Sunday, August 31, 2008

MAN ON WIRE: The Film Babble Blog Review

MAN ON WIRE (Dir. James Marsh, 2008)

Philippe Petit, described as a “volatile Frenchman,” one morning in 1974 pulled off what has been called “the artistic crime of the century.

That is, he walked a tightrope (actually a 450-pound cable) between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City without legal permission and, most incredibly, did it more than once - 8 times by one count before being arrested by awaiting police officers. Petit was a 24 year old accomplished high-wire walker and performance artist who became obsessed with the Towers while they were still under construction in 1968. 

Petit studied them intensely, collecting photographs and making extensive notes that led to models that he used to plot his amazing feat. Disguised as construction workers, he and a small crew were able to sneak into the buildings and overnight set up the cable (by bow and arrow at first, mind you) to put Petit's 6 years of planning into effect.
With recreations of the plotting process, interviews with the key players, and a vast amount of photographs this documentary takes us step by step through what Marsh correctly accessed could be a great “heist movie.” Petit, still fit and energetic, is glowingly proud about the event with many amusing anecdotes enhancing his unflappable ecentricity and showing us precisely what kind of human being would go to this extreme length. He considered the idea something that would amount to a “Beautiful show” and alternately “a bank robbery.

It is indeed both; a riveting ride as well as one of the best docs of its kind that begs to be seen on the big screen. The scale of the monumental endeavor wouldn’t be as appreciated on DVD and the full impact doubtfully would be grasped. Petit, for a small agile man, is a larger than life personality whose grace at such a frighteningly high altitude is mind boggling. It is admirable that despite its subject no mention is made of the tragic fate of the Towers - we all know that already and it is defintiely better to freeze them in time with this staggering act. 

That the sky could be conquered in such a theatrical manner by a man with nothing but a 26 foot balancing pole and a fearless pysche is beyond breath-taking. MAN ON WIRE, as a doc and an art film, is a spare unimposing work unconcerned with anything but its simple yet strong story. As a tribute to the unending conquests of mere mortals (even ones as bat-shit crazy as Petit), its power and range is limitless.

More later...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

10 Movie Posters That Completely Co-opt Others Original Designs

This is a sequel of sorts to a post I did earlier this year (10 Of The Most Misleading and Mis-representing Movie Posters Ever!) with one of the same posters mentioned and the same theme of mis-marketing dominating.

Recently the publicity for the new pop-doc AMERICAN TEEN included a poster that directly recreates the iconic poster image for the classic 80s teen angst flick THE BREAKFAST CLUB. The similarity was so blatant that it made many folks (including me) think it was a retitled remake:

You see? To be fair AMERICAN TEEN has another poster design out there that’s more original, but the one above is still too close for comfort. This is a pretty common device that calls for another patented Film Babble Blog list: 

10 Movie Posters That Completely Co-opt Other Poster’s Original Designs

1. THE BIG ONE appropriates MEN IN BLACK and suffers legal action for it - That’s right the image for Michael Moore’s self indulgent book tour doc was ruled too similar to the design for the Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones sci-fi vehicle so a judge ruled that Miramax had to remove the posters from distribution. The taglines: “Protecting the Earth from scum of the universe” from MEN IN BLACK and “Protecting the Earth from the scum of corporate America” from THE BIG ONE would probably be dismissed by most of us as parody not copyright infringement but Columbia Pictures’ lawyers thought differently.

2. FLETCH LIVES for some reason regurgitates GONE WITH THE WIND - This lackluster sequel did itself no favors by placing Chevy Chase’s Irwin M. Fletcher character into the framework of one of the most famous films of all time. Not sure the thinking here, did they really think it was a good idea to equate the camera-mugging wise-ass with a suave Rhett Butler in the thralls of a tragic romance while Atlanta burns? I suppose the GONE WITH THE WIND design is just a device for selling the
--> -->Fletch inherits a Southern Plantation’ premise and I should cut them some slack for trying to wrap a failed follow-up in something resembling a classy package.

3. WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN? macks on the art for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK - Meticulously copying the entire design right down to the typefaces and every detail of the amazing Amsel painting done for the 1982 re-release of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Morgan Spurlock’s much lambasted quasi-poli-doc tries to align itself with the same globe trotting heroic splendor of the Spielberg classic but just ends up looking desperate. I haven’t seen WHERE IN THE WORLD... but not being a fan of SUPER SIZE ME or Spurlock’s television work makes me ambivalent at best to it with this uninspired poster design putting me off even further.

4. THIS IS SPINAL TAP jumps on the back of AIRPLANE! - This one I wrote about before in the Most Mis-leading Movie Posters post mentioned above, noting that director Rob Reiner remarked: “They marketed it with a guitar flying in the air with a twisted neck which looked like the poster for AIRPLANE! It looked like it was trading on another film.” There were many more comedies that were marketed with crazy flying in the air’ imagery - the Zucker Bros. own NAKED GUN movies kept the concept alive for another decade after SPINAL TAP.

5. PROBLEM CHILD crassly copies PARENTHOOD - A mere months after Ron Howard’s family comedy was a hit came this tasteless anti-family comedy with a poster design that mocks the former’s switching the roles and supposedely doubling the laughs. Not a bad advertising approach mind you, I'm sure many rented one after glancing at the video box thinking it was the other.

6. DEAD HEAT duplicates GOODFELLAS - This one is really annoying. Same dark design with 3 protagonists posing above a street scene and the same typeface shows a complete creative bankruptcy on the side of the promotional department.

The utterly forgettable Keifer Sutherland crime thriller that somebody on the IMDb message board called “SEABISCUIT meets GOODFELLAS could not come close to competing with Scorsese’s masterpiece so seeing them try is painful.

7. ROCK ‘N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL re-amps NATIONAL LAMPOONS ANIMAL HOUSE - Lots of crude sloppy comedies have likewise Mad Magazine derived designs but the folks behind marketing the Ramones’ film debut didn’t look very far for an angle here - they just went with what worked for the previous years teen gross-out blockbuster. Squint and you’d think you’re seeing the same picture (especially with the tiny examples I’ve provided here).

8. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY redoes ANNIE HALL (as does the movie) and begat a flood of rom com movie marketing - A couple in a hesitant yet sexually tense moment always makes for a good poster picture for a romantic comedy,
right? Well just add a city skyline (most often New York, duh!) underneath and now you’re talking. Dozens upon dozens of recent rom coms have used this type imagery including SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, TWO WEEKS NOTICE, MAID IN MANHATTAN, ALEX & EMMA (also Rob Reiner), etc. Oh yeah, the Dudley Moore / Mary Steenburgen movie actually named ROMANTIC COMEDY had a similar image too.

9. CLOVERFIELD marks on THE DAY AFTER TOMORROWs territory - The Statue Of Liberty gets a lot of abuse in the world of movie posters. In CLOVERFIELD its head gets blown off (same thing is shown
on ESCAPE FROM NEW YORKs poster incidentely) and a long shot view shows us a stormy New York in turmoil. Looks a lot like the same painting style and tone used in THE DAY AFTER TOMORROWs the Statue Of Liberty under ice image. The poster for the upcoming sludge through bad pop culture spoofs DISASTER MOVIE features our long suffering statue getting drowned in a tidal wave. Hard job it is being a giant symbol of freedom I guess.

10. TRANSFORMERS apes PLANET OF THE APES - Why would anybody want to recall the roundly rejected Tim Burton remake of the Charleton Heston “damn dirty ape” classic with a poster image that looks nearly identical? It seemed like TRANSFORMERS would’ve had its own shiny take on the aesthetics and wouldn’t have to stoop to this so was it unfortunately unintentional? Did somebody think the look and angle of the Ape design was cool and thought it was either forgotten or needed to be re-done and re-purposed? Whatever the deal, I can still barely tell them apart.

Okay! Now, I know there are lots of movie posters that have co-opted the designs of others that I missed so feel free to comment away.

More later...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Revisiting PURPLE RAIN On The Big Screen (Thanks To Cool Classics @ The Colony)

As I reported a few posts back (Hey I Finally Saw... ERASERHEAD! 8/3/08) The Colony Theatre in North Raleigh has been showing a series of what they call “Cool Classics.”

In the last few years they've shown 35 MM prints of modern movie milestones like THE BIG LEBOWSKI and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as well as guilty pleasures such as THE GOONIES and GREASE. I was pleased as punch to see that Prince’s MTV inspired musical PURPLE RAIN was on the calender this month. I had seen the film before but on video a long time ago so the time is right to have a big screen re-appraisal and here it is:

PURPLE RAIN (Dir. Albert Magnoli, 1984)

Released almost 25 years ago, the theatrical debut of Minnesota’s funky wunderkind Prince defines “dated” - it’s washed in synthesizer sound, bathed in neon-lit smoke, and plods with drum machine timing.

Like an Elvis or Tab Hunter vehicle reshaped for the 80’s, Prince plays “The Kid,” a teased-haired guitar-strangling stage-hopping diva who one night playing at Minneapolis’ legendary 1st Avenue falls for a fresh off the bus, or more accurately fresh off running from paying a cabbie, sexy singing sensation named Apollonia. 

The Kid’s competitor Morris Day as himself (everybody but Prince it seems goes by their own name) also eyes Apollonia but she is taken for a ride literally by The Kid on his motorcycle across the countryside montage-style while “The Beautiful Ones” serenades them from one of the biggest selling soundtracks of all time. When on the verge of skinning dipping, Apollonia asks The Kid: “And you...what do you dream of?”

I quipped to my girlfriend Jill that his answer should be - “better acting”. This was the right way in which to view this movie with a plot so bare boned yet still extremely cliche ridden it’s ripe for ridicule.

When the music isn’t blaring and the dance rhythms die down the players engage in melodrama with far from fleshed out conflicts. Prince’s, sorry The Kid’s parents (Clarence Williams III & Olga Karlotas) fight it out on the homefront as his audiences are dropping off at the club because of his risky experimentation (which makes for one of the soundtracks most excitably ambitious numbers “Computer Blue”).

Apollonia seems to offer some sexy solace from The Kid’s stress but when she joins Morris’s band he goes ballistic and strikes her, which is crudely brushed off as part of his moody personality - and this is just after he gives him a lavish guitar as a gift! Moody and brooding seems to be the only notes Prince can or wants to play as an actor here.

When The Kid steals Apollonia from a drunk Morris Day once again on his motorcycle in a dark alley, Day yells: “Motherfucker! You long-haired faggot!”, Jill chimed then in with “that may be the best line of the whole movie...he sounded like he really meant it!” I'm inclined to agree though I think my favorite line was Day to Apollonia earlier in the film: “Your lips would make a lollipop too happy.”

With this MST3K-like riffing on the film debut of the artist formerly known as Prince who became an unpronounceable symbol but now is known as Prince again we could best enjoy the so called plot elements between the music video and concert sequences that really are this movie’s calling cards.

The charismatic and extremely amusing Morris Day, who got some enthusiastic shout-outs at the screening we attended, appears to be the most fully rounded character but thats most likely from what he brings to the role and not whats in the screenplay which if I found out that there was more than one draft of I’d be royally shocked.

Somehow despite the hackneyed storyline, the atrocious acting, and time-worn editing, PURPLE RAIN shines stronger than other so called cult classics of the same era largely because of its stellar soundtrack.

The climatic unveiling of the title song, with a melody and backbeat written in the film (but not in real life) by Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman of the Revolution, which annihilates the crowd at 1st Avenue as well as Day and his cronies is wondrous amped-up high gloss camp successfully disguised as devastating drama. To watch it and not smile seems as sinful as Prince’s usual song subject matter and just as naughty too.

More later...

Monday, August 18, 2008

I Love The Smell Of Napalm In The Morning; Smells Like...Parody!

TROPIC THUNDER (Dir. Ben Stiller, 2008)

The comedy fortunes of Ben Stiller have fallen a bit lately (THE HEARTBREAK KID, anyone?) so it’s a certainly a treat to see him in the full-on mockery mode that worked so well in ZOOLANDER - taking on the industry that made him famous and bringing along a crew of above par talent (including Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Steve Coogan, Nick Nolte, and one unrecognizable Tom Cruise who buys back a huge chunk of street cred here).

Unless you’ve been locked in a sound proof vault with no windows over the last few weeks you know that this movie features A) Robert Downey Jr. in black face as an Australian Academy Award winner who is playing a jive talking African American. B) A group of actors (Stiller, Downey Jr., Jay Barochel, and Bradon T. Jackson) trying to achieve A-List status making a Vietnam war picture but get stranded in the jungle and have to become real soldiers in order to fight their way out a la ¡THREE AMIGOS! and GALAXY QUEST. C) The before mentioned Tom Cruise as a bald pudgy foul-mouthed executive who nearly walks off, that is hip-hop dances off with the whole film.

Steve Coogan as the frustrated frizzy-haired film maker of what Access Hollywood calls: “the most expensive war movie never made” (a line likely drawn from pop culture punditry response to Francis Ford Coppola’s extremely over schedule production back in the late 70’s: “Apocalypse When?”) decides to deposit the actors into the jungle with only a map and a script and he’ll film them with hidden cameras and rigged explosives. 

This plan immediately derails, in a crude but hilarious moment I won’t spoil, and they run up against a heavily armed gang called Flaming Dragon who have a heroin producing work camp. They capture Stiller and hold him for ransom once the leader (fiercely played by child actor Brandon Soo Hoo) recognizes the actor from his career damaging flop “Simple Jack”. Meanwhile Stiller’s hotshot agent, Matthew McConaughey in chilled “alright, alright” mode, fights Cruise’s heartless exec character for TiVo to be contractually provided for his client before realizing the severity of the situation. 

The real cause of the botched conflict is a grizzled Nick Nolte as the author of the book “Tropic Thunder” and the inspiration for Coogan’s “Guerilla style” tactics. Nolte and explosive expert Danny McBride (fresh off almost stealing PINEAPPLE EXPRESS) also get captured by the Dragon gang and all the pieces are in line for a ginormous and outrageous shoot-em-up finale with every player getting his shot at glory.

Before the film proper of TROPIC THUNDER begins (before the Dream Works logo even hits the screen that is) there are funny fake trailers that introduce us to the quartet of protagonists. 

They set us up to embrace Stiller as a high grossing action star in “Scorcher 6” - an obvious dig at big overblown unnecessary franchises, Black as a pandering fart joke machine comic superstar in “The Fatties: Fart 2” - yep, a beyond obvious swipe at Eddie Murphy’s sad state of fat suit affairs, an ad spoof featuring Jackson as an “Booty Sweat” energy drink hawking rapper, and most amusing “Satan’s Alley”, complete with a FOX Searchlight logo announcing it as a prestige picture, giving us Downey Jr. and Tobey Macguire (who once shared a bed together in WONDER BOYS) as monks in a forbidden homosexual relationship. 

These and the many other digs at Hollywood cookie-cutter commerciality are the heart of this overblown but surprisingly not obnoxious comedy. The in-your-face-ness of the self aware atmosphere keep it from having to live or die joke to joke. 

Downey Jr. is undoubtedly the best part of this project, his unflinching take on Russell Crowe-esque maniacal method acting results in many of the movies biggest laughs like for one: “Huh! What do you mean ‘You People?’” Downey Jr. angrily asks Stiller at a stressful juncture. Jackson, who is authentically African American says, with an even angrier tone to Downey Jr., “What do you mean You People?’”

For all its over-the top silliness TROPIC THUNDER has a great gritty widescreen look; it has shots that look exactly like the excess-riden war epics its parodying like, of course, APOCALYPSE NOW and PLATOON - the poster of which Stiller tries to imitate, with his pumped up arms raised to the sky, every 10 minutes it seems. 

I experienced uncountable successions of giggles but not all out guffaws during this movie. It never lagged on the laughs but they’re of the small smirking kind for the most part. Still, it noisily announces itself as the mega comedy you cant ignore with performances that will be talked about for years and lines that will be endlessly quoted I predict. 

I have to say that Stiller himself as an actor is not doing anything we haven’t seen before - with his wide eyed pathos and tampered ego posturing his character is basically Derek Zoolander as if he were an action star and not a super model. 

But as a director and writer, Stiller is doing something I want to see more of, that is making comedies with a wide scope of inspired tangents and most importantly casts full of talented energized folk who aren’t afraid to make wicked fun of themselves while taking crazy chances too.

More Later...

Friday, August 15, 2008

Woody Gets His Groove Back! VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA - The Film Babble Blog Review


Woody Allen’s 43rd film as director is lush, absorbing, and easily his best film in 10 years.

The 4th in his series of films that abandon his long-time cinematic comfort zone of Manhattan for the splendor of a European escapade, Allen is reunited with his most recent muse Scarlett Johansson but this time with terrific not abysmal results.

After the traditional Allen white on black credits (now with Spanish guitar and not big band jazz accompanying) we join Johansson and best friend Rebecca Hall as they get off a plane in Barcelona - they are the Cristina and Vicky of the title. A narrator (Christopher Evan Welch), a device that evokes memories of the docudrama style of HUSBANDS AND WIVES, tells us about our leading ladies' temperments - Johansson is romantically impulsive while Hall is stable, analytic, and most importantly engaged to be married to a buttoned-down reliable but bland Chris Messina.

While dining one night a smooth Spanish painter (Javier Bardem) approaches them and proposes that they join him for a romantic weekend in Oviedo: “We’ll eat well, we’ll drink wine, we’ll make love.” Hall is immediately cynical and put off by Bardem, having heard troubling gossip about his ex-wife, but Johanssen is giddily enchanted which wins over and we're off and running!

Bardem’s ex-wife, the sultry and simultaneously sulking Penélope Cruz, is trouble indeed; she shows up after getting out of the hospital asking for vodka with daggers in her eyes aimed at Johansson as she storms into their life. Possible Spoiler!: both Hall and Johansson have fallen for Bardem by this point which threatens Hall’s marriage and makes murkier the matters of the heart between all of them. What’s never murky is the photography with gorgeous shots of the temples, landscapes, and luxurious patios of Spain framed by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe.

The dialogue is crisp and wittier than Woody Allen has given us in ages with even subtitled lines (Cruz and Bardem exchange many private asides in Spanish) stinging as the pace never drags with many expertly crafted uncut tracking shots flowing as the characters themselves flow through the beautiful scenery. Great naturalistic acting from all the principals abounds with supporting turns by the always charming Patricia Clarkson and the underused Kevin Dunn filling out the most colorful Woody Allen movie so far.

With Cruz, the Spanish locale, and Aquirresarobe (Director of Photography on TALK TO HER) it could look at first glance that Allen is aping Aldomovar but the pessimism, views on art and forbidden love, as well as the neurotic behaviour (can’t write a review of a Woody Allen film without some use of the word “neurotic”) is all classic Woody Allen.

If you only know Bardem from his role as the cold blooded killer Chighur in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN his role here will be a revelation. Johansson does her best work since LOST IN TRANSLATION fully inhabiting her character with flare and much moxie. All the promotional material for this film (the poster, trailer, etc.) for a large part excludes Rebecca Hall (pictured at the top of this review) which is odd because it’s her tortured entanglement that really gives the film its narrative thrust - I suppose she wasn’t enough of a name for the publicity department.

The tedious repitition of worn-out plot points (Hello, MATCH POINT) and the lackluster lines of his last several films is replaced by a passionate and vital sense of purpose (and a great screenplay) which makes for a extremely satisfying meal of a movie.

The only possible reservation I have is for the inclusion of Welch’s voice-over narration; much of the time I thought the film could do without it but I have to admit it contained some insightful and amusing remarks so I’ll leave it be. VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA is a welcome return to form for the Woodman and with his next project, the already completed WHATEVER WORKS with Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood (also featuring Clarkson) here’s hoping he’s on a roll. 

More later...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Meanwhile, At Your Local Arthouse Theater...

In a Summer filled with bombastic blockbusters noisily cramming into the multiplexes weekend after weekend it can be easy to miss what’s playing at your local arthouse theater. 

At my hometown theater, the Varsity (where I also work part-time), there are 2 new (well, new to my area) foreign films which just may be worth pulling yourself away from the glut of CGI McMovies to check out: 

TELL NO ONE (Dir. Guillaume Canet, 2006)

This French thriller’s tagline is one that a movie publicist would die for: “8 years ago, Alex’s wife was MURDERED. Today...she emailed him”. In the first few casually romantic minutes we are introduced to a pediatrician (François Cluzet) married to his long time love (Marie-Josée Croze) who we see in a flashback as kids carving their initials into a tree. The tree is near a lake where the couple often go skinny dipping. 

One fateful night Croze disapears in the woods and is brutally murdered while Cluzet is out cold from a blow to the head by an unseen assailant. As the tagline says, we cut to 8 years later and Cluzet is still emotionally wounded as he goes through his daily routines and still visits the parents of his deceased wife. 

He receives the shocking email with a link to a video showing his wife alive and the message: “Tell no one. We’re being watched”. The police have uncovered 2 new corpses at the scene of the crime, Cluzet is implicated and is forced to go on the lam.

It’s been called Hitchcockian though I think it has more in common with more modern works like Roman Polanski’s FRANTIC also sharing the unnerving tension of George Sluizer’s THE VANISHING (the original 1988 one, not the awful American remake). The pacing and stream-lined structure is gripping throughout even when the convolutions of the last third come close to throwing it off track. 

A chase as the cops close in through the streets of Paris is a stand out sequence really revving it up when Cluzet attempts to cross a multi-lane freeway on foot which actually doesn’t recall the mystery masters of yesteryear - it recalls Eddie Murphy’s mad-dash dodging motorists in BOWFINGER, and I mean that in the best possible way. 

The only downside is that TELL NO ONE would doubtfully survive multiple viewings. Some of the twists and turns can be sensed way in advance and the thrills of guessing would likely wear very thin. Movies that are by design so built upon plot manipulations are often extremely unappealing on a second viewing, I mean do you feel like watching THE SIXTH SENSE again? I didn’t think so. 

 Anyway, the cast is spot on with Cluzet’s intensely precise performance keeping the film grounded (for the most part) while Kristen Scott Thomas, the only name that most Americans would recognize in the cast) has some good almost comical moments as his sister’s (Marina Hands) lesbian lover. 

 The soundtrack has the goods too - Otis Redding’s “For Your Precious Love” sets the alluring tone at the beginning and the most moving use of a Jeff Buckley song I’ve witnessed on film occurs when “Lilac Wine” serenades a funeral cremation scene. As overused adjectives in movie reviews go I’ve never been a fan of “taut” but this is indeed a highly entertaining and, yes, a very taut thriller even if it is a bit of a throwaway. 

UP THE YANGTZE (Dir. Yung Chang, 2007)

The biggest hydroelectric dam in history, the Three Gorges Dam in China, is bringing massive changes to the region and customs of the residents on the edge of the Yangtze River. Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang explores the paths of a couple of young people (Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu) who are attempting to abandon the peasant farming life of their elders with jobs on a cruise ship offering “farewell tours” for wealthy tourists who Chang in his spare narration tells us are looking for a sort of “ancient China that doesn't exist anymore.” 

As the river rises and large communities are displaced, this documentary takes its time and makes no pat conclusions or damning statements, it simply lays out its subjects bare. Yu Shui (given the English name “Cindy” for her job on the Victoria Queen river liner) and Chen Bo Yu (renamed “Jerry" -likewise) learn their barings aboard while the folks ashore struggle to relocate and re-assimilate. UP THE YANGTZE is a mediation and may be too plodding and slow to capture many moviegoers minds as it rambles down some strains of daily life on the river. 

There are many pointed passages though and a concluding series of time lapse shots of Shui’s family home being engorged and completely drowned by the flooding water is greatly gripping illustrating Chang’s comment: “Imagine the Grand Canyon being turned into a Great Lake”. I’d definitely recommend UP THE YANGTZE but more for its educational content than its entertainment value though it’s hardly lacking on that front. 

More later...