Thursday, September 27, 2012

"This is a Review About Trickery and Fraud...About Lies."

...well...the above listed as well as an announcement at the end, but all things in due time.

With a paraphrased quote like that as a lead-in, let me start by saying that even I admit to having been a little surprised by this film.  Prior to this film, I, like many people, knew Orson Welles from one of three facets:
-As a well known and highly respected actor/director renowned for being a very intense individual
-The unfortunate later years which lead him to rather unusual side projects to fund his main interests - perhaps best encapsulated by one of the last roles of his life voicing Unicron in the Transformers movie
-and as an entertainingly cantankerous old man who, despite doing projects he may not have been proud of, still found enough pride in himself to verbally tear apart a badly written commercial spot he'd been asked to read.

So when I first learned about his semi-documentary F for Fake (or, as it's called within the movie, About Fakes) I wasn't entirely sure where in the spectrum I would find this to be.  My initial impulse being the intense man of his prime and in his element.  To my surprise, I discovered a Welles I never expected. I never thought I'd see the day I'd call Orson Welles playful...and yet, this movie certainly showed it, and not just in his behavior.  The entire way the movie is shot gives a rather different sort of look at Welles - it certainly shows itself as a product of the man's passions, don't get me wrong, but given the subject matter, he also approaches it with an almost fun air.

I'm actually rather glad they market under the other title.  This one just doesn't roll off the tongue as well.
...look, these captions can't be zingers all the time.  Just saying.

Equally surprising is the fact that, in his own way, Welles actually seems to side with the idea of fakers. In fact, in the beginning of the film he even identifies himself as a charlatan with a smile on his face.  Further, he has a friendly rapport with particular fakers the film focuses on, and  that keeps the film from feeling like a formal affair.  Instead, it feels almost more like a casual sit-down conversation at times.  This loose feeling is also embodied in his focuses - in looking at the notion of the hoax, Welles focuses much of the film on two prominent hoaxsters: Elmyr de Hory, an art forger who, at the time of the movie, has worked for over 20 years and has consistently delivered astonishingly accurate fakes; and Clifford Irving, the infamous author known for his faked memoirs of reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes.

Artist's Rendering.
...I have to admit, I think I'm just gonna picture this whenever I think of Hughes in the future.  If only cause this is a hard to top take on the idea.

In particular, Welles focuses much of the film on Elmyr, and for good reason - he is a genuinely  fascinating subject.   He's a very good-humored and surprisingly talented man whose technique of forgery is  almost more of a hobby to him than simply a means of income - we see him actually burn many of his works that he could have easily profited from.  If anything, any profit he makes from the paintings is more secondary to his amusement at the idea that his work is convincing enough for people to offer as much money as they do for them.

This is made even better by the fact he's smiling as he does it.  I can only imagine some of the shenanigans he pulled on people that ended like this.

Additionally, it's through the idea of Elmyr that Welles explores some other interesting notions regarding art and the art world.  In particular, though only briefly touched upon, the film has a rather criticial approach towards the entire art dealer culture and the idea that art's value is artificially instilled by experts.  On that note, actually the lighter approach to much of the film makes these meditations stand out more.  In particular, one sequence near the end of the film when Welles reflects on an old cathedral and the idea that art is, in many ways, a sort of echo of man that will eventually fade in time.  It takes a surprisingly darker tone from much of the film, but that allows it to stick in the memory a bit more.

"...and for my next trick, a reminder of your own inescapable mortality."

Alongside exploring Elmyr's story, and somewhat tied into it, Welles also explores the backstory of Irving's infamous scandal.  His tale fares less fortuntely compared to Elmyr.  In fact, exposure seems to have even helped Elmyr.  Many of his friends speak well of his capabilities.  Comparatively, we don't see quite as much said in favor of Irving and his staged autobiography.  Welles certainly goes into many of the details of the case, raising questions of if Hughes had any part to play in things.  Even when the famed recluse supposedly came forward (by phone) Welles raises the question of if it's truly him, or another facet of the hoax.  Overall, while it still provides a good overview of the hoax, it does feel somewhat less personal than the focus on Elmyr, with less direct study of Irving and more of the entire mystery around him.  Nevertheless, Welles's exploration of the mythos of Howard Hughes and Irving's part in it also makes an interesting aside in the film, in particular outlining why it happened and why people were so fascinated by it in the first place.

Sorry Cliff, but I think the earlier image of the man beats yours.  Points for trying though.

There is an additional story near the end of the film Welles goes into - a rather curious tale of one Oja Kodar and her own adventures in the world of art forgery. Rather than describe, I can honestly say it is a sequence that really has to be watched to be fully enjoyed.  In particular, the way Welles and Kodar recount the tale is a nice bit of shooting and really helps draw you into the tale.  It's an interesting note to end the film on.  Though it's only tangentially tied to the two main stories, it still provides a very nice little riff on the theme, and watching it truly does it justice.

Seriously, with this as a lead-in, I just don't have it in me to spoil the surprise for you guys.

If I had to say one other thing for this film overall, it's that, even along with his playfulness as a host (Welles even starts the movie demonstrating sleight of hand magic to a child, as shown above,) Welles's easygoing nature seems to show through in the direction.  The entire movie moves with a sort of free-form, loose style rather than a focused approach, and it really keeps the movie flowing nicely.

 To give credit where it's due - Elmyr de Hory, with his rendering of another famous art forger (guess who? ... or just watch the movie and learn that way, that's fine too.)
and Clifford Irving - because sometimes one really big spectacular bluff is enough to put you up there with the guy who's been on a decades-long strong streak.
...actually, I really do have to hand it to Irving, the film really does help give you a respect for the fact he got away with as much as he did.

Is this one of Welles's most acclaimed masterpieces?  Not sure I'd say that for it.  It is, however, certainly a fascinating project for him.  He takes a rather vague topic and manages to still explore it in a well thought out fashion, and even manages make some interesting food for thought of its own.  It's one of those films that really helps remind one of some of the interesting things a documentary can be capable of when approached the right way.

"Now then...which one of you bastards did I just hear start a sentence with 'In July'?"
...sorry.  It's Orson Welles, the reference is almost inevitable.
Having said that, as stated above, it's announcement time:

As of this time next week, we'll officially be into October.  Good weather, seasonal decorations, and right now the only tradition that has safely managed to stick here at the Third Row - that's right.  We're repeating last year's Beer and Lederhosen-Free Octoberfest.  For those who missed this and are thinking 'Nuts to checking the archives' the set-up is simple - entries will still be here every Thursday (roughly.  There may be a week mid-month when this is delayed for reasons that will be explained when the time comes.)  Instead of the standard full review, this month is 31 films, a horror film a day, with a weekly writeup on each of the entries.

I don't mind saying that I'm actually looking forward to this one.  This was a fun event to do last year and it's a Hell of a list lined up for this time around.

So keep an eye out, and will see you all next week when this craziness kicks off with our first four features!

Till next time...feel free to insert a maniacal laugh of your choice here.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

We Now Return You To Your Disappointed Review, Already in Progress

Well, let no one say that I'm not a man of my word.  Last week I promised you guys Battletruck, and Battletruck you shall have (though I imagine not many of you were particularly excited for this one.)

It's funny, the more I look at the post-apocalypse genre of film, the more I realize that, all things considered, it's pretty diverse.  I mean, while the first image is usually going to be George Miller's Mad Max movies, people will then in turn remember such other standouts as A Boy and His Dog, Fist of the North Star, The Day After, The Road, and even the Fallout game series.  Each of these took the loose idea and managed to find their own voice amidst it, ranging from brutal action in a world with society's restrictions loosened to grim realizations of the potential twilight of humanity, to a tongue-in-cheek look at some of the ways society could reshape itself in the aftermath of it.

Then - A grim statement of a future where scarce resources have become scarcer
Now - A punchline of your choice to be filled in here.

Why am I bringing up all of these other films?  In part because, comparatively speaking, Warlords of the 21st Century (the official name of the movie) makes unfortunately the worst mistake you could make under the circumstances.  It's not really that good, but at the same time, it's not exactly that bad either.  It's a very rather lukewarm offering.  But I'll get back to that in time.

As I can see everyone's on the edge of their seat for it...

The story starts, as many of these stories do, in media res - throwing you right into the middle of the action with very little explanation beyond a very quick overview that's only missing the 'You'll figure it out as you go' at the very end.  The stage is set for us through a short prologue delivered in large part via radios - in the aftermath of an age known as The Oil Wars, resources are now scarce and government has broken down.  In the middle of this chaos, military leader Straker (James Wainwright) has gathered up a cadre of loyal soldiers and wanders the wasteland in an armored truck they use to maraud other peoples for resources.   To this film's credit, their introduction to Straker does at least give us a means of getting the question of where they get the fuel for the rest of the movie somewhat out of the way.  Unfortunately, it also serves to kick off kind of a meandering narrative that feels a bit less like a thoughtout plot and more like a loose chain of events that kind of fit in a sequence.  The main element that sets much of this in motion is female protagonist Corlie (Annie McEnroe) who appears to be the only female in Straker's team.  After deciding the plunderer's life is not for her, she tries to sneak out of the camp, and, one botched escape attempt later, meets our film's hero, Hunter (Michael Beck, whom many will likely more remember from his role as Swan in 'The Warriors'.)  Hunter takes her in and then leads her to a commune of survivors, who then come under the crosshairs of Straker looking to get Corlie back.  From there it dances between revenge and human football with Corlie.  They make a game attempt to work a couple of small twists in, but unfortunately, they largely don't amount to much in the overall narrative (beyond one which partially explains Straker's motives but also makes him come across as even more insane in the long run of the movie.)

With the exception of when he's being shot at, this is basically every Michael Beck face throughout the movie.
Which, admittedly, is a bit better for immersion than McEnroe's 'Please get me out of this' to the audience.

As much as I give the movie's story a lot of grief (to be fair, with some polish it could have been interesting,) the biggest problem this movie has is in its acting.  There's no one I can really say stands out, in large part due to the fact that most of the performances are pretty lackluster overall.  About the only person who seems to make an attempted effort in the whole affair is Bruno Lawrence as Straker's resident psychopath Willie, and even then his crazy is rather restrained by what a PG rating will allow for.  Of the rest of the cast, Beck's stoicism-which previously worked for him in the above mentioned 'Warriors' as an unsure leader trying to keep the team all together in absence of a real leader-mostly just feels uninterested in this role.  Whether that's a fault of Beck or awkward direction, I can't really say. The same goes for McEnroe; For a character who has a lot of emotional baggage, she doesn't really seem particularly phased by a lot of it.  To her credit, she does try at times, but it still feels rather underwhelming - especially after watching Straker hit up and loot the survivors' camp (even if she left partway, the fact is she knows what's going down from having seen it before.)  For the final lead, Wainwright as Straker feels...kind of uncertain where they wanted him to go as an antagonist.  I'm not sure if they just wanted hardened battle commander or ruthless leader, but mostly he just looks and carries like Dean Wormer goes on a hunting trip (fun fact on that note - apparently John Vernon actually WAS in talks to play the role at one point.)  The rest of the cast are largely unremarkable. Beyond that, keep an eye out for a young John Ratzenberger as Rusty the mechanic.

"I'm declaring open season on Delta House!"
...OK, I'll stop now.  I promise.
Also, NORM!

It's disappointing, in a strange way.  I wanted to be able to rip on this film.  I was expecting a low-budget 'Road Warrior' knockoff with a lot of cheeze to unload on (cause hey, that's half the fun with bad movies.)  Instead, it's a film that largely feels like the people who worked on it weren't particularly interested in doing so. I'm talking across the board here-even the directing feels rather uninspired.   Though I do have to wonder if the shadow of Miller's second movie did have any impact on this movie, given that, despite reports they had been trying since the mid-70s to make this happen, it wasn't until a year after TRW came out that this was released.  In some ways, I also feel like one of the big enemies of this movie was its PG rating.  When you're dabbling in the idea of a world where force makes the rules, it's a safe assumption things aren't going to be nice.  Despite this, the setting actually feels like one of the tamer postapoc movies I've ever seen.  There's definitely signs they were trying to aim for darker elements, particularly where Straker is concerned (as there are some offscreen implications of torture and rape that aren't exactly subtle) but in keeping with the safer rating, it largely just amounts to shooting people and driving through their buildings. Actually, that is one other thing I can say for this movie - someone working on it really seemed to like the idea of vehicles driving through buildings, cause they come back to it several times. In fact, despite having an armored truck full of armed soldiers, that seems to be Straker's main battle tactic.

Said truck, for reference.  Woe be unto your wooden shack, for it is no match!
and for an encore - probably the best rendition of what a postapocalypse car actually would look like.

Maybe this is exactly the film they wanted to make. But I can't help but look at it and feel like it really could have been something better with a more capable, or at least had more focused hand working on it.  As it is, it just simply is.

Despite Willie's best attempts otherwise...I'd be lying if I said the way his face lights up at the prospect of looting wasn't one of the highlights of this film.
I share your disappointment, folks.  It's rare that I go into a film wanting it to be bad and actually come away feeling let down.  Hopefully next time we come across one of these in the future, though it fails as a good movie, it will at least give some better material to work with.  In the meantime, I promise next week we've got another good one lined up (I mean actually good this time) as well as a bit of shameless self-promotion for October.

Till then!

Also, this scene is actually a pretty accurate assessment of my face watching this, albeit with more facial hair.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

We Interrupt This Week's 'Draw From the Sack of Pain' Review to Bring You a Pleasant Surprise.

Well, this has happened here before, so it's not entirely unexpected.  Running into a title that immediately feels like it's due for a write-up, even though you already had something else planned.  Plus, under the circumstances for this title, right now it could use the extra burst of attention for reasons I will go into later.

So I will apologize in advance to anyone who was looking forward to this week being the promised 'check out the weird shit we pulled out of the bag' review and promise that review will be up next week.  In fact, to further render myself dead to rights, I can tell you now that next week you can look forward to the post-apocalyptic 'Warlords of the 21st Century' (AKA 'Battletruck'.)  Whether you want to consider that a promise or a threat I'll let you decide.

Now then, moving on, it's only fair to clarify what pre-empted that (because I can just imagine the groans of disappointment now.)  In this case, it was actually one of those times where I don't mind talking up a film that's still in theaters...cause right now it's in sore need of some extra word of mouth.

That said, recently, spurred on by word of mouth myself, I went to go see Laika Entertainment's latest stop motion offering, ParaNorman.  Now, to start with I just want to say that stop motion is an underappreciated art nowadays, and not that common in animated features.  I mean, on one level, I can see why - in terms of motion and attention to detail, it's a very intensive field that requires some strong attention to detail, patience, and resources.  However, in an age where it's just getting cheaper and easier to do it all by computer, I still can't help but have some love for those who still make the go of it anyway.  I can't stress this love enough, for the record.  The amount of detail these people put into their work is even more impressive given the medium, whether it's something as simple as Norman's room (which is decorated with zombie and monster paraphenalia) or the entire layout of the town of Blithe Hollow, which, alongside its Salem-esque banking on its history of witchcraft, looks very much like a stylistic, but accurate, version of a Massachusetts city.

Seriously, these are just the backgrounds...

As far as this movie itself, this is one of those rare times where I find myself somewhat hedging my vote from the usual 'well, marketing fucked this movie over proper.'  Cause on the one hand, yeah, it didn't really help the movie in terms of publicity (despite reviewing well, the film's box-office numbers have kept it floating at around 3-5.  Which, while not bad, means marketing has already dropped it like a dead fish.)  Which, in turn, is part of why I'm adding another voice to the promotion for it (...for all the credibility that lends.)

On the other side of the marketing coin, the awkward promotion actually made some of the payoff on this film work out quite well.  I mean, the trailers themselves aren't necessarily dishonest about what the film is about - Norman is an introverted, monster-obsessed child who can speak to ghosts, and yes, he is tapped to help his town when an ancient curse raises the dead.  The way the movie handles these elements, however, manages to surprise in several areas.  The zombie storyline, for example, shows a lot more thought than your standard 'they want to just eat the living and can be mowed down as endless hordes' approach.  Appropriately, the townspeople even seem to be in on this as well, as many of their responses when the dead finally rise are informed by the popular cultural knowledge of zombie movies.  It's another aspect of how versed in a lot of the ins and outs of the genre the staff on this movie are, as they manage to make these jokes blend in pretty well without them feeling forced for the sake of a cheap laugh or too obvious.

That said, I have to admit.  Some of the stuff in his room IS pretty cool.

In one quick aside here, one really clever little bit I do want to specifically call out here is a sequence at the start of the movie - the film starts out with the movie-within-a-movie trick as Norman watches a movie on TV.  In playing with this, the animators deliberately made the movie he watches feel more like a movie, making the acting and effects more staged and filtering all of the scenes with little fake scratches and bits of dirt on the film.  It's a very minor effect, but still a nice little touch that lets you know the level of detail and love for the material the people working on this had.

In fact, a lot of the film actually defied expectations for me for the better.  At first, the film does seem like you can guess where it will head, but as it goes on (and it's REALLY hard not to explain this without spoiling, so you all know,) it manages to take the familiar ideas into a whole different direction.  By the last half-hour, I was actually surprised at how ultimately dark some of the material had gotten for a family-targeted feature.  I mean, it still stays at the PG level but...again, you have to see it for yourself, really.  Additionally, the film's resolution manages to take a familiar theme about understanding and the damaging effects of fear and handles it in a way that, all things considered, is actually pretty mature, and trusts the audience to understand, rather than spelling it out for them.

When this is considered one of your nicer moments at school, that should say something...

That said, so you know this isn't going to be an entirely serious affair, the film certainly has its share of lighter moments along the way to keep this from just being dark.  While Norman himself is a bit more grounded, many of the supporting cast lend themselves to more comedic elements that help keep the film moving along.  On this note, the voice cast for this film actually all fit surprisingly well.  It's tough to really pick standouts in this cast, given how well everyone plays their parts (which, trust me, for voice-acting is a lot more impressive than it sounds.)  If I really had to pick any names in particular to point out from this cast, they'd be Kodi Smit-McPhee as Norman and Tucker Albrizzi as his overly supportive friend Neil (still something pretty refreshing about those moments when you hear kids doing good voiceover work), Christopher Mintz-Plasse breaking from cast type as the oafish bully Alvin, and John Goodman in a short role as Norman's borderline insane uncle Prendergast.  Even though Goodman isn't in the film long, he manages to play the role well enough to make it memorable.

Evidence that that 'borderline insane' isn't an exaggeration.  He's actually right, but still pretty unhinged.

It's really kind of a shame Laika Productions films only come out every so often.  At the same time, it makes the payoff that much more rewarding when they do come out.  For a studio that works in an animation style that (sadly) is somewhat niche nowadays, it's nice to see they can still bring an A-game.

Hopefully, if you haven't checked this movie out yet, this gives the incentive to try and track down any theaters still playing it.  Cause really, for as short-changed as it was by marketing, this is one worth the ticket price.

With that, we now return you to your regularly scheduled review (which I can't say I'll be quite as enthusiastic about...but then, that's part of why I go to the bag in the first place. Sometimes it's fun to talk about crap.)

Till next time, remember - Battletruck!