Sunday, July 31, 2011

X-Men First Class: Random Thoughts

How an Oscar for Tom Cruise Could Have Changed it All

This post is going to be a very quick rundown of my delayed viewing. Spelling, syntax, and fully-formed paragraphs sentences will be thrown out the window today, folks.

-Kevin Bacon & Oliver Platt both had their first roles in a high-profile Oscar caliber movie in years with Frost/Nixon. Same casting director? Bacon as the main villain is just odd. Except for Sleepers, I’ve never seen him as super-villain material. Perhaps unknown actors work best in super villain parts. For example, most Bond films have this with the last four films-World is Not Enough (Referring to the guy who played Renard, not Marceaneau of course), Die Another Day, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace-going this route.

-I think this is the first time Magneto and Mystique were shown kissing and it was the only kiss in the movie (it’s possible that Xavier/McTaggert kiss was her imagination). Was it ever explicitly stated that Mystique and Magneto were lovers in the other trilogy? Magneto was played by the most openly gay actor in Hollywood (pretty much every interview with Ian McKellen 2000-2006 made reference to his being gay and an activist about it) which always made it a tough sell that McKellen's version of Magneto was heterosexual and equally as attracted to Mystique (that's a whole other tangent). The scene in X3 where Mystique morphs back into a human and Magneto leaves her seems to show that it was unrequieted love. It's consistent in both parts.

-Speaking of homoerotic, Erik and Charles were pretty close, weren't they? Especially when Mageneto held Xavier in his arms. Even so, I was never entirely sold on the strength of their friendship. We were told about it, sure, but not shown it as much.

-Why do James McAvoy's characters have such a high libido? It's hard to take him seriously as an innocent doctor in a bad situation in Last King of Scotland when he's shown seducing or trying to seduce every woman in sight (sorry for going off on a tangent again). Same here, did he have to try to hit on Moira. I can see him hitting on the first coed in the bar, but it just makes him look a little more like a free-spirited adolescent with ulterior motives with McTaggert than a very mature leader. It didn't sound right either time he said "Groovy" (although that's unrelated to his libido). It was a tough balance to strike, however and I think they did reasonably well

-Interlacing the X-Men with history was really a nice touch. I might have been a little more pleased with Casino Royale if it was grounded in a concrete point in history.

-There were some continuity problems like Magneto and Erik being shown to later be recruiting Jean and Erik could walk. Some people say that the film wasn't trying to be consistent with X3 but just X1 and X2. BS. X3 was signed off on by Singer and it has X-Men in the title. That's picking and choosing too much. However, it does strike me as pretty blaring that Cyclops, Jean and Storm being his first class of recruits is ignored here. Couldn't Cyclops have been used instead of Havlock?

-Biggest plot hole: Shaw was just foolish at the beginning. Why would he expect Erik to want to learn with him and have a lot of fun together with him when he shot his mother. Sure, it boosts his bad guy credentials to cold-bloodedly shoot his mother and a more maniacal villain might do just that, but surely an intelligent man such as Shaw could see he's creating his biggest enemy. I guess we later learn that Shaw is also a mutant and might not have feared Magneto's powers very much but I feel like they only made Shaw a mutant just to explain away plot holes.

-These scripts have gotta be pretty hard to write in a way that builds up action and tension when you have so many dues-ex-machinas at your hands. Xavier can freeze anyone's thoughts and make them do whatever he wants. Should it come with an Achilles Heel of some sort? Perhaps, if Xavier controls the minds of more than one person, for example, he gets drained? Even Havok could have taken out all the missles if he took off his suit and just fired in every direction. For this reason, it was entertaining to see the scene where Azazel just kills the entire staff at that CIA facility, because realistically it would be no contest.

-Why did Charles and Xavier have to become enemies so fast at the end? That felt like a false moment. It felt like the scriptwriters were just looking to check the last box on circumstances that needed to be in place for X-Men 1 to make sense. I would have much rather seen signs of tension than a formal split. Besides, Charles is sort of in a lot of pain as he's just been shot. Why didn't he focus

-Banshee, as I understand it, is Scottish. Definitely would have made his character far more interesting and would have been true to the comic books which had a worldly feel to it with so many foreign team members.

-There were a couple of PAINFUL exposition scenes in there. The six new recruits showing off their powers was not only a scene inserted solely for the purpose of efficiently introducing the characters to the audience (why not just have a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-style opening credits scene) but it was belabored and sophomoric. By showing off their powers and cheering, these guys felt more like middle schoolers at a slumber party than people hired by the CIA. The previous intros to Banshee and girl Angel were far more impactful and if they expanded Darwin's previous intro in the cab to show his powers (or better yet, had Magneto and Xavier meeting him in a swimming pool rather than a cab) and revealed Havok's powers later, you could have cut the whole scene out.

-This is especially disappointing because the X-Men film series has been highlighted by great character introductions: Seeing Sabretooth pop up on the side of the road, learning Wolverine's a mutant by seeing him draw out a blade when a guy wants to beat him up, Jean Grey casually picking up surgical tools with her mind when she's operating on Wolverine, etc.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Oscar win for Milk's Screenplay- Deserved?

Good News: I've been published at again.
Also check out this article on Movie Remakes

The Oscar for best original screenplay is a measure of pure creativity. Ideally, the director's vision, the special effects, or whether the actors can elevate the material has nothing to do with the award. Or, sometimes, politics.

This brings me to a particular Academy Award choice I feel like nitpicking on today.

Milk won an Oscar for best original screenplay in 2009. It was written by Dustin Lance Black. Black, a former Mormon, has become a well-respected artistic figure and activist in the gay and lesbian community since his win.

I wondered out loud the last time I saw Milk if there was anything particularly notable about Milk's screenplay that endeared it towards a best screenplay win. It seems equally as likely to me that the screenplay win for Milk was just a reaction to proposition 8 (controvoursey took place earlier that year) and a way for the Academy to voice their support of gay rights.

I like to think of the screenplay winners as something that film students would be assigned to read in class as examples of great running. I see that with most of the other recent winners. Almost Famous is a humorous story with such a strong personal touch that it doesn't feel like it could be written by anyone but its author (Cameron Crowe). Gosford Park demonstrates intricacy in tying together the arcs of various characters and veers away from cheap imitation. Lost in Translation has a very strong grasp of mundane human behavior. A meaningful relationship is weaved together from suddle moments and silences. Eternal Sunshine , like Kaufman's other films, navigates narrative in a new mobius loop of a story. Little Miss Sunshine creates a very quirky atmosphere for its main troupe of six characters while providing a contrast to a world that's unforgiving of tardiness or other forms of eccentricity.

I'm not sure where Milk falls into anything notable. It just seems like a run-of-the-mill biopic elevated by good performances. It also came along at the right place and time to be notable.

There's hardly anything in the story that isn't predictable. The fact that he fails in his personal relationships as he becomes famous is pretty much what you'd expect of nearly every movie character or famous person who simply has larger and larger chunks of his time being taken by the masses he serves.

Just ask yourself: If you could only get your hands on one original screenplay, would it be? I think there's little doubt in my mind that Wall-E
is the remarkable feat in creativity. To be able to convey romance in the bleeps and bloops of robots in a post-apocolyptic landscape and to write a first act almost entirely devoid of dialogue, that's something. The debate over the best Pixar film is usually a long one, but consider that Wall-E was the Pixar film that made fans call for an end to ghettoization of animated films at the Oscars. It is also the primary reason (along with Dark Knight) that we have 10 films for Best Picture (a number that has since been reduced).

I also think In Bruges had a stylized language and a strong sense of identity that would have also made it a worthy choice.

Related Article: My picks for best films of 2008

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Guest Post - Ellen Wernecke - Book Adaptations from AFI's top 100

Today, I'm pleased to welcome a guest post from pen pal and valuable member of my writing support circle Ellen Wernecke. Wernecke, a New York-based writer, is a book critic who writes for Soda Pop Journal, Publisher's Weekly and the AV Club. The AV Club is the Onion's sister publication which means she has the awesome perk of having her name appear in every single hard copy of the Onion (in fine print) in the credits. In fact, Ellen has been known to tear the newspapers out of New Yorkers hands when they're reading the Onion to show them that she's in the credits (oh wait, that would be me if I ever got into the Onion or AV Club)

In the interim, you should check out Ellen's blog next week where I will be writing a guest post later this week in which I will opine about film adaptations from the Modern Library list of the 100 greatest books ever written. You should also check out Ellen's blog if you are into books or if you were curious to know what would happen to a white girl from Wisconsin if she suddenly started thinking she was a rapper.

Ellen is going to opine on five films from AFI's list of top 100 films from which she already read the book:

"Criteria: Each movie had to be based on a book (eliminated: "Citizen Kane") which I had to have read (eliminated: "The Godfather," "The Grapes of Wrath," etc.) as well as seen the movie (eliminated: "Apocalypse Now") and are ranked in descending order of where they appear on the AFI List:

"Gone With The Wind" (1939) -- Margaret Mitchell's Depression-era bestseller, considered by some to be far too sympathetic to the antebellum South (and point taken), became a bloated, splashy old-Hollywood movie that is yet impossible to forget. Vivien Leigh's splashy outfits (the curtains!) and Clark Gable's parlor sneer bring to life the book that a 2008 poll found was America's second-favorite book, after the Bible. You might lose feeling in your extremities after its nearly four hours are up, but frankly my dear, I don't give a damn.

"The Wizard Of Oz" (1939) -- Because even in this era of big-budget special effects, I bet you can all remember the first time you caught your first glimpse of Oz in Technicolor. One of the few books where it's okay for me that book and movie are inextricably linked and I can't imagine one without the other. Ebook supremacists be damned, I can still remember the gilt lines on my hardcover copy of THE WIZARD OF OZ, wide-eyed in wonder at this crazy world L. Frank Baum conjured up out of flat Kansas, and I felt the rush of early book lust upon learning about the many sequels he wrote to his most famous work.

Schindler's List" (1993) -- If "Gone With The Wind" represents old-Hollywood excess, "Schindler's List" represents its reincarnation as the late '80s/ early '90s Oscar prestige pic. While Keneally's novel-based-on-true-events is a clear and suspenseful narrative of Holocaust heroism, it feels impossibly dry and disconnected from real life compared to the movie Stephen Spielberg famously turned in to finish his film degree. And yet, I won't say it's too much. The mismatch of print and text reflect differing approaches to the material, neither of them wrong.

"To Kill A Mockingbird" (1962) -- I arrived late to this Gregory Peck-starring domestic and courtroom drama, but for all that what I like about the movie is the same as what I like about the book: Both capture the texture and the darkness created when things happen around children that they don't understand, but want to, and the struggle for adults near them between protecting and teaching them. The flight of Scout is so funny and terrifying at the same time. (Credit where credit's due, Mary Badham also gives one of the least muggy, most natural kid performances of that era.)

"All The President's Men" (1976) -- This is a complete nostalgia pick for me because of fond memories watching it with my dad when I was 10 or 11. No matter how many times I watch this movie my stomach knots up in tension during the second half, and I already know how it ends. I knew how it ended before we even sat down to watch! It gets me every time. This is probably the closest adaptation on this list because the journalists profiled more or less wrote themselves (and, hopefully, were thrilled to be played by the dream team of Hoffman and Redford)."

Monday, July 11, 2011

Another Old Film Review: Paper Chase (1973)

In keeping with my fascination of Oscar-winning performances, I just finished watching a screening of The Paper Chase (1973) for which John Houseman (the guy on the left, more on him below)* won a Supporting Actor Oscar.

I also feel like I'm hitting a good niche with my film reviews by covering films from before the 1990's that aren't classics but aren't exactly forgotten either. After all, what use is reviewing the Godfather or Apocalypse Now as if that hasn't been seen or reviewed already?

On to the review:
"The Paper Chase" stars Timothy Bottoms** as a first-year student entering the demanding world of Harvard School of Law who develops two primary relationships: The first is an off-again on-again romance. The second is a relationship of fear and reverence for a stodgy law professor whose rigidity and toughness are the stuff of legend. The twist is supposedly that the girlfriend turns out to be the professor's daughter and I was wary of how the film might devolve into some kind of triangular comedy (or melodrama, take your pick) of errors a la "Three's Company", but the romantic plot (or at least the tension) quickly dissipates into the main plot which is essentially the life of a student in an intensely competitive environment as he prepares for the challenge of his life.

In a sense, the professor also becomes secondary to the main plot as the protagonist slowly backs away from seeing the no-nonsense professor as his enemy and realizes the only person standing between him and success is himself (in no way, is that presented in as cliche a manner as I'm describing it here). Within the professor-student relationship, the film reminds me of other anti-establishment films from around the period like "The Graduate" or "Shampoo" where the protagonist must resist the influence of some towering figure from the older generation and decide where his own morals lie.

One thing I can definitely say about this film is that I've never seen a film that infuses academics with such adrenaline. The desparation to make a good impression on the professor or to not be called on and have the wrong answer in class, for example.

Nearly a third of the scenes involve the students in their study group. The politics of study groups have never seemed so interesting (And no, "Community" does not come close) as the students start questioning whether the others are pulling their weight or mutually panicking in the face of some new obstacle. The film's emotional resonance also comes from the bonds formed within the study group as the characters go through battle together. There's the equivalent of the fallen comrade in the form of a married study group member whose life starts to degrade as the semester wears down on him. There's another friend of the protagonist who embarks with him to a hotel for a do-or-die cram session in which the two are so focused on their studying that they draw the ire of the hotel staff and practically go mad in response.

In short, it's a very satisfying film that moves at its own pace.

*John Houseman is a ridiculously fascinating guy. Born in 1902, his acting career can best be described as his third greatest contribution to the arts. His greatest career was producing stage plays on Broadway beginning in 1929 as as means of surviving the Stock Market Crash. It was in 1934 that he became "obsessed" (wikipedia's words, not mine) with the idea that a 20-year old actor from a play at Cornell University (I believe that's what's meant by a Cornell production) would be the only person qualified to play the lead of his latest play. That 20-year old was Orson Welles and the two became collaborators. Houseman also produced the radio play "War of the Worlds" that scared the shit out of New Jersey when people thought it was real.

Ironically, whereas Citizen Kane marked the birth of many careers (Rob Wise, director of West Side Story and Sound of Music, edited the film; Agnes Moorehead went on to play Samantha's mom on Bewitched and earn 4 Oscar nominations; Greg Toland was the preeminent cinematographer of his day, etc.), it ended the collaboration of Welles and Houseman. It was mostly the controversy over who wrote the play with Houseman taking the side of Herman Mankewicz. Judging by a quote in his memoir, it seems Houseman wrote more of the script than Welles.

As for his second greatest contribution to the arts, Houseman was a professor at Julliard for acting where he taught Kevin Kline, Christopher Reeves and Robin Williams. He even formed a theater troupe out of his first class of graduates because he didn't want to see them be disbanded. He also advised Robin to follow comedy.

He wasn't really serious about acting himself until he filled in the role of the professor in this film after James Mason backed out. After winning the Academy Award, he got roles in a lot of other films and found a third act to life by taking on a lot of other roles. His last was a comic role in Naked Gun before dying in 1988.

Want to learn more about interesting Oscar winners?
Check out this article of mine on interesting supporting actress winners

**Don't fear if that name sounds unfamiliar. I've never heard of him either, although apparently he's had a long acting career and doesn't look like a character from the "70's Show" anymore

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Things I will do for you for money....

Inspired by the craigslist guy who will do anything for a price as well as's Robert Brockway let me offer my services:

Price Negotiable: I will shill for anything you want as long as it isn't illegal, go against the general tenets of the US Consitution, and doesn't involve the cruel and unnecessary murdering of animals or Puerto Ricans. Anything else, I will do for a price but depending on how much I believe in that cause. However, keep in mind, I have some integrity. If you want me to advocate for bringing back Swastikas to school uniforms, for example, that might be a very high price since I don't think it's a good idea.

$0.53 I will tell you if anyone in the cast list of any film of your choice has ever been nominated for an academy award without looking it up and with one hand tied behind my back. (If I am wrong, I will pay you $1)
$0.72 I will channel the ghost of silent scren star Lillian Gish and answer any questions you might have about anything through her
$0.97 I will leave any inflammatory comment on any blog of your choice and take the heat for it
$1.19 I will learn the words to and sing any Oscar-winning song in the shower (this won't be tape recorded, but you are welcome to come to my bedroom next to the shower and listen, or ideally, just take my word for it)
$1.68 I will describe you in no more and no less than 12 adjectives. (11 cent surcharge if I have to pull out a thesaurus)
$1.75 I will friend your mom or dad on facebook. Conversely, I will also message your mom or dad on facebook and explain to them nicely why you have just defriended them
$2.00 I will vote for any political candidates you want in any mock elections on
$2.05 I will dedicate no less than 3 facebook status messages proclaiming your awesomeness
$2.14 I will personally explain to you what the difference betwen a line producer, an executive producer, an associate producer, and any other type of producer are until you get it. (If this takes over an hour, there will be a 61 cent surcharge for every half hour we go over)
$2.21 First-hand research (of a very specific nature) I will tell you what it says under the census record of Kirk Douglas, Donna Reed, Dwight D Eisenhower or Tony Curtis for the 1920 Census. I once looked it up in the National Archives
$2.55 I will give you an imaginary census record for any famous person
$2.58 I will sell out my family. My second cousin once removed is Richard Dreyfuss. My dad once stayed at his parents' house in California and has met him 3 times. I have met him twice. I will give you any inside scoop I have
$3.18 I will tell you what came first: The chicken or the egg
$3.29 I will cast your life story into a movie (I might need access to photos/ facebook pictures for this task)
$4.00 I will write a review of any film you like using an exact number of words and I will include no less than 3 pairs of sentences that rhyme with each other. [Rental charges may apply]
$4.00 I will attempt to get the attention of any celebrity you want on twitter for you. (only requires pay if I succeed) ($1.10 surcharge if person has over 500,000 followers, $2.00 surcharge if the person has over 800,000 followers)
$4.15 I will ask 5 random people on my AIM chat list what they think of your latest blog entry.
$4.24 I will pretend that you have been cast in any film outside the American film Institute's top 100 films and write a review
$4.74 I will pretend that you have been cast in any film on American Film Institute's top 100 films instead of the actor who was cast and will write a review of your performance
$5.23 I will rewrite any blog entry of yours in Spanish
$5.30 I will explain to you why I don't want to translate your blog entry into Klingon and how that's a stupid thing to want to do with your time
$5.75 I will write any movie review you like and insert into it any five words of your choice into the review making them appear seemlessly into the review
$6.00 I will write the life story of any facebook friend of yours just by looking at their pictures
$6.21 I will write a review of your facebook photos as if it were an art show
$8.56 I will write a review of your life story as if it were a movie review

$10.49 I will send a query letter to Hollywood asking them to produce your life story
$21.03 I will sit through Ocean's 12 or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and take pictures of myself suffering throughout the whole ordeal

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Friday, July 01, 2011

I love you, Steve Spielberg, but how many times can you copy E.T.

One of the primary purposes of this blog is to defend Steven Spielberg.

Let me clarify: I'm not necessarily his biggest fan and he's not my favorite director. It's just that my favorite director, Billy Wilder, doesn't really need defending because everyone thinks he's great and there's no significant opposition otherwise. Ditto for Orson Welles, Sidney Lumet or David Lean and all the rest of the giants. Likewise, I could use this blog to declare my love for someone like Wes Anderson or Ed Zwick but that's like preaching to the choir.

But back to my main point: Spielberg is the director that it all boils down to because he has just as many people who think he's had a negative effect on cinema as he has fans, and where you stand on Spielberg as a barometer of sorts on how much of a film snob you are and the non-film-snob side of the divide is the audience I consider myself geared toward.

If you don't like Spielberg, you can't appreciate the simple joy of a well-choreographed sword fight or the emotional connection between a child and the alien who pops up in his backyard (yes, he is putting quite a lot of aliens in his films, more on that later) because you're too busy analyzing the mise-en-scene and lamenting that Spielberg isn't as influenced by the French New Wave as his contemporaries.

So, now that I've gotten that out of the way, I will now proceed to lambast Spielberg for the fact that in four of his last first films, he inserted a largely unnecessary alien subplot was inserted and relied way too much on old tricks. I'm counting Transformers and Super 8 here even though he produced and not directed those films.

In fact, the little research that I've done on "Super 8" (I want to react to the movie on the page before actually learning about it) tells me that JJ Abrams really did write it so perhaps it was Abrams inserting the ridiculously unnecessary subplot.

But honestly Steve, by recycling the plot of ET 4 times in a 5-movie span, you're making it hard to defend you.

So let's review:
E.T. is a film about a broken family and kids coping with a parent's divorce (or maybe it's just one kid or maybe it's just parents bickering and remaining married, I haven't watched this film in 20 years, I have no idea). An alien pops out of the sky. We're expected to think the alien is going to be a malicious threat to the kids, but the big twist is that the alien is very kind and indirectly fulfills the kids dream of being loved by his family.

War of the Worlds-Just like E.T, the alien(s) is/are largely irrelevant to the main dynamic. The film is really about the two kids reconnecting with their rough-around-the-edges father through this conflict of alien forces suddenly appearing on Earth.

Transformers-Transformers is about cars who turn into two warring factions of robots. In the movie version, an alien mythology is superimposed upon the original. Also, the main character is a disconnected loner who's problems are indirectly family-related (his family moves a lot, which puts him in an unenviable social position). It's through his special bond to an alien (a car alien, but still an alien) that he eventually connects to the girl of his dreams and everyone around him as well.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull-The original trilogy centered around artifacts that were supernatural/religious: The middle installment dealt with stones that protected against the evil spirits of a monotheistic religion and the first and last installments, dealt with God and Jesus, respectively. This is a very, very far cry from aliens but despite that, they crossed over into alien territory and botched the ending.

Super 8-As we were getting closer to learning what the big secret was: I was thinking please don't let it be an alien, and I was disappointed. At first, I liked the idea of centering a film around students shooting a movie, I thought it had a strong sense of place, and I thought there was some good chemistry among the kids.

On the downside, I felt absolutely smothered by the Spielberg touch yet again. Kids feeling disconnected from their parents. Parents grieving over the difficulty of being single dads. Oh yes, and aliens.