Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n Roll Generation Saved Hollywood

I bought this book because of its author. Journalist Peter Biskind was once the executive editor of the late, great film magazine Premiere. For a good portion of my high school and university years, this monthly magazine was like my Bible -- and I still miss it to this day.

Back in 1998, when Easy Riders, Raging Bulls was first published, Biskind had all-access to some of Hollywood's biggest names, as well as some of its most reclusive stars. As a result, he had plenty of anecdotes, professional rivalries and gossipy tidbits at his fingertips. The end result is a random collection of stories that is both easy to love and dislike.

When most film critics and enthusiasts debate the greatest decade for American cinema, they often cite the 1970s as the defining era. It was a decade of change that was heavily influenced by the European art directors most of the American up-and-comers once admired from afar.

It's evident that Biskind has a passionate admiration for the world of cinema; however, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls comes off as both a clever, analytical look at the decade and a tabloid reporting all the "he said, she said" gossip from the time. For every brilliantly researched passage about the behind-the-scenes life, there's a salacious piece of gossip that threatens to veer the book in an entirely new direction.

I'm not one to turn away a good piece of gossip -- and I don't mind a story or two mixed in with heavy film talk -- but there are moments when some of the stories being related feel forced or, even worse, carry an underlying intent to slander. At some points, the lack of insight into certain rivalries or the simple fact that it's often only one side of the story being told, may prevent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls from being a 'must-read' on any film lovers book list.
Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Riders
It opens with a discussion about Warren Beatty and 1967's Bonnie & Clyde -- which essentially kicked off the new wave of American filmmaking -- and Biskind charts the rise, fall and, in some cases, disappearances, of renowned directors, producers and actors. You'll learn more than you ever wanted to about Martin Scorsese's drug binges, Francis Ford Coppola's ego and Dennis Hopper's bizarre, dangerous and addictive personality.

Perhaps there are too many subjects at hand that Biskind is struggling to cohesively weave together, but the book's strongest moments are often the quieter ones where the directors, producers and actors put their egos aside and discuss the toll that their careers take on their personal lives. There are some great, insightful passages, specifically from the always-eloquent Scorsese, about why these people continue to make art despite that fact that it ultimately ruins every relationship in their life.

It all comes back to the fact that these men and women were -- and still are -- artists. And for every late-night bender, drug-fuelled party and rocky relationship, there's a great film in the midst of being made.

So, if you like a heavy dose of gossip with your film history, than you'll enjoy Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. But for those who are looking for more of a focus on the process of filmmaking and how cast and crew interacted with one another may be disappointed.

But, I had fun reading it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Documentary Feature: Francophrenia (Or: Don't Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is)

James Franco in Francophrenia
Francophrenia (Or: Don't Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is)
Directed by: James Franco and Ian Olds
Starring: James Franco

Towards the end of multi-tasking actor James Franco's delightfully bizarre pseudo-documentary, his screen alter ego 'Franco' -- who narrates for nearly the full length of the feature -- muses, "The great thing about art is it's always open to interpretation." 

And, if nothing else, regardless of whether or not you enjoy this strange, experimental mock trip into an actors psyche, Francophrenia is definitely able to provide conversational fodder for the audience to discuss after the credits roll.

Back in 2009, Franco grabbed entertainment headlines for his WTF? decision to join the cast of the daytime soap General Hospital in a recurring stint as a serial killer visual artist named, yes, Franco. While many film enthusiasts and people in the industry likely rolled their eyes at the news of what they perceived as yet another gimmick from the notoriously strange actor, his fans (myself included) laughed it off as yet another one of his creative "fuck you's" to Hollywood. The end result was that Franco was able to seamlessly straddle two types of stardom for a couple of years: The sleek and classy 'movie star' who was nominated for an Oscar and the C-list 'soap actor' who mugged for the cameras while spouting inane lines like the one that provided his feature with its subtitle: "Don't kill me, I know where the baby is!"

Francophrenia is a mock doc co-directed by Franco and Ian Olds -- an experiment whittled down to a 70-minute run time from more than 40 hours of raw, unused footage culled from an episode of General Hospital set in L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art that never aired. However, the James Franco we watch in the beginning is eventually overcome by 'Franco', the neurotic killer he portrays onscreen. Once 'Franco' takes over and sinisterly narrates the rest of the picture, this meta-doc becomes a thought-provoking, yet playful, examination of identity through performance art.
James Franco as 'Franco' in General Hospital

It opens with James Franco: Movie Star. Shots of the actor cruising around the city with the top down. Franco wandering around labyrinthine hallways, on his way to the GH set. Franco greeting rabid fans lined up behind barricades. Dressed in a suit and ready to rehearse his lines, Franco slowly makes his way down the line of his expectant fans -- an extended scene with minimal dialogue that illustrates the tediousness and repetitiveness of an actors duty to obligingly sign autographs for complete strangers. Reminiscent of a scene out of a Sophia Coppola film, it's followed up with 'Franco's gradually emerging inner dialogue: "I'm all alone in this machine."

Later on, despite the amiable expression on his face, we see that 'Franco' is, in fact, revolted by the cast and crew around him. "What am I doing here?" he wonders. When a crew member comes over to touch him on the shoulder, 'Franco' hisses, "Don't touch me!" However, 'Franco' and his ego are continually knocked down a peg by the little faceless figures on the men's washroom sign -- as in, the actual icons you see on bathroom doors in restaurants. Their hilariously flippant remarks make for some of the film's highlights -- specifically when 'Franco' responds internally.

Pretentious? Perhaps. But kudos to James Franco for trying to be a unique, young voice in Hollywood. Francophrenia is as wonderfully vague, clever, alienating, odd and open to interpretation as Franco himself. I, for one, don't ever want him to change.


Friday, May 18, 2012

Movie Review: What to Expect When You're Expecting

Matthew Morrison and Cameron Diaz
What to Expect When You're Expecting (2012)
Directed by: Kirk Jones
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Banks, Ben Falcone, Matthew Morrison, Anna Kendrick, Dennis Quaid and Chris Rock

I reviewed this film for Next Projection.

Hollywood is known for churning out countless sequels and book adaptations in the hopes of striking box office gold. For decades, many filmgoers and critics alike have bemoaned the lack of originality in the majority of mainstream flicks. However, it would appear that Hollywood has hit a new low -- it has resorted to patching together a script based on a self-help pregnancy manual written nearly 30 years ago.

Universally celebrated for it's ability to accurately chronicle the highs and lows of pregnancy, Heidi Murkoff's wildly successful 1984 tome is a bestseller due to its humorous but honest glimpse of the changes women go through over the span of nine months -- as well as the aftermath and how it affects your relationship.

But a successful self-help book does not make for a strong screenplay. Shauna Cross and Heather Hatch struggle to weave together intertwining stories involving no less than five couples. The result is a series of soulless vignettes that fail to come together as a cohesive narrative. It's like watching the birthing-babies edition of Valentine's Day or New Years Eve.
Chris Rock with Rodrigo Santoro
There's freelance photographer Holly (Jennifer Lopez) who has come to terms with the fact that she's unable to conceive and plans to adopt a baby from Ethiopia with her reluctant husband, Alex (Rodrigo Santoro). Meanwhile, reality show host Jules (Cameron Diaz) finds out she's been impregnated by her Celebrity Dance Factor co-star, Evan (Matthew Morrison). Twenty-something Rosie (Anna Kendrick) discovers she's pregnant after a one-night stand with a former high school crush (Chace Crawford) and dreads telling him the news. Wendy (Elizabeth Banks), the Type-A personality behind the breastfeeding boutique, Breast Choice, is finally expecting a little one with her husband, Gary (Ben Falcone), after years of failed attempts. There's also Gary's egotistical father, Ramsey (Dennis Quaid) and his newly pregnant young wife (Brooklyn Decker) thrown into the mix. On top of all that there's a "dude's group" of fathers, led by Chris Rock, who get together at the local park with their kids and talk about the hardships of parenting.

What to Expect When You're Expecting is an uneven and episodic Hollywood vehicle designed as a quick studio cash-grab. Assembling together a large group of both A- and B-list actors fails to lift the material above its shallow, superficial surface. Anyone looking towards this flick for anything even remotely resembling a humorous angle on the hardships endured by expectant parents will be sorely disappointed. It glosses over the very issues -- infertility and debates over circumcision -- that made Murkoff's book such a resounding success. And any script that includes Lopez sobbing the line "I'm the one who can't do the one thing that a woman is supposed to do" is both cringe-worthy and offensive.

Director Kirk Jones continuously hops between his large cast, rarely taking the time to linger on one storyline for more than five minutes at a time. As a result, audiences are never given the chance to relate to any of the five main plot threads. For a movie that should have been a witty take on parental sacrifice it instead plays out like a stale sitcom. The laughs are incredibly few and far between as the script bounces between each and every one of its increasingly aggravating characters.

In the end, all issues and disagreements are happily resolved as everyone embraces -- and perfectly adapts to -- their new roles as parents.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Movie Rant: 20 years from now, will Jaws still be considered a classic?

Steven Spielberg with "Bruce."
Last month, during the Easter long weekend, my two young cousins told me that they'd recently watched Jaws for the first time.

"Yeah?! And?" I asked. "What did you think?"

The elder cousin said, "It was kind of cheesy and not even scary" while the younger one shrugged and said "the shark looked so stupid and fake."

I'm not gonna lie: I was a little crestfallen. I'd never heard someone say that before about Jaws or "Bruce", the famously malfunctioning shark robot.

"Well, it was fake," was my lame response. "You have to remember the time in which it was made."

I asked them what their friends thought of it and they responded with, "they also thought it was boring and fake."

Now, maybe it was a bit naive on my part to assume that they would gush and swoon over what many consider to be one of director Steven Spielberg's greatest film achievements. They are only 15 and 10 years old, after all. But, still. These girls are pretty patient with "older" films (i.e. movies that were made before the rise of Kristen Stewart or Channing Tatum) -- they even expressed their recent love for Titanic even though it's, and I quote, "pretty old." So, the fact that they were so quick to dismiss Jaws surprised me a little. Even when I was a kid in the '90's, it was still considered a really cool movie.

I mean, the 1975 underwater horror classic is the reason we have blockbuster movies today. Without Jaws there would never would have been an Indiana Jones, an Avengers, a Lord of the Rings or even a Star Wars (although George Lucas may take issue with that). For that reason alone, it deserves its place in film history books. What makes it so great is the fact that we so rarely get a glimpse of the shark -- it goes back to the whole notion of how what we don't see is often scarier that what is shown to us.

In this increasingly digital age, though, what does this say about the future of certain film classics if the next generation of film fans brush off older flicks because of what they consider to be clunky technology? We assume that once a film is a classic and revered in film circles around the world, it will always be so. And, for many, that will remain the case. But what about the old-school thrillers or movies that rely heavily on computer technology? I just feel that, more and more, an emphasis on technology and special effects is at the top of moviemakers' lists -- so where does that leave Jaws?

Roy Scheider battles the Great White.
There are certain classics that I don't worry about -- their fates are sealed and they are destined to age gracefully. I'm thinking of The Godfather, a towering cinematic achievement that doesn't have to worry about technology and gadgets that will (unintentionally) prematurely age and outdate it. I would even argue that Star Wars is relatively safe what with Lucas' incessant tinkering, nit-picking and re-releases. Ditto anything directed by James Cameron, the George Lucas of a new generation.

I know comments like the ones my cousins made are inevitable and probably not all that uncommon (I'm just in denial, clearly). I'm also probably being crazy and reading too much into it -- but, once I started thinking about it, the more I realized that Jaws' of the film world may struggle to survive and retain their relevance and cultural significance down the road.

Of course there will always be film buffs to defend it and discuss it, but I'm talking about the average moviegoer. Will it be remembered ...or ignored?

But I guess this is how people felt when black and white receded into the background and colour became the "next big thing." While today's generation of kids likely wouldn't be caught dead watching a black and white film, there are still plenty out there who appreciate them.

But, in the age of torture-porn like the Saw franchise and Rob Zombie horror adaptations, Jaws apparently just doesn't cut it anymore. There has to be blood splattered to engage an audience or there has to be massive explosions to provide thrills. Somehow, I feel like it will be different this time around -- it won't be quite like the disappearance of black and white films.

As for me, I still think "Bruce" looks pretty damn realistic.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Film Noir Series: The Killers (1946)

My latest Film Noir entry for Next Projection. The eleventh film on my list is The Killers (1946).

Back in 1927, right in the thick of the Roaring Twenties, Ernest Hemingway published a short story about two cold-blooded killers and the poor, unlucky soul they were hired to kill.

Director Robert Siodmak's noir classic uses the opening 15 minutes to adapt Hemingway's piece. The two titular killers wander into a late-night diner looking for a former prizefighter known as "the Swede". After tossing around a few threats, they leave. A young man, unnerved by the menacing strangers, heads off to tell his Swedish friend that the men are after him and asks him why. The Swede, cast in dark shadows as he reclines on his bed, appears resigned to his fate, telling his friend: "I did something wrong ...once."

Although The Killers credits Hemingway as the source material for its premise, in reality it's through the combined efforts of director Siodmak and screenwriter Anthony Veiller that this noir gets its chilling sense of dread. They set out to answer the questions that Hemingway left open-ended. Why didn't the Swede run? Why were the hitmen hot on his trail?

The Killers fleshes out the backstory, picking up the pieces from where Hemingway left off. It follows the downward spiral of Ole "the Swede" Andreson (Burt Lancaster, in his film debut) as he gets involved with a gang of thieves in an attempt to impress the enigmatic Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). The film opens with guns blazing as the Swede is killed in the opening frame, leaving his personal narrative to be told in flashback from a variety of different characters' perspectives. When insurance investigator Jim Riordan (Edmond O'Brien) tries to uncover the mystery as to why the reclusive Swede left his entire small fortune to a hotelier named Queenie (Queenie Smith), he unwittingly unravels a complex, twisted plot involving double-crossings, backstabbings and robbery.

With its natural, conversationalist dialogue, The Killers is a chilling example of noir at its finest. Siodmak and Veiller wisely chose to let some of Hemingway's original dialogue remain, as his short story provides a springboard from which the director and screenwriter flesh out a richly characterized story about a good man who ultimately chooses the wrong path. A man whose tragic flaw is his willingness to put his trust in anyone he comes in contact with.
Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster
With a fragmented, labyrinthine plot, The Killers seamlessly blends more than 10 flashback sequences -- each one more revealing than the last. The most compelling of these involves the Swede's initial introduction to the alluring Kitty, a slinky dame whom he first glimpses sharing a bench with the piano player at a late-night dinner party.

The sultry Gardner is a casting coup, with a soft voice and beautiful face that masks Kitty's rotten core. She's perfectly paired with then-newcomer Lancaster who gives a beautifully restrained performance that benefits from the subtle nuances he instills in his charactization of the Swede.

The Killers is a lushly filmed caper with an unrelenting score and absorbing melodrama to spare. The ultimate noir, the film uses recognizable tropes of the genre -- from the flashback sequences to the investigation headed by a hard-nosed authority figure -- to gradually build its story. The pacing is slow and deliberate, choosing to indulge in slow reveals instead of high-octane thrills.

And, in the end, it rewards the audiences patience by expertly weaving together all the loose narrative threads into a tragic, albeit satisfying, conclusion.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Movie Review: The Avengers

The Avengers
The Avengers (2012)
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Renner and Samuel L. Jackson

The summer blockbuster season is officially in full swing with the release of The Avengers, the first of many superhero films that will unite movie geeks over the next four months.

This much-anticipated Marvel Comics gathering is brimming with great visual effects, intense action sequences and a hefty dose of smartass character interactions. In short, it's bound to be one of the biggest hits of 2012.

While it helps to have seen each of the superheroes' individual star vehicles, it's by no means necessary thanks to a mostly-solid script from director Joss Whedon and Zak Penn which makes a great effort not to exclude those who may have missed a film or two ...or three.

When Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the deranged, power-hungry adoptive brother of Norse god, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), arrives from the planet Asgard to take over and enslave the entire human race, the eye-patched Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is forced to assemble his S.H.I.E.L.D. initiative agents to protect Earth.

Robert Downey Jr. returns as billionaire Tony Stark -- the man behind Iron Man and the majority of the movie's witty one-liners. He finds himself at odds with Captain America (Chris Evans) the 1940's-era superhero patriot who, after spending 70 years in a deep freeze slumber, is more than a little disoriented by his surroundings. Out of all the characters, these two clash and then ultimately bond the most, providing the majority of the flick's comic relief.

While special agent Clint "Hawkeye" Barton (Jeremy Renner) is given the least screentime of the Avengers, he proves himself essential to the team thanks to his sharp eye and famously accurate marksmanship with his trusty bow and arrow.
Tom Hiddleston as Loki
As Russian assassin Natasha Romanoff, the lethal Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson is able to keep up with  -- and sometimes even out-muscle -- the boys. There's even a hint of flirtation between her and both Bruce Banner and Hawkeye to keep audiences looking for a little romance satisfied.

While the entire cast is immensely likeable in their respective roles, it's Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner who nearly steals the film. The subtle nuances and charming likeability he brings to his lab geek will likely earn The Hulk a whole slew of new fans who once shrugged off the other two medicore screen adaptations starring Eric Bana and Edward Norton. It makes you wonder whether or not The Hulk would have been a more successful and enjoyable franchise had Ruffalo been the go-to guy right from the beginning. His Banner is the psychologically tortured soul at the very heart of the movie -- the one Avenger who would likely give anything to abandon a power that he deems a curse.

The second half of the film is an exciting romp through the streets of Manhattan as the Avengers finally come together as a team to fend off the advances of Loki and his alien army. However, in order to reach this point the audience must slog through the opening 40 minutes of the film with its glacial pacing and redundant conversations about the Tesseract, the little blue cube that acts as a power source and portal for the villainous Loki. You could almost play a drinking game with the amount of times you hear the words "Tesseract" or "cube" in the first half.

But once the The Avengers settles down partway through and finds its groove, it transforms into a wildly entertaining action-adventure led by a talented group of actors who are all equally likeable. It will be hard to choose a favourite Avenger.

If nothing else, Whedon and Co. prove that you don't have to have a flawless script to provide the audience with great, entertaining escapism.


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Book Excerpt: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969).
I'm right in the middle of reading Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock-'n-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (1998).

Here are some interesting sound bites (so far) from Biskind's interviews.

"Jaws was devastating to making artistic, smaller films. They forgot how to do it. They're no longer interested." 
~ Peter Bogdanovich, director

"The cocaine problem in the United States is really because of me. There was no cocaine before Easy Rider on the street. After Easy Rider, it was everywhere."
~ Dennis Hopper, actor/director

"Popcorn pictures have always ruled. Why do people go see them? Why is the public so stupid? That's not my fault." 
~ George Lucas, writer/director

"There's a darkness in my soul, a profound darkness that is with me every waking moment."
~ William Friedkin, director (The Exorcist)

"In the trades I see, 'This picture will be helmed by veteran director Martin Scorsese.' It seems like only yesterday I was a 'new young filmmaker.'" 
~ Martin Scorsese, director/producer

"Star Wars was the film that ate the heart and soul of Hollywood. It created the big-budget comic book mentality." 
~ Paul Schrader, writer/director