Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Apocalypse POW!

Steven Spielberg once said he thought the best directed action sequences of all time were by James Cameron for “T2”. I agree—up until now that is—because a new standard has just been set.

George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” should come with a warning label. This is a movie that grabs you by the balls, squeezes you, and takes you on a thrill ride of unrelenting intensity candy-coated in wicked euphoric glee. And this is not the shoot everything in extreme close-up, shake the camera, and cut every 0.007 seconds incoherent bullshit that passes for action directing these days. This is instead an old-school work of art filled with master shots, wide-angle steady cams, and breathtakingly executed tracking shots peppered with push-ins and pull-outs zooms amid an orchestra of grinding metal and dust.

Charlize Theron is absolutely fantastic as Imperator Furiosa, the heart and soul of this movie.  Tom Hardy is the perfect Max, exuding every bit as much charisma and cool as Mel Gibson did playing the reclusive, emotionally scarred anti-hero back in the early 80s “Mad Max” trilogy. The middle part of that trilogy, “The Road Warrior” (1982) is the best of those films, a cult classic, and one of the best ten action films of all time. “Fury Road” surpasses “The Road Warrior” in every aspect by tenfold. Really! It is that good. What is astonishing is that amid the non-stop action, Miller and company manage to tell a tight, good story with strong character development and real emotional resonance.

Amid the kinetic movement, there is so much going on here visually, from the twisted “Beetlejuice” inspired villain, to the “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” looking henchmen, to the “Dune” styled production design. There is even a hefty dose of “The Fast and Furious” here. But make no mistake, like the original trilogy, “Mad Max: Fury Road” burns with a searing originality of post-punk retro modernism.

Bottom line: “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a masterpiece of action cinema.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Four films, four stars, four must see movies

I began keeping a review journal of films (and to a certain extent television series episodes) in 1985. It is based on the four star rating system (I despise the currently in style five star system used by Amazon, Goodreads etc. I mean since when is three stars a bad review?). Anyway, since starting that journal the number of films rated four stars out of four averages out to 6.7 per year—not even enough to make a best ten list. And since 2005 the average has been only 5.1.

So for me to get excited enough and be emotionally and artistically satisfied enough to dish out that highly coveted mark of excellence, can be a rare occurrence at times. But this year is turning out to be the exception (and hopefully the start of a new trend). Already I have seen four knockout films that earned four stars and had me leaving the theater feeling exhilarated and brimming with stirred up emotions.

What is most encouraging about these four movies is that each feels like the work of an auteur, a very distinct voice with a very specific philosophy and stylistic approach. And they represent a variety, both in terms of approach and budget. For so long the range of choices at the multiplex has been far too limited with only mega-blockbusters or Oscar bait to choose from.

At any rate, here are four masterworks that will be somewhere near the top of my best ten list come year end.

Ex Machina

Written and directed by Alex Garland
Starring:  Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac

A 13 million dollar film that looks better than any 100 million dollar opus, this Kubrickian , stylized, brilliantly acted science fiction drama is utterly captivating in such a  carefully crafted mise-en-scène manner, you literally feel like you are inside this world right alongside the mesmerizing Ava (played by the astonishing Alicia Vikander!)

Artificial intelligence is the subject, and as a matter of fact, this film can be thought of and plays out like an unofficial prequel to “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001), Steven Spielberg’s underrated masterpiece that was based on ideas and a story treatment by the very same Stanley Kubrick whose influence is omnipresent in this absolute gem of a motion picture.

The Age of Adaline

Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
Written by J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz

Starring: Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Kathy Baker, Amanda Crew, Harrison Ford, and Ellen Burstyn

I have been touting Blake Lively for years and even have championed her as the actress I would want playing ‘Caitlin Star’. I always knew she had the talent to compete with the top A-list Oscar contenders, and I have been proven right. Blake gives an absolutely extraordinary and emotionally affecting performance in the magical new film, ‘The Age of Adaline’, directed with superb understated elegance by Lee Toland Krieger, with a pitch perfect sentimental glow of powerful emotions. Translation, this movie is a true tear-jerker with “true” being the key phrase. An emotional masterpiece.

It Follows

Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Maika Monroe

To put it simply—the scariest horror film I have seen in decades and one of the most brilliantly directed films I have ever seen.

Once again it the mise-en-scène of a film savvy master craftsman, but instead of Kubrick/Spielberg as in the case of “Ex Machina”, the inspirations here are George Romero, David Cronenberg, and most of all, John Carpenter.

The film opens with a brilliantly executed wide screen composition that must be seen to be believed. Trust me, there are several scenes in this movie that must be seen to be believed. I don’t scare easily and this film scared me something fierce. The use of wide angle lenses and a John Carpenter-esque musical score by Disasterpeace is brilliant. The late 70s style setting and performances feel so real. Maika Monroe gives the best lead performance in a horror film since Naomi Watts in “The Ring”.


Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Based on a 2004 short film “Tetra Vaal” by Neill Blomkamp

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman, and Watkin Tudor Jones (Ninja) and Yolandi Visser of the South African zef rap-rave group Die Antwoord

The very essence of the true auteur is a filmmaker who creates a new, highly-stylized, unique aesthetic of filmmaking. Neill Blomkamp has done exactly that. Beginning with his instant classic “District 9” (2009) and continuing into his underrated “Elysium” (2013), Blomkamp has demonstrated an uncanny ability to balance special effects and character while telling rich, emotional, exciting stories packed with thematic subtext and insights into the human condition in all its wonder and cruelty.

“Chappie” may seem at first glance to be a re-imagining of the 1985 John Badham movie “Short Circuit”, but it actually closer to a modern (and masterful) retelling of the E.T. mythology for the digital age. The unorthodox casting of Tudor Jones and Yolandi Visser of the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord is an inspired stroke of genius that works far better than anyone could have imagined. And the character of Chappie himself, is pure movie magic.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

'Supergirl' (1984): The novelization

Full disclosure: I am a fan of the 1984 “Supergirl” film starring Helen Slater. “Oh, a guilty pleasure?” you might ask. Well, yes, but it is much more than that. When viewed in its intended 124 minute European edition or 138 minute Director’s Cut (as opposed to the incoherent, butchered 105 minute American version), ‘Supergirl’ is a well-crafted, entertaining movie with a lot to offer. Yeah, you heard me.

Comic book movie adaptions are now standard blockbuster fare often accompanied by critical praise, prestige, and respect. This was not always the case, especially back in 1984 when “Supergirl” hit theaters after a long and troubled post production.

“Supergirl” was self-financed by “Superman" (1978) producers Alexander and Ilya Salkynd. D.C. Comic’s parent company Warner Bros. held the distribution rights. After releasing the movie in Europe, they decided to drop the film just before the targeted North American release date in the summer of 1984, citing the disappointing returns of the dreadful “Superman III” (1983) as the reason.

The rights were eventually purchased by TriStar who cut the film’s 124 minute running time down to an incoherent 105 minutes and dumped the movie into U.S. theaters in November of 1984 with little fanfare. The result was a choppy, disjointed origin story and a sloppy film that was savaged by critics and ignored by movie patrons.

Actually the film is not without merit.  It plays beautifully as a guilty pleasure and works very well as a children’s film. The colorful movie has slowly attracted a loyal cult following since the release of Anchor Bay’s two disc limited edition DVD release in 2000, a fully loaded package that includes the 124 minute international version, a 138 minute director’s cut, and a boatload of enticing extras.

“Supergirl” has an enduring popularity for several reasons; the art direction, Faye Dunaway’s delightfully over-the-top campy and yet menacing portrayal as the film’s villain Selena the Sorceress, and the sensational musical score by Jerry Goldsmith. But it all starts with the presence of the luminous, fresh-faced Helen Slater who exudes an ethereal charm in the flying sequences. The captivating actress is wonderful in this role and perfectly cast as Kara Zor-El/Supergirl.

Working from a screenplay by David Odell, novelist Norma Fox Mazer does an effective job of capturing the essence of Helen Slater’s Supergirl and her alter ego Linda Lee. She manages to capture the wide-eyed innocence of the character and has fun with it. And yet, there are more serious passages where she makes us feel the character’s sense of loneliness.

The author also does a bang up job of nailing all of the supporting characters, with spot-on, creative phrases. Norma Fox Odell never forgets this is above all, a fun movie and she does a good job of creating natural character driven humor. I actually laughed out loud several times while reading this book, especially when it came to the scenes involving Lucy Lane. But where this book really takes off is in the characterization of Selena. Every scene written from her point of view is an absolute blast.

Bottom line: This is a skillfully written novelization and like the 1984 film itself, is an entertaining, colorful, comic book adventure with great humor and a sense of wonder.