Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Capra's Old Cinematic Christmas Chestnut, Redux

By Steve Evans

It’s a Wonderful Life remains the greatest of Christmas films. If this seems like a predictable choice, that’s only because it’s the correct choice, though not for the reasons most people might consider.

I don't accept the widely-held criticism of this 1946 Frank Capra film as sentimental, feel-good “Capra-corn,” as his films were so often dismissed. Sure, there’s a (relatively) happy ending. George Bailey learns what life would have been like if he had never been born. He finds salvation in the form of a kindly angel and neighbors who come forward to pay it back. George reunites with his children and his impossibly patient wife, the luminous Donna Reed.

Cue: church bells and Auld Lang Syne.

Most viewers remember and cherish this happy, populist ending, and with good reason: it follows a long middle act of crushed dreams, financial ruination and attempted suicide. It’s a Wonderful Life is a dark film, as bleak as any noir, redeemed only by the artificiality of that famous ending. I admire Capra for clinging to such a kindly philosophy, but I respect the film for putting George Bailey into a crucible of life lessons from which there are no easy answers – even if Capra provides one, anyway, at the conclusion. That ending is essential. Whether we believe it is another matter. More on that in a moment.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a great film and a classic Christmas movie because of the little grace notes we can discover if we read between the lines.

Bailey is a man whose dreams are systematically shut down through his own efforts to do the right thing as evolving circumstances demand. There is no chance for college, world travel, a brilliant career in architecture. There is only the little world of Bedford Falls. Even if George decides that his small town is good enough, that can scarcely reconcile a life of struggle against big business, as exemplified by the bitter and utterly vile Mr. Potter, who goes unpunished.

I believe George and Mr. Potter are two sides of the same coin. Potter represents what George might have become had his better nature not prevailed. Potter’s scheming ways provide the catalyst that enables George to emerge as a decent man concerned for his community, even at the expense of his own life’s dreams. A hero needs a worthy villain. That’s part of the basic equilibrium of the universe. George might have even defeated Potter (although we would have had no movie) if absentminded Uncle Billy had not been such a schmuck.

Like George himself, It’s a Wonderful Life encourages us to embrace our better nature, to place the needs of the many before the needs of the few, or the one. This was the essence of Capra’s politics. To convey this message to a nation returning from the horrors of World War II forced the director to craft a Machiavellian screenplay that would compel his characters to move in the precise directions he wanted them to take. This story is coiled as tightly as a steel spring. A whiff of inevitability, of fate, hangs over It’s a Wonderful Life. The omniscient narrator, God Himself, tells us as much near the beginning of the picture.

Capra crafted a message movie for the ages, so carefully constructed that the mechanism reveals itself only after many viewings. It is this:

Like the observation of Christmas itself, the climax of his movie is not at all about life as it is, but the way many people desperately want it to be. Without that sweet, romanticized ending, It’s a Wonderful Life would be unbearable -- though it would more closely approximate the truth. So, can we believe it?

In the end, if we choose to accept Capra's message, we do so purely on the basis of faith. If that's not in the spirit of Christmas, then no other film ever could be.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Howling hurrah for Wolf of Wall Street

By Steve Evans

Martin Scorsese's new film The Wolf of Wall Street is getting some serious love on the cusp of awards season. Variety reports audiences howling with approval during early screenings.

Lotsa talk of probable Academy Award nominations for best pic, director and actor (Leo DiCaprio), as well as supporting actor Jonah Hill (!) and possibly adapted screenplay.

Wolf of Wall Street tells the more-or-less true story of disgraced stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who ran a pump and dump scheme in the 1990s to inflate the value of securities and sell them before the market got wise. He was indicted in 1998 on securities fraud, among other charges. 
After cooperating with the FBI, he served 22 months in a federal prison for his boiler room schemes, which resulted in investor losses of approximately $200 million.

Scorsese reportedly plays the material as comedy, which may be the best way to comment upon and perhaps ridicule the money-obsessed. Here's the second trailer:

Notice the trailer has the same jittery, machine-gun pacing as GoodFellas, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Scorsese's classic gangster film riffed on all the stylistic techniques pioneered by the Nouvelle Vague, then beat the French at their own game. Contemporary cinema could survive another blast of comparable exuberance. In the United States, only Scorsese (and maybe Quentin Tarantino) can convey the wild joy of making movies and telling stories of life lived on the edge through sheer bravado and consummate filmmaking skill.

As per my tradition with Scorsese films, I will be there for Wolf of Wall Street on opening night with a bag of roasted macadamias and a smile. Maybe two bags; the film clocks in a minute shy of three hours, making this Scorsese's longest picture after Casino.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Condoms & Killings: Celebrating Old-School F/X

By Steve Evans

Before computer-generated imagery turned most modern movies into digital cartoons, film craftsmen were forced to come up with clever special effects solutions using old-fashioned (but arguably more convincing) methods than what we see onscreen today.

In 1972, when you wanted to show a ketchup-spattered Mafioso at a toll booth, you hired a make-up guy named Dick Smith, who also engineered all the mayhem on display at the climax of Taxi Driver and eventually won an Oscar for turning F. Murray Abraham into an ancient Salieri in Amadeus.

For The Godfather, Smith designed little blister packs filled with fake blood, glued them to an actor with attached monofilaments (fishing line), then obscured the whole setup with pancake makeup. Check out that rare still from the Godfather's toll booth shooting location, above right, as Jimmy Caan waits for his big death scene.

Caan was instructed to stand still between takes and not rupture his rigging, otherwise the laborious process of applying bullet wounds would have to start over from the beginning. Reportedly, each setup took hours. If a shot was unsatisfactory, the wardrobe department would have to dress Caan in a clean suit and get the actor back into position. Note his left arm extended through the broken window of the car door in the image above, then compare it to the finished film. Continuity is an important cinematic element, so if the character is hanging onto the car door as he's eviscerated by machine-gun fire, his arm needs to be in the same position for retakes.  

When Director Francis Ford Coppola called action, Caan began thrashing about and the crew yanked the fishing lines, which were artfully concealed by camera placement and lighting. As the blisters tore open, rivulets of fake blood poured out and Caan cried “ouch!” in Italian. Similar setups were used for the scene where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) guns down Sollozzo and Capt. McCluskey with headshots from a .38 snub in that cozy Italian restaurant in the Bronx.

Now back to the toll booth. For body shots, the Godfather crew rigged small explosive charges known as squibs beneath Caan’s double-breasted pinstripes. The traditional method called for condoms filled with stage blood to be placed over the charges, which were wired down the leg of his pants to a control panel out of sight. On cue, Caan would do his little dance of death while a crewman raked the contact wire across a series of terminals, setting off the sequence of small charges concealed under the actor’s suit. Voila! Sonny Corleone meets a gruesome end from a dozen Tommy guns.

Rapid-fire editing and some seriously convincing sound effects complete the illusion:

The dedicated do-it-yourself filmmaker can achieve approximate results today with a basic laptop, digital camcorder and off-the-shelf software, but it won’t look nearly as good as Smith’s 40-year-old effects. And you won’t get James Caan to dance for you, either.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Room 237: Living la Vida Loca

By Steve Evans

Room 237 is a documentary that tells us what some people think Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is really about. This is not as interesting as it sounds.

Over the course of a long 143 minutes, I was subjected to one insanely crackpot theory after another. It took me three days spread over two weeks to slog through this documentary, in which I am supposed to believe, variously, that The Shining is actually about the Holocaust, the plight of Native Americans at the hands of settlers, or that it is, instead, Kubrick’s public apology for faking the footage of the Apollo moon landing (my personal favorite), or that it is a dialectical exercise in the deconstruction of American capitalism. Oh, and running The Shining backwards supposedly reveals hidden meanings, too, although I’ll be damned if the documentary explains them.

For those who need a refresher, The Shining takes place in Colorado at the fictional Overlook Hotel, where extremely unpleasant things happen in Room 237. The room number was changed for the film from Stephen King's novel, in which the action occurs in Room 217. That's because the Timberline Lodge in Oregon, where the hotel exteriors were filmed, actually had a Room 217 and the owners didn't want guests to be afraid of staying there. This simple explanation for the alteration in room numbers from novel to film further undercuts many of the more salacious theories put forth in the documentary.

Kubrick, who died in 1999, was famously elusive and loathe to discuss his films once they were released. He preferred to let the films speak for themselves, leaving audiences free to interpret them as they wish. Ironically, it is Kubrick's own elliptical stance toward his work that encourages the fans interviewed in Room 237 -- let's charitably call them eccentrics -- to come up with their own goofy explanations. If Kubrick could see Room 237 he might well make an exception to his no-comment policy.

One theorist who claims The Shining is a veiled reference to the Holocaust holds up such proof as the numbers of the film's title, Room 237. When multiplied thus: 2 x 3 x 7 = 42, the Holocaust-theory guy claims that this represents the year 1942, which is when Hitler and Nazi Germany accelerated the Final Solution. The man says he is shocked no one else has noticed this hidden mathematical clue.

In other words, Room 237 is a hoot.

Seldom in my life have I heard so much amazing bullshit spewed with such utter conviction. This documentary is proof that some people will twist and contort anything to fit a thesis. Some of this stuff is fascinating. Just about all of it is gibberish.

For these reasons alone, the documentary is worth watching. Call it a meta-film best enjoyed by diehard film buffs and perhaps clinical psychiatrists. I don’t deny The Shining is a multi-textured film that rewards repeat viewings, but you won't learn anything about it from watching Room 237. The documentary succeeds mainly in tracking down the sort of people you wouldn’t want to be alone with, then letting them expound at length on their wild ideas. That they actually seem to believe their own nonsense is just precious.

It's probably pointless to review a film based on what I wish had been included rather than what is actually there. But I think the makers of Room 237 missed a prime opportunity to consider why The Shining continues to fascinate people 33 years after its release. Instead, they focus on the side show, the lunatic fringe who can be found lurking on the edges of just about any cultural ephemera that generates obsessive interest. That's too easy. Instead of crafting a challenging documentary, they've produced the year's best comedy.

Room 237 could never have been made during Stanley Kubrick’s lifetime. Even a recluse like Kubrick would probably be compelled to ridicule every whacked-out theory put forward in the film – even if he would not discuss his own intentions. Actually, he already did. A few years after the film was released Kubrick in an interview said The Shining is about "a family going insane together.”

Just like the people in this documentary.

Room 237 is available on Netflix.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Breaking Bad: Darkness Ends an American Dream

By Steve Evans

I'm not one to put a lot of thought into television shows. Most of them just fill time instead of passing it pleasantly. The difference between those notions is huge. Fact is, I've always preferred the cinema.

Then I was drawn into Breaking Bad, the only program since The Sopranos that grabbed me emotionally and intellectually. In its best moments, Breaking Bad was high tragedy, as good as Shakespeare, as devastating as David Mamet. I mean this most sincerely; not as mere hyperbole.

So here it is: Breaking Bad was the greatest TV show in the history of the medium. If you are among the few late to the party (the series ended last night), I can only suggest catching up via NetFlix and AMC.com while the full five seasons are still available for streaming.

For the clueless who've spent the last five years smoking drugs, Breaking Bad told the story of Walter White, a meek chemistry teacher who learns he’s going to die from lung cancer. Faced with insurmountable financial problems, a teenage son with cerebral palsy and a wife expecting an unplanned child, White slowly descends into the criminal underworld as a manufacturer of ungodly pure crystal methamphetamine. His goal, or so he tells himself, is to earn enough money in the illicit drug trade that his family will not suffer after he’s dead. Providing for his family informs his every decision, at least on the surface, but something else is going on deep inside Walter White. As his wealth and dark reputation begin to grow, a sense of excitement and purpose fuels a raging ego and a hair-trigger temper – traits he no doubt always possessed but had long suppressed.

The triumph of Breaking Bad comes from watching Walter White’s transformation from Mr. Chips into Scarface. Slowly. Incrementally. One bad decision leads to another until there is no turning back.

The episodes themselves are a goldmine of symbolism and subtext, for those who enjoy reading that sort of thing into a TV show. The cinematography (Breaking Bad is among a handful of shows shot on film) was consistently breathtaking, even innovative in its use of time-lapse photography as an exciting and effective alternative to montage. The acting was uniformly superb (star Bryan Cranston won three consecutive Emmys for best dramatic lead). The writing was beyond reproach, never a false note, while consistently surprising the faithful viewer with plot twists and ridiculously clever dialog. Characters ended in places we could not have foreseen.

Music cues were spot-on. I'll never forget Breaking Bad's use of the old pop ditty "Windy" by The Association as counterpoint to the comings and goings of a meth-addicted hooker named...well, Wendy, but close enough, or the propulsive instrumental "Shambala" to accompany a hitman on his murderous business. "Crystal Blue Persuasion" by Tommy James and the Shondells might seem an obvious choice for a scene of crystal meth cooking, but it was series' capper "Baby Blue" by Badfinger that set the perfect eleagic note before the credits rolled on the finale: "Guess I got what I deserved" is the song's opening line.

In terms of pure craft, this show was impeccable.

Mostly, though, I will always view Breaking Bad as an allegory for an America gone horribly wrong, where societal values are hopelessly skewed toward the banal and men have their DNA imprinted with certain cultural notions of what is expected of them -- and how success shall be defined. As Joe Pesci observed in Casino, "It's the dollars. Always the fuckin' dollars."

Ultimately, Breaking Bad was a show about choices and their consequences.

If drama serves as both entertainment and an opportunity to examine life in a certain place and time, then Breaking Bad used the tropes of that uniquely American genre, the Western, to deliver some seriously profound insights into who we are and how we live today.

I can relate to the travails of anti-hero Walter White even if I cannot condone his transformation. Perhaps only someone facing a terminal illness and dire financial straits could fully appreciate how a man might be tempted to veer toward the darkness. Breaking Bad also raises innumerable questions about morality and free will, then creates situations in which there are no easy decisions. See for yourself. At several critical junctures in this five-season saga, it is clear that characters have no choice but to keep inching closer toward a moral abyss.

The series finale may disappoint some viewers as a bit too tidy, perhaps even a callow bid for redemption. So be it. As much as fans may like to embrace this show as their own, it is ultimately an artistic work that belongs to the talented people who brought Breaking Bad to vivid life. Last night series creator Vince Gilligan presented his ending. He wrote it, he directed it, the choices were his. I respect that. Seldom does an artist get to realize his vision without interference. For good or ill, Breaking Bad ended on the same dissonant chord struck at the beginning of the series by Gilligan, whose decisions only the most arrogant viewer would dare to second guess. He went out on his own terms. Just like Walter White.

I would no more change the ending than I would tell Renoir how to apply paint to his canvas. Walter White's story arc was always about the journey, not the destination, which was inevitable from the pilot episode.

And now it's over. I will miss this show terribly and will always be grateful to Gilligan for expanding my consciousness while leaving me breathlessly entertained.

Farewell, Walter White. I will remember your name.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Pinocchio’s Timeless Appeal

By Steve Evans

Watching Disney’s classic 1940 production of Pinocchio last night with my children, who enjoyed their first viewing, I drifted along with the simple sentiments of this beautifully crafted film. Since I can no longer watch a film without making endless subreferences, before Monstro the whale could rear his terrifying head my thoughts wandered from Disney to Stanley Kubrick and finally to Steven Spielberg. More on that in a moment.

In this telling of Carlo Collodi’s most famous tale, the marionette Pinocchio dreams of becoming a real boy, and thus human, by proving himself “brave, truthful and unselfish.” These are the qualities by which Pinocchio can shuffle off his wooden coil and become truly alive. The basic morality of discerning right from wrong also comes into play as the pivotal point of the plot. When Pinocchio strays from the righteous path, his troubles multiply until he literally transforms into a jackass. His creator and would-be father Geppetto languishes like Noah in the belly of a whale.

With vivid strokes of the animator’s pen, Disney artists crafted a parable of the most desirable qualities that underline what it means to live the examined life -- or what it should mean. The Blue Fairy who imbues Pinocchio with the ability to walk and talk is playing at God when she gives the puppet the power of Free Will. It is, of course, inevitable that Pinocchio will choose poorly, take the easy road toward success and wealth, learning only by trial and challenge that life is hard and the path paved with obstacles.

On a more subtle note, Disney’s film poses no less a question than: what does it mean to be human? This idea intrigued and ultimately confounded Kubrick for many years as he struggled with the limitations of film technology to realize his vision for a picture known as A.I., the abbreviation for Artificial Intelligence. A.I. would have been Kubrick's final film, a reimagining of the Pinocchio story. Kubrick and Spielberg had many telephone conversations about the project. After several aborted attempts at writing a screenplay, Kubrick finally suggested that Spielberg take over the project, as Kubrick felt the material was ultimately better suited to Spielberg’s sensibilities.

Kubrick died suddenly in March 1999, leaving extensive notes and whole sequences of a screenplay for A.I. His death upset me greatly, as the thought that there would never be another Kubrick film bordered on tragic. I also remember thinking at the time that A.I. would make an intriguing film, since Kubrick’s passing made me realize another subtext buried just beneath the surface of that sturdy Pinocchio story: a wooden puppet’s dream of becoming human carries with it the inescapable fact of mortality. Some could argue that Pinocchio was actually better off before his transformation into a living, breathing boy who must then experience all the joys of life, but also all of the sorrows. Does this make life any less desirable? Can the sweet ever be quite so sweet without the sour?

Kubrick’s notes for A.I. are permeated with a fundamental riddle of existence: what does it mean to be human? Significantly, his screenplay drafts also focus heavily on the maternal attachment a robot named David feels for his “adoptive” mother, even though she already has a son of her own. This love a boy feels for his mother might seem uncharacteristic of Kubrick, who was often perceived as cold and misanthropic (although I would argue that all of his films are deeply humane, cautionary tales of people making bad choices).

In early 2000, less than a year after Kubrick’s death, Spielberg decided to complete A.I., using the late director’s notes as the framework for a screenplay Spielberg would write himself – his first since Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977.

Released in June 2001, Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence was greeted with the sort of critical thrashing that typically accompanied a new Kubrick film. Years would often pass before the critical consensus would turn favorably toward many of Kubrick’s pictures.

Now 12 years on, I think it’s time to reassess A.I. Sure, it is basically the story of Pinocchio, jazzed up with state-of-the-art digital special effects and a remarkable performance from former child star Haley Joel Osment as the title character. But what really intrigues me about A.I., the puzzle I have yet to unravel, is the obsessive interest in this tale by Kubrick and Spielberg. Here we have two giants of the cinema, one revered almost universally as a genius and the other the most financially successful director in the history of the medium. Together and separately they expended endless hours of development and millions of dollars in production money on what is, at its heart, a very simple story.

More than a decade later, I'm still discovering subtle connections between Pinocchio and A.I.

And I'm still wondering why two of the greatest directors in motion picture history would be so interested in what is fundamentally the story of a boy who only wants to find his mommy.

Perhaps the answer is inherent in the question.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 5, 2013

And now for something completely different...

By Steve Evans

There is an advertisement on my soda can. There are advertisements on the shopping buggies at the grocery store. Gmail is rife with shills and whores. Yes, and the billboards line the highway on both sides. CNN won't play any damned news clips unless I slog through dog food commercials. YouTube should be renamed SuckTube to lend greater truth in advertising. Haven't watched commercial television in more than a decade unless a TiVo was hooked up to dodge all the adverts. I can't even listen to the radio anymore.

I need a vacation and Googled as much to get some ideas. I got an ad for Travelocity, instead.

As much as I complain about the prevalence of advertising in society, there are still effective ways to promote your product. Case in point: below is the greatest beer commercial I have ever seen. If only she had turned out to be a manatee in the final scene, this would be a perfect TV spot. Great song, too.

Robert Rodriguez used the same song, "After Dark," by
Tito and Tarantula to excellent (and similar) effect in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) featuring Salma Hayek, so there's your cinematic sub-reference du jour, film fans. Tito and Tarantula also appear in Dusk as the band performing at the notorious biker bar, The Titty Twister.

I happen to like the commercial above just a little more than Rodriguez's schizophrenic vampire movie.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Will Fincher Ever Make The Girl Who Played With Fire?

By Steve Evans

Sony’s Columbia Pictures and director David Fincher want to move forward with the next installment of his English-adaptation of the Millennium trilogy (The Girl Who Played with Fire would be the second film). They may already be too late.

Incredibly, Sony is considering eliminating the essential character of journalist Mikael Blomkvist, played by Daniel Craig in Fincher's version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, because the James Bond star wants more money. And he can pretty much name his price after his last Bond film, Skyfall, topped $1 billion. But there’s an important gap between Craig’s desire to broaden his roles and his actual range. He makes a good Bond because the character is a man of action, not rhetoric. Craig is ill-suited to the role of a crusading Swedish journalist, and he seemed vaguely constipated throughout Fincher’s 2011 Dragon Tattoo film.

Sony has already paid a reported $5 million+ to screenwriter Steven Zaillian (an Oscar winner for adapting Schindler's List for Spielberg) to adapt the second of Stieg Larsson's amazing mystery books, even though Fincher's first film was at best only modestly successful (a $90 million budget before marketing & promotion costs; $233 million box office). By contrast, the original 2009 Swedish version was produced for a relatively minuscule $13 million and made $104 million worldwide. That’s a massive differential in profitability between the two films, but money isn't everything.

Three observations:

1) Please, Sony, if you are going to make more films from Larsson's books, don't eliminate a key character. If Craig is too expensive, replace him with another actor better suited to the part. Hell, Ralph Fiennes needs a job when he's not playing "M" in the Bond flicks, although I’m sure you can also find other actors equally as good.

2) Could the sell-by date on this material have already expired? Larsson’s books peaked on the best-seller lists three years ago. Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo came out during Christmas 2011. If Sony/Columbia ever greenlights a second installment in this would-be trilogy, that film would not hit theaters for at least a year. Public enthusiasm for pop-cultural ephemera has a nasty way of fading fast and moving on to something else.

3) Consider this: don't even bother with more English adaptations. I just picked up the DVD boxed set of the three original Swedish films adapted from Larsson's books and these terrific films could scarcely be improved upon, even by someone possessed of Fincher's talent.

I argued as much 18 months ago.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 12, 2013

May the Wicked Witch Unleash Hell Upon Warner Bros.

By Steve Evans

If there was one indisputably great year for American cinema, it was 1939. That year saw the release of such classics as Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, the greatest film version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Garbo in Ninotchka, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Of Mice and Men, and that perennial favorite of the young at heart, The Wizard of Oz.

Through the years the copyright to Oz has come to be owned by Warner Bros. via Ted Turner, who bought the old MGM catalog in 1986 -- nine years before his own company was acquired and became a subsidiary of Time Warner. Now Warner Bros. has decided to do what all good Hollywood studios like to do on any movie-related anniversary date: make complete whores of themselves in slavish obsession with making a buck. And so, on the upcoming 75th anniversary of one of the greatest films, we can now expect...

“The Wizard of Oz IMAX® 3D Experience" coming soon to a screen near you.

From the Warner Bros. press release:

“Following the IMAX® theatrical release, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment (WBHE) will release a limited and numbered The Wizard of Oz 75th Anniversary Collector’s Edition on October 1, 2013, featuring the 3D version of the film and more."

To which I say, "Jesus H. Christ. Leave it alone."

And if Warner Bros. can’t do that, please dear people, deny them that which they desperately seek: more of your disposable income. This will be at least the sixth home-video edition of Oz.

Here's some more gibberish from the Warner press release (I suggest you put down any sharp objects or projectile weapons, because this is just going to agitate my fellow cinephiles):

"In support of the 75th anniversary of the film, Warner Bros. Consumer Products’ extensive licensing program of more than 80 top-tier licensees will expand with new partnerships. Leading the way is master toy partner Jazwares, along with Mattel, Rubies, Lionel, Steiff, USAopoly, Thomas Kinkade, and many more that will be taking part in the celebration. Special commemorative anniversary product will be available across a wide array of categories including apparel, jewelry, collectibles, publishing, stationery and paper goods, toys and games, slot machines and personal care."

And finally, this choice bit of news: "(A) Wizard of Oz themed competition will also be featured on an upcoming episode of Food Network’s 'Cupcake Wars' to be aired later this year."

Good God.

We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. We're in the land of big business run by low-rent bastards with MBAs and less sense than the man in the moon, all resolved to bleed every last nickel from anything of value.

How long will studios continue to cheapen the few remaining quality films in their vaults? How many times will studios try to sell us the same movie? Hell, I'll go for broke: why would anyone idly support Warner Bros. as they trivialize and pollute our cultural iconography with this drivel? Cupcake Wars? Commemorative anniversary product?

Fuck you, Warner Bros. And your little dog too.

Your cinematic schilling must stop.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

RIP Richard Matheson

By Steve Evans

Novelist Richard Matheson is dead at 87. He found fame as a writer of the better Twilight Zone television episodes, including the famous "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," starring a young William Shatner as a mentally fragile man who insists he sees a gremlin destroying the engine of an airplane in flight.

As a novelist Matheson is probably best known for I Am Legend, which since 1964 has been transformed into at least four films variously starring Vincent Price, Charlton Heston and Will Smith (The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man and I Am Legend, respectively, in 1964, 1971 and 2007, as well as a direct-to-video adaptation, I Am Omega, also 2007).

The novel follows the sole survivor of a global bacterial pandemic that has killed all other people and resurrected them as zombies hell-bent on killing any uninfected person. The protagonist barricades himself in a house by night, when the zombies are active, then seeks out their hiding places by day to destroy them. It is an existential tale as concerned with human loneliness as with themes of anarchy, social upheaval and the establishment of a new world order.

Director George Romero has often said that I Am Legend was a direct inspiration for his seminal 1968 horror film Night of the Living Dead (don't watch it alone!). And without Romero, there would be no Walking Dead, which is arguably the best, most intelligent, satirical, provocative and frightening show currently on television.

Matheson originated the idea of a zombie apocalypse that would destroy civilization. The popular fascination with this theme continues today through low-budget horror films and blockbuster action fare, such as this summer's World War Z, starring Brad Pitt.

Novelists Stephen King and Anne Rice also cite Matheson as an inspiration for their work.

Matheson's influence spans some 60 years, even though he toiled mainly in the "disreputable" genres of horror and science fiction.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

First Look at Scorsese’s New Film

By Steve Evans

Check out this trailer for The Wolf of Wall Street, opening stateside on Nov. 15 in time for Oscar season.

Director Martin Scorsese reaches deep into his Goodfellas bag o' tricks (read: riffing on the French New Wave) to cut loose with this extremely busy-looking bio-pic on the criminal life of Jordan Belfort. The story is based on Belfort’s time running a pump & dump scheme on Wall Street during the 1990s to inflate securities values artificially, then sell them quickly before the investments collapsed. For this, he became a multi-millionaire in his 20s, developed a Quaalude addiction and eventually served 22 months in a federal prison. His defunct brokerage, Stratton Oakmont, was an inspiration for Boiler Room (2000).

This new trailer reminds us of nothing in the Scorsese oeuvre so much as Goodfellas – right down to the flash cutting and a few scenes that appear to have been lifted directly from that 1990 classic.

As depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street, Belfort and his cohorts aren’t demonstrably different from the gangsters of other Scorsese films -- they just wore better suits and carried fountain pens instead of .45-caliber pistols. The posturing is still the same.

The worlds of Goodfellas and Wolf of Wall Street are both consumed by money, women, booze and Italian sportscars. Perhaps that’s Scorsese's point. The persuasive tools of the trade are murder on the one hand, and slick manipulation on the other.

With Wolf, Leonardo DiCaprio marks his fifth starring role in a Scorsese picture, following the under-appreciated Shutter Island (2010). The inscrutably popular Jonah Hill in a supporting role looks to be the same sort of casting gimmick that landed him a spot in Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). Hill draws a certain demographic to the theater and that's good for box office. But from the looks of the trailer, Matthew McConaughey might steal the show with his jittery, eccentric performance. It mirrors the flash-bam-pow of Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing. She’s been nominated six times for the Academy Award for cutting Scorsese’s films, and won three: Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed (1980, 2004 and 2006). That she didn’t win for Goodfellas is as shocking a crime as Scorsese losing the Best Director Oscar that same year to Kevin Costner (does anyone still watch Dances with Wolves?)

Scorsese specializes in a curious cocktail of Catholic-fueled guilt and hyper-kinetic violence, which flows through a majority of his films. Hard to say if Wolf can deliver on either front, though the trailer shows he still has style to spare.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Shyamalan, Please Stop

By Steve Evans

Film buffs mock the wretched cinematic exertions of Uwe Boll, who specializes in directing movie adaptations of video games, but M. Night Shyamalan is now the heir apparent to Ed Wood Jr.'s legacy as worst director in motion picture history. At least Wood's movies are entertaining. Plan 9 From Outer Space is a great comedy, even if it was never intended that way.

The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan's 1999 debut, can now be seen clearly as a fluke. Each of his seven subsequent films has been significantly worse than the picture it precedes -- no small achievement. The Shyamalan oeuvre is a clinic in sloppy writing and ludicrous plot twists, with movies featuring bored-looking (or merely puzzled) actors delivering bland dialog. How Shyamalan’s career lasted this long is one of the perverse mysteries of Hollywood. Virtually his entire output could be used in a festival of bad cinema:

Anyone who was surprised by The Village would have to be living in one.

Lady in the Water is possibly the most ridiculous non-comedy ever made; easily the low point in Paul Giamatti’s otherwise excellent career.

The Happening was a non-event. Killer plants? Day of the Triffids was an awful film about malevolent flora -- and still better than The Happening.

The Last Airbender might as well have been about a man suffering from terminal flatulence; ticket sales would have been no worse.

And now, we have the first certified bomb of 2013: After Earth. This Will Smith sci-fi snoozer, co-starring his son Jaden, is expected to recover less than half of the $240 million reportedly spent on production and marketing. Losses like that are sufficient to make studios think twice before greenlighting another Smith & son casting gimmick. Smith and his wife Jada produced the picture from a story credited to Smith, adapted into a screenplay co-written by Shyamalan.

With all these multi-hyphenate talents stirring the kettle, After Earth is a hodgepodge of philosophical gibberish, bland CGI effects, and dull characters/creatures with names like S'krell, Ursa, Senshi and Kitai Raige. Who the hell thought this was a good idea?

Kitty Rage?

Ho, ho.

For Shyamalan, finding work just got a whole lot tougher. He would be wise to return to Philly and get back to making somber little pictures with a supernatural flavor.

In The Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment famously intoned, “I see dead people.”

After 14 years of shoddy Shyamalan pictures, in retrospect I see only stupidity and ridiculous over-reaching for an artistic ambition that was probably never there to begin with. Just like Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a forlorn character in Shyamalan's only good film.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Big Brother Google Goes Hollywood

By Steve Evans

With The Internship, a new film starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, Hollywood sets a new standard in the execrable practice of product placement. It appears the entire film is a product placement.

The Internship revolves around two fortysomething guys desperately trying to get a job at Google. It’s supposed to be a comedy, with two stars who specialize in playing lovable lunkheads (Wedding Crashers, anyone?).

CNN reports that Google gave the filmmakers extensive access to company headquarters (although much of the movie was actually shot in Atlanta at the Georgia Institute of Technology, not the Google campus in Mountainview, California). More than 100 Google employees served as extras. An array of Google products and services will also be promoted throughout the film.

Although Google allegedly did not pay for this extensive product placement, the company reportedly had a say in how Google and its brand would be depicted on screen. Still, news reporters who play up the fact that Google didn’t pay for this free exposure are missing the point: the exposure itself is invaluable.

Google is one of the most profitable and widely recognized companies on earth. It also collects and stores data from billions of computer users worldwide. If you have ever used any Google product, whether it is the company’s ubiquitous search engine, Gmail, Google drive, Google plus, ad nauseaum, you had best believe that Google knows more about you than you might like. If you send a Google email to a friend and casually mention you’re in the market for a new car, it is no coincidence that advertising for car dealerships and automotive financing immediately appears on your email dashboard.

If ever there was a commercial enterprise capable of colluding with the government and evolving into Big Brother, it is Google. More people depend on the Google search engine than virtually all other competitors combined (Yahoo, Bing, Ask.com, etc.). Google collects and sifts through all this search data. Whatever you are looking for online, Google knows – and keeps good records.

Sounds paranoid?

This week The Guardian newspaper published a classified court document from April authorizing the U.S. government to seize all of Verizon’s phone records on a daily basis. Although the government allegedly didn’t eavesdrop on anyone, Verizon supplied all outgoing and incoming numbers for millions of phone calls, plus the unique electronic codes that identify individual cellphones.

All of this was done by the National Security Agency under the auspices of The Patriot Act. The spying has been known publicly since The New York Times reported on it in 2005. But the government always insisted that it was narrow and designed to keep Americans safe. I wonder whether reasonable people would agree that collecting the records on millions of phone numbers is a "narrow" use of Patriot Act powers.

Less than 24 hours after The Guardian report, The Washington Post broke the story about another government spying initiative currently underway and code-named PRISM. Authorized by a secret court order, this cute little program allows the NSA and FBI to tap directly into the servers of major U.S. Internet companies, including Apple, AOL. Facebook, Microsoft – and Google. The purpose? To gather email content, instant messages, video chats and virtually all other forms of online communication.

All of this is being done in the name of fighting terrorism and protecting American sovereignty, of course. Google, meanwhile, burnishes its image as a benign and benevolent purveyor of information, with slick marketing campaigns dressed up as popular entertainment for people unencumbered by deep thought.

The timing of this new movie, released yesterday, couldn't be better.

While moviegoers shuffle off to see The Internship, an unabashed valentine to the search-engine giant, I’ll be holding out hope that some enterprising producer will make a documentary about PRISM. Failing that, I’ll take a thriller about malicious government persecution in the digital age, where people voluntarily reveal the most personal details of their lives, typed up neatly in an email or into a search-engine box, and then press that little key labeled “enter." Little do they know how these queries might be used against them.

Perhaps that’s a paradox. People can hardly demand privacy when they willingly post everything about their lives on Facebook.

Truth be told, this blog is hosted on a Google server. If I should suddenly disappear from this space please contact deijeo7johrg...

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

P.T. Anderson Tackles Pynchon's 'Inherent Vice'

By Steve Evans

One of my favorite active directors, Paul Thomas Anderson, is working on an adaptation of Inherent Vice, a novel by one of my favorite authors, Thomas Pynchon.

Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights) makes some of the most challenging and intelligent films of anyone working today, albeit he makes them far too infrequently to suit me. Pynchon's material seems tailor-made for Anderson's sensibilities, which is a roundabout way of saying I am excited. His new project reunites Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line).

Inherent Vice follows a late-1960s private eye investigating drug traffickers connected to a former lover. Crosses and double-crosses pepper the noir plot.

Anderson's screenplay adaptation has reportedly received the blessings of the reclusive Pynchon, whose debut novel V. (1963) is considered one of the great literary works of the 20th century.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Laughing at the World’s End

By Steve Evans

Delighted to report that The World's End from British director Edgar Wright will release stateside in August. He reunites with funnymen Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who romped through Wright’s previous comedies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. World’s End is no less high-concept.

Wright’s new film follows a group of childhood friends on an epic pub crawl through the little Hertfordshire town of Letchworth on the night of an extraterrestrial invasion. Their goal is to consume 50 beers each at a dozen bars, culminating with a nightcap pint at The World’s End, a famed pub that they failed to reach during their first attempt 25 years earlier. The friends vow to get annihilated. Little do they know. On this night it’s literally the end of the world as aliens attack. But when you've knocked down 50+ pints of beer, how can you really tell?

The trailer contains unmistakable similarities to Wright’s near-classic zombie-spoof Shaun of the Dead (2004), though astute genre fans will see a tip o’ the hat to old chestnuts like Tobe Hooper’s insane science fiction zombie film Lifeforce (1985) and Children of the Damned (1963), as well. Lots of influences bubbling in this Mulligan's Stew of a movie.

Despite the whiff of familiarity in the trailer, I’m thinking this picture will be a hoot. The Shaun of the Dead trailer did not do justice to that film, which only found an audience months later on DVD. I loved it, and zombie-minded director George Romero reportedly did, too. Three years later, Hot Fuzz turned the buddy-cop genre inside-out, making it impossible to watch a noisy action movie like Lethal Weapon ever again with a straight face (which is not to say you ever could).

Pegg and Frost make one of the cinema’s great comedy teams, while Wright brings a twisted sense of humor and encyclopedic knowledge of genre to his films. Here’s hoping their third outing delivers some badly-needed anarchy to a summer film schedule dominated by sequels and superheroes.

If only childish movies will be playing this summer, at least this one promises to be truly juvenile.

The first trailer for The World’s End:

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 22, 2013

'Wages of Fear' played Cannes 60 years ago today

Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la Peur) premiered 60 years ago today at Cannes and won the Palme d'Or seven days later.

It is one of the great thrillers, possibly the most intense film ever made, and one of the finest things to come out of France since C
hampagne, Renoir and Jeanne Moreau.

Watching The Wages of Fear is like having your heart clutched in a vise for 147 minutes. Essential viewing.

Synopsis: four desperate men trapped in a South American town agree to help an oil company extinguish a raging fire on a drilling rig some 200 miles over the mountains. Each will receive a cash payment of $2,000 (about $17,000 today). The catch: they must drive dump trucks loaded with volatile nitroglycerin -- the only explosive available for smothering the fire -- across treacherous jungle roads. 

The resulting white-knuckle ride will take your breath away. Films just don't get any better than this.

I am partial to the Criterion edition of this picture. The two-disc set contains an eye-popping transfer of this mesmerizing movie, as well as an analysis of the censorship it faced in the United States for alleged anti-American sentiments. In truth, the film is more about anti-multinational-corporation sentiments and the folly of avarice.

Check it out.

The success of this film gave Clouzot the clout to make the relentlessly terrifying Les Diaboliques, which in turn inspired Hitchcock to give the world Psycho.

Nothing like a little creative competition to bring out the best in artists of every discipline.

Cinema uprising copyright © 2013 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

A droll Anthony Hopkins is "Hitchcock"

By Steve Evans

Saw "Hitchcock" last night with Anthony Hopkins in the title role (and wearing a fat suit), and Helen Mirren as the director's wife Alma. Better than I would have expected, although it sugarcoats many aspects of the director's persona and obfuscates others. Fans of Donald Spoto's biography will probably be disappointed. Those who've read the more recent Hitch bio by Patrick McGilligan may view the film as a benign and more-or-less accurate depiction of the Master of Suspense.

 of the picture centers on the challenges Hitchcock faced in making his most famous, if not his greatest, film: Psycho. As a recreation of a specific time and place (1959 Los Angeles) it is well worth a looky. Hopkins' performance is mostly spot-on, although Scarlett Johannson is more convincing as Janet Leigh and James D'Arcy acts like Anthony Perkins reincarnated.

The script was inspired by Stephen Rebello's excellent book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (Dembner, 1990).

"Hitchcock" is not without flaws; I felt it could have probed deeper into the man's psyche, especially with the resources of a great actor like Hopkins. But even though it "underperformed" at the box office late last year, the film should find its target audience on home video.

"Hitchcock" would make a great double-feature with Psycho, and you'd best believe I mean the original; not Gus Van Sant's execrable remake from '98.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.