New reviews: ‘Juno’ and ‘Mala Noche’ plus Top Ten lists

The annual running of the lists is usually kicked off by the (often laughable) National Board of Review’s awards (and really, any group that lists The Bucket List as one of the Top Ten films of year earns the term “laughable”). Now I and my fellow MSN writers toss our opinions into the ring, along with other goodies.

The Top Ten 2007 Films poll can be found here with individual ballots found here. My top pick (at least for this list) was Into the Wild.

The Best (and Worst) of 2007 TV, meanwhile, is here.

For the record, my top pick for 2007 TV is Mad Men, and my pick for worst (which didn’t make the list): Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Upon reflection, however, I realize that I had forgotten a much worse show from another major creator: The Black Donnellys. Must have just blocked it out to save myself the pain of remembering.

For another take on the year in review, check out the delightful “Moments Out of Time” by Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy. If the name sounds familiar, maybe it’s because you used to devour the annual recounting of cinema moments in “Film Comment,” or before that, in “Movietone News,” where it was born decades ago.

Also new this week:

My review of Jason Reitman’s Juno: “the feel-good film of the pregnant teenager comedy genre,” is at the Seattle P-I. That description may sound like a glib dismissal, but it’s actually an appreciation of the film’s wit: it is actually quite smart and mature as well as clever and entertaining.

The original screenplay by Diablo Cody ricochets with askew dialogue, a fantasy of youth slang gone wild that borders on precious and contrived. In this skewed cinematic universe it’s both defiant and defining, a private language for a bright high school non-conformist.

Under the cleverness is a very human and humble story of growing up, and Page is engaging and energetic and palpably vulnerable under her self-possessed eccentricity. We watch her rise to responsibility as she watches how adults face up — or don’t — to their own.

My review of Criterion’s release of Mala Noche is new on Turner Classic Movies this week:

Gus Van Sant’s intimate black and white tale of l’amour fou has been hailed as a precursor to the American wave of queer cinema that started to swell in the late eighties. Its credentials are established in the opening lines as Walt (Tim Streeter), a counter jockey at a hole-in-the-wall liquor store, gazes upon Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), an illegal Mexican immigrant with fleshy lips, a wide, youthful grin, and a streak of juvenile machismo. “I want to drink this Mexican boy, Johnny Alonzo,” he rhapsodizes in voice-over, and he spends the rest of the movie doing all he can to get next to this beautiful boy (“He says he’s 18, but he’s probably 16,” Walt confesses). Johnny is full of attitude and sass and contempt for his gay admirer, but not too proud to take advantage of Walt’s desire for his company to score a handout at the store or a turn behind the wheel of Walt’s car (which he pilots with the reckless mania of a teenager on a video game).

Over the rainbow with ‘The Wizard of Oz’

Lions and tigers and bears and … flying monkeys? Oh my!

When gingham-clad farm girl Dorothy Gale rode the tornado out of the somber, sepia-tinged black and white of her Kansas dust bowl farm and into the sparkling Technicolor fantasy land somewhere over the rainbow, she changed the lives of her audiences (both then and now) as assuredly as she changed her own.

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Following the yellow brick road into movie history

The Wizard of Oz was adapted from the first book in L. Frank Baum’s series of Oz adventures, but MGM’s bright incarnation has a life all its own. MGM was the dream factory of the 1930s and 1940s and this was its most imaginative screen dream, but it is Judy Garland who grounds the fantastic sights and delirious imagery in the human story of a winsome, plucky, melancholy girl who dreams of visiting lands outside her humdrum neighborhood and, when that dream comes true, wistfully yearns for home.

Garland’s Dorothy embodies the fantasy of all children who dream of leaving the cocoon of their protected lives and spreading their wings. With her companions — the clowning but clever Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the compassionate Tin Man (Jack Haley) and the blubbering Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) — she journeys along the yellow brick road through a land of magic and wonder, a butterfly blossoming in a candy-colored phantasmagoria.

More than a movie classic, it’s an essential part of the popular culture, thanks to film revivals and the annual TV ritual that, sooner or later, captured every kid growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. The love has since spread, with lavish DVD sets preserving the glory of the singing munchkins (“We represent the Lollipop Guild … “), the cackling, green-faced Wicked Witch of the West (“I’ll get you my pretty. And your little dog too!”), the flying monkeys and the merry, merry land of Oz for generations to come.

The moral of the story makes for a strangely conservative tribute to fantasy and imagination: “There’s no place like home,” Dorothy chants as she clicks the heels of her sparkling ruby slippers. But was anyone fooled by this sop to rural integrity and homespun values of modesty and restraint? Or did kids and grown-ups alike walk away from this scary, funny, thrilling, singing and dancing Technicolor blast of flying monkeys and talking scarecrows and melting green crones with a passion to break out of their monochrome lives and follow their own yellow brick road?

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

Best DVDs of 2007 and more on Berlin Alexanderplatz

My list of the Best DVD releases of 2007 went up on MSN today.

If there is one glaring omission, it is due to the fact that my deadline arrived before the new “Blade Runner” box set did. Based on the little I have seen, it likely would have placed quite high on the list.

My top pick? Do you have to ask?

1. “Ford at Fox
Wipe the drool away, movie geeks. Fox is bucking for DVD sainthood with this astounding release…. Has there ever been a DVD release with such commitment to rescuing and showcasing both established classics and rarities and forgotten works (both major and minor) of a Hollywood master? In a word: No. Essential for Ford fanatics, classic film buffs and DVD completists alike.

And for TV:

1. “Twin Peaks: Definitive Gold Box Edition
David Lynch’s cult TV show had previously been available in incomplete chunks, and until now the pieces never added up to the entire run. Paramount finally cleared the complicated rights imbroglio surrounding the missing elements of the series, notably the original feature-length pilot (for so long available only as an import), and has pulled it together into a single set — including the home video debut of both the broadcast pilot and the extended European cut (complete with its alternate ending).

I have ten picks in movies and movie-related releases, five picks in TV, and honorable mentions. Here are some of the those mentions that, on other days, would have found their way onto the list:

Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934

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The third collection of the brilliant “Treasures From American Film Archives,” which showcases 48 rarities made between the years 1900 to 1934, is loosely organized around themes of social issues and engagement and reveals a side of early cinema forgotten in the popularity of the comedy legends and silent screen heartthrobs. The four features are the highlights, but the totality celebrates the diversity of cinematic forms in early cinema: 30-second “actualities,” newsreels, cartoons, political tracts, documentary exposés, and more. It sprawls across genres, it tackles everything from prohibition to women’s voting rights, worker safety to unionism, police corruption to organized crime, and it showcases slices of our cinematic history that just don’t get seen outside of film archives and “educational” screenings. It turns out that they can be damnably entertaining. The four-disc box set also comes with a 200-page illustrated guide to the treasures within.

Cinema 16: European Short Films

Cinema 16

Cinema 16’s two-disc collection of some the best of short cinema from Europe is the most well-curated and compelling short film compilation I’ve seen on DVD. This set pays more attention to superior work than to familiar names and showcases some of the most inventive, powerful and provocative films you’ll see in the three-minute to half-hour format, including Roy Andersson’s brilliant and disturbing 1991 “World of Glory,” Virgil Widrich pitch-perfect high concept twist on Xerox art “Copyshop,” and Andrea Arnold’s searing piece of social realism, the Oscar-winning Wasp,” as well as early films by Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, and Lars Von Trier. Features sixteen shorts on all, with commentary on all but three of the shorts.

The Jazz Singer: 80th Anniversary 3-Disc Collector’s Edition

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“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” This newly restored version of the legendary hybrid silent film, the absurdly maudlin melodrama starring Al Jolson as a cantor’s son who mugs and shimmies his way through songs like “Toot-Toot-Tootsie Goodbye” and “Blue Skies,” is remastered from earliest surviving nitrate film elements and original Vitaphone sound-on-disc recordings. But the three-disc set as an entirety is a lavish tribute to the birth of sound and the early Vitaphone shorts (many of them featuring the kinds of acts that killed vaudeville). A true work of cinema archeology.

New at Turner Classic Movies:

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fifteen-hour-plus adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s novel, one of the most revered classics of German literature, is the German auteur’s most lavish and complex production ever. It’s also his most personal, a dream project with roots that reach back to Fassbinder’s youth, when he read the novel for the first time at age 14. Fassbinder, grappling with his own identity and his emerging homosexuality, saw himself in the character of Franz Biberkopf, the trusting, emotionally naïve, almost childlike hero who begins the novel wandering an alienated Berlin plunged into depression and enters into a destructive relationship with a cruel thug. Five years later he re-read the novel and “it became clearer and clearer to me that a huge part of myself, my behavior, my reactions, many things I had considered a part of me, were nothing other than things described by Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz,” he wrote in 1980. “I had, quite simply, without realizing it, made Döblin’s fantasy into my life.”

Berlin Alexanderplatz became Fassbinder’s touchstone throughout his career. He named the protagonist of Fox and His Friends, which he portrayed on screen himself, Franz Biberkopf, while the central characters of many other films were named Franz (including those played by himself in his first feature Love Is Colder Than Death and in The American Soldier). His own pseudonym used for editing credit, Franz Walsh, is a mesh of Döblin and the American director Raoul Walsh. Even the plots of two early films (Love is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague) have their roots in Döblin’s novel.

Read the complete piece on the film, its production, and the Criterion DVD at Turner Classic Movies.

‘Scarface’: Blasting to the Top

scarface_titlecard.jpg‘Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it’

The original Scarface, loosely but boldly based on the notorious life and legend of Al Capone, didn’t invent the modern American gangster film. It blew it up. It reinvigorated and redefined the nascent genre, thanks to the rat-a-tat direction of Howard Hawks and scrappy performance of Paul Muni, a pug of an actor who packs his firecracker frame with dynamite.

The movie transformed the story of an insolent immigrant hood who blasts his way to the top spot of the Chicago crime world into a perverted twist in the American dream (“The World Is Yours,” flashes an advertisement outside the gangster’s new, bullet-proofed digs, a tease as much as a promise). And the film cast Tony Camonte, a scrappy street mutt of a gangland soldier with big ideas, bad taste and a dangerous lack of inhibitions, as its Horatio Alger.

Films like The Public Enemy and Little Caesar had whetted the American moviegoing appetite for crime movies that delivered a vicarious thrill before delivering a sentence of poetic justice. Scarface delivered something more dynamic and insidious, so much so that censors pressured producer Howard Hughes to cut out the more audacious elements. Hughes hired lesser hands to add sanctimonious lectures denouncing the criminal scourge, flat scenes that have all the impact of blanks in the film’s barrage of live ammunition.

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Paul Muni as Scarface with his latest toy

What’s amazing is how much escaped the censors’ scissors: the incestuous attraction between Tony and his party-girl sister (Ann Dvorak); the real-life gangland events “ripped from the headlines” and referenced in Tony’s bloody climb to the top (Hawks brilliantly re-creates the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in an evocative scene of shadows and sound effects); the brutal montage of drive-by machine-gun hits in the mob war, with thrilling high-speed car chases and careening getaways through the rain-soaked streets of Chicago city sets, victims crumpling like paper in their wake.

The way Hawks marks Camonte’s victims with the shadow of an “X” (echoing the scar marking Camonte’s cheek) is still effective, and his inventive touches, from the death of Boris Karloff’s mob boss suggested in the falling of a bowling pin to a machine gun blasting away falling leaves of calendar pages, evoke the brutality of Camonte’s bloody reign without showing a single murder. In these days of blood-soaked gangster operas, this incendiary masterpiece still packs firepower.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

Love and Bullets: ‘Prizzi’s Honor’

prizzis_honor_poster.jpgKathleen Turner shoots cool and true in Prizzi’s Honor.

The movies are full of girls with guns: sexy slingers who can strike a pose with a firearm in hand and blow away the bad guys with all the lethal intent of a sex kitten vogueing for a pinup. Kathleen Turner’s Irene Walker, the “talent from out of town” in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, is anything but a kitten. She’s a jungle cat who prowls the underbelly of society. A cool and cagey pro, Irene wields a gun like a precision tool and never leaves an assignment unfinished.

A blackly comic and insidiously sly love story in the unforgiving underworld of mob families and freelance criminals, Prizzi’s Honor plays like The Godfather stripped of its Shakespearean dimensions of underworld royalty and tragedy. Adapted by Richard Condon from his own novel and directed by John Huston with a bemused cynicism and clear-eyed acknowledgment of human nature in matters of greed, love and loyalty, it stars Jack Nicholson as Charley Partanna, devoted hit man to Brooklyn’s Prizzi crime family and adopted grandson of the wizened old Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey, in a career-defining performance).

Nicholson may look a bit dopey, with his pursed lips and brows permanently furrowed in puzzled intent, but he’s a sharp cookie when it comes to handling the family business. It’s only women who confuse him.

Irene is a hothouse flower Charley finds blooming in a garden-variety greenhouse. He falls head over heels for this poised, confident beauty long before he finds out she’s in the same business.

Turner, who reincarnated the classic film noir femme fatale in a sleek, modern edition of “Body Heat,” couldn’t have been better cast as Irene, a woman just as fatale but far more earthy and, in a strange way, authentic. She may be a hustler at heart, but her lies are just what Charley wants to hear. Irene’s love may be the only genuine thing about her — apart from her skill as a freelance assassin, that is.

When we finally watch Irene in action, she’s a model of cool homicidal efficiency: no wasted motion, no hesitation, no regrets, at least not until the unforgiving rules of blood and honor demand a hard sacrifice. When you’re in the human disposal business, you always hurt the one you love.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

Patton Oswalt talks movies and comics and more…

That bastard Patton Oswalt!

I had ten minutes for a phone interview with Oswalt. It was just supposed to be a quick, light ten-minutes, a tie-in with the DVD release of Ratatouille. I would lob him some goofy questions about the movie, he’d bounce back some funny answers. I mean, he’s a comedian right? That’s what he does. Often with words that cannot be printed in a family publication..

It turns out that Oswalt is also a serious film buff. The man loves to talk movies. And, well, so do I. He’s also a cartoon fan and comic book fan. After the interview was over, I discovered that he’s even written some comics. Anyway, to make a long story short, we turned a short interview long. We ranged far off topic. He was asking me questions! I stopped interviewing and started conversing.

Patton Oswalt's new CD: Werewolves and LollipopsAnd I still had to turn in a light little interview piece to MSN.

A very small portion of the interview ran in MSN’s “What’s In Your DVD Players” series. I left out oodles of great material, and even more conversations chewing over topics that, quite frankly, I can’t imagine too many people besides us would even be interested in. But it’s there and I loved it so much that I felt I had to print the entire transcript (with minor edits to make me sound smarter). So here it is, in all its geeky glory and nerdish obsession with “The Wire” (the greatest TV series ever made), Michael Maltese, Anthony Mann, and Will Eisner and “The Spirit.”

Click here for Patton Oswalt’s website.

What’s in your DVD player?

I got that Janus Films 50 Years Retrospective box so I’ve been going through that. The last thing I watched on my DVD player was “Fires on the Plain,” which is a Japanese movie from 1959. It’s pretty amazing.

Kon Ichikawa, I believe. I saw that film for the first time just this year.

It’s pretty brutal.

Probably not a film that will ever make an appearance in your stand-up comedy act.

No, I don’t think I’ll be doing any “Fires on the Plains” bits. And I know this is such a lame thing to say, but I re-watched the third season of “The Wire.” I’ve probably watched each of those seasons two or three times apiece.

Continue reading “Patton Oswalt talks movies and comics and more…”

‘The Maltese Falcon’ – The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

If there is a cooler, tougher, more shrewd and self-sufficient private detective in the movies than Humphrey Bogart’s incarnation of Sam Spade in John Huston’s note-perfect adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, I’ve yet to meet him.

The classic 1941 movie wasn’t the first screen version of Hammett’s iconic novel, but it was the first one to get the hard-boiled toughness of the story and the utterly amoral universe of double-crossing characters right. Huston, who made his directorial debut with this production, reportedly blocked passages of the book directly into script form, but getting Hammett’s dialogue and attitude right was only part of the challenge. He had to cast an actor who could back up those words.

Enter Humphrey Bogart, a veteran character actor who was just breaking out of a career playing villains and supporting parts. His lisp, the result of an injury to his lip, added a distinctive edge to his gravelly voice, and his weathered gravitas gave Spade the look and feel of a man schooled in hard knocks.

This Spade is no stranger to the guile of shady clients and colorful suspects, and there isn’t a more iconic cast of characters in the movies than the rogues’ gallery he encounters here. And I do mean characters. This cast of unusual suspects is distinctive and quirky, and brought to life by actors who fill out those eccentricities and mannerisms with gusto.

One-time Hollywood nice girl Mary Astor goes blonde, brazen and absolutely ruthless as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a soulless siren and the first great femme fatale of film noir. Peter Lorre makes the quietly mannered and impeccably attired Joel Cairo a mercenary dandy. Sydney Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman, aka “the Fat Man,” rumbles with charming menace as he spews a stream of pulp philosophy (“I am a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk”). And don’t forget Elisha Cook Jr.’s rat-faced gunsel Wilmer.

They make for a vivid vipers’ nest of double-dealing thugs and con artists on the trail of a treasure. What they get is the sour twist of a cosmic joke, and Spade is the only one smiling. One of the greatest creations of the Hollywood dream factory, “The Maltese Falcon” really is the stuff dreams are made of.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

‘Airplane!’ – Terminal Hilarity

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Airplane! crash lands the disaster film with irresistible farce

Airplane!, the directorial debut of the writing/directing team of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams (who apprenticed on the screenplay of Kentucky Fried Movie), has my vote for the funniest film ever made.

Ostensibly a spoof of the barely remembered 1957 aviation thriller Zero Hour! by way of the Airport disaster franchise, it’s a lively collision of old school vaudeville and anything-goes comic absurdity delivered with crackpot creativity and the juvenile glee of Mad magazine on speed. They lob gags at everyone in the audience from 7 to 70 and don’t bother waiting for anyone to catch up.

The plot — with shell-shocked fighter pilot (Robert Hays) plucked from his passenger seat to fly an airliner when food poisoning lays the crew low — is the cinematic equivalent of a bull’s-eye mark. The writing/directing team of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams unleashes madcap sight gags and demented dialogue with a machine-gun delivery — fast and sloppy and unrelenting — and sees what hits the target. Nothing is too much or too absurd (“When Kramer hears about this, the shit is really going to hit the fan!”).

But it’s the deadpan delivery of ridiculous non sequiturs by the likes of Peter Graves (“Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”), Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen and Leave It to Beaver mom Barbara Billingsley (who, luckily for us, speaks jive) and the stone-faced intensity of Robert Stack, who delivers his lines like he’s chewing rocks and spitting out gravel, that sends the comedy into bizarro nirvana. It’s as if the Looney Tunes gang broke into the drama unit sometime in the ’50s and doodled over the studio’s latest humorless thriller.

Stephen Stucker almost steals the film as the dotty air-control prankster whose goofball antics and arbitrary outbursts (“And Leon is getting laaaaarrrrrger!”) seem to boomerang in from the Twilight Zone, but no one else mugs for a laugh here (take note, Leslie Nielsen; you’ve apparently forgotten that it’s funnier when you keep a straight face). Even the score by Elmer Bernstein plays it straight, pounding out a state of high tension that the directors deflate with every giggle.

Is it the best comedy ever made? I don’t know, but it surely is the funniest. I stand by that. And don’t call me Shirley.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

It’s alive! Alive! seanax.com is live!

Years in the dreaming, months of procrastination, weeks in the making, my website is finally live, and I spend mere minutes to mark the occasion with my debut post!

I plan to use my blog largely to alert you, my dear readers, of my various pieces online, but once I get comfortable I hope to have add some original pieces as well.

In other words, watch this space!

Excelsior!

PS: My heartfelt thanks to friends and web gurus Felipe Lujan-Bear and Nick Henderson for all their help in making this happen. The art in the header was designed by Mr. Henderson of Henderson Graphics