Short Film Saturday: Vincent

This is a film I first viewed a while and I intended to feature it on a Short Film Saturday and this is the most opportune time. This is an early animated short by Tim Burton that features voice over narration by Vincent Price. I think I hardly need say more to convince you to play it.

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Once Upon a Time in the 80s: The Directors (Part 8 of 17)

This is a recapitulation of a paper I did in college. This is part eight in the series to read other parts go here.

When discussing the 1980s no director stands out more prominently than does Steven Spielberg. Just looking at his repertoire of films from the decade and we can see his artistry was ever-expanding. He had blockbusters in the Indiana Jones trilogy and also with the incredibly sensitive and heart-felt E.T. He also started to venture into uncharted territory. I truly admire directors who are always looking to change to make a departure so to speak, and Spielberg was always willing to do that. Even while E.T. was a success he had Poltergeist in general release, which was a supernatural horror film. It was E.T. that did it for him. It was his biggest hit to date and it allowed him to create his own production company, Amblin Entertainment.


After his second Indy film he started work on his first drama and it’s one of his better efforts called The Color Purple. There was much critical uproar over Spielberg handling a story about African-Americans. Regardless of that it’s a great film that works beautifully and like most of his films has a triumphant theme. His next film was also a drama but here we saw World War II from a difficult angle. In Empire of the Sun Spielberg beautifully documents the travails of a lost British child. This is Spielberg’s first wartime opus and the war is less involved in the events of this film than in other films and it works fantastically. The film received much critical praise including in the international media, which called this his most European film. After the third and final Indy film, for the time being, he did a remake called Always. Spielberg would continue to change from film to film doing whatever he wanted. He then went on to the much maligned but absolutely magical Hook in ’91. Then came Jurassic Park, which was in all likelihood what helped him start up DreamWorks.


Steven Spielberg was the ideal director for the 1980s. Most of the films I’ve talked about were Amblin Productions. Spielberg was producer of Young Sherlock Holmes, The Money Pit, An American Tail, Harry and the Hendersons, Innerspace, *batteries not included and Back to the Future Part II amongst others. All of these films are adventurous, family-oriented and fantastical in some way or another. Steven Spielberg’s worked has only improved and multiplied in the 90s. He was also the standard setter in the 80s whereas everyone was trying to emulate his style but none really could.

Beetlejuice (1988, Warner Bros.)

Lucas’ impact has already been noted with the Star Wars films and co-authoring the Indiana Jones series but stylistically few directors were more noticeable than Tim Burton. His first break into the big time was directing Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, a quirky film about a child-like adult’s search for his lost bike. The film surprised everyone and spawned a Saturday morning program. Burton’s flair for the quirky and unusual and his visual sensitivity got even more free-range in his next project, Beetlejuice. Not only is this one of the most original films I’ve seen but the cinematography, particularly in the after-world sequences with the sandworms, is fantastic. In Beetlejuice we follow the tale of a couple that has recently died and they try to scare the new residents of their house out. Michael Keaton delivers one of his best performances as the gross and irreverent title character and this film too was spun-off into a cartoon.

Wall Street (1987, Columbia/Tri Star)

Oliver Stone is one of the best directors out there right now [as of this writing]. He’s very different from most directors at any point in time because he’s more willing to be political than most American directors. The film that put him on the map was Salvador, which deals with Panama at a time when Reagan looked upon all of South and Central America as his toys. He then had his two anti-Vietnam films being Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, which are powerful and stirring accounts. I do believe that every good director has a bit of good fortune in their timing every once in a while. Spielberg released Minority Report when privacy and surveillance are big issues, and Oliver Stone came out with Wall Street a year after Ivan Boesky and Dennis Levine plead guilty of insider trading and just a few months after the stock market crash of 1987. Daryl Hannah’s pathetic performance aside, this one of his best films and it’s the most emblematic of the 80s, in a negative Oliver Stone-like way. Money leads to these characters downfall and it practically tears a family apart. We get Michael Douglas playing one of his most memorable characters, Gordon Gekko, delivering that fabulous speech, which Stone seems to know how to write, starting off “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Gordon Gekko is the 80s captain of industry. Combine him and Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl and you have the ultimate cold-hearted capitalist.


The 1980s was more a decade of individual films than of directors. There weren’t a bunch of auteurs walking around but there were plenty of movies coming from all over the place. There were but a handful of powerful filmmakers, these were the foremost.

Work Cited and Footnotes: Otavio Frias Filho “Spielberg” pp. 214-220. Folha Conta 100 Anos de Cinema. Ed. Amir Labaki. Imago Editora: Rio de Janeiro, 1995.

-“Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” had probably the best set design I’ve seen on television.

-Despite the quality of the film, Beetlejuice, the cartoon series is one of the worst piece of junk I ever saw all the jokes were in pun form, who wrote that?

Hero Whipped: Why This Spider-Man Amazed Me

In this series of posts I tend to discuss comic book characters and my unique relationship with them since my fairly recent return to reading them again and I usually find a way to connect them back to movies somehow. However, since I decided that my posts may be a little different from hereon in, these posts may have a slightly different vibe to them.

Sure enough after that post The Amazing Spider-Man was one of the first things I saw. Now, in spite of my recent tendency to like superhero movies either a lot as the case is with say The Avengers and X-Men: First Class or somewhat as is the case with Thor or Green Lantern, the new Spider-Man hearkens me back to the original trilogy which were all released during my hiatus. Thus, this will be a heavily filmic post but it’s perhaps the most unique perspective I’ve yet had on a character.

It may be possible that I knew less about Spider-Man going into that first movie than I’ve known about almost any superhero before seeing their film. It was released at a time where I was typically attending films in a group so the selection process was fairly democratic. Going alone or with at least one other person, I could take it or leave it. To give you a sense of my lack of knowledge, after having seen it I was informed that in the books Peter created a web-shooter and it wasn’t a biological side-effect of the bite. So that frames it a bit.

However, I was a fairly blank slate. I didn’t have expectations I was just reacting to what I saw on the screen and what I saw there was something I didn’t care for much at all. In the post-film powwow I was the only dissenting opinion who chimed in “Well, I thought it really sucked.” I’ve never really had the urge to revisit it and the bad taste in my mouth kept me from seeing the other two.

I could identify easily enough with the elements of the story. Few and far between are the heroes whose archetypes that have a major variable. It was really a letdown in my eyes aesthetically, technically and viscerally. With regards to the viscera a lot of that boiled down to the casting of the leads. There is a certain alchemy in all of filmmaking but perhaps where it’s most present is in acting. Yes, there is a lot of technique and things that are good acting and bad acting just like in any aspect of filmmaking, however, an effective performer who doesn’t excite you in anyway is likely to be less engaging than a less technically skilled actor who is gripping, who has a presence. Tobey Maguire is not a bad actor and neither is Kirsten Dunst. I don’t find them interesting in any way, shape or form though. They bore me more often than not. It’s really a casting issue. Maguire is going to be seen in The Great Gatsby next. That’s great casting. He belongs in that film, here I didn’t care for it.

The casting and the actors get no help in the story department I remembered feeling it tepid and trite, nothing out of the ordinary, and getting back to the alchemy thing you have actors I felt were miscast, not particularly dynamic and then no chemistry too? Brilliant.

I was also not in the camp that ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the CG. Good effects work, truly good effects work is timeless. I doesn’t just stand up against contemporary expectations but stands the test of time too. I felt they were lacking in 2002, much less now. Whereas there are shots in Jurassic Park that are still astounding almost 20 years later.

It really seems in superhero cinema that much of it boils down to character, in the better ones performance, and spectacle. Very few are those films that will also make you legitimately, consistently, and even spontaneously, feel strong pangs of genuine emotion (Teaser: I got a lot of that in the new Batman and that’s the next in this series!).

Perhaps one of the most vivid memories I have of watching any movie ever was the first time I saw Batman. You know the 1989 one, back when Tim Burton was Tim Burton.

“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” And thus, the crap was scared out of me and I was in love with that movie.

With Spider-Man you do have a basis for many emotions in the construction of his origin. As superhero films proliferate there will be more and more merit to the arguments about the viability of origin stories, however, in rebooting a series I have no problem with retelling. Similarity by itself is not cause enough for ridicule. Take the Psycho remake for instance (please?), if Van Sant had merely done the story over again: same place, same time, same characters, names; that probably would’ve been fine. However, he took it a step further into cinematic photocopying, which just felt flat.

I can stand a retelling, as I think I’ve stated before: I am fine with multiple versions of stories existing (and when I like the story I seek them out). I clearly wanted to be re-told this story based on my reaction to the first film. So, what was it in this new Spider-Man that worked for me? In short, practically everything.

However, as you may have guessed, it starts with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Just by looking at Andrew Garfield you may not imagine he’s the dynamic performer, but if you watch him you soon find out. I first saw him in The Red Riding Trilogy and I was a fan. There are quite a few things that perturbed me about The Social Network, but he wasn’t one of them, at all. Robbed of an Oscar nomination, is what he was.

Then there’s Emma Stone. I think everybody loves Emma Stone at this point. If you don’t you probably aren’t watching that many movies.

There’s a certain quietness and introspection to this film that allows the emotion to be wrenched out of it. I spoke of spectacle above, spectacle is very external. In many of these films there is rarely introspection. This film manages to do that, build these characters but also steadily build the intrigue. The characters arc, you see what makes them tick, you see and understand their decisions and I felt for them.

Now, the dynamic was changed in this film by bringing Gwen Stacy into the mix rather than Mary Jane Watson. Now, in my return to comics I haven’t delved into Spider-Man really. I’ve only really gotten to know and like him from his teaming up with The Fantastic Four after The Human Torch’s temporary demise, so Gwen was new to me and I think involving her is a great story decision that just makes this film that much better and resonant.

On a technical level, not only do scenes tend to be intensified by occurring at night but the filmmakers figured out that the web-swinging looks better then. Another interesting aesthetic note to me was that the camera was very much controlled, not an over-abundance of motion. The shots look good and composed and it hearken back to earlier superhero films, but are made with newer toys.

All those proclivities aside here are the two true litmus tests for superhero movies as I see them: One, do I want to see the inevitable sequel? Two, does the film make me want to seek out the character in print? The answer to both those questions is a a resounding hell yes. And that is why this Spider-Man amazed me.

Review- Dark Shadows

With a film like Dark Shadows I have to spend a bit of time discussing where I’m coming from here and couching it. While I cannot claim to be an expert, I am a fan of the show and do have quite a fondness for it. Having said that, there will be no armchair direction or writing here make no mistake of that. I will gauge the film based on the direction and manner it was interpreted not how I would’ve preferred it, and I will be explicit in explaining why it still doesn’t work.

From the moment I saw the trailer I had a sense for what this film was going to try to be. It’s a rare case of a trailer being true to the tone of the finished product. What you get in this film is a very uneasy balance between horror elements and attempts at humor and self-parody. Essentially, it tries to be The Brady Bunch films, which are true to the tone and spirit of the show but poke fun at the show too.

What makes this different and not as successful is a disharmony in tone. It goes from a facsimile of a horror scene to forced humor. I should’ve counted attempted jokes for the percentage of success was very low. I literally laughed out loud thrice, once was a suggestive joke David (Gully McGrath) made about Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz). With the Brady films clearly it was always silly. How this would’ve worked better is either of two ways: One, be the kind of over-the-top horror the show was, which is humorous to some, or two, play it straight dramatically and tongue-in-cheek comedically. Instead, you could feel the gears shift and the sudden impetus “Must try and be funny now.” It’s one of the more forced comedies I’ve ever seen in that regard.

There are many Tim Burton movies I have loved. I am among the many who still have enough fondness for much of his work such that I will still come to see what he’s done. However, I’m not really angered by this turn so much as disappointed. Granted it’s not an original piece but I thought Dark Shadows and Tim Burton, what could possibly go wrong? The following did: The complete lack of tonal cohesion, the near glacial movement of the plot when there’s not an over-abundance of things going on, the thinness and simplification of characters.

Why is this one frustrating and not infuriating? I did like the performances for the the most part. Again, this is divorcing expectation and examining the actual content. However, it comes down to the milieu within which the players played. When the film is straight-up gothic-style horror it’s rather breathtaking. Those moments are few and far between but it shows the potential of the narrative had there been a sort of balance or reversal of tone.

Johnny Depp, who in his now long renaissance, is at times too big and too much the center of attention in certain films does well here. His Barnabas Collins is his own and I don’t begrudge him that, I just feel the performance would’ve been augmented further in a tale more worthy such an awesome vampire. For even in this rendition Barnabas deserves better.

Touching upon the Brady Bunch notion again there is the fish out of water aspect; the concept of the Brady films was that it was the 1990s and they were very much still stuck in the 1970s, while here Barnabas was in the 1970s after being interred in 1752. It plays the fish out of water but the film tries so hard with musical cues, other pop culture references and an Alice Cooper performance that is not up to his “Feed My Frankenstein” in Wayne’s World 20 years ago; that they just become tired, then trite and finally bothersome. We get it, it’s the 70s. Moving on.

Contrary to divorce where it’s only the children who suffer in a movie that’s bad it’s really only the kids who leave unscathed: Chloe Moretz doesn’t really have a lot to do here but shows a more mature side of her persona, which is easing and accelerating her transition from in-demand child actress to eventual A-List leading lady. Gully McGrath in sparing moments plays one of the more rounded characters in the film and shows a glimpse of his talent. Bella Heatcote, though not a child actress, is new talent who likely has much more to show in a more rounded role.

An example of a wasted, underdeveloped character in this film is that of Willie Loomis. Aside from being a weirdo his only other functions are being a stooge and a driver. Wonderful, really needed the new Freddy Kreuger for that part.

Partially to expiate the film its slowly moving, thin plot there’s some randomness thrown into the end of the film, which while are hat tips to the show are also slightly foreshadowed and only serve to prolong the cacophonous silliness that is the climax.

In the end, whether I agreed with it in principle or not, Dark Shadows made an attempt to do something different and it failed there also.


4/10

Rewind Review- Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a film that dares you to stand up and walk out of the movie theatre and makes you sorely tempted to take that bet. It’s a film that galumphs along on its over-the-top intentionally goofy and self-consciously stylistic way with complete disregard for respecting its audience either intellectually or emotionally.

The cast of the film is not your typical Burton ensemble in as much as everyone is either miscast or misguided. Johnny Depp is convincing in the part of the Mad Hatter but acting does boil down to choices, as does directing, and most of the decisions made in the film with regards to character were unfortunate. Not quite as unfortunate as Mia Wasikowska as Alice – a young Australian actress with a painful British accent and little to no inflection in her voice in this part ever. Crispin Glover is his usual weird self and poor Mairi Ella Challen, as Six-Year-Old Alice, was woefully misdirected into a modern day rendition of Tami Stronach in The Neverending Story. Depp’s character wasn’t the only one who was steered towards the annoying end of the spectrum Tweedledee and Tweedledum were further there than ever before and the March Hare was so insufferable you hope for a cameo by a steady-handed, sharp-witted, eagle-eyed Elmer Fudd.

Unfortunately, the bright spots in the cast were in the smallest parts like Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen and finally Alan Rickman as the Blue Caterpillar. This film goes so far as to waste great talent in small parts like Christopher Lee as the Jabberwocky.

Tim Burton’s talents are still readily apparent in this film as are his flaws amongst them are the fact that more often than not he tends to struggle with non-original material, meaning that which he did not write himself. Since Burton has become a Hollywood player his films based on pre-existing concepts like Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have been some of his weaker and least inspired efforts in which he seemed to be wandering into the world of self-parody.

The film’s disrespect for the audience’s intellect is most clearly demonstrated by how repetitive the screenplay is. It is impossible to count how many times Alice insists that all the events in the story are part of a dream and that others in Wonderland claim she is not the “real Alice.” Surely there are other things that can be conveyed to reach an adequate running time and certainly kids have seen enough films follow the Rule of Three that you shouldn’t feel the need to follow the Rule of Three tenfold throughout the course of this film.

Another issue with the film was that the 3D was unessential to the film and it didn’t add anything at all to the movie-going experience. With the proliferation of 3D films there is more and more of an onus on these films to make it count and not just make it an excuse to charge an extra $2.50 or whatever the case may be. It’s a similar axiom to when black and white was frequently an option for films, filmmakers were told to “have a reason to shoot in color.” Think about it and have one strong, irrefutable reason you need all the colors of the spectrum. Same thing with 3D – think of one strong reason you need the depth, dimension and jumping out at the audience because I didn’t see it.

The CG and animation was consistently inconsistent. There were some things like the aforementioned Jabberwocky which are quite great and then things like most if not all the landscapes are not great. Some of the digital manipulation was good but some was a little off like when The Red Queen stuck something in her mouth her fingers popped out in a noticeably bad way and Tweedledee and Tweedledum weren’t bad.

Despite any technical accomplishment or other cases of slight brilliance it is all washed away by the absolutely underwhelming and unsatisfying emotional experience that this film is. It is a homogenized sequelbot, patent pending, which smashes two books together and focuses on minimalist story and nonexistent character development. It plods along so superficially that you actually become bored which is something that was once seemingly impossible with this tale.

If you want a truly different and unique take on the tale of Alice in Wonderland visit Amazon and Netflix and give Jan Svankmajer’s Alice a chance rather than this. You won’t regret it, “Said the White Rabbit.”

2/10

Review- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Geerasak Kuhlong in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Strand Releasing)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a film that first really came to my attention as a film that was picked as Cahiers du Cinema, the famous French film magazine which once was home to most of (if not all) the founding members of the French New Wave, as the best film of 2010. This film was named on all ballots. Then upon reading about it I found that it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, also worth noting that the Jury last year was headed by Tim Burton. These two facts are mentioned because the source is worth noting. Both Burton and the French are supporters of the notion that the unusual and lack of easy answers can be preferable to a transparent plot and easy escapism.

As is the case with any film I will endeavor to render, as clearly as possible, my opinion of the film. My best advice to you is to read up on Uncle Boonmee before you decide to seek it out at Art Houses or on home video. Many reviews will discuss the film with words like “opacity” and “paradoxical” but also have very positive things to say about it even without reaching very definitive conclusions.

I will not be too different than those. There is an absolute reverie in Magical Realism that abounds throughout this film. Ghosts and mythological beings weave their way into the tapestry of the story in a wonderfully unobtrusive way. Yet the weaving is something that is not so very apparent. Things are set up early on left aside and then revisited later.

It’s as if Weerasethakul were setting up a math equation, or four, and omitting the sum or at times even the operation. An example, is the Ghost Monkey. It is an image and a concept that is first made known to us with a very frightful closing shot, and moment of genuine horror, of the prologue. This is not fully explicated until the spirit world is introduced in full when a very casual dinner conversation is held with Huay, Boonmee’s dead wife. Similarly the Ghost Monkey also turns out to be a relation, however, those are examples of where the equation is laid out before you and all you have to do is add it up.

There are two more extended sequences in which the answers, if there are any, are much harder to decipher. Not that this necessarily makes the film less enjoyable but it is worth noting. In both cases it is possible to develop one’s own theory as to what the significance of the segment was. There is one case in which you have no time to decode within the film because the film ends immediately following it so you are asked to contemplate after its conclusion.

While these portions are slightly out of step with the narrative, such as it is, they do not run counter to the approach of the film. Even the few easily discernible plot points, in a more traditional sense, are disseminated in an unconventional way. At times they occur before the scene in question and off-screen. This is sort of a distanced approach to the narrative that invites the viewer to examine the surrounding environs of these people’s lives and examine possibilities that are not apparent or necessarily logical.

This narrative choice is also reflected in the visual approach of the film as well as it relies heavily on long takes and wide vistas rather than quick cuts and close-ups. The framing and lighting of these shots is typically meticulous and they are also generally well lit.

Uncle Boonmee is the kind of film that may or may not get better upon a second viewing but it seems to be inviting one too. While it doesn’t reward the viewer with overwhelming amounts of escapism it does provide much food for thought. It is the kind of film that will occupy the viewer’s mind long after its completion. It is one of the matter-of-fact and deftly handled interpretation of the Magical Realist cinema I’ve seen and that alone makes it worth viewing and is one of its redeeming qualities. Having these apparitions occur with characters incapable of dealing with it would’ve been insipid and trying of the audience’s patience.

7/10