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.