Sunday, May 26, 2013

BATTLESHIP: One year later

At the risk of alienating the 50% of my regular readership that consists of serious film connoisseurs (the other half being my wife and mother - hi ladies!), I feel compelled to say a few more words about Battleship, last summer's resounding box office dud from director Peter Berg. In this piece, published last July, I speculated on why it might have been such a failure, while somewhat apologetically admitting that, for what it was worth, I enjoyed the film. At the end of my piece, I remarked that I'd likely end up buying a copy on Blu-ray if I could find it for ten bucks or less. (This price point has nothing to do with my opinion of the film; I'm pretty militant about holding out for good deals on movies, and I've acquired most of the Blu-rays in my collection for $8 to $15.) After nearly a year, this magic threshold was finally passed, and I am now the proud owner of a Battleship Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Copy combo pack.

Having watched the film again last night, I must say that my opinion of it has changed somewhat over the past year, or rather, my concern about what others might think about my opinion of it has changed. I'm tired of pretending. Let me state for the record that I unashamedly, unreservedly and without irony, love Battleship, and I don't care who knows it. After seeing it for the second time, it has become clear to me that, in its own way, it's a masterpiece. It's a given that American summer movies have come to mean one thing and one thing only: blowing shit up, and Battleship blows its shit up with the best of them while still managing to work on a human scale. I'm not generally a huge fan of CGI, as I think it's overused, and it usually makes movies look more like video games, but while a few of the sequences might have lost a bit of their lustre on the small screen, in general, Battleship's VFX work is stunning.

More than that, though, it's simply a likeable dog of a movie. I went back and reread some of the favorable reviews of the film from other critics (we're in the minority, believe me), and the consensus is that Battleship succeeds (at least in our eyes) by approaching its subject with an earnestness that's often absent from this type of film, and it presents us with characters we can feel great about rooting for in the midst of its apocalyptic fury. Folks, this is a film so big that it requires not one but two AC/DC songs on the soundtrack. It's an enormously loud and bombastic film that wears its heart on its sleeve. It approaches you, hat in hand, smiling its $209 million smile, and kindly asks you to check your logic and, let's face it, your common sense at the door while promising you a hell of a good time if you acquiesce. It's a film that extracts a naturalistic and even appealing performance from Rihanna, a person whose public persona irritates me to no end. It's a film that manages to celebrate the military in an entirely apolitical way, by pitting them against an extraterrestrial threat, which is a stroke of genius in my book, and it makes Battleship perfect for viewing this Memorial Day weekend, especially given the fact that it features real-life veterans, past and present, among its cast. It's a film that, I think, deserves a second chance.

Light 'em up.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Triumph of the Will?

As Hollywood grows increasingly bereft of original ideas, more and more classic films are being desecrated by unnecessary, unwanted and ultimately inferior remakes. Don't get me wrong - I think remakes are fine in certain cases. If the original film was technically flawed in some way, or if it missed an opportunity to make a salient point, or if the story can be updated in some way to make it more relevant for our time, then by all means have at it, but some films are so perfect, so timeless, that they should be off the table as far as remakes go. Sam Peckinpah's monumental 1969 Western, The Wild Bunch, is just such a film, but of course, nothing is off the table in today's Hollywood, and a remake has been in the works for some time. If that wasn't bad enough in and of itself, it was recently announced that Will Smith is on tap to star in the film. I have nothing against Will Smith; I've enjoyed him in many films, such as Independence Day and the Men In Black series, but the announcement of his (mis)casting in what is certain to be a cinematic travesty is the straw (dog) that broke the camel's back. I now present for you seven reasons why remaking The Wild Bunch, especially with Will Smith, is a bad, bad idea.

1. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, The Wild Bunch does not need to be remade. Peckinpah's original still retains its visceral power nearly 45 years after its release. It's arguably the finest film by one of the greatest directors in the history of American cinema, and there's really nothing about it that could have been done better.

2. Smith is a fine actor in the right role, but I'm not convinced that he's capable of fully conveying the self-loathing that is a crucial aspect of the main character in The Wild Bunch. William Holden did a magnificent job in the original film of demonstrating Pike Bishop's inner disgust at the man he had become. Smith just doesn't have the world-weariness or the gravitas necessary for the role.

3. The remake will not be a Western, but will be a contemporary thriller featuring Smith as a disgraced DEA agent. The whole raison d'ĂȘtre of the original was to tell the story of a group of outlaws left behind by changing times not long after the turn of the twentieth century. A remake set in modern times won't be capable of rendering that milieu with any sort of authenticity, which begs the question: what's the point?

4. The original was extremely violent and bloody, but the violence was presented in a realistic fashion meant to show the audience that death is an ugly business. The remake will undoubtedly try to top the original, but will showcase the violence in a flashier manner, with less moral weight - as modern action film audiences are accustomed to - and it will probably be rendered with fake-looking CGI blood, totally ruining the effect.

5. Smith rejected the title role in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (which eventually went to Jamie Foxx), reportedly because he felt it wasn't prominent enough (anyone who actually saw Foxx's rousing performance in the finished film should find such a sentiment laughable). If he's truly conceited enough to feel that he's not suited for any role other than the lead, then he has no business acting in The Wild Bunch. It's an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle.

6. The practical effects that were accomplished on the set of the original, such as the bridge that was blown up with actual stuntmen and horses on it, gave it a sense of realism that will likely be completely absent from the remake due to the overuse of CGI effects.

7. It's highly unlikely that the characters will be as morally ambiguous as they were in the original, which is what made them so interesting. I have a difficult time imagining that the remake's screenplay and performances will have the courage to walk the fine line between showing the audience that the characters are very bad people yet still allowing us to care deeply for them. That sort of nuance is hard to come by these days, at least in big budget, star-driven films that have to appeal to the widest audience possible if they're to have any hope of earning their production costs back.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Roger Ebert: 1942 - 2013

I think it's safe to say that the average moviegoer doesn't put much stock in the opinions of movie critics. If they did, the weekly box office reports would look a lot different than they do now. Although I'm far from the average moviegoer, I don't pay much attention to what most critics say, either. I read their reviews, sure, and I can usually take something of value away from what they say, but in the end, their endorsements or their condemnations mean very little to me. (For the record, I don't consider myself a movie critic, just someone who likes to write about movies.) The one, major exception to this rule has always been Roger Ebert, who tragically passed away a few days ago, leaving a gaping hole in the world of film criticism that will likely never be filled.

Roger Ebert has been a part of virtually my entire life as a movie fan. At some point in my young life, it became apparent to me that movies were more than just a way to kill a few hours; they were a form of art, and they could mean something. It was at this point that I began to watch the movie review show Sneak Previews, featuring Ebert and co-host Gene Siskel, on public television. Although I was frequently dumbfounded as to why they panned many of the movies I loved (often, their "Dog of the Week" was the movie I was looking forward to the most), it became apparent to me that their opinions stemmed from a genuine love of cinema. I also became aware that certain types of movies I might have dismissed out of hand could actually be worth watching. I continued to watch the various incarnations of their show for many years, with various co-hosts filling in following Siskel's death in 1999.

In more recent years, Ebert's online column was often my first stop when researching a new film, and his blog and Twitter feed found him branching out and writing about other subjects just as eloquently as he did about film. While he may have lost his ability to speak following cancer surgery several years ago, his robust online presence demonstrated that he had not lost his voice. So many critics seem only to care about demonstrating their intellectual superiority by ripping films apart, but if Ebert was hard on a film, it was usually because he was disappointed by its failure to take full advantage of what the medium is capable of. With that being said, Ebert was often able to find something worthwhile in films that other critics didn't have the time of day for. He was often remarkably prescient in appreciating the true value of certain films well ahead of others, such as Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch; he was able to look past the film's graphic violence and recognize it for the masterpiece it is now (almost universally) considered to be.

The increasing prevalence of online journalism means that practically anyone can be a critic these days, given enough time and exposure. A glance at some of the aggregated reviews on a site like Rotten Tomatoes presents one with a list of a few familiar names and many more unfamiliar ones. While this approach may provide a much greater quantity of opinions, it's unlikely that we will soon see another critic whose opinion will mean as much to me, and to many of us, as Roger Ebert's did. He was truly one of the greats.

Monday, January 7, 2013

What goes around comes around

Jeff Bridges, in King Kong (1976, top) and Heaven's Gate (1980)
There's been an odd sort of symmetry to my movie watching as of late, and I'm not referring to the intentional kind. Like most film geeks, I periodically embark upon my own, private "film festivals," during which I'll view multiple films by the same director or featuring the same actor, but this isn't that. I'm finding that many of the films I'm watching have a completely unexpected connection to another one recently viewed, whether it's an actor who appears in both, a thematic consistency or even a similar scene. It's actually a bit weird. I first noticed it about a month or two ago, but it hasn't been until the last week or so that I've started to make note of the phenomenon. It's almost like some weird version of the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game that I'm playing without realizing it.

For instance, the weekend before last, I rented Steven Spielberg's Jaws, John Guillermin's 1976 version of King Kong and Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. It occurred to me after I had returned home with the discs that I had almost rented the original version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three as well, which meant I would have had two 1970s films starring Robert Shaw, but that didn't even occur to me while I was at the video store. King Kong, of course, stars Jessica Lange, and we'd just finished watching season one of American Horror Story on NetFlix a few weeks before. Without really thinking about it, I'd watched Lange's first filmed performance shortly after seeing one of her most current. There had been other recent instances such as these, but I didn't pay much attention to them beyond an initial moment of surprise, chalking things up to pure coincidence.

The unexpected connections deepened this past weekend, when we watched, among other things, Michael Winner's The Sentinel, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The first two films were streamed on NetFlix, the last two were viewed on rented Blu-rays. The Sentinel, of course, highlights devilish goings-on in a New York City apartment building, as seen in Rosemary's Baby the weekend before, but strangely enough, both films also feature actresses who were once married to Frank Sinatra (Mia Farrow in Rosemary, Ava Gardner in Sentinel). The Sentinel also features a barely-there performance by a young Christopher Walken, who has a starring role in the very next film I watched, Heaven's Gate. I had been wanting to revisit the Cimino film ever since Criterion announced their restored director's cut Blu-ray release, so it was on my mind long before seeing Walken in The Sentinel. Another featured performer in Heaven's Gate is a young, bearded Jeff Bridges, who I'd just seen in King Kong. Heaven's Gate also showcases stunning views of Glacier National Park in Montana, as do the opening helicopter shots in The Shining, a fact I was completely unaware of until I looked it up on Wikipedia while watching the film. 

The oddest connection of all was between the Indiana Jones film and The Shining, both of which have brief scenes in which one character expresses a desire to talk meaningfully with another, prompting the second character to ask facetiously what the first character would like to talk about, leading to an uncomfortable moment between the two. It's not necessarily an unusual type of scene to have in a film, but I'm not convinced that I would have noticed this juxtaposition had I not watched the two films back-to-back, and the strangeness of witnessing these oddly similar scenes in two disparate films, one right after the other, resonated with me. Just to bring things full circle and to make sure I was paying attention, a few of the documentaries that were featured on the Blu-ray of The Shining had interviews with - wait for it - Steven Spielberg.

I'm not sure if I simply didn't pick up on these connections before, or if I'm actually gravitating toward films that have something in common. I do think having films available to watch instantly plays a big part in it. While I may not have had a conscious desire to see two Christopher Walken films in a row, having both of them at my fingertips via NetFlix perhaps allowed me to indulge a subconscious desire without fully realizing it. Maybe after seeing the older (but still stunning) Jessica Lange in American Horror Story, part of me felt like traveling back through time via the magic of cinema to gaze upon her younger counterpart. Whatever's behind this, it'll be interesting to see if this trend continues, especially now that I'm fully aware of it.