California Literary Review

The Fourth Wall

A Film and Television Blog

The Weekly Listicle Covers The Best Movie Cover Songs!

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September 24th, 2010 at 2:27 am

There may be an Academy Award for “Best Original Song,” but where’s the love for all the other songs that films so desperately depend on? It’s hard to believe now, but there was once a time when motion pictures weren’t chockablock with Top 40 pop hits. In the past 50 years or so this has become a common practice (some people blame Martin Scorsese, but I think even Scorsese would point a finger more emphatically at Kenneth Anger), and for every movie like The Bounty Hunter that demonstrates little concern for song choice or placement there are plenty of films and television series that put a lot of thought in selecting just the right song for the right moment. Maybe it’s on the nose, maybe it’s ironic, or maybe it’s just jarring and weird, but there’s a lot of mileage to be gained from using a familiar tune in an unfamiliar way.

Movie Still: Glee

TV’s “Glee”: You’ll never think about “going to the mattresses” the same way again.

Why are we even talking about this now? Because “Glee” returned for its second season this week, and boy oh boy, does that show depend on covers for its basic survival… And actually, thus far it’s done a very good job of using existing songs to express new and distinctive sentiments. Our Listicle this week covers these kinds of covers: memorable tunes that are reimagined to tell a different story. What’s your favorite cover song in film history? Most of ours are below.

WILLIAM’S PICKS:

“Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin’ In The Rain (dir. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952)

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Singin’ In The Rain is almost universally considered “the greatest movie musical of all time,” and it just may be, but not everyone realizes that hardly any of the now-classic tunes from the soundtrack were originally written for the film. Even the title number was originally performed in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, an almost completely forgotten production by anyone’s standards. Most of the songs had suffered similar fates in earlier, less famous films, but “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the exception. Everyone knows and loves Donald O’Connor’s manic and hilarious performance of the song in Singin’ In The Rain, but his co-star Gene Kelly performed it himself just a few years prior in Vincent Minnelli’s impressive but comparatively lackluster film The Pirate. Back then it was called “Be A Clown.”

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What’s fascinating about this little bit of trivia is that nobody gave credit to “Be A Clown’s” original composer, the great Cole Porter, even though they were both MGM productions. They’re not exactly the same number, but listen to them closely. Even the changes to the lyrics feel minimal: the purpose of the number is exactly the same. Porter never filed a formal complaint, but maybe that’s because “Make ‘Em Laugh” is clearly the superior version of the song, used in more appropriate context and choreographed with near-infinite superiority. “Make ‘Em Laugh” is one of Singin’ In The Rain’s many highlights. “Be A Clown” was a pretty forgettable number in a pretty forgettable movie. It’s a great song either way, but this here remains one of the prime examples of how to use an existing song to greater effect cinematically than even the original performance.

“Mandy” from “Angel” (created by Joss Whedon & David Greenwalt, 1999-2004)

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The second season of “Angel,” the spin-off of the cult hit “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” that some would even argue dwarfed the original series in quality (if only for a couple of seasons), introduced a pretty wonky conceit: A demon named Lorne (the late, great Andy Hallett), who could read people’s pasts, presents and even their futures… but only if they sang karaoke. That’s some pretty silly stuff, but it worked. Why?

Because “Angel” was an uncomfortably dark series when it first aired. Clever, but not particularly “fun.” Obviously, incorporating a plot point that forced the protagonists – and sometimes even the villains – to belt out a few pop hits would lighten up the proceedings a bit. But the real reason why Lorne’s abilities were karaoke-based was also the source of the idea’s dramatic potential: Singing forces one to bare their soul, particularly if they aren’t comfortable expressing their emotions otherwise. Many of the characters on “Angel” could be described as guarded, even in denial of their own feelings, so karaoke, and the ridiculousness thereof, was almost a perfect antidote for both the series’ and its protagonists’ grimness.

Movie Still: Angel

Alas, this clever idea backfired seasons later, when lovable Lorne found himself too popular to write off of the show, but too limited to do more than issue one-liners like “Is there a Gepetto in the house?!”

The cognitive dissonance between such a jovial pastime and Angel’s inner torment was best illustrated in his performance of “Mandy,” originally performed by Barry Manilow and written by Scott English and Richard Kerr. David Boreanaz’s extreme awkwardness and tone-deaf performance made it a comic wonder, but the eventual revelation of why he would choose such a mawkish number in the first place – the blood of the innocent was a factor – made it a classic. Read more…

Mad (wo)Men: The Complexity of Womanhood in “Mad Men”

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September 17th, 2010 at 9:05 am

The cast of AMC’s “Mad Men:” Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery, Jon Hamm, January Jones, and Christina Hendricks.

EDITED TO INCLUDE COMMENTARY at bottom of article on Season 4, Episode 9, “THE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS,” air date 9/19/10.

AMC’s “Mad Men” is currently in its 4th (and probably best) season. It’s June, 1965, and “the times, they are a-changin’.” Both men and women on the show are experiencing massive upheavals along with the rest of the country, which was approaching a nearly unprecedented point of social unrest. The civil rights movement had begun in earnest; John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated; the Cassius Clay (whom the characters refuse to call his then-given name, Mohammad Ali)/Sonny Liston fight prompts horrible jokes about how “if I wanted to see two Negroes fight I’d drop a dollar bill out my door.” Second-wave feminism is about to knock everyone for a loop and the Vietnam War is going to alter lives forever. Male and female characters alike are choosing: dive in and go with the flow or fight against the rising tide? Note: here there be spoilers.

The ladies of “Mad Men:” Betty (Jones), Joan (Hendricks), and Peggy (Moss).

Despite the show’s title, the women of “Mad Men” are making the most leaps by far. Our three leading ladies are Betty (formerly Draper) Francis (January Jones), the picture of bourgeois suburbia; Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), the pioneering professional; and Joan (née Holloway) Harris (Christina Hendricks), who disguises her strength beneath demure dresses and Hermes scarves. The ladies of “Mad Men” are some of the most complex, fascinating, unpredictable, and infinitely watchable characters on TV. Creator Matthew Weiner offers a varied and sympathetic examination of the pressures under which women toiled in the tumultuous late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and the show draws frightening analogies between the quandaries of the characters in the ‘60s and ours today. It gracefully, subtly reveals just how much (or little) progress we’ve made. A friend told me that until recently, she couldn’t watch “Mad Men” because her inner feminist found it totally offensive. My (not-so) inner feminist is positively thrilled with the show’s offerings.

Betty Draper in her most frequent haunt: the kitchen.

First of the Mad Women is Betty Draper Francis, main character Don Draper’s ex-wife and the picture of ladylike frostiness. Betty is, perhaps, the show’s representation of the worst of the suburban 1950s: weak, white-gloved, and wealthy, Betty’s upper-class disdain radiates from her every (invisible) pore. She is a child, a selfish brat who smokes too much and never eats (over four seasons, I don’t think she’s eaten on camera more than once or twice). She’s a status-obsessed, wasp-waisted debutante with an ice queen demeanor. Betty’s the character who, in the first episode, caught her daughter Sally (the fantastic Kiernan Shipka) wearing a plastic dry-cleaning bag around her head and threatened to spank her if the dress was wrinkled. To be fair, Betty went through hell with her overbearing, duly status-obsessed family and in her farce of a marriage to Don. She has a breaking point: in the first season, in the midst of a mini-breakdown, she whipped out a shotgun and blasted the neighbor’s doves out of the sky; she also had restaurant bathroom sex with a stranger to get back at Don for his indiscretions. But this season has really made her the (little) bad wolf. Weiner has set her up for a fall, I think, because she’s far and away the most old-fashioned of the show’s women.

Ah, the heartwarming family dinner, complete with mother who smokes instead of eats and father who’s always running out the door.

Read more…

The Weekly Listicle: Claustro-MANIA!

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September 16th, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Take some deep breaths, movie fans – we’re going in. This weekend’s new shocker, Devil, appears to feature a bunch of hapless folks trapped in a dark elevator with something quite nasty. Later this season, we will also be getting Buried, concerning a man negotiating for his life while buried in a box underground.

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Claustrophobia may be the all-time favorite phobia of those who make film and television. It’s common, relatable, and whatever grip it has on an individual viewer, few have anything besides an aversion to imprisonment in the lonely dark. Sometimes the dungeons are physical, sometimes figments of a disturbed mind. Whether literal or psychological, people are constantly trying to find a way out of – or occasionally keep themselves safe inside – constructs of this kind. Check your personal effects at the door and squeeze in for a discussion of claustrophobic drama with William Bibbiani, Julia Rhodes, and me (Dan Fields).

DAN’S PICKS:

Cube (dir. Vincenzo Natali, 1997)

”The

Before Saw done it, Cube done it better.

It’s a classic science fiction nightmare – waking up in a strange place where the rules of the world you knew yesterday no longer apply. The Canadian cult smash Cube is a great example of filmmakers getting the most out of a shoestring budget and a simple but solid premise.

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Movie Time Nostalgia, Part 1: I Remember Sleeping Beauty

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September 14th, 2010 at 9:00 am

Movie Time Nostalgia

Any director who’s made a good or even halfway-decent movie this year – there have been several – cover your ears; you’re off the hook. But for the most part, 2010 has been a bust. People seem to make the same complaint every year, and yet we keep going to movies because we love them. No matter how many let us down, we keep searching for the ones that won’t. So why do you love watching movies? Yes, you in the back with the gum. What brought this about in your own life?

For most movie lovers, it is no challenge to rattle off a short list of all-time favorite films. But consider the experiences that truly shaped you. When did you first replace the thought, “Hey, that movie was pretty good,” with, “Wow, I really like movies!” What did it take to cement your status as a movie nut, a film buff, or even… ugh… a cinephile?

As with the appreciation of any kind of art, there are no right or wrong answers – although the more films we see, the more snotty and opinionated we all tend to get about our individual preferences. Most of your personal milestones are probably still your favorites. Others may have simply pointed you down the path to discovering your favorites. Whatever place they hold on your all-time honor roll, consider the movies that have really mattered. In this article, and several to follow, I hope to stir up your fondest movie-watching nostalgia, if you will forgive me the crime of indulging in some of my own.

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The Weekly Listicle: Franchises that REALLY should have quit while they were ahead!

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September 10th, 2010 at 9:24 am

First, there was the Resident Evil video game. The people were satisfied with their zombie killing and conspiracy theories and gorgeous zombie-killing dames, oh yes. Then Milla Jovovich, who had already dive-bombed her way into geek hearts (and other organs) as flame-haired Leeloo in The Fifth Element, tackled the role of Alice in the Resident Evil film. The geeks were still fairly happy. A combination of good effects, the Umbrella Corporation’s all-too-plausible conspiracy, and hot women seemed to keep everyone on an even keel.

Resident Evil: Afterlife poster

And the series played on…

This weekend, Screen Gems is releasing the fourth Resident Evil film. The first two were enjoyable. The third was terrible. I can’t imagine the fourth will be much more than fun effects, and on top of that it’s taking advantage of every studio’s favorite cash cow, 3D. I’ll be there with an open mind (promise!) to see how the movie fares.

But we here at The Fourth Wall have some strong opinions on those movies that killed their respective (often great) franchises. The horror and action genres are the usual suspects in the heinous crime of tapping a delicious keg and then making us pay for the disgusting foam, but we’ve found some unlikely culprits in the mix. Join William Bibbiani, Dan Fields, and me (Julia Rhodes!) for this edition of The Weekly Listicle as we lament Hollywood’s ability to take a good thing and make you want to bang your head against the ticket counter.

Julia’s Picks:

The Saw franchise (7 movies, 2004-present)

Cary Elwes in Saw

Yes, Cary Elwes, cell phone addiction is a very real problem…

James Wan’s Saw is actually a smart, tense, indie horror flick. It features brutal kills, good scares, and a genuinely spooky villain in Jigsaw (Tobin Bell). In Saw, two men awaken to find themselves trapped in a terrible underground prison, and struggle through the tautly edited film to find out how they got there and how to escape. In this first film, heroin addict Amanda (Shawnee Smith) survives a reverse bear trap “game”—that would have ripped her head in two—by cutting open another victim to retrieve a key. Other victims endure similar torture and don’t often make it out alive. Darren Lynn Bousman’s Saw II features a group of shady people in an enormous, booby-trapped mansion and pitted against one another Cube-style. In the second film, Amanda gets tossed into a pit of hypodermic needles—something to give nearly anyone nightmares, but particularly those of us who fear pokey metal things. Another character reaches into a pair of traps that cut off her hands when she tries to extract them. Saw II isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great either. The deaths are nothing short of memorable, as in the case of the Final Destination movies—yet another franchise that probably should’ve ended, but that’s for another article.

Saw 2

The games continue…and continue…

In the first three Saw films Jigsaw is a cancer survivor who feels a certain subset of people should die because they don’t value their lives enough. Ostensibly he’s setting people up to kill themselves due to their own depravity; a serial killer playing God is not a new thing in horror movies, and weak people get absorbed by the ones who play God, so when Amanda becomes Jigsaw’s accomplice and apprentice it’s not a surprise. But after they both die, things get pretty old pretty quickly. While the first film scored a decent cast featuring Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, and Monica Potter, the second movie had the likes of Donnie Wahlberg and “Seventh Heaven”’s Beverley Mitchell. After that, it just goes downhill.

I mean, really, enough already. We’re on the sixth movie in a short six years. Someone decided the first couple movies, which always released around Halloween, made enough cash that the series should go on…and on…and on. After the third movie, they’ve gotten stupid. This year marks the release of Saw 3D, which surprises absolutely no one. What? The creators of a cash cow series that should’ve ended five years ago are banking on the horribly overrated 3D trend? You don’t say.

The Land Before Time franchise (13 movies, 1988 – present)

Littlefoot and Mom in The Land Before Time

Irresistibly adorable: Littlefoot and Mama in The Land Before Time.

Don Bluth’s striking cel animation adds an element of surreal beauty to even the kiddiest of stories. An American Tail, All Dogs Go to Heaven, The Secret of NIMH, and The Land Before Time are some of the best animated movies outside the Disney sphere. The Land Before Time follows baby Brachiosaur Littlefoot, who loses his mother to the Big Earth Shake. He sets out on a journey with a group of other baby dinosaurs to find the Great Valley, a lushly verdant land of water and trees that is a nearly mythological contrast to the arid deserts across which the dinosaurs trek. The movie is melodramatic, overly adorable, and ridiculously endearing. Its quirky characters, beautiful animation, and lively story have made it a favorite of both adults and kids.

Land Before Time The Wisdom of Friends

What are those things? And it’s been 20 years, hasn’t Littlefoot grown into Bigfoot yet? (Wait a minute…)

In the early 2000s I went to work in corporate video rental stores for five years, and was flabbergasted by the five sequels already on the kids’ section shelves. Then the franchise started up again in 2001, releasing six (count ‘em, six) more movies. To this day, there are thirteen Land Before Time movies—and all but one went straight to video. Oh, and don’t forget the short-lived TV series. Bluth tapped into an untold resource: kids love dinosaurs (and let’s face it, so do adults); kids love singing; grownups love those movies they can use to teach their kids “valuable lessons” about “great giving” and “the wisdom of friends.” Someone recognized these themes in the original film and ran with them. Enough is enough. Why couldn’t the studios just let an adorable sleeping brachiosaur lie?

The Star Wars prequels (6 movies total, prequels: 1999, 2002, 2005)

Star Wars

Star Wars: a G-D cultural phenomenon, and for good reason.

Read more…

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the Horror and Beauty of Ballet

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September 9th, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Portman has never looked quite so spooky: the Black Swan poster.

Once upon a time, I was a little girl who, as my oldest friend likes to put it, loved to wear cute little dresses, then swing on the monkey bars and play with the boys. (I like to think this is still a fair representation of my personality.) I also squeezed myself into a leotard, tights, and legwarmers, then shoved my tiny feet into pastel pink ballet shoes and clung to the bar for dear life as I strove for a plié in fifth position. I was no ballerina, but ballet occupied a part of my growing brain that nothing else could. I ached for the exquisite beauty, strength, and poise of the ballerinas striding and leaping beneath the hot white lights in The Nutcracker. I never danced en pointe, eventually grew out of the legwarmers, and started playing softball, but ballet continues to fascinate me. Though I’m drawn most often to drama, satire, and horror, I can hardly resist a ballet movie…and it’s interesting how ballet fits so well in those genres.

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Black Swan‘s theatrical trailer.

The trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s highly anticipated thriller Black Swan released recently, and it made me think: why does a movie that focuses on ballet dancers appear so utterly bizarre and frightening? Black Swan tells the story of prima ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) who is cast by artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) in the role of the swan in Swan Lake. Rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) provides an eerie doppelganger for Nina as the two battle it out for the lead role and the love of the artistic director. Aronofsky’s films are often bizarre, surreal, and spooky; Black Swan looks no different—but if there’s one director who can do beautiful and horrific at once, it’s Aronofsky.

Ballet is an art form, a style and grace of movement that captivates so many because it is so extraordinary. So why is it, then, that so many movies about ballet are horror-influenced?

Moira Shearer dances like there’s no tomorrow in The Red Shoes.

Read more…

Catching Up With 2010: Marmaduke

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September 8th, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Movie Still: Marmaduke

“What’s up?”
“The usual. You?”
“Same sh**, different day.”

A scant few minutes into Marmaduke there’s a fart joke. Right after this fart joke Marmaduke turns to the camera and confesses, “I know it’s juvenile, but it’s all I’ve got.” It’s extremely tempting to leave this review at that, knock off early and pound some tequila slammers, but I’m a respected professional, damn it. A respected professional who… has to write about Marmaduke. Sigh… So instead I’ll just combine my review of Marmaduke with tequila slammers and see what happens next.

Anyway, not terribly long ago a film version of the “popular” comic strip Marmaduke was released in theaters. I put “popular” in quotation marks because nobody actually seems to like the strip, if indeed they ever did. It’s an old standard, accepted by the public as something that comes with the paper that no one actually reads, like those little advertisements that fall out when you open it and get thrown away, unread and unloved. So someone in a position of power in Hollywood thought, “Unread and unloved? That sounds like the perfect movie!” I’m guessing the relative success of the live-action Garfield movie was a factor, but the Garfield comic strip actually made somebody laugh once. Marmaduke on the other hand has an entire website dedicated to analyzing what its creators arbitrarily consider “jokes.”

Movie Still: Marmaduke

But alas, the cone of silence was defective… and the talking dog movie ensued.

The concept behind Marmaduke isn’t a terribly complicated one. Frankly, Garfield reads like Chaucer in comparison. A normal family has a very large dog. Seriously, this is one very large dog. Too large for convenience really, but they’ve had him long enough that feel morally compelled to treat him like a member of the family. But man, seriously? That’s one large dog. Not quite Clifford, but close enough for government work. So turning Marmaduke into a movie should have been easy. Just remake Beethoven and call it a day. Read more…

Hammer to Fall? Not This Year, Horror Show Fans!

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September 4th, 2010 at 4:10 pm

A Hammer Film Production

In its proper time and place, no higher honor.

Decades after its apparent demise, a titan of horror film history is back from the grave. Maestro, a little flashback music, please…

At the end of the 1950s, British studio Hammer Film Productions began a long reign of terror with three iconic films – The Curse Of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Dracula (known in the United States as Horror Of Dracula). All three films co-star Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and over the next two decades, Hammer churned out dozens of films in the same vein (ha!). The best ones featured one or both of these two actors, who became notorious as, respectively, Doctor Van Helsing and Count Dracula. They battled their way through many Dracula sequels, from the foothills of 19th century Transylvania to modern-day (in 1972, anyway) London.

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Hammer specialized in the weird, the horrific, and the suspenseful. Some of the pictures were garish, some ludicrous, some downright exploitative, but most were eye-catching, sexy and fun. Directors such as Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis had the means for lavish production design at their disposal, and boy, did they go for it! In the Dracula films especially, a mix of provincial cottages, London streets, and deep dark woods make for dynamic and immersive stories, even though the basic “Dracula rises, feeds, is destroyed, will rise again” plot varies little from picture to picture. There are also quality supporting players and buxom babes aplenty. It’s not as commonly understood nowadays that getting scared by a movie should be fun, not merely upsetting. The most substantial parallel to the Hammer horror machine was the contemporary work of American International Pictures, whose champion of choice was Vincent Price. Most noteworthy are the two Dr. Phibes movies, and Roger Corman’s series of freewheeling (but mostly fantastic) Edgar Allan Poe adaptations.

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The Weekly Listicle: Oscar Buzz 2011 Unleashed!!!

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September 2nd, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Well, here we are… 3/4’s of the way through the year and the Academy Award nominees are almost completely up in the air. Sure, the major nominees are usually held off until the last few months, but with ten Best Picture nominations up for grabs you’d think there would have been a greater effort to find cream in the crop. Inception seems like a lock for Best Picture, as does Toy Story 3 and maybe a few acting nominations for Winter’s Bone, but seriously… it’s looking grim.

Movie Still: Toy Story 3

“Come on, guys! The other nominees have to be around here somewhere…!

So while we have Sofia Coppola, David Fincher, The Coen Brothers and more coming up in the final stretch, we here at The California Literary Review thought we’d take this opportunity to promote a few potential nominees we don’t want to get lost in the shuffle. From gentle reminders of critically-acclaimed films to unlikely standouts, these picks are all worthy of Oscar Buzz. So start buzzing, hmm?

WILLIAM’S PICKS:

BEST PICTURE: MicMacs

Movie Still: MicMacs

True love, bullets and human cannonballs. MicMacs remains the best film that nobody’s talking about in 2010.

In my review of MicMacs for rival site Crave Online, I called Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest film “definitely the best film of the year so far.” It certainly was, and although Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World have both ever-so-slightly edged MicMacs out of my #1 spot, Jeunet’s first film since A Very Long Engagement – and his best film to date – remains one of the 2010’s crowning accomplishments. It would be a shame to find such a wonderful piece of filmmaking snubbed by the Academy, particularly with ten Best Picture nominations ripe for the plucking.

Danny Boon stars as Bazil, whose father was killed by a landmine, driving Bazil’s mother mad with grief and forcing him into a Dickensian life of orphanages and loneliness. As an adult, Bazil is shot in the head by a stray bullet, which lodges itself so firmly into his brain that it cannot be removed without turning him into a vegetable. So the doctors leave it in, knowing that it could kill Bazil at any moment. Bazil could live to be a very old man, or die before he leaves the hospital. Repeatedly throughout the film Bazil suffers from a sudden seizure, which he alleviates by smacking himself upside the head and knocking the bullet back into place. Oh, and because he was in the hospital he loses his job and apartment. This is a feel good comedy about innocence and hope, incidentally.

Movie Still: MicMacs

On second thought, maybe MicMacs deserves an Art Direction nomination while we’re at it.

You see, Bazil falls in with a crowd of homeless eccentrics who take him in as family, the first he has known in perhaps his entire life. Bazil is poor but happy until one day he makes a startling discovery: The company that made the landmine and the company that made the bullet in his skull are both in his neighborhood, and right across the street from each other. He tries to confront the evil owners of these weapons manufacturers, but when he is kicked to the curb he begins an elaborate plan to exact justice on those who profit from human misery. His newfound family, comprised of people with unusual skills like contortionism and human bulletry, join him for the ride as Jeunet takes the audience on an unexpected and highly entertaining tale of imagination versus cynicism.

MicMacs feels at times like a companion piece to Amelie, Jeunet’s most popular film, without ever seeming like it entirely revisits the same territory. Once again the director depicts a world of beautiful dreamers forced who are forced to share the same planet as brutal monsters, and once again romanticism prevails. Jeunet’s iconic eye is in full display here as he peppers his landscapes with posters for his own film, and unforgettable scenes abound, like a sequence in which two characters are blindfolded and picture what’s going on around them in similar but distinctly different interpretations.

MicMacs is a remarkable film worthy of recognition come Oscar time. Hey Academy, remember when you snubbed Amelie for Best Foreign Film (and four other Oscars to boot)? This is your chance to make up for that.

BEST DIRECTOR: Edgar Wright, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Movie Still: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is “an epic of epic epicness.” And no other director could have brought it to life.

It would be nice to think that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, universally acclaimed but financially unsuccessful, has a place in the Best Picture nominees this year. Even with only five possible nominations, movies like The Shawshank Redemption have been able to hit the same criteria and boost their visibility via Oscar consideration. Scott Pilgrim may be able to ride the District 9 vote, where hip young Academy Members manage to prove how cool they are by sticking up for the pop cultural underdog. But the fact remains that no matter how many movies are nominated for Best Picture, only the five that also get nominated for Best Director will be considered the “real” nominees. And Edgar Wright deserves one of those spots.

Read more…

The Weekly Listicle: What… The Devil?

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August 26th, 2010 at 8:50 pm

With The Last Exorcism possessing cinema screens this weekend, it may be a banner year for the forces of darkness.

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Ti West‘s The House Of The Devil crept right up a lot of spines this year, and with a little gumption and a lot of clever marketing, Paranormal Activity played to packed houses over the summer.

But devils and demons are nothing new to film and TV. A fascination with the supernatural, and particularly its dark side, dates back to the earliest days of moving pictures. Murnau’s Faust and Nosferatu top a seemingly endless list of diabolical encounters. We would like to share with you some our favorite devilish deals, demonic possessions, and hellish mischief from the vaults.

Please allow us to introduce ourselves. We are Julia Rhodes, William Bibbiani, and Dan Fields. Call us The Critics, for we are many.

DAN’S PICKS:

Fallen (1998, directed by Gregory Hoblit)

An uncomfortable number of eyes are on Denzel in Fallen.

Well, here’s a puzzler.

What do you do about a killer? (Why, catch him.)

What do you do about a copycat killer? (Well, catch him too, if you can.)

What do you do about a soul that can jump from body to body at will, infecting each new host with the same murderous temperament?

This is the problem of detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) in Fallen. Following the execution of a really nasty killer he has brought to justice, Hobbes faces mounting evidence that the late criminal might be continuing his killing spree from beyond the grave.

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Enter the fallen angel (that is to say, demon) Azazel, who utilizes the living bodies of humans and animals to carry out its dark designs of mayhem and murder. Washington must first accept the fact of supernatural evil and then learn to fight it before too many people die, or before the demon can convince enough people he’s crazy and so put a stop to his pursuit.

The demon is clever, and can transfer itself through touch from one host to the next. Don’t let this thing into a crowd, in other words, or you may never find it. Fighting a foe you can neither see nor track really boosts the challenge of the chase. And of course this is bound to happen, and makes for the film’s most memorable sequence. A fine supporting cast, including John Goodman and Donald Sutherland, round this one out. The hunt is on, human versus demon. Who will win?

Who indeed?

Storm Of The Century (1999, directed by Craig R. Baxley)

“Give me what I want and I’ll go away,” says Linoge. If only it were that simple.

This chilling miniseries is Read more…

A Watchful Eye On… Ti West

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August 24th, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Barely on the edge of thirty, filmmaker Ti West has four feature films – with more on the way – and a respectable cult following to his name. Many a young director’s dream come true. Critics have mused, and interviews with West have confirmed, that his approach to projects draws heavily on the influence of Roger Corman. In West’s own words, he and his production group, Glass Eye Pix, aim to make “B movies with A ideas,” a phrase coined by Glass Eye’s producer Larry Fessenden.

The House Of The Devil has many shadows to wander. Bring a knife.

West’s films, especially creature feature The Roost and his latest chiller The House Of The Devil, bring another influence to mind. There is an element of Tobe Hooper’s best work – The Funhouse, Eaten Alive, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – in West’s taut buildups, bizarre scenarios, and brutal payoffs. His debut feature, The Roost (2005) boasts murderous farmers and killer bats aplenty. This seems to have Tobe Hooper throwback written all over it.

In adding more notches to his director’s belt, West demonstrates a keen sense of atmosphere and suspense. He is not afraid to take his time in building the story to a boil. Sometimes it may go on a little too long, as in his 2007 survival thriller Trigger Man, before things actually start happening. However, the contemplative pace of this film allows the actors do a little bit acting, which isn’t so bad. And when things happen, boy do they happen.

Read more…

The Weekly Listicle: Man vs. Nature–Deathmatch!

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August 19th, 2010 at 7:12 pm

This week marks the release of what’s sure to be the masterpiece of 2010 (aside from Sharktopus, that is): Piranha 3D. To be fair, director Alexandre Aja (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes) has a deft touch behind the camera, and the cast includes such horror greats as Richard Dreyfuss and Ving Rhames. Piranha 3D may be the only reason to slip those ridiculous glasses on your face this summer. It pays homage to its predecessors, but it’s also the first horror movie in awhile to deal with simple man vs. wild themes—which form some of the most interesting subgenres in film history.

Piranha 3D: the best thing to happen to 3D since…ever. (A girl can hope.)

Human beings are endlessly arrogant. We assume we reside firmly at the top of the food chain—that we have control of the natural world. For ages, movies have been hell-bent on toppling this structure, on putting our weaknesses and strengths on display for our collective gratification. The man vs. nature, man vs. man’s arrogance, and man vs. predator subgenres tend to blur together, and William Bibbiani, Dan Fields, and I (Julia Rhodes!) at The Fourth Wall bring you our favorites in this week’s Listicle.

JULIA’S PICKS:

The Ghost and the Darkness (dir. Stephen Hopkins, 1996)

“I’mashootcha!”: Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer in The Ghost and the Darkness.

When I mentioned this movie to a friend, the first thing he said was, “Ah, Val Kilmer back when it was good to be Val Kilmer.” This is certainly true (what happened to that guy?), but despite Kilmer and the Hollywoodization of a true story, it’s a fun watch. The Ghost and the Darkness tells the sensationalized true story of Col. John Patterson (Kilmer), an Irish engineer dispatched to darkest Africa in 1898 to build a railway bridge across the Tsavo River. Once Patterson arrives, a pair of man-eating lions begins to ravage the workers’ camp, killing men seemingly without fear, apparently for pleasure. After more than thirty deaths, Sir Robert Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson), head financier of the railroad, sends over Charles Remington (Michael Douglas), a “great American hunter” apparently unrelated to—but whose name is deliberately evocative of—the line of firearms. Remington appears with a tribe of Masai warriors in tow to fend off the man-eaters: he is the brash but civilized connection to the wilderness, and instills a necessary respect for the animal kingdom in Patterson.

The real man-eaters, reconstructed using their bones: maneless and rather small.

In real life, the lions’ bones are on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. The film is based upon Patterson’s autobiographical book, and the man exaggerated his experiences like any good storyteller (and kept their skins as rugs on his floors for 25 years, nearly wearing them through). William Goldman’s script plays up the mystical, strange aspects of the killings. According to the screenplay, the lions, called The Ghost and The Darkness by natives, were thought to be the spirits of dead medicine men…or even demons. There’s that arrogance again: throughout history, man-eating animals take on distinctly human characteristics. In the movie, the lions make prolonged eye contact; they target Patterson (“I think they’re after you,” Remington says to him); they hunt deviously and manage to evade hunters for months through sheer, frightening intelligence. Luckily, the movie includes a number of great kill scenes—the lions and their computerized counterparts are truly formidable, horrific enemies, though there’s a lot of silly emphasis on the “evil demon” aspect of the animals. It’s one of the better, though very dramatic, man vs. predator movies made in the last few decades.

Grizzly Man (dir. Werner Herzog, 2005)

Treadwell among bears on a backdrop of one of the most beautiful settings in the world: Grizzly Man.

Grizzly Man documents the story of Timothy Treadwell, an ecologist who spent thirteen summers camping in Alaska among grizzly bears, filming himself and spiraling deeper into his own bizarre notions of humanity versus wild. Treadwell’s death made national news in 2003—he was eaten alive by the very bears he loved so much. In watching Treadwell’s videos, director Werner Herzog sees poetry in Treadwell’s increasingly insane rants, paranoia, loneliness, in the man’s disconnection from humanity and longing to be an animal. Herzog’s version of Treadwell’s story belongs almost equally to the filmmaker as it does the ecologist. (It’s okay, I’d love Werner Herzog to narrate my life story and occasionally insert personal asides.) Herzog connects with Treadwell, but recognizes a simple difference. “I believe in chaos, death, and murder,” says Herzog. Treadwell firmly believed he was protecting the bears; he thought their world was one of calm, quiet, loving grace. Treadwell (and more sadly, his girlfriend Amie Huegenard) learned this terrible lesson: nature is chaos, death, and murder.

Treadwell was a strange, possibly insane person. He strove for some sort of secondhand fame as a young person, and when he didn’t achieve it he became an alcoholic and drug addict. Once he discovered the bear cause, he stopped drinking and became a fanatic about them. He risked life and limb to live with these animals, and all the while treated them like big, bumbling human beings. “I love you,” he says to the bears as they stalk him from behind. “Excuse me!” he cries indignantly when one takes a swipe at him. Treadwell inserted himself so thoroughly into the bears’ lives that he was willing to interfere with nature. He saw himself as the bears’ savior, a Prince Valiant of sorts, protecting them from evil outsiders…when most of his filming took place on federally protected nature preserves.

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“If I turn around too much she’ll bite me,” says Treadwell. Gee, you think? (Grizzly Man).

Herzog, being a historically curious and sort of bizarre person whose fanaticism regards film and filmmaking, sees Treadwell as a “methodical” filmmaker. Some of the footage Treadwell captured is downright breathtaking. Scenes in which he lives and plays with beautiful arctic foxes, shots with nothing in them at all, and some of the footage he took simply of the bears, is beautiful. When Treadwell begins to slide deeper into his own paranoid fantasies, he turns the camera into a friend and confidante, a lens through which to absorb the insanity of the outside world—a technique also on display in the ultimate mockumentary, The Blair Witch Project. Herzog’s narration and Treadwell’s cinematography combined in Grizzly Man to make a movie that’s alternately bizarre, gorgeous, sweet, and sad.

Jaws (dir. Stephen Spielberg, 1975)

The ultimate man vs. predator movie: Jaws.

We couldn’t possibly write a blog based around Piranha 3D and not include Jaws. I mean, come on. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” is one of film’s most iconic lines. Everyone in the world recognizes John Williams’ rhythmic basso “shark attack” score. The original Piranha film (produced by B-movie legend Roger Corman and directed by Joe Dante in 1978) is a silly rip-off of Jaws, after all.

Yep, we’re gonna need a bigger boat. Jaws.

What I’d forgotten, going in for a rewatch of Jaws, is that it’s actually a really good movie. On Amity Island, the townsfolk are quite horrible; the soundtrack is full of ambient talking, marching band cacophony, screeching children, and boat horns. Where there’s complete and utter chaos above water, the lair of the shark is silent, simple, and beautifully deadly. (This chaos versus calm trope appears repeatedly in man versus predator films.) Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw play off each other masterfully, and the animal effects are nearly unparalleled. Jaws is suspenseful, horrific, and sometimes a little sweet and funny. A film nerd like me should remember that in future. Read more…

Catching Up With 2010: The Bounty Hunter

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August 14th, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Certain films are so pedestrian, so middle of the road, so damned mediocre that they’re not even worth talking about. With that said, let’s review The Bounty Hunter. Lord knows I never pretended to value my time. Nor, apparently, did the makers of The Bounty Hunter. Nor indeed anybody who actually paid to see this dreck (myself included).

Movie Still: The Bounty Hunter

I wish.

Gerard Butler stars as Milo Boyd, a former police officer turned bounty hunter who ends up hunting down his ex-wife after she skips bail to uncover a police conspiracy. Jennifer Aniston plays Nicole, the ex-wife. There’s an undeniable appeal in the concept, which may not exactly be “high” but does provide lots of opportunities for madcap antics. Or at least it would, if director Andy Tennant didn’t completely phone this baby in.

There’s a thin line between a comedic adventure with a romantic subplot and a romantic comedy with a subplot based in adventure. Aside from Romancing The Stone, the latter almost never works (not that the former has an impeccable track record either). Andy Tennant previously tried to navigate those waters in Fool’s Gold, a pathetic attempt to combine The Deep with every romantic comedy ever made. After watching The Bounty Hunter, it becomes abundantly clear that he learned nothing whatsoever from the experience.

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As a romantic comedy, The Bounty Hunter manages to be neither romantic nor even remotely funny. Every tired cliché makes a cameo appearance, yet none of them bothered to do their job. Aniston and Butler’s marriage fell apart before start of the film, so of course the only reason for their break-up must have been because they were “too” perfect for each other. They bicker in a manner only found in bad movies. There’s even a moment when Aniston wraps Butler around her finger by challenging his ego, which he must instantly defend in an outlandish way because it’s the sort of thing Clark Gable could get away with in the 1930’s. Times of have changed, of course, and their behavior careens past Implausible Junction and crash lands right into Dumb As Hell Central. Read more…

The Weekly Listicle vs. The Most Badass Fight Scenes EVER!

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August 12th, 2010 at 11:01 pm

This weekend, while you’re out watching Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (as well you must), you’ll probably find yourself marveling at the simplicity of the concept: Here’s a young man seeking a committed relationship with a young woman, but in order to win her heart so he must first prove himself superior to everyone else she’s ever dated. Bryan Lee O’Malley had a very clever notion when he decided to dramatize that inner conflict through martial arts, and achieved utter brilliance when he married the concept to the storytelling tropes of videogames, which to his protagonists and target audience are as much a way of life as books, comics and films anyway.

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Is it any good? Find out in CLR’s official review this weekend. Until then, Julia Rhodes, Dan Fields and I (William Bibbiani!) are devoting this Weekly Listicle to some of our favorite fight sequences ever. As always, the Listicle is in no particular order, nor are these necessarily the “Best” fight sequences ever recorded. But they’re a fine place to start.

What are your favorite fight sequences?

WILLIAM’S PICKS:

Gordon Liu vs. The Mercenaries, Return To The 36th Chamber (dir. Lau Kar-Leung, 1980)

Movie Still: Return To The 36th Chamber

Gordon Liu plays a man impersonating Gordon Liu who gets trained in both kung fu and scaffolding by Gordon Liu. Ah, the glorious mindf*** that is Return To The 36th Chamber.

Everyone knows that The 36th Chamber is one of the best martial arts movies ever made. At least you’re supposed to, at any rate. In the original film, Gordon Liu (best known to American audiences as Pai Mei in Kill Bill, Volume II) starred as San Te, a young idealist forced into exile after he defied a corrupt government. San Te sought asylum the Shaolin Temple where he would go on to spend years training in 35 chambers specially designed to teach kung fu before finally returning to his home town with all the skills necessary to right the wrongs that forced him to leave in the first place. The 36th Chamber exemplifies many of the finer characteristics of a great kung fu film, emphasizing discipline, training and personal improvement in a story that understands the paradox of praising kung fu while preaching pacifism. With all that said, we are not here to discuss The 36th Chamber. We are here to discuss its bizarre and underrated sequel: Return To The 36th Chamber.

Why is this film so bizarre? Look no further than the plot: Gordon Liu returns as a completely different character, this time a con man called Chu Jen-chieh. He’s hired by the employees of a dye factory to impersonate San Te, Gordon Liu’s character from the first film, and frighten off a group of Manchurian mercenaries who have been stealing the factory’s profits. When Gordon Liu fails to protect the dye factory he runs off to the newly minted 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which Gordon Liu built at the end of the first film to teach martial arts outside of the Shaolin Temple. There, Gordon Liu runs into San Te, his character from the first film, now played by a different actor, who refuses to train the Gordon Liu of the second film and instead forces him to build scaffolding around the 36th chamber. So now Chu Jen-chieh spends his time watching the kung fu training and mixes his day job with martial arts, ultimately developing…

Wait for it…

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Scaffolding Kung Fu.

You have to see it to believe it, and under the watchful eye of master martial arts choreographer and director Lau Kar-Leung it’s an unexpected highlight in a most unexpected movie. Flightier than the original, and easily less classy, Return To The 36th Chamber remains a surprisingly weird and successful sequel with a hell of a standout fight sequence as a finale.

Conan Lee vs. Gordon Liu, Tiger On Beat (dir. Lau Kar-Leung, 1988)

Movie Still: Tiger On Beat

Extra Credit to Chow Yun-Fat for inventing the “Shotgun Yo-Yo” in Tiger On Beat.

Lau Kar-Leung also directed this ill-remembered buddy cop movie which paired gun fu expert Chow Yun-Fat with kung fu expert Conan Lee. I’m not going to dwell on this movie. There’s a reason Tiger On Beat never won the hearts of western audiences the same way The Killer or A Better Tomorrow II did. The tone is all over the place, mixing broad comedy with a hard-hitting criminal underworld story and succeeding at neither, plus there’s an unmistakable air of misogyny to the entire proceedings. In particular, Chow Yun-Fat has a very unpleasant scene in which he mistreats a woman he’s interrogating to an ugly degree.

For these reasons I can’t recommend Tiger On BeatBut I can recommend the explosive finale in which Conan Lee and Gordon Liu, taking a surprisingly small villain role for such a big star, participate in one of the coolest fights ever filmed.

Chainsaw Duel. FIGHT!!!

YouTube Preview Image Read more…

All Of This Will Happen Again: Step Up 2 The Streets Revisited!

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August 6th, 2010 at 5:29 am

The time has come. Zero Hour. Step Up 3D is finally upon us, like a totally flip, flop and fly apocalypse. But you’re not ready to see such a powerhouse piece of filmmaking unless you’ve properly caught up… with Step Up. Earlier this week we took a look at the first Step Up, the hit machine that was both sincere and sincerely stupid. Today we return to analyze the even more popular sequel Step Up 2 The Streets, which may be one of those rare sequels that outdoes the original. Luckily the original was so oppressively mediocre that there’s still plenty of room for Step Up 2 The Streets to suck.

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The year was 2008, two years after Step Up became a surprising box office smash. The sequel was inevitable. The ridiculous title was not. Previous director Anne Fletcher was busying herself with the Katherine Heigl vehicle 27 Dresses, which freed the position for young director Jon Chu, whose previous credits consisted of a few well-received shorts. Chu, working with new screenwriters Karen Barna (“The Mountain”) and Toni Ann Johnson (Save The Last Dance), took the series in a new but ridiculously similar direction. Step 2 The Streets would take place in the same world as Step Up, but feature a new cast and now focus exclusively on impressive choreography, as opposed to the first film’s emphasis on unimpressive romance. The results are highly watchable. Not particularly good, but highly watchable.

Movie Still: Step Up 2 The Streets

To quote Step Up 2 The Streets: “Oooh, Miss Thing, you got titties!”

Briana Evigan (Sorority Row) stars as Andie West, who in the opening sequence describes in voice-over how magical street dancing is, and how her mother supported her dream to dance in “The Streets,” which is the most important dancing competition there is. Every dancer in Baltimore apparently spends all year doing nothing but train for this competition… unless they were in the first movie, in which case no one had ever heard about it. Andie then goes on to mournfully reveal that her mother “got sick” and died when she was 16. After that, “Everything changed. Including The Streets.” Andie never explains why her mother’s untimely death had such a dramatic impact on a street dancing competition. Maybe she was on the board of directors? Read more…

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