Monday, September 29, 2008

What Gives Me Hope

It was suggested to me that readers might be benefited by knowing what exactly manages to affirm my faith in Hollywood. When my eyes are burning and my ears are ringing, when every movie I see makes me want to vomit, it is to these films that I turn. No matter how many times I see them, I'm always left with a smile on my face and a burning candle in my heart that intelligence and artistic integrity has not yet been stripped from the world.

Independence Day-Yes, I'm well aware of the many, varied and drastic problems with this movie, but I grew up wanting to think like the brilliant David Levinson, act like the impossibly confident and cool Steven Hiller and talk like the incredibly inspirational Thomas Whitmore. The iconic one liners, the explosively compelling action sequences, the humor as the world crumbles around the characters, I can't get enough. The theme song instantly takes me racing through the grand canyon and soaring through space. There is no movie of such epic sci-fi scale that manages to remain funny, adventurous and hopeful even as a vast and seemingly invincible alien horde wipes out what would have to be hundreds of millions of people.

V for Vendetta-For starters, V reminded us that when given a good script, Natalie Portman is in fact an incredible actress. But there is also a fun yet deeply intellectual destruction of the establishment, ripping away our preconceptions about how strong and steadfast democracy and freedom is. The world is a dark place where vile people often come out on top, yet always there is a masked avenger who will strike at the heart of evil with wits and gusto.

Animal House-30 years later, John Belushi remains one of the funniest actors ever. College students today could learn a thing or four from the Delta's, boozing, dancing and wrecking a level of chaos no senior prank has ever managed. There is no end to the one-liners, to the envelope pushed all the way to the edge where comedy meets pornographic and yet still retaining a level of class.

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi-Yes, people say that A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back were better, but to that I point to the single greatest space battle ever filmed and to one of the most incredible one on one duels of all time. I battle the enigmatic Rancor and I ambush Stormtroopers with furry warriors and rolling logs. Campy as it may be, much of the appeal of Star Wars will always be for me the attack of the teddy bears.

Batman Begins-I find humor in strange places, case in point, the wonderment that is the single most dangerous hand to hand fighter in any comic book universe getting slapped around by a girl. Christian Bale becomes in front of my eyes everything that Bruce Wayne and his alter ego should be. He does not simply look and dress the part, he fights against the forces of darkness with the mind of the consummate detective and the will of the greatest of warriors.

300-Violence for the sake of violence has never done anything for me. But violence with some of the best directed choreography, set design, score and dialogue of any action film ever drives me into a frenzy "for Sparta, for freedom, to the death." The passionate speeches of freedom, honor and kicking ass make me want to charge the barbarian horde with spear in hand.

Command0-Yes, the lines are camp and the action is some of the most implausible of any movie, but Arnold Shwarzenegger'a mere presence on screen precludes any pretense of taking the film seriously. Sit back and relax for the most brutal yet campy fun imaginable, complete with bulging muscles, blasting machine guns, fiery explosions and one liners so ridiculous that they couldn't be anything but asinine except when delivered by the man who is less an actor than an action sequence unto himself.

Shawshank Redemption-There is a kinetic, palpable energy in this search for freedom. It is a tale of escape and struggle, but what tale it truly tells is the story of a man finding hope, a reason to live and feel again, to shrug off not the chains of prison but of his own soul.

The Hunt for Red October-Just the irony of Commander Bond, the unstoppable thorn in the Soviet Union's side playing its greatest submarine captain is enough to bring a smile to my face. But more than that, I feel the crushing depths and hear the deadly torpedoes, kept on my toes for the next threat. I dive into the ocean and rise up again, riding some incredible one liners highlighted by the simple plea, "come on big D, fly!"

Cloverfield-Essentially, the quintessential What Would I Do flick. There are no heroes, no powers, no death defying odds, just the reaction of ordinary people to the most extraordinary situation imaginable. The brilliance in the movie is its simplicity, focusing entirely on the human elements, staying true to everyday people and their down to Earth reactions and emotions as their entire world comes crashing down.

This is just a taste of what drives my passion for movies, but it is a very good reference point. In these are the elements that make films worth watching for me, dialogue, gravitas, action, intelligence and just a little bit of fun.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A 'Spirited' Trailer

That was the lamest pun I've made in a long time, wasn't it? Yet here I am, typing happily away while I leave the title of this post intact because as tacky as it is, I find it to be extremely accurate of the new trailer for Frank Miller's The Spirit due for a December 2008 release. While only a trailer, I am feeling a great deal of anticipation for what looks like a mark in the plus column for Hollywood, complete with sultry femme fatales, great fight scenes, fantastic one liners and ample superhero wonderment and p'nash with just enough of a Noir feel mixed in to keep it from being just another comic book movie.

If nothing else, the new trailer speaks volumes more than the first, which appeared to be little more than a cheap Sin City knockoff. Many would hail such a knockoff, but for a fan of originality, it was just another reason to grind my teeth at night. Compound fears of it being a knockoff with a feeling less than ecstasy over Sin City and at first I was expecting very little from Spirit. That's right, cut my tongue out if you wish but I was not impressed with Sin City, it was simply too gruesome, melodramatic and quite frankly, strange.

Fortunately, Spirit appears to be its own movie, one that promises to be a great deal more fun than had been originally expected. Of course, the vibrant over the top bad ass of Samuel L. Jackson automatically marks the film as one that doesn't take itself completely seriously. Good guy, bad guy or anti-hero somewhere in between, Jackson inhabits a world all his own that will always inspire at least a little chuckle and certainly a very bright smile.

From the looks of it, Spirit will have little in the way of plot and less in the way of intelligent expositions and dialogue, but glitz, guns, incredible actors like Eva Mendez and the amount of fun a bonified comic genius like Frank Miller is bound to bring to the film mean that Hollywood can't always drive a good idea into the ground.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Sentinal of Liberty, Hopefully

Superheroes have become an important part of popular culture, their mythology a source for inspiration and hope, but few more so than a skinny Brooklyn kid who in 1941 would come to represent everything that the United States could ever hope to be, a man of unflinching morality and unbending will, Captain America. For months I have been pondering who exactly would be capable at once of the unassuming Steve Rogers and also the ultimate physical and tactical weapon in what is currently being called The First Avenger: Captain America, slated for a May 2011 release. Still strapped for an answer, I had a small panic attack when the rumor mill cranked out the name of Will Smith. Fortunately, it was confirmed as being just a rumor, but until that was settled my heart felt like it would explode in my chest. A terror of Will Smith as Cap has nothing whatsoever to do with the color of his skin, the one and only thing that fear is in reaction to is the thought of misconstruing who Steve Rogers is and what it would take to accurately portray him on the silver screen.

Loosely following the blogosphere's take on the man in blue, I have heard names flung around like Karl Urban, Matthew McConaughey, Brad Pitt and even John Cena for men to play Cap. Those who would associate those names with anything closely resembling Captain America need a lesson on what it means to be the Sentinel of Liberty, having mistaken him for another muscle head in tights who stands for little more the jumping, grunting and punching. Several of these actors could in fact pass themselves off as Steve Rogers in terms of looks, but anyone who thinks that looks alone can be responsible for a character they feels requires little in the way of acting have no right to even consider calling themselves comic book fans.

Captain America is about presence, emotional strength, patriotism, faith in what is good and right. The man playing Cap needs to present a force of will without limit, who can push himself past any physical limitations in order to get the job done and save the day. Such an actor needs to be able to present a man of such conviction and heroism that an entire nation could rally itself behind him, seeing in him all the very best values of the country whose name he bears and whose symbol he carries.

My faith in Hollywood today hinges on a desperate hope that they realize Captain America is not just another hero, he is a symbol of freedom, a champion of justice. To cast an actor incapable of portraying such gravitas in favor of some sweaty muscles and blond hair would be one of the most inconceivable affronts to characterization and to the idea of Steve Rogers. Hopefully it is a faith that will not be shattered.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Vodka Martini: Classy, Not Mutilated

My soul is in agony, a huge chunk having just being bitten into by a repulsive, denigrating sound that tries to pass itself off as a good, meaningful part of a longstanding film tradition that used to stand as a bastion of what Hollywood is capable of. I just listened to Jack White and Alicia Keys' 'Another Way to Die,' slated to be the theme song for the upcoming James Bond film Quantum of Solace. Perhaps being raised on the suave superspy in his many incarnations has left me jaded, unable to let go of a tradition that has long since been watered down and become in desperate need of revitalization. Or perhaps the artistic mongrels who accepted this nails on chalkboard have completely lost their minds.

I remember the fantasy and invigoration that used to come with the opening credits of 007 films, songs like Goldfinger and Moonraker that instilled in the audience a sense of possibility, exploration and adventure. They prepared us to go once more into the breach of mystery and mayhem with our favorite secret agent and once again experience all the gadgets and all the glamour, ready at once for dazzling special effects and scintillating femme fatales. 'Another Way to Die' however, manages only to beep bop around in the skull and speaks more of drunken dancing to a jukebox than waltzing around in a tuxedo with a Walther PPK stuck in a shoulder holster. Those who wrote and more importantly those who accepted this song have forgotten what it means to make a Bond movie, it is not about hip dancing tunes but about heart pumping anticipation, ready to leap off buildings and into danger, not bobble heads and certainly not rapping hip-hop of a modern beat many times removed from the classic and classy sophistication that at least should be what separates James Bond from the rest of us mere mortals.

Of course, I really shouldn't be as surprised as I am by just how terrible and far off the song is from what Bond is supposed to be, given what the films have become. I am not a member of the forgetful majority who thought Casino Royale was the greatest of the Bond films. I am in fact a member of the faithful who believe it was the very worst. Daniel Craig is not James Bond, he is not Pierce Brosnan or Roger Moore and he is certainly not Sean Connery. His Bond is angry and uncouth, he has no passion, no smooth self awareness and certainly no super spy class.

As one MI6 tech puts it in Never Say Never Again, Bond needs "gratuitous sex and violence." What we got instead was a cheap knockoff of modern spy thrillers when it should have maintained the cornerstones of what has separated Bond from the rest for the last forty years. Bond needs gadgets, women, strange and implacable villains, cigar smoke and death traps. Bond is enjoyable, taut and ready but never to the point of breaking. Above all, Bond cannot take itself too seriously, lest it be just another Bourne. I like Jason Bourne, his are some incredible films, but they are not and should not be confused for a model that would work well with 007. Certain films do need a healthy dose of realism, but it is the impossibility and the controlled absurdity that has kept Bond fans glued to their seats for decades. If they wanted realism, they would have ceased watching such films long ago. Not every movie is or even should be made as realistic as possible lest we forget that movies, and in particular Bond movies, are about fantasy, of accepting the extraordinary as possible.

Casino Royale was not a bad movie, and the same will probably be true of Quantum of Solace. Separated from the James Bond name and mythos, they would be fine action-thrillers. It is even true that Die Another Day cast a dark shadow over the name of Bond, but that was no reason to forget everything that has made Bond great for more than twenty movies. There are no gadgets and no fun loving espionage. Just because a movie is good does not mean it is a good Bond film, or any other franchise for that matter. Sequels need to remain true to what made their inspiration great, not cast it aside and grasp onto the nearest tacitly similar model, such is the way to make copycats, not movies. My faith as it were, is shattered, I can only hope that some day a true James Bond will return us to that which Ian Fleming had in mind when he introduced us to M, MI6 and Moneypenny.