Monday, August 15, 2011

The Big Changeover

Remember the 1990s when home theater was all the rage? Surround sound, laserdisc or VHS and a big screen setup was thought to be a nifty way of replicating the theatrical experience and it was all in your living room. Well it seems to me that the opposite is occurring. The home theater experience, for lack of a better phrase, seems to be creeping into the multiplex. Though this is not news, 35mm is quickly being phased out so digital projection can take it's place. Add to it the prevalence of 3-D and IMAX, a revolution is taking place at the cost of an entertainment experience that has always been costly, but has never been duplicated anywhere else.

If you've read my blog before, you'll know I'm no fan of 3-D. Aside from it being a lame bell and whistle, it is really a desperate marketing bonanza badly disguised as an enhancement of filmmaking and film viewing. IMAX, which used to be an exclusive experience at museums equipped to project 70mm, is now a mass market feature at major theater chains. But it is a downgraded version that is nowhere near the scope of the real thing.

The point is, the so called revolution or innovation of movie exhibition, in my opinion, is a cheapening of the experience. There's nothing like being in a dark auditorium with strangers watching shadows and light at 24 frames per second. Digital can't match that. The richness, texture and dimension of celluloid seems to be dying off and the flat and dim presentation of digital is moving in quick. Major studios are taking their 35mm prints and dumping them into the trash heap like yesterday's newspapers. Distributors are pressuring movie theatres to switch over to the state of the art video projectors, even if it means serious debt.

I don't hate video. I own over 600 DVDs. But I put the emphasis on home video. However, as much as I enjoy collecting videos, the truth is watching movies at home is a real pain in the ass. The ambiance of a movie theatre is the major missing ingredient that cannot be recreated at home, no matter how great your plasma or LCD is. One of the things I love about being at the movies is that I make myself feel trapped there, in a good way. I can't pause or rewind the movie, if my cell phone vibrates, tough shit, call me later. I'm there to not only watch a movie but feel it happen to me, emotionally as well as viscerally. Home video lacks that effect and despite the rapid it's rapid evoultion from basic tape to hi def disc, it will never have that special effect.

We will soon pay $10.50 to attend a movie presented in a medium that is levels below celluloid. Most people won't care or notice. As long as it's in focus and watchable, those cigarette burns that signify the next reel is coming will be long gone.

I'm an optimistic person when it comes to cinema. But my optimism is being strongly challenged. Film is slightly over a 100 years old and it's basic function has never changed, despite some enhancements like Cinemascope. I'm a firm believer in not fixing things when they're not broken, but that's what the studios are pimping aggressively. If I'm paying a hefty ticket price, gimme film and not an above average blu ray.

This also brings into question piracy. Won't video projection make it easier for video pirates to flourish?

Alas, I'm probably preaching to the movie geek choir. But I feel it's necessary since I hold film dear to my heart. I accept mediocrity existing all over the place, but I don't wanna pay for a thin hamburger at the price of steak.

There's nothing like a food analogy to sum up my point about the purity of 35mm!

Please, chime in with your thoughts below!

Playing catchup...belated review of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

With medium expectations I went into RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and afterwards came out with the gut feeling that I just saw one of the best genre films of the year. What could have been a pedestrian sci-fi blockbuster is instead a riveting and quite horrific horror story of what happens when the persecuted race get their revenge after years of exploitation. Apes are the lab rats for a new drug that an ambitious scientist (James Franco) believes will cure Alzheimer's, which has crippled his once genius father (John Lithgow). But when one ape escapes from lab and wreaks havoc all the way to the board room, the operation is shut down, and Franco is left to care for a young test subject, whom he names Caesar. Caesar is domesticated and becomes an affectionate pet who is a fast learner of sign language. Franco tests his wonder drug on his father and when the results prove fast and miraculous, he convinces his superiors to reopen his experiments, but with every movie wonder drug, the side effects will soon prove toxic.

Meanwhile, Caesar quickly goes from cute pet to volatile protector of the vulnerable Lithgow. A hot tempered neighbour (David Hewlett) doesn't take kindly to the animal and he also has no patience for the senile old man who accidentally damages his car thinking it is his own. Caesar in turn doesn't take kindly nor gently to the prickly neighbour. This sets up the second act in which the apes have taken their years as keen observers of human behaviour into action and then into gradual revolt against their captors.

APES has a rapid sense of pacing and foreboding tension which is palpable. There is potent terror in this film that compliments and elevates the expected sci-fi action and CGI. Andy Serkis' motion captured performance as Caesar is Oscar worthy and even reminiscent of Howard Sherman's memorable performance as the learned zombie Bub in George Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD.

If the film has any weaknesses it might be in the characterization department. Supporting players Freida Pinto (as Franco's love interest, a skeptical primatologist) and the excellent Brian Cox as a cold hearted animal shelter keeper, aren't given much to do by the script but they do their best with what they're given.

Several steps above Tim Burton's stale remake of the original film, this prequel is a surprisingly powerful startup to a possible new franchise that will hopefully maintain it's masterful and exciting execution of frightening science fiction and horror.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

New podcast episode! An interview with actor Robert Dix

Check out a new episode of my podcast in which I talk with character actor Robert Dix ( who has appeared in films such as FORBIDDEN PLANET, FORTY GUNS, AIR PATROL, REBEL ROUSERS, and he had a memorable bit part in LIVE AND LET DIE!

He began as a contract player for MGM as a young man and continued working in B-movies and television series (THE RIFLEMAN, DEATH VALLEY DAYS, GUNSMOKE) until he quit the business in the 70s.

He's written a book entitled OUT OF HOLLYWOOD which is about him and his father, legendary actor Richard Dix which you can purchase on his website.

Enjoy the show!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Terror in the film gauge: SUPER 8

The review DOES NOT contain spoilers!

The joy of filmmaking is all over SUPER 8, and the memories of such films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, E.T. and THE GOONIES are embedded in the storytelling that Steven Spielberg (who produced this film) is famous for. Writer/director JJ Abrams (creator of LOST and director of STAR TREK and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III) is the perfect understudy for Spielberg, as he lovingly creates a world in which children live under the shadows of busy adults and discover the wonders of cinematic creation by way of the Super 8mm camera.

It's the summer of 1979 in small town Ohio and a group of enthusiastic and rambunctious kids are scrambling to make a zombie movie in time for a local festival. The leader of this group is a smart ass tyrant named Charles (Riley Griffiths) who loves playing director, shouting out orders and placing his hands in front of him to create a frame. Cary (Ryan Lee) is the special effects guru with an obsession for firecrackers. Martin (Gabriel Basso) is the nerdy and panicky "lead actor" whose scene partner is the older Alice (Elle Fanning) who to the surprise of these little guerrilla filmmakers, actually has a lot of acting talent as well as access to her father's car.

In the center of this is the film's protagonist Joe Lamb (well cast newcomer Joel Courtney) who is Charles' closest friend and special make up artist in their moviemaking endeavours. Joe is the son of the strict local deputy (Kyle Chandler) and both have suffered a recent tragedy with the death of Joe's mother who died in an accident at the local mill. She died covering the shift of the town drunk Louis (Ron Eldard) who happens to be Alice's father.

A fateful night in which the kids sneak out at midnight to film an important scene at the local train station is interrupted when a pickup truck drives onto the rails and speeds towards an oncoming freight train. This leads to a collision and all the boxcars derail, explode and fly in mid air. The kids run for their lives, leaving the super 8 camera knocked onto the ground still rolling. Something large and alive bursts out of one of the cars, leading to strange disappearances and destruction in the town. The military arrive at an oddly quick notice and only they and the driver of the truck know what's going on. When the sheriff goes missing, Joe's father assumes his role and finds himself bombarbed by angry and confused townspeople. At a noisy and angry town hall meeting, one lady confidently asserts that this is a Soviet invasion.

The film's trailers have been careful not to reveal what has escaped from the boxcar. The reveal isn't the point of the movie however. This is a film all about the joy of filmmaking and discovery and the agony and ecstasy, so to speak, of growing up. It's about the young characters' thrill of breaking the rules and running free in their own backlot that is their small town. The impressive special effects and sound editing are first rate without overwhelming the heart of the movie and it's story. The relationships and dialogue between the kids is both poignant, funny and real and has a wonderful rhythm that beautifully illustrates the dynamic of their relationship with one another. The production design meticulously captures the late 70s, from the soundtrack that features My Sharona by The Knack, Walter Cronkite reporting on TV, and the movie posters on Charles' bedroom wall (DAWN OF THE DEAD and HALLOWEEN)

Much like RANGO earlier this year, SUPER 8 is a film made by people who truly love movies and that's the soul of this picture. The science fiction takes a back seat to the characterizations and relationships while at the same time the action is pulse pounding. There is a palpable sense of danger and dread in this film and the kids' reactions to the frightening and dumbfounding happenings is chilling. They cry, they scream, they curse, even vomit at the sight of their world being torn apart. This adds real weight to the drama. These characters aren't the typically brilliant and incisive movie kids and it's a credit to the young actors that they portrayed them as believable and relatable.

The picture is mixture of two movies: a touching story about friendships and the difficulties fathers face when a mother is absent and an expertly written sci-fi mystery much in the vein of the 1950s monster movies. In a time where almost everything is about 3-D and phony razzle dazzle, SUPER 8 is a much needed reminder that even the biggest of tales can have the simplest of agendas.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The little tire that could...kill!

What if a tire came to life, struggled it's way out of the sand in the desert and wheeled it's way down the road with the intent of killing innocent bystanders by way of making their heads explode? RUBBER answers that strange question that no one ever asked. Here's the greatest film that could ever be made about a killer tire. Instead of being a simple exercise in absurdist horror filmmaking, RUBBER is more of an artistic cinematic put-on.

The opening scene sets the tone in an hilarious fashion. A police officer parks his car, gets out and walks towards the camera to address the audience. He tells us that this film is an "homage" to odd things occurring in movies that make no sense and have no explanation. "In the movie, E.T., why was the alien brown? No reason." he says. We then see a timid looking man hand out numerous binoculars to what appears to be some sort of test audience. They will be viewing the movie from within the movie, at a distance. They will also be forced to sleep on the ground when nothing of any significance seems to be happening. As this diverse group of people look toward the action, they make snide comments, observations and annoy the other people around them with their chatter. Much like a movie theatre audience does. The only thing missing are cell phones.

Meanwhile, the killer tire goes on a rampage at a nearby motel. It, or "He" as the people in the film refer to it, sets it's sights on a sexy French women staying in one of the rooms. Much like a peeping killer in a slasher film spies on a sexually attractive girl, this animated car part pursues female prey and even watches her undress and take a shower. "For the first time ever I identify with a tire!" says a flabbergasted member of the desert audience.

RUBBER is some kind of twisted, ingenious masterpiece that deconstructs conventional thriller storytelling as well as audience expectations and behaviour. Imagine if Jean Luc Godard directed REPO MAN. That's the distinction I made with this quirky little gem.

This film was written and directed by a French techno musician named Quentin Dupieux and shot on a shoestring budget. He does a great job of building up interest in a minimalist way. The sound effects and editing standout the best as we hear the tire roll through the rough terrain, crush or explode beer cans, birds, crabs and human heads. It even takes the time to shower and soak in the motel pool. "Do tires sink or float?" one audience member asks.

I guess that's the purpose of this audience within the movie. They ask the answer-less questions so you don't have to. Neat.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Enduring A Serbian Film

A SERBIAN FILM is a prime and unholy example of a litmus test fans of transgressive cinema put themselves through to see if they can make it to the end credits. Why do some desire such a journey?

The story involves pornography and snuff filmmaking, produced with a political and philosophical bent by a Eurotrash millionaire. He is interested in hiring a down and out ex-porn star to participate in his latest "work of art". This former "star" is now happily married with a loving and beautiful wife and cute son, but he is need of serious money and after some reluctance, essentially signs a contract with this devilish man to act in his ambitious porn film. The producer tells the star nothing with regards to what acts he's expected to do on camera. He is to take direction without any script or knowledge of what to expect. But to his horror, what he encounters is a sick project that involves pedophilia, necrophilia and any other taboo or breach of human decency. He is also trapped, because he awakens after days of his participation to see videotapes of what he did. He is of course sickened and horrified. How did he come to commit such acts that are against his morality and seemingly beyond his willpower?

It's without question that A SERBIAN FILM will shock and offend most people. Some adventurous film goers who have been inoculated to such depraved films by way of seeing CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, IRREVERSIBLE, etc. will may find it worthwhile. I watched it with a critical sense of detachment which, in order for this film to truly work, is not an ideal state of mind. Throughout the horrendous on-screen mayhem, I was never truly absorbed and captivated. I did think what I was seeing was abhorrent but not believable for a second. It functions more as an artsy freakshow instead of something with conviction that could grab me. Aside from the movie's exploitation trappings, it also makes heavy handed statements about Serbia by way of sexual metaphors that went over my head. Maybe I need to read up on Serbian politics to understand why the mad porn producer feels his snuff film somehow represents the social state of the country, but then again he is a psycho.

The film's strengths include some strong cinematography and editing that build an inspired story structure. But the main asset is the performance by Sergej Trifunovic as the doomed ex-porn star Milos. He has a striking presence and look that reminded me of a cross between Mickey Rourke and character actor Don Stroud. He does a commendable job of portraying a man who loves his wife and son but also misses the financial rewards of being a porn star. His character is interesting. A man torn between a normal life and a past life that he cannot explain to his infant son.

A SERBIAN FILM succeeds, I guess, as a sick head trip for the unprepared. There are acts committed in this film that I'm unwilling to print. However, it's absurdity and contrived execution kept me from feeling profoundly disturbed, even though what I was witnessing was beyond the pale. It's too ambitious and well made to easily dismiss as trash but I can't recommend it. But then again, is recommend a proper word to use in a review of this movie? How in the world can you recommend A SERBIAN FILM?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

THOR in not so 3-D

Another Marvel Comics hero hits the screen and he's burdened with mediocre, dull, dim and even shallow 3-D that seems to be mandatory for blockbusters with ancient warriors with mighty weapons and... Anthony Hopkins. Remember when swashbucklers and comic book movies were made in glorious and underrated 2-D?

THOR is the story partially set in the 900 A.D. era in which the Nordic warrior awaits to be named King by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, in fine form, aside from the goofy eye patch) But Thor's arrogant and reckless ways lead him to engage his enemies, a race of icy monsters who have the power to turn their victims into human ice sculptures. King Odin is angered by his son's disobedience against his orders not to go looking for confrontation and war. He banishes Thor to another realm to live as a powerless mortal, in modern day New Mexico. When he falls out of the sky, he is lucky enough to be struck by a Hummer driven by Natalie Portman. She's a scientist with a two person team made up by her father figure elder (Stellan Skarsgard) and a plucky teen sidekick (Kat Dennings). The trio first think that the fish out of water warrior is a delusional weirdo. But they wonder why is he so mysterious, noble, skillful at fighting and so...hunky?

The secret government agency S.H.E.I.L.D., usually in charge of keeping tabs on Iron Man, quickly come to town. They set up shop and try to determine why a gigantic hammer is stuck in the middle of the desert and impossible to remove. Meanwhile back in Thor's realm (realm is a word this movie loves to reuse) his scornful and jealous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) discovers he is actually an orphaned child who belongs to the Icy bad guy species. Feeling betrayed, he takes advantage of King Odin's ailing health to assume the throne, cross the icy bridge between worlds (which resembles a Guitar Hero track) and wage war against the modern human race.

Thus CGI galore ensues at rapid fire pace. Director Kenneth Branagh seems love dutch angles too much as well and utilizes them at every possible opportunity. In between special effects sequences there is however, touches of light and dry humour. THOR is a middle of the road, sweet, inoffensive and overall unremarkable fantasy saga that is aided by a very charming performance by Chris Hemsworth as the titular hero. Supporting players include Clark Gregg who reprises his character the head agent of S.H.E.I.L.D. from IRON MAN 1 and 2. Gregg plays his role with a good balance of seriousness and humorous levity. He's so used to seeing Tony Stark fly faster than a Mach 3 jet and destroy major buildings, that the sight of century old, heavily costumed warriors doing battle hardly fazes him.

Middleston is a good actor but his character is too petulant rather than intimidating. What THOR lacks is a really menacing villain. Additional scenes with master thespian Hopkins would have benefited as well. And poor Rene Russo is given nothing to do as Thor's mother. She basically stands around looking either worried or waiting to recite her brief lines of dialogue.

Now that I've given my two cents on the film, let me digress further on my disdain for 3-D. The obvious disadvantages include dim, lifeless projection and super imposed effects that only intermittently appear on screen in a film that was in shot in 2-D originally. But what really struck me as inconvenient was when the movie ended and I exited the theater to walk out into the sunlight. My eyes were overwhelmed as if I had entered stunning daylight after a long exile in a dark cave. The movie going experience is supposed to be an escape and not one with assaulting after effects.