June 2010 - Posts

Surprise! Senate hearings rarely make for good TV (or movies).

The problem with the Elena Kagan hearings are that they're boring as hell. Almost, anyway, as Orrin Hatch discovered yesterday when -- during a moment of reproof from Pat Leahy -- he responded "We have to have a back and forth every once in a while otherwise this place would be boring as Hell. And by the way, I've been informed that Hell is not boring." It would have to be more interesting than the perpetual stalemate of the hearings, whose moments of comedy were wan, to say the least, with the inexplicable exception of Senator Amy Klobuchar sharing her thoughts on "Twilight: Eclipse": Oh, for the glory days of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, a peril-fraught three-day ordeal begging for a dramatic re-enactment. The complete transcripts combine giggle-inducing sexual testimony with sheer '30s drama corn from Thomas supporter J.C. Alvarez, who announced "I have seen an innocent man being...

Have comedies become unfunny? Nah, they're doing just fine.

In the type of piece that seems calculated to bait the entire internet into yelling "you're wrong!" (thereby driving traffic), the Independent's Ben Walsh has issued a snarky denunciation of the current state of cinematic comedy: "Put simply, Hollywood comedies just aren't funny anymore." "The art of sharp, snappy, witty dialogue has vanished," he sighs. "Writers of the calibre of Woody Allen, Neil Simon, I A L Diamond and Mel Brooks just aren't emerging." Oh dear! Somehow, Mr. Walsh has raised an degree of nationalist ire I didn't even know I was capable of. (And why name-check I.A.L. Diamond instead of his more famous writing partner Billy Wilder?) Naming four of the most prominent writers of '60s and '70s comedy undermines the case being made. Those are exceptions, not rules, and I'm not real sure the solution to whatever problem being diagnosed here is lamenting that no one's writing dialogue...

"Alien Vs. Ninja": I can sum this movie up in three words.

Reviewed at the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival. High concepts don't get much more low-brow than "Alien Vs. Ninja," a great victory for truth in advertising and a movie whose subject matter can be -- and is -- summed up in just three words. Crackling with enthusiasm (if not high-end special effects), the movie delivers exactly what it promises, not a bit more, not a bit less. Don't expect this NYAFF selection to go the Janus Film/Criterion Collection route the way "House" did last year, though someday this could be the best and wittiest movie ever to air at 2am on the SyFy Channel. Masanori Mimoto stars as Yamata, the toughest and most stylishly coiffed ninja in an extremely well-styled clan sent to investigate a mysterious fireball that crashes into the woods outside their village. As you might suspect from the title, its contents are a bunch of...

What's the best-shot movie of the last decade, according to cinematographers?

The American Society of Cinematographers has issued a poll settling definitively, once and for all (ha!) what the best-shot film of 1998-2008 was. The non-controversial answer: "Amélie," shot by Bruno Delbonnel. It's a bit of a bizarre choice, but one representative of the list as a whole, which tends to favor artificial color palettes (often computer-tweaked), virtuoso long takes and other strong assertions of of visual personality. Nothing wrong with that, of course -- it's easier to register work like that. Either way, it's impressive that Roger Deakins placed higher for the relatively unshowy "No Country For Old Men" over the absolutely staggering "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford" -- but, of course, more people saw the former, and that's what happens when you let 17,000 people vote in the final, public vote. A clip from the latter: One could *** and moan about the exclusion...

A new Kongfrontation shows how the shift to CG has affected theme parks.

The Los Angeles Times has an interview with Matt Aitken, the visual effects supervisor of Weta Digital, about their work on the new "King Kong 360 3-D" ride, which opens later this week at Universal Studios Hollywood. The comment that caught my eye was about the technical specs of the attraction, which is a new addition to the park's venerable Studio Tour and a replacement for the old animatronic King Kong that was destroyed by a disastrous fire a little over two years ago. (Can you imagine the old Kong trapped in that inferno, stuck dutifully cycling through its endless loop of growls and punches until its burned into oblivion? It's almost as terrifying and tragic as the actual movie. You can practically smell the burnt banana breath.) Anyway, Aikten tells the LA Times that the new Kong 3D movie runs "at a very high frame range -- 60 frames...

Stop-motion thoughts on Ray Harryhausen's 90th birthday.

29 years ago, Ray Harryhausen unleashed the original Kraken in the 1981 "Clash of the Titans." Then he walked away from Hollywood filmmaking, annoyed that his work had been written off as mere "technical achievements." Today is Harryhausen's 90th birthday and the man's still going strong. His monsters are being archived in museums -- an exhibition of his work opens today at the London Film Museum. Harryhausen didn't invent stop-motion, but he practically branded it. His monsters, skeletons and mythical creatures have become associated with the medium more than, say, Willis O'Brien, "King Kong" creator and Harryhausen mentor. O'Brien made many technical breakthroughs, but Harryhausen was his own auteur. At his '50s and '60s peak, you came to his movies solely for the creatures rather than the men opposite them. Harryhausen's creations are beloved outside of the movies they emerged from: "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" and "Jason and the...

Overcasting, when film casts overflow with familiar faces.

Over at Movieline, Christopher Rosen bemusedly chews over the casting news for "Horrible Bosses," a comedy due next summer that -- in the absence of other news -- is being wildly anticipated. It does sound pretty awesome, insofar as it ups the "Office Space" stakes and has disgruntled employees actually killing their bosses instead of merely smashing fax machines -- the recession comedy we've all been waiting for! Arriving, alas, too late. But the point Rosen wants to make is that "Horrible Bosses" might be overcast: with Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Colin Farrell, Donald Sutherland and Jamie Foxx (though I refuse to believe Jason Sudekis is actually anything like "a star"), he wonders if there's a correlation between an over-abundance of big names and a less-than-quality product -- or worse, if this is a film a la "Valentine's Day" that compensates for innate shoddiness with marquee firepower. There...

Disc Covering: "The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It," an Apatow spoof, allegedly.

Last week, the New York Times commemorated the 30th anniversary of "Airplane!" with a slideshow by Matt Zoller Seitz. After three decades, the spoof movie should be reaching, if not maturity, since that seems a poor choice of words in this case, then at least a refinement of form and style. But it just hasn't happened; I'd argue the spoof movie is in a worse place now than at any point in its 30-year history. Exhibit A of my argument: the new straight-to-DVD Judd Apatow parody "The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It," which may be the single worst spoof ever, worse than "2001: A Space Travesty" and "Meet the Spartans" combined. Anyone who thinks imitation is the sincerest form of flattery has never seen this movie. "The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall And Felt Superbad About It"Directed by Craig Moss Tagline:...

"Symbol": Are you there, God? It's me, Hitoshi Matsumoto.

Reviewed at the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival. Hitoshi Matsumoto, a famous Japanese comedian whose work outside of the two features he's directed I have to confess to being completely unfamiliar with, has sported some truly horrendous big-screen haircuts. In his impressively bizarre mockumentary "Big Man Japan," Matsumoto played an ineffectual part time superhero whose droopy personality seemed to physically manifest itself in the sheets of long, scraggly hair closing in on his demoralized face. (When he transformed into a barrel-chested CG giant in order to fight monsters, his hair stood straight up à la Don King -- must be all that electricity needed to spur the change.) In his new film "Symbol," which succeeds against all odds in being even stranger than "Big Man Japan," he peers out from under the heavy fringe of a deeply silly-looking bowl cut, the roundness of which is matched by the...

Hey, someone's gotta come to the defense of M. Night Shyamalan.

Before we all had Lindsay Lohan to beat up on, there was M. Night Shyamalan, Hollywood's very own prodigal son. Master of twist endings and cursed with less modesty about his directing gifts than even Quentin Tarantino, Shyamalan's fall from grace was swift and almost karmically vengeful. At least -- if you buy the overall narrative that after "The Sixth Sense," every movie he made was a case of increasingly diminishing returns and financial failure, culminating in the rock-bottom nadir of "The Happening." The truth, as always, is more interesting and complicated. Shyamalan's complacency about himself has been a factor from the start. Talking up "Unbreakable" to Time in 2000, he noted his long-term career goals as being "just say my name, and it represents a body of work." On the cusp of the disastrous release of "Lady in the Water," he'd upped his ***-talking game: "If you're not betting...

"Bodyguards and Assassins": The revolution will be verbalized.

Reviewed at the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival. For its first languid hour, the extremely talented cast of "Bodyguards and Assassins" lecture each other about the importance of the Chinese Revolution. No one speaks to anyone else; everyone just stands around giving speeches. Once they've made their point at great length, we're treated to an extremely well-crafted and thrilling chase and fight sequence through the convincingly recreated streets of 1900s Hong Kong. The two parts are so different, it's hard to believe one director, Teddy Chan, made both of them. Watching this movie, I was reminded of the schemes my parents would dream up to get me to do my homework: sit through this boring lesson about Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and you can watch this awesome martial arts movie. 
Sun is known as "The Father of Modern China" for his role in bringing about the end of the...

Kubrick and Scorsese, not as violent as their most famous films might indicate.

When someone says that Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese are his or her two favorite directors, it doesn't mean that much. Both are responsible for films of cold, hard, almost universally valued quality -- they're almost unassailable cinematic institutions (there's always going to be someone around to insist a director is overrated). They're also dorm-room staples and two of the few directors still identifiable by many people by last name alone. It's a rare case of critical and popular love getting married. Here's a video mash-up of the work of the two godhead directors to get your week started with a bang. Kudos to "Leandro Copperfield," whose "Kubrick vs. Scorsese" (guess what it's about) has been picking up blog steam. (It's mildly NSFW -- there are, predictably, a lot of bloodshots and a little swearing): To Copperfield's infinite credit, the video includes bits of every single Kubrick feature (including the...

A lament for Adam Sandler.

Out of all the people rolling in and out of "Saturday Night Live" in the '90s, it wasn't immediately obvious that Adam Sandler would be the break-out of the bunch. In an infamous 1995 profile of the show in New York, Sandler didn't come off noticeably worse than the other cast members, but he was portrayed as lazy, just waiting for the writing meetings to be over so that he could get his drink on. Since then, though, he's displayed nothing if not a Murdoch-ian business acumen for gambiting low stakes against high returns. Critics of his SNL time -- where, if nothing else, he gave the world Opera Man -- would complain that he didn't have much range, but that was nothing compared to the idiot's delight streak ("Billy Madison," "Happy Gilmore" and the rest), in which Sandler rode his success to unexpected heights. Sandler's comic persona is weirder...

Reports of the death of the intelligent blockbuster have been greatly exaggerated.

Around this time every year, the blame for the death of the intelligent Hollywood film is laid at the feet of "Jaws" and/or "Star Wars." Richard Brody over at the New Yorker rounds up this week's batch of articles, patiently noting that "It's always the end of the world, and things were always better before." (As Wallace Stevens once said, the imagination is "always at the end of an era.") This time around, the most interesting variation on this complaint comes from Ross Douthat, the on-call Tea Party advocate of the New York Times' op-ed board. Taking a sort of reverse tack, Douthat argues that "An awful lot of the middlebrow blockbusters of the 1980s were really, really good," like "the Indiana Jones saga, the 'Back to the Future' trilogy, 'Ghostbusters,' 'Top Gun,' 'Beverly Hills Cop,' 'Alien' and 'Aliens,' Tim Burton's Batman movies, 'Die Hard,' 'The Hunt for Red October'...

Kristen Stewart gets a warm "Welcome to the Rileys" in L.A.

If the "Twilight: Eclipse" premiere was the tough ticket of this year's L.A. Film Festival, drawing roughly 5,000 fans from all corners of the U.S. in order to get a glimpse of Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner at the Nokia Theater, then "Welcome to the Rileys" proved to be damn near impossible. Kristen Stewart fans gambled on the ability to sit less than ten feet away from the star inside one of the smaller Regal Cinemas at L.A. Live, but having to contend with the fact that seven of the 15 rows in the theater were already roped off for VIPs of one kind or another. LAFF director Rebecca Yeldham came out to introduce the film and moderate the post-screening Q & A (a job usually handled by programmers or volunteers), and before the film started, Melissa Leo spoke on behalf of herself and co-stars Stewart and James Gandolfini, who...
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