Tuesday, May 14, 2013

From the Files of Letters Will Likely Never Get Around to Sending

EDIT: To anyone reading this now, sorry about the slightly batty formatting.  Trying to fix it, but Blogger is being quite testy.

Well, I didn't lie.  This week's not a review. It's something of an experiment may see more of in the future.  As the title suggests, this is something of an open letter.  The people it's addressed to might see it, they might not.  They might take its input into consideration, or write me off as a drunken whackjob (hey, it's possible.)

Anyway, this is something that seemed like it could be a nice thing to do from time to time to frame some mental spitballing.

In this case, the open letter is addressed to the good people who run the Criterion Collection. As some of you remember, I already indirectly plugged them last Halloween for their release of Carnival of Souls.  For anyone who isn't quite familiar with this (a long shot, but I'll humor,) the Criterion Collection is a high-end collection series of various films chosen from all over the world on the basis of artistic or historic significance.  Each film that is selected is given a thorough remaster and, in most cases, an extensive set of extras regarding either the making of the film or its impact.  These are very much a collector's market release of films.  While some of them can run up price tags (though timed right, you can get some good deals with sales,) they're usually such that you get what you pay for.

Now for the inevitable question of why am I writing them an open letter?  Good question - the answer to which goes back to last month. One film I'd been waiting to see the collection pick up, Guillermo Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone, was announced with a release in July.  Suffice it to say, I was pretty pleased to hear this.   In light of that, and as one of the many people who's given probably way too much thought to titles they'd like to see the good folks at Criterion give their attentions to, it could be interesting to try and actually put together a list of 10 films in particular I'd like to see them consider at some point in the future (though I imagine many of these they already have.)

Once again, these are merely loose thoughts and, at best, suggestions.  Take them as you will and realize, in the long shot anyone from the Collection does read this (and if you do, thank you guys for all hard work you've put into what is out and coming out), again...purely suggestions.

Note: While this list is for 10 films, given there are two cases of two films with different reasoning, I'll have them clustered together for 8 entries here total.

Having said that, let's begin:


The 'Things Turn Red = It's Gone To Hell' rule gets established pretty early and pretty strongly.

It always struck me as odd that a movie with this one's critical reception and praise among horror films has been out of print for as long as it has.  Though alongside the chance to get it back in circulation, this has a number of elements of to it that would have me interested in seeing Criterion have a go at it;  Nicholas Roeg's thriller is very well shot, both in terms of some of the shots used to help build the suspense (such as this movie doing the 'red as a warning color' trick a good two decades before it became repopularized by The Sixth Sense) as well as the scenery.  Like Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock, this is one of those films that, alongside being well done in general, is just very nice to look at on the strength of its locales.  That the acting is equally strong only further helps the film's case - as a couple still trying to get over the trauma of the loss of their child, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie deliver two of the best performances of their careers (complete with a controversial love scene that had people convinced that Roeg actually filmed them in the act.)  Finally, it's a rather nice mix of genres, blending a bit of mystery, thriller, and some pretty poingnant character drama.  Really, if anyone can give this film a return to shelves that it deserves, it would be the Criterion people.



Speaking of horror films that tweak ones expectations of the genre, here is another that is still arguably one of the most divisive depending who you ask based on its presentation.  While I'll definitely acknowledge it's not to everyone's style, I would still say Robin Hardy's cult classic actually has a lot to offer for itself as far as its merits within the collection.  Even now, there really aren't many films that really seem to do what this film accomplishes - offering a blend of British horror, culture shock, mystery, and a now famous ending that contains a rather unsettling message about the things people will do for their beliefs.  This mix of themes is only further added to by the film's neo-pagan setting (the musical elements, in particular, tend to throw people here) and have really made this title distinct.  Finally, there's the film's history, which is also a pretty impressive little tale of a labor of love that danced close to falling off many times, but survived on the basis of the committment of the players involved (in one famous example, Christopher Lee was so dedicated to seeing this movie happen that, when the budget got tight, he was willing to cede his payment to let it be used to fund the production instead.)  The resulting film is a strange ride that, to its credit, also has a message to it that still remains effective nowadays.

"Opie isn't gonna believe this one!"
Like so much of this movie, time just makes this reaction to everything feel THAT much more appropriate.

Speaking of films whose messages still have an impact nowadays, here's two that are not only still relevant nowadays, if anything, they feel even more relevant now.  Which, given the two films in question, is a pretty frightening prospect.  Sidney Lumet's Oscar-winning tale of the lengths a struggling television network will go to may look a bit dated in some of its aspects now, but the idea of the news being turned into an entertainment all its own for ratings seems much less like a joke now than it used to, especially in the current technological age where people are free to pick and choose whichever news source will tell them what they want to hear (for good or ill.)  Likewise, Elia Kazan's tale of a drifter turned media demagogue, played by an electric, and at times disturbing, Andy Griffith, feels alarmingly ahead of its time.  Griffith's Larry 'Lonesome' Rhodes, seen nowadays, comes across as a sort of prophet of the modern pundit age - in fact, by today's standards, Rhodes would be seen as soft-balling it.  Alongside this historical relevance, both in and of themselves are well made films with some very strong sentiments regarding how media is used and abused in our society.  It's one of those rare times where it's both encouraging and alarming to see a film get better with age.


OK...I don't really have that much of a zinger here.  This is more just a demonstration of the attention to detail in the film.

In starting this one, I do have to say - I'm actually kind of surprised Criterion hasn't done much with animation to this point.  I'm not sure if it's been consciously omitted or just simply not come up, but there are certainly some titles that could lend themselves well to that list.  It's with this in mind that we come to this suggestion - Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 cult hit Akira.  Now, I will admit this film does have its drawbacks - as a movie adapted from a then-incomplete source, Otomo did have to try and come up with his own ending, which does somewhat muddle the film's second half.  Despite this, the film also has a fair number of aspects going for it - even among animated films, this movie's got an amazingly smooth and detailed look to rival even some of Disney's main fare (the opening gang battle through the streets of a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo is still stunning to look at now.)  Further, Otomo's command of direction in individual scenes actually makes for several strong individual sequences, even if not every part of the film gels as a whole.  Finally, there's the movie's role as a breakthrough in how the west perceived animation.  While it's true that this wasn't the first 'not for kids' piece of animation that had been known of in the west (that said, some of Bakshi's fare could also be worth considering) this was one of the first pieces that really made a significant splash, garnering strong reviews and accolades from high profile film critics.  While the resulting boom of Japanese animation that came over in its wake was full of stops and starts, it's hard to deny the impact this movie had in paving the way for many others to follow here.


Pictured - #6 on the top 10 banned episodes of
Wild Kingdom

OK, I'll start this one by admitting this- truth be told, I'd get behind almost any David Cronenberg films getting picked up for the collection alongside the ones already in (to that end, I'm still pricing around to get a copy of the old Dead Ringers release.)  But if I absolutely had to pick one over any of his others, and considering Videodrome is already in, while it would be a VERY tough call, I think I would have to pick this title.  Not because I consider it to be his best, mind you.  He's done others that definitely trump this.  Rather, I'm curious to see and hear what would be done with this film.  For one, this is the movie that really saw Cronenberg start coming into his own as a director after the ambitious but somewhat rocky work on Shivers and Rabid.  This contains a more focused narrative and a better sense of a direction in what it wants to do, combining his signature body horror with a rather interesting exploration of the devastating effects of abuse and pent-up anger.  Further, part of the reason I'd be interested in seeing the Criterion take on this is that, as Cronenberg's films go, this is one of the ones which feels the most distinctly personal.  This feeling coming even before I learned that, yes, this film was born out of a rather messy custody battle with his wife.  Now, I'll grant there is the possibility he may not want to go into that part of his life again, which I can't say I'd blame if that were the case.  However, I would still be up for it if he was. 


Pictured: Br'er Rabbit looking smug that he can still appear on merchandise and the log ride while Remus would be a lawsuit waiting to happen


I'm REALLY getting a bad feeling about this
Sound of Music remake...

Speaking of 'I know these will probably never happen'...
These are two films which are arguably more about their role in film history than their own merits...but for what that role is, it's prominent enough that I'd say they could merit the attention.  Many films that are out of print are simply a matter of either lack of interest or rights.  These two mark two of the rare cases of movies that have been actively blocked from being rereleased by their studios, fearing backlash over their content.  The controversies have become such that the movies in question have had it become a part of their identities as 'the banned films.'  This, in itself, has given them a certain curious mystique (Song of the South being one of the single most requested titles to be released from the Disney vaults thanks to its reputation.)  While Ken Russell's fairly graphic tale of madness and religious persecution in 17th century France isn't quite as known, in what circles it is known is because of its reputation.  Suffice it to say, that gives the films in question a LOT to actually live up to if they have any chance of seeing the light of day (though as I understand it, they ARE available in Europe, which has lead to a pretty lively import/bootleg trend for them here.)  In this light, the Criterion treatment is probably the single best thing that could be done for both films.  Alongside an effort to ensure the movies themselves would be presented as completely and without edits or censoring as possible, their attention to extras and film historian input could help properly explore just why these films have become so famous/infamous and try and look at their more controversial aspects in a more balanced light.   It's that seasoned, reasonable voice that is necessary for dealing with hot topics such as what these films address.

"Well, MY work here is done!"

Like Cronenberg, I'd be okay with just about anything the Coen Brothers made getting put into the collection.  If I was, however, told I could only pick just one film to consider for the list, despite many of their other greats, I think I would have to give this to their 1991 comedy-drama Barton Fink.  For a film they put together as a side project while working on Miller's Crossing, this is a surprisingly ambitious movie for Joel and Ethan Coen.  Taking the story of an up-and-coming playwrite who's been tapped for writing for Hollywood, the film actually plays with a LOT of ideas.  Right at the top of the list being an exploration of the darker creative politics of Hollywood that, despite the movie's 1940s setting, could still say a lot about nowadays.  Alongside this, the film also works as an interesting, if somewhat nightmarish, look at the creative process.  Turturro's Fink goes at points almost off the deep end reconciling 'common man' and 'intellectual' in his work, with a surprisingly scary John Goodman riding sidecar.  All this in a film that dances the lines of drama, dark comedy, and at points even horror.  Even among the Coen films, it's hard to find something that really pulls off what Barton Fink accomplishes.

They may be circus performers, but you make even one social faux-pas and there is NO going back with them...

Once more for old time's sake:
Tod Browning's 1932 film is one of those movies that would never be made nowadays.  Between its content and its decision to actually cast genuine circus performers in the roles of the titular freaks, the movie would be a legal nightmare waiting to happen.  Hell, it was arguably too much even when it came out, as a good thirty minutes of the movie have been missing and presumed lost since its initial controversial first screening.  It's this film's troubled history that is one of the big reasons I would like to see what Criterion could do with this movie.  The current release isn't bad, but I do feel like a more intensive release could go deeper into the history of this endearingly bizarre milestone of cult cinema.  It's the kind of film that really does feel like it needs a more attentive eye to give it the release it deserves.

Well, there we have it.   Ten titles would be up for seeing on the list.  Actually, I could likely think of some more, but for now, ten seemed like a nice round number to leave it off at.  Who knows, maybe one or more of these will eventually make it on there some day.  In the meantime...let me dream.

That said, once again, in the very long shot that someone from Criterion is reading this - again, thanks for all the great work so far, looking forward to The Devil's Backbone in June, and I'm also looking forward to what else may be coming down the line from here!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

As Another Movie Once Put it Best

Hey guys, remember when I said that this next entry wasn't gonna be a review?

Well, maybe not a lie per se.  More accurately, I decided to bump this one up as it's still pretty relevant, having come out this weekend. With that said, some of you can guess where this is going.

I will admit, I initially went into Iron Man 3 with some reservation.  I still enjoy the first movie, and actually consider it to be one of the better movies to have come out of the comic movie renaissance to this point.  The second movie? Let's just say I found the second movie to be something of a mess of muddled ideas and actors running away with their parts.  In fact, while I'd consider Iron Man to be one of the high points of the current generation of comic movies, I consider Iron Man 2 to then be among the lowest.  So my expectations were kept fairly restrained going into this one, even with the strong advanced reviews. So, I finally got to seeing it this Saturday and I have to say, I was satisfied and a bit surprised.

Part of the reason for the surprise was the fact that the film's promotions were simultaneously accurate and misleading in what they presented.  For those who need a quick, spoiler-free recap: the world is reeling from attacks by a mysterious terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley.)  As the world (with the rather curious exception of SHIELD, apparently) scrambles to find the man, our hero Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) steps up to challenge him.  Of course, Tony's been having his own problems - the events from The Avengers have left him with a case of PTSD that's affecting his life, his creations, and his relationships, and this is before the Mandarin decides to take Tony up on his challenge.  This is all in the first act, by the way. Much of the film then follows Tony's trying to find the Mandarin and becoming mixed up in a conspiracy involving a dangerous new biological agent with the ability to create supersoldiers. Suits fly, lines are quipped, and there's only so much more I can say for the story without spoiling things.

Also, the action figure designers need a towel after this finale...an awesome finale, I might add.

Anyway, to start from that point, the story is kind of a mix of feelings on this one.  As an overall concept, it's relatively solid.  Under closer inspection though, it does have some plot holes- such as the above-mentioned lack of SHIELD involvement.  When a man threatens, on a hijacked media feed, to kill the President of the United States, you'd think Nick Fury would at least send a consultant for the situation.  Also, much as I like the idea of addressing Tony not quite being over what he experienced at the end of The Avengers, it does feel like something of a discarded plot thread after a while.  It's an interesting idea that never really gets the time it needs to develop.  Despite these elements, the plot still moves at a largely good pace and manages to work in a few nice surprises along the way, culminating in what is arguably the most satisfactory final act of the three movies.

Like the story, the characters are kind of a hit and miss spread here.  I will start by saying everyone's acted well in this. The two standouts are RDJ,  who remains at the top of his game with this role, and Ben Kingsley, who plays the role so well I'd watch an entire movie devoted just to him.  The problem for others seems to be less with how they're acted and more in how they're written.  A major example of this is in Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen, a former fling of Tony's whose research is opening a pandora's box in terms of human enhancement.  Her role starts out interesting, as a means to introduce audiences to the idea of Extremis. Yet after that, she just seems to linger.  They make an effort to give her a little more by inverting the cliche of her role, but still doesn't really add much.  Likewise, Guy Pearce as sinister industrialist Aldrich Killian feels like there's no real personality to him beyond just being a bad guy.  Now, I will give him some minor leeway here since, to be honest, villains haven't been a strong suit for the IM movies anyway. Prior to this, Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane was the only one who didn't feel like a muddled heap of quirks and ideas (which is kind of sad to say, since I usually love Sam Rockwell, but his Justin Hammer was just useless comic relief.)  Granted, this still doesn't make it right that Pearce's character is flat, so much as it's acknowledging this is more just a problem they've had in the series anyway.  Like I said above, character-wise, the Mandarin is actually the standout of the new characters in this movie - as a character, he's always been something of a tricky one to translate into film - by his original design, he was something of a racist caricature, and even as he was depicted in the promotional material to this, he seemed on the verge of being your classic 'brown terrorist' archetype that's been done to death.  The way he is actually executed, however, really adds much more to him and really handily sidesteps a lot of the pitfalls the character could have led to.  The one other new character that actually makes any sort of impression for the better was Harley, a child character introduced in the second act played by Ty Simpkins.  Rather than being the classic overly innocent kid who helps bring out the better side of Tony, the two actually verbally spar off each other, which actually makes for a nice change of the traditional dynamic. Also, while the kid does bring out Tony's better half, Tony is still himself, and at times a colossal dick to said kid, including driving off and leaving the kid in the cold. And it's hilarious.

Yes, I would watch a whole movie of this guy.  When you see this movie, chances are you would too.

I know I've come back to the idea of this film skewing expectations a number of times so far, and honestly, it's for a good reason.  In the newly transferred hands of Shane Black (taking over for Jon Favreau, who still remains playing bodyguard Happy Hogan,) the film does a LOT with the idea of messing with traditional cliches and expectations in terms of plot and characterization.  It's actually rather interesting when one considers that the promotions for the film, while technically accurate, were also presented in such a way as to give us a completely different impression of the movie.

In terms of technical achievement, the movie is solid.  The editing and music are good, if not anything that will immediately stand out as strong suits, and the effects continue to hold up Marvel's high quality.  This particularly pays off during the film's finale, in which the better part of the Iron Man arsenal is deployed in an impressive final battle.

Admittedly, half the stuff I want to really discuss about this movie, I can't get into without going into details that would give things away.  In fact, even as comprehensive as this writeup was regarding the writing, it still feels lacking to me.  Overall, it's a fairly solid final chapter to the Iron Man trilogy.  It certainly has its faults, largely results of the writing. However, the film still holds up despite them.  Even if parts of this movie have overall surpassed the quality of the first movie, I would argue the original IM remains an overall better (and summarily, the best) movie of the trilogy.  Thankfully, it certainly is an improvement over the second movie's let down.  I'm not sure how this one will branch into the eventual Avengers 2, but as it is, on its own merits, it still does its job nicely enough.

With that, the summer movie season is now officially in full swing.  I'm looking forward to a couple of titles, but all in all, still in 'wait and see' mode.

In the meantime, next time I make good on that non-review article next time...and if I lie then, THEN you can come after me for it.

(...I could regret that, huh?)

On the plus side, at least this means I've got 1.5 people waiting...
...theoretically, anyway.