonist is truly felt. There’s also a random incident of incest.

To continue listing this film’s faults would be pointless except to say that it is a painful and nearly interminable experience. If you make it through to the end you’ll find some very humorous effects work that was likely not intended that way, other than that it is best avoided.

2/10