Thursday, November 29, 2012

In what will likely be the last entry for this month...

Well...unless I get a MASSIVE left-field shot before tomorrow night.

So, I know I've been behind on the joys of the random pile.  I mean, last entry was a start, but even I'm starting to miss the little mutants.  Rest assured, however, we're going to be bringing some of them back to light again and getting back into dusting off the lesser knowns again...
...starting in the next entry.

What can I say?  It's been a pretty active season of getting to theaters for me.  This is a rarity, so I'll ask that you bear with me through it, since it really does feel like it'd be a waste not to offer some $0.02 on the offerings.

Which brings us to this week's entry.

I have to admit...I'm not really feeling this Odd Couple remake just now, but let's see how it goes.

Well, so far this season, we've done arthouse, we've done blockbuster, and we've done blood-soaked martial arts revenge.  What else is there to cover?

...well, I suppose we should get something in for the family quotient again.  Lord knows we'll be inundated there soon enough, as is standard procedure for this time of year.  Luckily, this week's entry is actually a pretty good one.

The whole movie's animated like this - I promise.
...OK, so I shot myself in the foot on that one by showing the other screencap, but it was worth it.

When Disney first announced Wreck-It Ralph as an upcoming project, I admit I shared some of the initial internet skepticism.  Well, OK, that's not entirely true.  My first encounter with the movie came care of a teaser poster with no title and simply the 8 bit version of Ralph's head.  So for a while, my view of the film was "So...what the Hell is this for, anyway?"  When the teaser hit the web, however, my view was a bit uncertain.  I liked what I was seeing in the trailer, but there was still that lingering nagging voice that was asking if the gamers were just getting played.  I mean, I've got nothing against a film sneaking in some references, so long as I know they're being done for a reason beyond just "The audiences should love this!"  That was the concern a lot of people had at first in this case - were the guest appearances by the likes of Zangief, M. Bison, Q-Bert (2 out of the 3 in an entertaining 'bad guy support group' that actually holds up as a joke beyond just familiar faces,) and others actually there for anything more than going  "Look at this gamers!  You like this stuff, right?"?

Seriously, for as concerned as people were, this scene IS pretty priceless.

Fortunately, a lot of the positive buzz had heard afterwards had me willing to stifle this suspicion long enough to give the film a watch.  I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised.  I'm not gonna say it's anything major or gamechanging, but it's still a pretty enjoyable film.  The story itself is, admittedly, kind of standard, albeit the setting makes up for that.  It's your classic 'outsider is tired of being seen as the bad guy (in this case, literally, thanks to Ralph essentially being akin to classic Donkey Kong) and tries to change his image, with mixed results.'  In this case, as the advertising shows, the classic storyline is played out within a video arcade - more directly by the games themselves.  This is the area where the script makes up for the somewhat cliched premise - the world of the arcade is actually surprisingly well thought out in terms of the rules of how everything works.  Each world has its own loose rules based on its games, and actions therein are handled as such, while there are also an over-arcing set of rules for game characters in general, relating to many of the interactions that occur over the course of the movie.  It's the kind of thing that takes the familiar story and manages to help provide just enough interesting twists to keep the plot from feeling too by-the-numbers.

The other thing that works in this regard, of course, is the characters.  In this regard, I have to hand it to John C. Reilly as the titular Ralph.  With this, he's confirmed he's on the list of actors who can actually act behind a mic as well as they can in front of a camera (I know, this doesn't sound like much now, but trust me.  There are actors who can, and have, bombed a voice over performance.)  Additionally, in this case, Ralph isn't played up as an entirely comedic role, but actually is genuinely pretty sympathetic in the way he's written and played.  The supporting cast, likewise, all prove capable of holding their own with just their voices as well.  It's hard really picking others among this cast to say really went above and beyond here, because it's not like there's any real weak points to hold against.  Oddly, the one other that really stood out in this case, in part because he wasn't immediately recognizable off the bat was Alan Tudyk as the film's somewhat antagonistic King Candy, channeling a healthy dose of Ed Wynn into the role.  In some ways, this hard time nailing individually strong roles over others is itself pretty encouraging.  It's also on this note that I have to commend the decision of the filmmakers to have the cast all recording their dialogue together rather than in separate booths.  This leads to some genuinely great bits of interaction among the cast, particularly between Reilly and Sarah Silverman sometimes devilish kid racer Vanellope von Schweetz.  For only offering up their voices, the two really do have a great chemistry here, even among the already pretty strong dynamics everyone has performance-wise.

It's a like a more heartwarming, less bloodsport-oriented Master Blaster.  Also, there's a clear answer to who runs their Bartertown.

The animation, as an extension of the world building, does help carry the setting well here.  I'm not gonna say it's anything jaw-dropping or redefining what animation can do, but it still creates an interesting look into the other side of the screens.  In particular, the animators make for a nice touch on looking at the differing sides of the screen at points - especially with older games like the fictional Fix-It Felix Jr (where Ralph and his 'good guy' (Jack MacBrayer) reside) and the real Tapper.  In such cases, there are scenes where the film's more standard animation style is eschewed to depict the events being carried out in the traditional gaming style we'd see as the player.  It's a nice little sight gag, and one they thankfully don't over play their hand on.  That said, most of the other games we tend to see more behind the screens, and even with that challenge, the animators still found a way to keep each world particularly distinct - Fix-It Felix Jr is a very 'clean' look, translating the older animation into easily cleaned settings and people who genuinely 'hop' from place to place rather than full walking; the pseudo-FPS Hero's Duty is very much the classic 'dark and techno heavy' sci-fi shooter, complete with the giant insect foes; and the racing game Sugar Rush, that makes up much of the plot, is a brightly colored candy land that looks akin to Willy Wonka on crank.  Interestingly, we also see these settings built up as something that can, and as the characters are concerned, do live in.  It's a surprising attention to detail - especially given the nature of some of the settings they're playing with.  Again, it won't change the way we see animation per se, but the fact is it still does a great job of fleshing out the gaming world it uses to tell its story.

On his own arguably less disastrous trip to the game, Felix learns from Calhoun (Jane Lynch) why a bringing a hammer to a gunfight is arguably worse than a knife.  At least, in the kid friendly sense.

All things considered, this film did surpass what I was expecting.  It's not gonna change how you live, love, or look at the movies...but then, there's not a lot of movies that can be guaranteed to that, and they're never consistent from person to person.  On its own, however, it takes what could have been a VERY forgettable piece that could have just tried to mine gamers for a few bucks, and actually turned it into a rather fun little story.  It's one we've all heard before, sure, but it's done with enough heart here and enough thought put into the setting to make up for any shortcomings to make for a still worthwhile time.

OK...and THIS time, I promise, we'll be back to the craziness in the days to come.  As well as a new project for the start of the month (no, it's not going to be 25 days of holiday films...my threshold still has its limits.)

So keep an eye out.  Things to be done yet.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Mmmm...Leftover Turkey

So, I promised you guys leftover turkey for this Thanksgiving...and after last entry got all, dare I say it, respectable on you all, it dawned on me that now I REALLY had to make good on this.

But how?  How?

Then it dawned on me to split the difference and use this for something I've been meaning to do more in general.

As some of you may recall back when I reviewed Caligula earlier this month, I had bestowed upon it the dubious honor of my #2 favorite bad movie.  In trying to find a single bad movie for the Thanksgiving turkey, no one title seemed to click.  So I figured now was as good a time as any to make good on the earlier mention of that list and give it a proper write-up here as a matter of record.

So yes, expect to see other potential 'top 5' lists of various and unusual choices in the future (no real significance on why 5, for the record.  I simply find it a nice round number to have enough time to give each a decent writeup without going overboard.)  But for now, as stated, this is for my five favorite bad movies - and I'm going to stress that label just so we're clear.  These aren't the films I consider the absolute worst ever made (if such a list is ever compiled, you can look forward to it being riddled with rage and profanity), this is those bad movies that I love because they're crap.  Those movies that are just such complete messes at what they're trying to do that they win me over in spite of myself.  Cause if there's one thing I've come to learn about people, everyone has at least one.

Also, in a break from my usual use of the 'top 5' (as I've done with year-end lists) this particular list actually does have a ranked order...and we'll be counting up to #1 at the very end.

With that, in the immortal words of those great connoisseurs of bad cinema: WE'VE GOT MOVIE SIIIIIIIIGN

Despite what popular fiction would lead you to believe of their ways, most duels between wizards usually just amount to overglorified rounds of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

5. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings

OK, this one's actually kind of an odd pick for me, because honestly, there are some bits of this I think are actually good.  I like the fact the writing makes Frodo a bit more proactive than either of the other two adaptations, for one.  Likewise, I like some of the choices in voice casting (John Hurt as Aragorn, Michael Graham Cox as Boromir, and Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum.  The latter two then going on to replay the roles in the surprisingly good BBC radio dramas.)  I even find Leonard Rosenman's soundtrack decent (and I'll admit, I like some tracks enough they're in my playlist,) if not particularly iconic for the film.  So why is it on this list?  Because honestly, while I do like the parts this movie gets right...I also REALLY love some of the parts it gets wrong.  I do feel a little bad saying that now, knowing Bakshi did his best and, frankly, got pretty dicked by the studios...but still, intent can only do just so much to repair damages when everything's said and done.  Among some of the 'greatest' hits this film has, we have Aragorn's strangely native American appearance, Boromir's viking short-shorts, Merry and Pippin essentially being the same character with different hair color (both of whom effectively just walk right out of the movie,) and Sam.  Oh God, Sam gets it arguably the hardest out of anyone in this movie, with only one person coming close.  Between his awkward character design and voice acting, Samwise comes across as a sort of mix of bucktoothed bumpkin and cartoonishly effeminate.  Now, the bumpkin part could kind of work if they'd played it in moderation...but as this movie does it, he becomes a painful/comical carictature that makes me kind of glad the sequel never happened, if only cause I have a hard time picturing this version of Samwise getting the spine to do what the third book called for.
But without going too much on that part, the other thing this film has going for/against it is the fact it marks a transition in Bakshi's experiments with rotoscope.  Between the looser style of 1977's Wizards and the more detailed followup in 1983's Fire and Ice, this film seems to be a first attempt at trying to get a more realistic style.  It sometimes works...sometimes.  The two biggest examples otherwise are in the films various battle scenes, which often look only partially animated (I have to admit, this effect does sometimes look pretty good on the orcs and ringwraiths, even if the orc costumes prove somewhat limited as the movie goes on) and in some of the extraneous motions of the main cast.  Gandalf in particular feels like a case of the movie just trying to flex its muscles as best as possible, resulting in probably my personal favorite of the bad elements of this movie - in trying to keep things constantly moving and thus get more realistic motion from the film, Gandalf wildly gesticulates through most of his scenes, becoming one of the few times an animated character can be accused of overacting.  Looking at him, I just hear the famous MST3k riff: "Gah!  Flying elves are back!"

So yeah, this film is one I'm on a line with.  Officially, I will file it as a guilty pleasure as an overall movie...but the areas where it fumbles, it fumbles in such an entertaining and prominent factor I don't mind also giving it the #5 slot on this list.

For the person who thinks 'You know, just stabbing someone in the head is boring.  How can I make them even more dead?'

4. M.D. Geist

This is one of those where I had to come around on it.  The first time I saw it, I thought it was just absolute shit (I'm gonna partially blame this on the fact it had the sequel DEATH FORCE as a chaser.  That one I honestly do still think is just bad.)  On rewatching this one, I've come to really enjoy how completely insane it is, especially for Ohata's directorial debut.  The simplicity is part of what really helps it for me.  It really doesn't do to focus on plot and characters because they're prettymuch nonexistent here.  This is a full-on floorshow of over the top carnage by a director who, by his own admission, was just showing off on his first time out.  The end result is a surprisingly entertaining mess where people don't just kill, they go for the most ridiculously showy kills they possibly can.  The whole thing moves as a bizarre 45 minute morass of assorted grim sci-fi cliches strung together by a sociopathic main character that, in other hands, would feel like a parody of the classic action movie hero.  The fact he's played straight here just adds to the sick amusement, really.  Like the above, it actually does have a couple of legitimately good points to it as well, admittedly - Ohata's got a visual eye, and his action scenes certainly show it.  Likewise, his mechanical design blends well with his animation style (for the most part, like I'd said the last time I wrote on this, a few scenes have not aged well.)  Those elements aside though, this film is just series of cool over-the-top action scenes held together by a laughably flimsy pretext...and damned if I don't love the utter mess that it is.  The amusement actually seems to be added to by the meta reasons the movie is so largely hated - that its presence in the west is largely propped up by Central Park Media president John O'Donnel, who legitimately loves the movie, and tries to pass it off as a high concept science fiction piece.  This, in turn, just makes the grand guignol of cyberpunk wasteland shenanigans it actually is THAT much funnier for me than it really should be.  Throw in an English dub that has not only aged badly, but was already pretty bad to begin with on top of this, and the whole already enjoyable mess becomes even more entertaining. 

It's also worth noting, this was one of the first movies I bought a hard copy of for what's slowly becoming my 'Vault of Shame' subcollection of enjoyably bad cinema.  So it has a sort of sick place in my heart as crap goes.

Really now, was there any doubt what scene would be sampled here?  Really?

3. The Room

Yes, the legend itself, and no, it's not my #1, though not for lack of trying.  I certainly enjoy the absolute clusterfuck of a movie, and I can see why it's become as popular as it has - between its meandering script with some amazingly bad dialogue, its hilarious acting, and some wonderfully blatant use of a green screen, this is one of the all time great pinata movies.  It's both one of the film's best strengths and part of why I can only call it #3 on this list - it's a movie I simply can't watch on my own.  I need to be watching it with a group, and all of us viciously beating the everloving Hell out of it to properly enjoy this movie.  Of course, with a full group...that's when the magic comes alive.  Tommy Wiseau's drama (no, I don't buy his claims that it was always meant to be a comedy) is a wonderful shitshow of bizarre characters, awkward plot twists, a random case of cancer, and some of the worst love scenes I've ever seen in a film, all orbiting around the film's seemingly saintly protagonist Johnny (played by Wiseau.)  That Johnny occasionally says some downright stupefyingly odd lines of dialogue with Wiseau's own very odd delivery, makes the fact he's one of the most normal people (relatively speaking) in the insanity.  Whether it's his love interest (Juliette Danielle) slowly turning into a sociopath, his young quasi-ward (Phillip Haldiman) who has some downright disturbing issues with personal space, or his girlfriend's mother (Carolyn Minnott) who randomly drops a bombshell about cancer that is subsequently forgotten by the movie, but almost never by the viewers riffing the Hell out of it.  It's a film that has a lot to offer in terms of things to roast, and unlike the last two, there's nothing that can really be said to be legitimately good for it.  Which is part of the fun in a weird way - you don't really feel that bad giving a movie of this quality both barrels in the face, because it's not just a mistake, it's an abortion.  Which makes it also pretty damn entertaining that this abortion status is why people love it so much now. 

Really, half the fun of this movie for me is in the experience it provides.  I've been to several midnight showings of the film to this point, including one where Wiseau himself made an appearance, and each time was entertaining, but themselves a different experience than the last.  It really is the kind of film that no text can properly describe if you haven't seen it yourself.  It simply has to be experienced to truly appreciate both how terrible it is and just how fun it is as a result.

Likewise, this almost felt like a no-brainer.  When you can stand out in a film like this, THAT says you've arrived as a scene.

2. Caligula

This now makes twice in under a month I've invoked this film.  I think we can now agree there's something seriously wrong with me.  As it was the film that first set this list into motion, however, I suppose I can't simply just write it off and move on to number one, much as that would please my inner sense of sloth.  So I'll try and just sum up the points again to keep this brief for those who already lead the last review.  Like M.D. Geist, this was a film I really had to come around on (and I would like to take a moment to thank and curse Brad Jones, whose hour long review for this movie inspired me to give it a rewatch years later cause I had forgotten a lot of the crazy before.)  On the rewatch, and reading up on some of the backstory, I found myself face to face with the porn version of Heaven's Gate - an epic of behind the scenes power struggles and studio chicanery and onscreen over-the-top madness, in this case replacing western spectacle with high camp and period porno.  Looking back, there are two big things that make this movie worth it for me.  The first is Peter O'Toole's downright cracked out (to use the technical term) turn as diseased and dying emperor Tiberius.  Screaming and at times incoherent, O'Toole almost seems to be having fun with the overacting...or, as some speculate, he's just absolutely shitfaced.  Either way, it's something else to watch.  The other big draw is McDowell himself, also flexing his crazy as the titular emperor who takes power and turns Rome into a sex and slaughther sideshow.  Under the often campy reign of McDowell's Caligula, Rome becomes a cyclone of orgies and ridiculously over the top things like a five-story tall head mower that I'd feel confident in saying probably didn't turn up on History Channel at any point.  It's a warped and wild movie that, at one point, almost took itself seriously...and then, several shifts later, turned into a bizarre porn-comedy with an astonishingly high profile cast.  There's just something about the whole experience that it feels like we'll never see something like it happen again.

I can't tell if I'm more fascinated with all the behind the scenes material here, or the absolute flaming wreck the film became as a result.  In either case, I've come around a LOT on this one.  Like, I'm seriously contemplating trying to find a copy of the movie on the cheap just for all of the extras (especially after hearing about McDowell being on commentary for one release.)  If anything comes of that, damned if I know...but in the meantime, this is pretty safe in its current position among my favorites.

But for all of its attempts at craziness, it still only comes in second for me to...

...there's really nothing else that can be said for this image.

1. Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned

Before I go into explaining this film to anyone who hasn't seen it, I want to show you all something.



(If this clip is, at any point, pulled down, let me know.  I will personally replace it.)

Why am I showing you this now?  Because I want to start by saying THIS is the scene that first hooked me into this one.  I first learned about this movie at a presentation on bad anime at a con.  There, the movie has gained some of a following that has resulted in it returning several times (and one year even becoming the sole focus of the panel.)

For those of you playing at home, however, let me try and break this down.  This movie is quite possibly one of the finest cases of adaptation telephone I've ever seen.  We start in 1897 with Bram Stoker's classic British novel, Dracula.  Flash forward to the 1970s, when Marv Wolfman adapts elements of the story to make the 'Tomb of Dracula' series for Marvel Comics (for an additional bit of trivia, this run was where the character Blade first came from.)  Then, in 1980, animation studio Toei did their own loose adaptation of the comics to play on Japanese TV as a movie.  This movie was then eventually brought over to the US by licensors Harmony Gold (largely known for their work on Robotech.)  Under them, an already pretty messed up movie got a laughably bad rescript that elevated it from a mess to a FLAMING WRECK OF A MESS.  This sometimes rushing, sometimes meandering story includes, among other things:
-Dracula bilking Satanists and getting a wife and kid out of the deal
-Said Satanists trying to summon the Devil with a star of David
-The most inept team of vampire hunters I've seen in a film in a long time
-Dramatic eye gleams.  DRAMATIC EYE GLEAMS EVERYWHERE.
-Dracula patterning his attacks in a shape similar to the Batman symbol
-A grown man being assaulted by another man in a wheelchair
-A dog trained to sniff evil, WHOSE EYE ALSO GLEAMS
and
-Dracula eating burgers.

The sad part is, actually trying to explain all of this in a straight synopsis wouldn't make a whole lot of sense.  In fact, there's a lot more craziness that goes down along with all of what I've listed.  This is part of why I just showed the wheelchair fight clip to start this.  Because really, like The Room, text can't properly do this one justice.  It simply has to be seen to be watched.  Also, the fact it's in a licensing black hole leaves me willing to say this - don't feel bad if you have to pirate this one.  If you can even find a legitimate copy, I'll be floored (personally, the only reason I own a hard copy is because I loved this mess enough to buy a bootleg of it.  THAT is how seriously I like this steaming pile.)  This is one of those movies I can put on whenever I want a laugh and be sure I'll walk away with several.  Additionally, I've also made it a point to spread the madness for others to enjoy.  More than any, THIS is my bad movie of choice, and hopefully I've gotten some of you interested enough to give it a watch when you can.

Until such a time, however, be sure to come back next time when we'll have some more straight up reviews for you, including getting to a theater again over the weekend.

...and yes, once again, these lists will become recurring in the future.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Shaking Off the Tryptophane Hangover

...and mining into the stuff I learned in college.  Blasted professors were right, I WOULD use this stuff later in life!

OK, I know I actually promised some turkey yesterday. However, this was before I consumed some turkey myself.  The later part of yesterday for me was lost in a haze of tryptophane and MST3k episodes...which, while centered around some cinematic turkeys, aren't quite the same thing.

So we'll be coming back to that this weekend (in part because the idea I'd had for this is taking a knock to my own weird sense of motivation.)  Until then, we've had one more go at something currently in theaters before I go back to whatever surprises and horrors I can find by fishing at random.

Well...something somewhat in theaters.  One of the advantages of being able to get access to an arthouse theater is access to limited releases.  Of course, this isn't to guarantee everything you see there is going to be top-notch.  Not that this was a bad film, but rather more of a let-down.

I believe Nicolas Cage said it best when he said,
"Good work, Ass-Kick!"

Having the access to check it out, and because my inner English major likes taking on a challenge from time to time, recently got to seeing Joe Wright's adaptation of Tolstoy's rather massive Anna Karenina.  The overall experience is a curious one, really.  Ambitious, and strong in certain areas, but with some shortcomings that somewhat hold the film back from really going above and beyond.

In discussing its strengths, I think one of the first to discuss here would be Wright's decision on how to frame the movie.  Much of the work on the sets is designed to look like a stage production.  By this I don't mean that it simply feels like watching a filmed version of a stage production - the stage itself is a part of the movie, and the camera follows people through the sets as well.  This rule is established early on when we see characters dodging people 'behind the scenes' as they move to the next room.  Rather than feeling like simply a gimmick, the effect is actually quite well executed and really does give an extra bit of immersion to the film.  Further this is added to by the fact that it really seems most prominent in scenes of Russian society.  Sequences outside of the social rules, such as train stations and fields, feel much more natural and carry less of the feeling of a staged drama.  It makes for a curious message about the world the novel takes place in and what this says about the people within it, who must put aside their emotions to adhere to whatever rules and roles society places on them.  The overall effect is probably one of the most commendable elements of this adaptation - it's an ambitious move, and Wright handles it well without it feeling overdone.

...I have to admit I feel kind of bad trimming this one down on you guys.  Even for the 'stage' parts, some of the sets are turned up to 11 in a good way.

The other area where this film carries itself well overall is the casting.  While the acting does partially lend into a grievance I'll go into later, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't still quite impressed with the performances everyone turned in on this film in general.  In the title role, Keira Knightley slips in a couple of moments, but largely holds together in the role of the woman who rolls the dice by acting on her feelings and loses everything as a result.  The curious part is the fact that I honestly feel like her performance is strongest in the later half of the movie, when Anna's life is circling the drain as news of her affair is made public.  I mean, Knightley handles the nicer nuances of Anna's life well enough, but it isn't until she sees everything crumbling before her that she really seems to start bringing an A-game to the role.  In particular, the scenes she has leading up to the book's fateful finale are where she proves she got the role for more than just being a pretty face.  The sense of despair she shows is a far shift from the OK performance she has in the first act.  Thankfully, the rest of the key players also bring the big guns to their performances as well.  As Anna's husband, Aleksei Karenin, Jude Law becomes something of the thankless representative of what Russian society expects - his emotions all kept restrained as he maintains a stoic front, even in the face of his wife's infidelity.  For being the one expected to hold himself at all times, Law still plays the hurt anger Aleksei has to bite back well, and, while we want to side with Anna as the protagonist, it's hard not to feel bad for this man who's as much a victim of the social order as she is. Regarding the other main cast member,  I was rather surprised by seeing Aaron Johnson in the role of the movie's 'other man', Count Vronsky.  As someone who I had still largely remembered for his role as the somewhat luckless would-be superhero Kick-Ass, his turn here was an unexpected, but welcome bid to show he's got range as an actor.  The result, admittedly, is a bit of a mixed bag. To be fair, however, part of that's on the writing in this case.  Johnson does seem like he's trying at points, but because Vronsky is largely just 'the other man' here, it seems like he has the dubious honor of playing a plot device rather than an actual character, and his output unfortunately shows this.  The other two major standouts coming to mind, and the two who bring the most heart to the film, are Domnhall Gleeson and Matthew MacFadyen as working-class man Levin and Anna's brother Oblonsky respectively.  Appropriately, both seem to serve as counterpoints to Anna to degrees - Gleeson's Levin is a man who chooses to eschew social expectations and still pursue love based on what his heart tells him, and after a rough road, does manage to win out.  While his arc is somewhat shaky on the writing, Gleeson's performance is sympathetic and seeing him weather the proverbial storm is the silver lining to the film's ultimately tragic finale.  As the other counter, MacFadyen's Oblonsky manages to walk the line between flawed and likable with ease.  The film begins with his own infidelity, where everyone, Anna included, tries to keep them together.  Alongside his own example showing the societal double-standard, MacFadyen really does make us care about this side character, despite his failings.  The movie doesn't try to make excuses for his actions, or absolve him for doing them, but at the same time, it, nor MacFadyen, try to villify the man.  For two characters whose roles are ultimately more symbolic, they still manage to make the people behind them feel human enough that one can't help but commend the film for realizing we still need to care about these people to further the point.

Seriously, it sounds wrong to say, but misery really DOES seem to be her best friend in this movie as far as performance goes.

Of course, the emotions are also part of the film's stumbling point, much as I hate to say it.  There is certainly some feeling here, as the discussion of the performances above shows, and when it's good, it's quite good.  Of course, there's the 'when it's good' qualifier to keep in mind on this one.   Despite some great performances, there still seems to be a sense of an emotional detachment in the film, particularly revolving around the affair between Anna and Vronsky.  Again, it's not as though their performances are bad, because they both make a game effort of it- In fact, their first interaction together is a dynamic dance between the two that catches the eye of the upper class and is a thrilling scene for the viewer.  Overall though, the script never really seems to give us a sense of the passion that's supposed to be between the two.  Were this one of the other dynamics within the film, I might not come down as hard on it as I do here, but given their relationship is central to the film, and the book it came from, this certainly does hurt.  Honestly, I feel like part of this is due to the script by Tom Stoppard, which feels strange to say here given the man has proven he can write film before this point.  In this case, however, I feel like, were I watching this particular script performed live on a stage, it may resonate more and carry more weight.  As it is in this case, however, while the film does at least make an effort of showing these two are interested in each other, it has a hard time really making us believe it is the act of passions that it should be.  Which, in turn, makes it harder for us to want to have sympathy for Anna's decision to act on her feelings when we're not really feeling them ourselves.  Which is a shame to say since, as stated above, otherwise the film really does carry itself quite well.  This really does seem to be the only prominent stumble the film takes, but sadly, given it's a major piece of the film, it's a hard one to look the other way on.

This dance scene is officially the classiest way in film I have yet seen someone convey the messages: "Even though you're/I'm married, I would hit it.  HARD"

The finished product here is a pretty curious film, and if nothing else, is worth giving a watch for the unique approach Wright and Stoppard take to looking at Tolstoy's classic.  The end product, while not as likely to be acclaimed as Wright's earlier works Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, or as involving as Hanna. Yet it is still an ambitious piece for the man and will be worth remembering as a highlight on his resume.  Though its fault is indeed one that can't be swept aside, it also doesn't simply cancel out the fact that the movie otherwise has many strong points going in its favor.  Rather, the result is a film that could have been great.  While it misses that mark, it's still quite a good attempt in its own right all the same.

...oh don't be like that Jude.  You did well, and no one's blaming you for the slips here.

Wow...got all quasi-intelllectual there.  What the Hell happened?

Anyway, the good news is, as promised, I'm gonna have some cutlets of turkey lined up for next time, which will also herald a new semi-recurring theme here.  Till later this weekend folks!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

James Bond will be back in...oh crap, he IS back!

Behold, the further responses to my getting my self-described punk-ass to the theaters more often this season - another writeup on something that's actually recent.  I promise, we will have some more weird shit lined up in the pipe soon.  We're trying to keep things diversified here, but even outside of that, I do love the weirdness from time to time.

That said, this one I actually saw prior to last entry's The Man With the Iron Fists.  At the same time, given Iron Fists had been out longer at that point, it made more sense to spread the word on that one a bit more, since it seemed to be the more likely to be out of theaters first.

Plus, the movie on which we're about to speak isn't gonna be in any real danger of falling through the cracks right now anyway.  In starting, I have to say I'm actually kind of surprised this film is proving the hit it is.  Sure, it's part of a big franchise, but even then prior to a few weeks ago, it didn't seem that hyped up.  Then strong advanced reviews seemed to really stroke the fire. Flashforward to now, where Skyfall opened to strong box office numbers and some glowing critical praise.  I have to say, for a film that almost didn't happen, it proved well worth the wait.  Before I go on though, I just want to say for the record, I did slightly miss them abandoning the idea established by the first two Daniel Craig entries of making this a direct continuation, doubly so since the last entry had put a lot out there to play with.  Further on that, while I admit it was disappointing, I didn't actually dislike Quantum of Solace as much as some do, and I was curious to see what would be done with the ideas it brought to the table, even for all of its shortcomings.  Shortcomings that, despite what many believed, weren't actually to blame for Skyfall's troubles getting to the screen.  While it received a mixed critical response after Casino Royale's strong arrival, QoS still managed to make a decent return at the box office for a Bond film.

On a bizarre side observation, the more I watch him, the more I feel like, in another ten years, Daniel Craig would be perfect for a Vladmir Putin biopic.  But that's a discussion for another time.

That said, for a standalone Bond movie, this still a surprisingly large story for the franchise - starting from a pretty fast-paced prologue which leaves Bond for dead to a very different face of MI-6 on his return.  Starting the film with Bond assumed dead is strangely fitting, given how long the question remained over whether this movie would even happen when MGM, the active rights holders, filed for bankruptcy.  That said, this different face is actually one of the areas where this film stands out in the franchise - a major theme in this entry is the notion of change, and the movie explores this on several levels.  In his third outing as Bond,
Craig handles it well on the personal level, as we see fairly early on that his time out of training has left him far from the cold, professional assassin we saw him grow into in Casino Royale.  In fact, he's actually something of a wreck in this movie.  He can still hold his own, but he's no longer the walking weapon he once was, and now has to try and get past his old demons to get into the game.  This take on Bond is actually perfect for him, really.  Craig nails the weariness that's hanging on the character in this movie perfectly.

Alcohol - The REAL secret to keeping calm and carrying on.

The external changes lie on much of the rest of the cast, who are certainly not slouching in their regards.  Following an attack on MI-6, a major plot of the movie involves the British government questioning the relevancy of the MI-6 style of espionage in an age of cyber terrorism and information warfare.  Caught up in the middle of this storm is Judi Dench returning for another tour of duty as M.  Here more than ever, the decision to carry Dench over from the Brosnan years to the Craig reboot feels perfect.  Just as the questions of whether or not MI-6 is still relevant are called into question, so too are M's qualities as a leader in this new age.  Despite being under questioning of the well-meaning, if not entirely agreeing Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes, who becomes a sort of middle ground between the 'old' and 'new' views as the film goes on,) Dench still maintains a strong demeanor, determined not to step down from her position quietly.  A scene where she speaks before the British government about her feelings on why MI-6 is necessary now more than ever is where Dench's subtle strength plays out clearest.  For all the entries in the franchise she's been attached to, this is easily her high note.

"You hear that?  That's the sound of all the fanfiction that's getting written up thanks to this scene.  Now THAT is cyberwarfare for you!"

That said, the one other performance that merits a lot of well-deserved praise comes in the film's villain, and the most direct face the film has on the 'new' era of espionage - cyberterrorist Rodrigo Silva (Javier Bardem.)  Going into the film, this was the one bit of casting I was most looking forward.  With his turn as the grim assassin Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, Bardem gave a genuinely chilling performance.  He felt less human, almost supernatural force of nature - someone who couldn't be reasoned with, bargained with, and definitely not intimidated.  As Silva, he hits a different sort of malevolence, but attacks it with just as much passion - where Chigurh is unsettling because of how detached he is, Silva is more outgoing and involved in his work.  For him, it's less a professional act, and more of a game, albeit one he plays for keeps.  He is gleefully proud of his work, and in particular the knowledge of what it's doing to his former mentor in M, and that is part of what makes him so genuinely disturbing.  His first scene in the film, in fact his first meeting with Bond, is where this is played the strongest.  He is reveling in his victories and is eager to start up the next stage of the game, rather amused with seeing how Bond himself has chosen to fall by the wayside. 

Looks legit to me, I don't know what all the security officers are talking about.

Again, the movie plays the 'old vs new theme' strongly, and actually benefits a lot from it - both within its own setting, and as a means of reconciling a franchise where several of the elements could be seen as out of date in the current day and age -a concept the movies have floated since Casino Royale, but never addressed head-on before.

That said, while I do still feel this is one of the franchise's strongest entries, it isn't without some of its drawbacks.  While Sam Mendes and his writing team (Robert Wade, John Logan, and Neal Purvis) have put together a strong entry to signal the franchise's return from almost death and reinjected it with a lot of life, his first entry out is also somewhat unwieldy at points.  For all the interesting ideas the movie plays in, the last act feels overly long and, despite an impressive final showdown, does drag on compared to the first two-thirds.  Additionally, if any of you out here are adherents to the theory that 'James Bond' is just a codename, let me just say this aforementioned third act MAY be something of a middle finger to you (albeit one that does provide some bonus in a great supporting role by Albert Finney.)  Further on the script, one of the main backbones of its story, the vendetta Silva bears towards M, feels rather underwhelming when everything is said and done.  For a connection that is supposed to be a major piece of what made Silva into the maniac he is when we see him, the movie glosses over much of any sense of a connection between the two.  In fact, the one time we actually get any real in depth  sense of their past together is a quick story from M before the plot moves forward again.  Were it not such a major part of the plot, I wouldn't mind this, but when his desire for revenge is the big part of what makes up the earlier mentioned third act, to have it feel so lacking is a bit surprising.  The other major issue I had with this film came with the film's female handling beyond Dench.  Now, I realize the 007 franchise isn't exactly the best place to be looking for strong female performances as a rule, but when the initial promotions showed us Naomie Harris as a fellow MI-6 agent, I had some pretty high expectations on where the role would go.  After seeing her in 28 Days Later, she had proven she had the chops to be a strong lead, and I looked forward to seeing what she could do in a role where the character's training would call for being able to hold her own.  Unfortunately, beyond the prologue, she is largely ignored, acting as an information source from time to time and largely just being around to set up a payoff at the end of the film.  Again, I realize that's a more personal expectations to a degree, but it genuinely felt like a waste here.

Seriously, I see promo stills like this and it's hard NOT to have that expectation built up.

In one last note, and one that you can't discuss Bond without going into, I have to say the titular theme song for this movie REALLY made up for last time.  Where QoS's theme was...honestly one of the weakest in the franchise, Adele's theme for Skyfall is well performed, memorable, and is shaping up to be one of the greats that we'll be remembering in years to come.  It actually even feels like she was a great choice for this one too.  The track both fits her style as well as getting the classic 'Bond theme' sound to it.  Again, like much of this movie, a great balance of old and new.

"For the last time, no gun till you say the magic word.  I KNOW M taught you the magic word, so just say it."

Overall, this is the way you return from the brink in film.  Even with its flaws, the film is still a Hell of a ride, and when it does something well, it does it VERY well.  Throw in the fact this movie is setting the groundwork to continue the franchise (alongside the earlier mentioned themes of changing with the times, this movie offers the offcial return of Q branch, with the role of the late Desmond Llewellyn now taken up by Ben Whishaw, further adding to the young face of information and technology.)  It's a curious mix of feeling like a final chapter and a new beginning all in one, and I hope this take on the series will be continued in the future.

...wow.  I didn't expect to get this into this one either, but there you have it.

Keep an eye out this week, we have another 'in theaters' entry lined up, and in honor of Thanksgiving, I'll even promise some turkey too.

...and yes, I spent the 'Will be back' joke at the start of this entry for a change.  I also actually used it in a case where it's appropriate for once.  Neither of these things will likely happen again.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

In which we--holy crap! It's something current!

Well, as I mentioned/warned (depending who you talk to) this week will be seeing a few entries.  The goal here is two-fold.  One part because I would like to get more work out where I can, the other part because I've actually been able to get my proverbial punk-ass to the movies at a decent rate this season.  So, alongside whatever I can pull from the vaults, yes, we'll actually be getting some more reviews for things currently in theaters up on here.

Which brings us to this week's entry.

...and I couldn't have asked for a better image pertaining to it to preface this one.

If there's one thing I've learned, it's that when a film's director is a hardcore fan, it can be a really dicey prospect.  Sometimes, they work well.  In other cases...well, there are certainly some directors who know their way around discussing a genre with the best of them, but their contributions leave something to be desired.  Ironically, the biggest example of this I can think of is actually also attached to this movie.

Thankfully, however, this one is one of the above-mentioned cases of it working well.  After years of being an outspoken fan of martial arts movies, Wu-Tang Clan alum RZA has finally made his own entry into the field with The Man With the Iron Fists.  (For those wondering, the example was referring to above was Eli Roth, who co-wrote this film with RZA.)

and who might be the Wolf Tribe member with his face obscured here...I know he was one of them, just not sure if he is for this shot or not.

Part of what makes this film work well, especially as a directorial debut, is the fact that it actually manages to carry both the elements of style of a lot of classic martial arts films. However, it still carries a lot of its own elements as well.  You immediately get a sense this will be something different in the movie's opening sequence (with, for a nice touch, credits in both Chinese and English) as two warrior tribes engage in a swift and brutal fight set to Wu-Tang Clan's 'Shame on a Nuh.'  As strange as it may sound on paper, the sequence is a fresh blast to watch play out, and really helps set the tone for a lot of the rest of the film.

Suffice it to say, this isn't a film people are going to for its deep and involving plot or characters.  In fact, the story takes something of a backseat in the long run.  There certainly is one, involving elements of revenge, betrayal, and a shipment of gold that gets waylaid in the war-riddled town of Jungle Village.  For the most part though, the movie is really moved along by its impressive action sequences and the larger than life characters that all get caught up in the chaos.

One example of a whole line of these promo posters they did for the cast on this film.  I have to admit, I kind of want to track these down.

...and yes, I did say earlier that the cast was not really deep or involving, they really aren't meant to be in the first place.  Regardless, they're still damned fun to watch, which really helps keep the movie lively, even between the action sequences.  It actually says something that it's hard to really pick any one person I can say stood out in this team over anyone else.  Among some of the examples of the people that all throw in for gold, revenge, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time we have:

-The Blacksmith (RZA now wearing a third hat on this production), an outsider in the village who is content to just run his smithy.  Of course, given he's the sole maker of weapons in the village, it's only a matter of time before he's getting pulled in, whether he wants it or not.
-The X-Blade (Rick Yune), the son of a clan leader that was betrayed and murdered.  He comes into the village seeking payback, and sporting a suit of knives (it's exactly what it sounds like) to help him get the job done
-Jack Knife (Russell Crowe, who certainly seems to be having fun with the role), a British officer with a love of booze and women who blows into Jungle Village seemingly just looking for a good time.  His skills and curiosity, however, suggest he has more than just casual tourism in mind.
-Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu), a brothel madam who, like Jack, certainly has much more on the table than casual prostitution shenanigans.
-Silver Lion (Byron Mann), the man who killed the X-Blade's father and who is now plotting with the mysterious Poison Dagger (Daniel Wu) to take over the Village and the gold.
and
-Brass Body (David Bautista), an assassin part of a presumed dead tribe whose abilities render his body...well, as his name suggests, he's almost literally a walking tank.

With these players and gold in the mix, saying 'All Hell breaks loose' is a gross understatement. 

In fact, if it DIDN'T break loose, I'd be wondering what the Hell happened to this movie.

Between some amusing dialogue, RZA's first time direction, and editing by Joe D'Augustine, the film flies along at a surprisingly brisk pace.  Even in the downtime between fights, things don't really feel like they're just dragging to get to the next fight.  Though the fights ARE still quite impressive, as even the throwdowns between the proverbial faceless minions are still done with a high level of energy and choreography that makes them a blast to watch.  In particular, the film's three-part final showdown, which leads me to invoke a phrase I'm usually loath to apply for how rarely it seems accurate, feels almost like something from a live-action anime (because really, there is no other phrase that can really describe it for me there.)

This film probably won't wind up coming up around awards season.  In fact, I'm not sure it's even going to make my own top 5 this year.  That said however, DAMN, this was a fun movie.  It knows what it wants to be and doesn't try to fool you otherwise - you go in with the promise of an over-the-top insane kung-fu throwdown, and the film delivers on that with a vengeance.  With this as his first effort, I'm genuinely interested to see what RZA may have lined up for future projects after this.

Also, this movie marks the beginning of Russell Crowe's invoking the South Park plan this season
Makin' movies
Makin' songs
AND FOIGHTIN' ROUND THE WOOOORLD!

Till this Friday, where the momentum keeps going for good or ill.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Weekends? Foolishness!

and by that I mean this week's entry got a bit held up.  Chalk it up to scheduling and a testy DVD player.  Both of which have since been sorted out.

With that, let's skip the preamble and get to the feature, shall we?



Remember how I commented back in October that I was astounded it had taken me this long to review anything by Cronenberg? Well, it seems I'm taking myself to task on it again, this time with a full review.

I'm gonna be honest.  There's not a lot of screencaps on this one...not so much because I was lazy, but with the way this film was set up and its subject matter, I walked away with a sense of "...how do I riff some of this in good conscience and have it actually make sense?"
So you'll have to bear with me on that one guys, sorry.


Admittedly, this was one I found somewhat by accident going through his filmography, and one I was kind of surprised to learn about in the first place. As his later offerings go, this film seems to have been almost off the radar, having come right before he jumped back into the limelight with A History of Violence.
So, driven by the director name and an interesting summary, I opted to check out his 2002 psychological thriller Spider.
Before I go into this, let me just say that the more I've watched, the more I've really grown to love Cronenberg's films. The man is one of my favorite directors, and the more I look at his work, the more respect I have for it. In fact, it's safe to say, some of his other titles will likely turn up here in time.
That said, it's with this in mind I have to say I'm really surprised that, even among his films, this one doesn't seem to come up that much. Also something of a shame too. While it isn't as massive a hit as later offerings like AHoV and Eastern Promises, nor is it as iconic and biologically repulsive/engrossing as the likes of Videodrome or The Fly, it's still a rather strong film on its own merits.
It's also rather striking for the fact that this was definitely not a career piece for a paycheck in the strictest sense for several of the key players. Based on a novel by author Patrick McGrath, who also wrote the screenplay, this film was fairly low budget in its production. So much so that, to pay for its production, Cronenberg, cast members Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, and the film's producers all declined to take a paycheck for this movie, instead giving the money that would make up their checks to help fund the production. It really hits home as to how committed these people were to making this project a reality. It's a labor of love, in the sort of wonderfully disturbed way that only a Cronenberg movie could be.
In particular, this love really shines through in the work Fiennes does for the movie. As the film's title character (his real name is Dennis Cleg, nicknamed 'Spider' by his mother,) Fiennes plays disturbed quite well. Traumatized by a childhood event, the adult Dennis, now a schizophrenic, has taken up residence at a halfway house for mentally disturbed people run by the harsh Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), who finds her patience tested by her boarders in varying degrees. During his stay, he revisits his past - from his stay at the asylum, to his childhood, most notably his upbringing with his parents (Richardson and Gabriel Byrne) and the traumatic event that resulted in his illness. One of the interesting touches that results from this lies in the way the film handles the transitions to the past. There is no 'flashback' tell we have to let us know when things are changed. Nor does Spider vanish during flashbacks. Instead, we see him, often looking through windows, or sitting in the background, as much a powerless witness to the events unfolding as we are.
In some ways, this may be part of why this performance doesn't net Fiennes as much acclaim as some of his other roles do. To invoke the infamous 'Tropic Thunder' rule, his turn as Cleg goes full retard - in the best sense of the word possible. This is not a comfortable, nor audience friendly depiction of a mentally ill man. In fact, even as I speak well of it, I'll be the first to admit, there are times it feels honestly uncomfortable watching him in this movie.  Which, in a way, I'd consider a strength for him, doubly so given this was a project he felt strongly enough about to do gratis. His genuine interest in the project means he has no reservation with trying to pull punches in his depiction of how genuinely disturbed Dennis is as an adult. The result is as sympathetic as it is disturbing to watch, and it really makes for one of the strongest points of this movie.
For the record, the rest of the cast are certainly strong in this as well. Richardson plays double-duty in the flashbacks and alternates between the two personas quite well, and Byrne's turn as Bill Cleg is, while certainly coming across as something of a bastard, is still handled in a fairly believable light, rather than just being an out and out monster. In the present, we see Redgrave's Wilkinson as someone who, despite being seen as a tyrant by her boarders, actually still comes across as reasonable, if somewhat short-tempered at times (though given what she deals with, it's hard for us as the audience to hold it against her.) The other  strong offering comes from Bradley Hall, who appears first in flashbacks and later in a mix of flashback and hallucination as the young Dennis. While he certainly doesn't have to contend with playing the degree of mental unrest Fiennes has in his favor, the events of the past he has to contend with still resulted in some strong moments for a child actor.
McGrath's script works surprisingly well with Cronenberg's direction. Making the most of their unreliable narrator, the two create a genuinely disturbing air of uncertainty in the chain of events as they unfold. The past and the present are seamlessly blended into one another, and hallucinations effortlessly shift in and out of Spider's world with no one else the wiser, and he, once again, powerless to stop them. The effect is altogether disorienting at points, but given its intent, quite effective. An effect made even more potent as the movie goes on, and even the past events become less certain to us.
Weird as this may sound, the overall feel of the film is kind of strange. On the one hand, it's very much a classic Cronenberg story - delving into the more twisted aspects of people, in this case through the psychology. On the other, the idea of the uncertain narrative still feels a bit unusual for him, though he did previously also work with it some on eXistenZ. I have to say, while that film was decent, I think it actually worked better in this go, both in terms of its execution and in its role in the greater narrative.
Overall, I'm not sure I can say this one's really going to be remembered at the same level of some of his classics. It's certainly a great entry for him, but in terms of Cronenberg's crown jewels (the likes of which include Videodrome, Dead Ringers, and AHoV,) this isn't one that really makes such a strong impression to have that impact. Despite that, however, it's still a strong entry all its own, as one of the films that marks the transition into Cronenberg's current style. Well directed and acted, if a bit of a puzzle on the first watch, the film's style (helped along by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky) make the film both grimly oppressive and also that much more compelling. If you're a fan of Cronenberg's work that missed this one, or just interested in seeing a unique psychological thriller and probably one of the better performances of Ralph Fiennes's career, then by all means, give this one a go and see what you think of it.
With that, let me just say, we've got a few titles lined up within the next couple of weeks (that's right, those of you groaning out there, we'll be doing these on more than just the weekends now!)
Keep an eye out, and hopefully will see you here!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Now that we're back, some old-fashioned filth


 Well, it's only been three days, but welcome back to the Third Row. As I said last time, we're back to the single long-form reviews for now, so I hope you guys like this one.

That said, in the interest of shamelessly exploiting holidays, this entry is partially inspired by the calendar-in that I wanted to try and find something for Election Day next week.

Of course, for the sake of fair play (I've made my choice, but frankly, there's enough shitstorms brewing on the web without my stoking the fires) I tried to find something relevant, yet apolitical.

Bad taste eventually won out and I decided to salute the potential outcomes we're facing with a salute to one of the most downright insane leaders in known history, as well as one of the most fascinating trainwrecks in film history.

I DID promise you guys filth, after all...

That's right. In honor of our electoral process, the Third Row will be saluting one of history's first insane leaders by reviewing Tinto Brass's sex and sandals insanity 'Caligula' (unrated edition, for the completionists out there.)

Now, for any readers out there unfamiliar with the history that inspired this movie, let me try and sum this up as follows:

Third Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. Grew up under Tiberius (who was himself pretty downright insane/perverted, but that's another matter.)
Tiberius died under dubious circumstances and Caligula took power.
For a time, people hailed him as a breath of fresh air after Tiberius's general insanity and paranoia...
...then things started going south.
Caligula's life was a bizarre array of sex, incest, and insanity. Many people are familiar with the story of him making a horse into a senator, but compared to some of the rest of his actions (some of which, surprisingly, this film left out) that's actually a quaint use of his madness. He essentially took Rome to the cleaners in his madness and was eventually assassinated for it.

To the horse's credit, Incitatus may have been one of the few people in Caligula's court who didn't sleep their way into the position...
...we think.

Several centuries later, famous writer Gore Vidal, working from a planned television miniseries by acclaimed director Roberto Rossellini, worked on a script to adapt the fabled insane emperor's life for the big screen. With the assistance of Penthouse mogul Bob Guccione as a producer, the two set to work to bring the film to the big screen. What followed was a bizarre game of cinematic musical chairs which saw multiple directors before settling on Italian Tinto Brass (prior to him, John Huston and Lina Wertmuller each were on deck to helm it.)

I can't help but suspect John Gielgud's 'Fuck this, I'm out' face here might not have been entirely a product of acting.

From there, the film went through a LOT of control issues, which I won't go into full details on because background is going long enough as it is...the primary contenders being Vidal, Guccione, Brass, and lead actor Malcolm McDowell all jockeying for their say in the script (Vidal would eventually disown the film and have his name removed from the credits.)

The finished film is what we're here to discuss, so I'll try to ease off of the behind the scenes shenanigans for now.  Understand in advance though that I promise nothing.

With a background like what I just described though, you can probably get something of an idea where this is going. In the nicest words, the film is a mess. A full on multi-car pileup, the likes of which makes the famous chase in 'The Blues Brothers' look like a minor fender bender. This is a massive mixup of ideas that, on paper, seemed like genuinely good ideas that all came together into a sort of cinematic Frankenstein's monster.

In a lot of ways, it actually feels like 'Heaven's Gate'. For as much of a mess as this turned into, it honestly feels like it could have been a really great movie.

The history of Caligula, for one, could potentially make a fascinating study in power and madness. The cast is impressive; alongside McDowell, the cast includes the likes of a young Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud in a small role. Even Guccione, despite his being part of the film's upped random sex scenes, seemed like he was interested in trying to make this into a legitimately good film. Unlike 'Heaven's Gate', however, this didn't just go wrong in the sense that things didn't really gel. This went wrong in the sense that those good pieces all skew sharply in how they go wrong.

Helen Mirren sees into the future here, and is relieved to find out she'll be getting out of this just fine.

In particular, the cast, as impressive as they look on paper, can't even save themselves on this one, much less the movie. While Mirren admittedly isn't too bad (and on a side note, I have to admit, she looked pretty damn good back then) her role is also somewhat downplayed, as is Gielgud who is gone from the movie early on. Meanwhile, O'Toole's performance is a mixed bag of madness. As an aging and diseased Tiberius, I can't really say O'Toole's bringing his a-game to this role. On the other hand, the insane and almost campy way he plays the ailing emperor is so over the top I find my disappointment replaced by an almost gleeful enjoyment at his screaming madness (some have speculated he may have done some of these scenes half in the bag...much as I hate to say it, they may be on to something.)

 Pictured here sporting what comedian/reviewer Brad Jones has coined 'The Drunk Face'...
...and then he turns on 'Screaming Crazy' mode.

Meanwhile, as the lead, McDowell actually does manage to do well in a few scenes. I mean, I was kind of surprised at first. It was a reminder that, in his younger years, he was actually showing a lot of potential to be a big name. After his work on the movies 'If' and 'A Clockwork Orange', he was coming across as an actor to beat, and even at points in this film, that talent shows through. At other times, however, he joins O'Toole in the high camp and hystrionics, strutting around and screaming over the top (in one scene where he accuses someone of accusing him, he culminates in a scream of "THAT IS LOGIC!" that send me into fits of laughter every time.)

 One of his better moments here...actually, it feels weird to say some of his best moments acting-wise are largely tied into the incest parts of the movie.
...and then it turns into a Monty Python sketch.

Of course, the actors are still only able to do as well as the script and direction let them, and in a film like this, the writing and directing are as useful as trying to staunch bleeding with a chainsaw. For one, Vidal's script is subject to a LOT of reworking, by the above mentioned three contenders of Guccione, Brass, and McDowell. So much so that, as far as Vidal is concerned, it's no longer his work. In this regard, I am actually rather curious to read his original script and see how it differs (all I can tell from what I've found on the film so far is that Brass himself had no love for it commenting that if he was ever really mad at Vidal, he'd publish the original script to get back at him. Given the film Brass gave us, I'm not gonna take this as a condemnation just yet.) Whether as a result of the constant rewrites, or just from one guilty party somewhere in the midst of things, the campy element is pretty spurred on by some of the choice lines the actors get to give. Likewise, the directing doesn't help things. While I do give Guccione some slack reading more about the project, I can't say he didn't have his share of blame in the project - for one, many of the film's somewhat random sex scenes are a result of his backing. While some at least makes sense given Caligula's own bizarre history, as well as Rome's general attitudes towards sex, there are some scenes where it simply feels overboard-Most notably in the case of a recurring lesbian couple who randomly spy on events or in one scene urinate over a character who's just been executed. I never thought I'd see the day I typed out that with a straight face, but that's really the kind of film this gets into. After a while, the oddities just feel commonplace. A sentiment that actually is best summed up in a scene where Caligula himself starts taking a leak in the middle of talking with someone else. Why? No real reason. It just is.

That said, I do at least give him some points for the "Yeah, I know it makes no sense, I don't care!" expression he's sporting here.

Of course, as discussing the film's use of sex goes, there's two scenes that inevitably have to get discussed in passing in the movie, simply because they're two of the film's most well known sequences (well...these and the headmower. I'll get back to that, I promise.) First, and less odd, we have the orgy scene that makes the climax of the movie...no pun intended. As the turning point where Caligula's subordinates decided he completely lost it, this is kind of a mix of crucial scene and somewhat superfluous sex. Now, I realize it seems kind of weird to call out THIS scene in this 2 and a half hour film for having random sex, doubly so since the context of said sex is at least plot relevant...but it really does drag down the scene after a while. Especially after a while when we're supposed to focus on Caligula's madness...and they keep intercutting it to a blowjob. Seriously, it's a back and forth to the same blowjob...madness, blowjob, madness, blowjob, and so on...

For lack of a worksafe screencap of said orgy onhand (or at least one that wouldn't look awkward censored at this resolution) please enjoy this bit of foreshadowing for the next part of the review - as it seems to say 'Guess where THIS is going next!'

The other scene...well...anyone with a passing familiarity already knows where this is headed, so let's get the screencap out of the way.

In widest gash
In tightest ass
No orifice will escape his pass
Let those whose cheeks don't clench en masse
Beware the fist
of Caligula's wrath!

(...yeah, I'm not proud of what I do here sometimes.  With some apologies to DC here, largely in hopes they don't sue.)

That's right. For anyone who hasn't seen this yet, the unrated version includes a scene where Malcolm McDowell fists a guy. Again, one of those moments that dances between relevant as a means of highlighting Caligula's increasing insanity, and adding a sense of "...you're serious?" (Made even moreso when this was apparently deemed the more acceptable alternative to the original version where allegedly Caligula was actually supposed to rape the man in question. McDowell wouldn't do that, but was apparently fine with his character ramming a fist in there instead.)

Also, while not sex...yeah, since I promised it, behold the headmower. BEHOLD!

...so, if I were to make a Motel Hell joke right here, how many of you would get it?  Be honest with me.

Actually, this is a great demonstration of part of why I can't bring myself to really hate this movie. I can't really say I'd call it a good movie. Alongside the grievances listed above, the film is also a mess awkward edits and re-edits, including at least one sequence in the beginning which was clearly cut out of order and makes no attempt to actually hide the fact it was shoddily put together. But despite that, the movie has a certain warped fascination. Even with all the power struggles going on behind the scenes, the film still managed to keep itself on track enough to pull off some downright insane manners of spectacle generally reserved for big budget epics (appropriately, parts of the film were apparently shot in the same studio used for the previous high-budget megabomb Cleopatra.) That above headmower, for example, as a completed prop was 5 stories tall...for a scene that isn't even 10 minutes long. To put that in context, the above mentioned orgy where Caligula pimps out the senators' wives lasted longer (THAT sequence is a good 10 minutes.  I went back and clocked it to be sure.) This is just one example of things too. I mean, alongside that, scenes like the list of sexual freaks on Tiberius's isle of Capri, and the over-the-top spectacle as Caesonia gives birth to Caligula's child are just done with the right level of borderline insane earnestness that I can't even really bear the filmmakers ill will. Everything about this movie and its erratic production have a sort of bizarre je ne sais quois. So for a film that, for all intents and purposes I should likely hate, I have developed a warped sort of respect for...to the point I'm even considering tracking down the special edition of the movie so I can check out all the behind the scenes info on it.

The above-mentioned childbirth.  Cause every kid should enter the world to a Vegas stage show.

I almost feel like calling this a case of cinematic Stockholm Syndrome. I mean, simply put on its own merits, this is a terrible movie. The script is a clusterfuck (to use the technical term) the cast are almost at 60s Batman levels of camp at times, the direction is scattershot and consequently any message the project may have started with is summarily kneecapped from the film's upped bid for greater sex appeal, and the editing is...well, for the caliber of people this film landed, the fact the editing was as bad as it is is almost astonishing. I have to wonder how often this title turns up on the fan-edit circuits to see if anyone's tried to recut things into more of a sense of how they were initially lined up. Despite all these faults, I can't bring myself to dislike the film half as much as I should. I can't even entirely chalk all of it up to 'so bad it's good' syndrome. The film certainly has parts that are like that, don't get me wrong (again, pretty much any scene with O'Toole is a scream,) but there's also stretches that don't really even seem to hit that level of goofiness. For those parts, it's more just a strange fascination with the film. It's like a mix of studying a medical oddity and taking in the lost potential all in one. This was the bizarre trainwreck I almost expected with 'Heaven's Gate' in a way. Even now I'm still trying to make sense of how I came to this point...Hell, we may eventually revisit this one some time a ways off.

Guido Mannari's almost constant 'What have I gotten myself into?' expression throughout the film is actually a pretty good representation of how I feel about this as I write about it.  It's a curious and somewhat alarming feeling like that.

In the meantime, it's safe to say at least for now this film has probably secured itself at least a spot on my list of favorite bad movies. I can't say it's supplanted my personal favorite there (which we may discuss sometime in the future), but damn, it's made a strong bid for itself in the meantime, and right now is a pretty safe #2 on the list.

Whew! I forgot how those brief writeups kind of spoil me during October. Also, this one was a bit of a doozy to come back on. However, in the words of Sterling Archer, "Totally worth it." I know it feels weird to say after how up and down this review was, but still...kind of a refreshing, if warped experience to go back to work on.

Hope to see you guys back here again in the weeks to come, and will be doing other general non-review entries more during the week as circumstances allow for. Till then, have a good weekend, folks!

Caligula will be back in...
...oh.

Moving on!