Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Leslie Nielsen: 1926-2010

I wasn't born when "Airplane!" came out, but I wish I was. I wish I was old enough back then to see the film, knowing who Leslie Nielsen was at the time. Watching the film, then suddenly seeing Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Rumack popping up and subsequently stealing the film with his pitch perfect comic delivery. Before that film, Leslie Nielsen was known as a dramatic actor. Before Airplane, he was probably most known for starring in the 1956 film "Forbidden Planet" as well as other serious dramatic films in the 1950s. To see him play Dr. Rumack in the delightfully goofy "Airplane!," I'm sure knowing who he was at the time would've added even more to my laughter.

As it stands, I see Leslie Nielsen the way most of America sees him: one of the funniest, silliest, greatest slapstick comedians during the '80s and '90s. The one who seemed like he would forever remain the hapless, incompetent old man that we all found ourselves watching. Watch The Naked Gun movies again. The man was 64 years old when the first Naked Gun film came out and he was almost 70 when the last one came out. Sure, he most certainly had the help of white-wigged stunt doubles, but he still made all of his pitfalls look completely believable. Think about what a rarity it was for someone like him to exist in the movie business. Has there ever really been anyone like him in movie history? A young dramatic actor turning into an old buffoon? Could you imagine that being Christian Bale or Leonardo Dicaprio 30 years from now? I don't think so. In the '80s and '90s, if you wanted to laugh, you could always count on Leslie Nielsen.

The Zucker brothers should've felt completely indebted to him. As skilled as they were, it takes an actor of high caliber to remain the star of a film that contains so many different sight gags. Think of all the jokes the Zucker brothers fit into their Airplane and Naked Gun films, Leslie Nielsen towered above them all. He was also the main reason why those spoof movies were so funny. Nowadays, all spoof movies suck and they suck horribly. Leslie Nielsen was the sole saving grace of the last few Scary Movies. Those guys behind Epic Movie and Disaster Movie have since killed what used to be such a great genre with Leslie Nielsen being the face of them all. Sure, Charlie Sheen proved to be a worthy challenger in the Hot Shots films (which I feel are both underrated, but not as funny as the first two Naked Gun films), but Leslie Nielsen had an air of believability in him that other actors could never imitate. You believed he could be a doctor, or a detective, or even the President. No matter how many times he proved to be incompetent and perhaps even unintelligent, you always believed he belonged in the police force. He wasn't just some actor trying to imitate a doctor or a policeman. He WAS Frank Drebin and Dr. Rumack.

While we all more-or-less expected that Leslie Nielsen's time was running out in this world, I don't think any of us really thought it would happen. My generation grew up with him being old. He was always old to me, but his films and his performances always felt fresh to me. Sometimes I thought he may be a 30 year old inside a 70 year old's body, there's no way that guy could be someone's grandad! So obviously Leslie Nielsen's death isn't a shocker, but it most definitely hits home for me. I grew up watching him, I'm sure most of you reading this also grew up watching him. He was part of the foundation for my sense of humor. The film world would not have been the same without him.

So, Lt. Drebin, I salute you. May you rest in peace. At least the roads will be safer without you.

Potentially awesome movies that's gonna take me (and you) forever to see

As the year comes to a close and critics come out with their "best of the year" list when it comes to movies, you'll probably notice a few films on their list that you don't recognize or that you haven't seen. That's because those critics got special advanced screenings and we are left out into the cold. I hate having to wait more than a month to see a film that's apparently been out in a limited release.

127 Hours was "released" on November 5th yet it's out in like 100 theaters right now. Why? The director's last film won best picture! It grossed over $100 million! 127 Hours is getting rave reviews, are you telling me there isn't a mainstream audience for this film? Almost everyone I know, who has seen the trailer, is interested in this movie.

And you know "Black Swan" is going to be treated the same way. Black Swan has had an endless amount of buzz since it premiered in the fall festivals and it comes out in a limited release this weekend so that probably means we won't see til Christmas, or worse, January. What kinda shit is that? That's why I'm not releasing a final "top 10 of 2010" list until March or something. How can I say what my top 10 is when I haven't seen two of my most anticipated movies?

Here are some other films to look out for over the next month or so, if you think this Holiday season is devoid of good movies, that's not the case. Their frickin studios simply won't or can't afford to release them nationally right away.

Black Swan
127 Hours
Rabbit Hole
The King's Speech
Blue Valentine
Another Year

If you haven't heard of those films yet, google them. I guarantee you my "best of 2010" list is going to have at least two or three of those films on it. Yet, I'll have to wait 'til after mid-January to know that for sure. I almost guarantee I won't be able to see Rabbit Hole or Another Year in the theaters.

Oh, to live in NYC or LA...

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Acting Auteur

I remember Quentin Tarantino once talking about this in an interview with Charlie Rose (I think); the idea that there are some actors that can change the nature of a film simply because of who they are. That doesn't mean that the casting of an actor could change the ending of a film (although that has happened numerous times), but moreso that once an actor of a certain caliber is casted in a film, the film could be re-written in order to more properly fit that actor's talents.

In my eye, there are four basic kinds of actors:

the method actor - this could either be a really talented, famous actor or relatively notable actor who can succeed in being sucked into a role or completely transform himself in a role. Depending on how good the actor is, his transformation should make it so that when you watch him on screen, you identify him as the character in the movie rather than the actor playing the character. Notable recent actors of this ilk are Daniel Day-Lewis, Phillip Seymour Hoffman (formerly a character actor which I'll get to later), and Benicio del Toro. These actors more-or-less go all out every time they make a film and it should be no surprise that they have each one at least one Oscar. Some more classic examples are Marlon Brando, Robert Deniro (until the last decade), and Dustin Hoffman.

the character actor - a character actor tends be someone you've seen in lots of films but you don't recognize his name. he (or she) tends to be barely noticeable. they tend to take supporting roles in films although some have starred in films (Steve Buscemi and Gary Oldman, for example). Basically, a character actor is someone who is believable in every single role he's in. This actor is basically ubiquitous and very versatile. A character actor can more or less do anything you tell him to do and he can do it quite well. Some character actors specialize in a certain type of role (whether it's playing a cop or a criminal) or are typcasted in such a role (like Mark Strong, lately), but there is no denying the fact that a great character actor is a great person to have in your cast. Some examples are, as I've mentioned Steve Buscemi and Gary Oldman. Oldman can also qualify as a method actor, but aside from movie buffs, he's not really well known. He hasn't even been nominated for an Academy Award, which is absurd. But he is barely noticeable in most of the roles that he chooses, in a good way. I guess a classic example of the character actor would be like Peter Lorre from the '30s-'50s.

the classic actor - the "classic" actor is generally someone who is highly skilled in the theatrical arts, but his skills translates quite differently in film. I don't mean that in a bad way, of course, I simply mean that classic actors tend to be more verbose and expressive whereas method actors are more deliberate and... methodical. Obviously, classic actors were way more prevalent in the classic Hollywood era, people like Laurence Olivier. But there are still actors of that kind who exist today, I would consider most British actors to be classically trained actors. Even an American like Kevin Spacey who has done tons of theater work. Kevin Spacey, to me, is one of the few actors who can go from small and practical to big and boisterous. Another great example would be Nathan Lane or Bette Midler (I know I've not given any female examples up to this point, you'll have to forgive me). It's also important to note that method actors can be loud and abrasive too just in a more deliberate way.

last but not least, the celebrity actor...

The reason why I started this blog post was so I can talk about this fourth kind of actor. Now the celebrity actor or "the acting auteur" is a specific class of actor who may have come from any of the three classes of acting that I made up above. But this actor, at a certain point, has transcended all typical forms of classification. He is someone whose personality is so grand that often times, writers will write a film having those actors already in mind. It's hard to write a good film for a celebrity actors because you want to use the best of their talents and you don't want to misuse them. The one small flaw I found in The Thin Red Line is that George Clooney doesn't appear until the last half hour or so of the film. George Clooney, even in 1998, is so clearly a celebrity actor that him appearing in a small role like that just doesn't work so well. It's so clearly George Clooney no matter what role he's playing. Just like Jack Nicholson is obviously Jack Nicholson and Cary Grant was obviously Cary Grant. You write these movies with those actors in mind and you play to their strengths. The reason why I call them auteurs is because they have such a demanding presence both on set and in the film that everything is practically catered to them. They either have more control or an equal amount of control as the director on the set. The best directors know how to keep this kind of actor in line (like Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler or Alexander Payne with Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt). There are bad directors though who can't handle actors of this magnitude (like with McG and Christian Bale... Bale is normally considered a method actor, but he could also be considered a celebrity actor especially considering how much Terminator Salvation felt like a star vehicle for him).

This is why you'll often see a actor of this nature work with the same director over and over again. Whether it's George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, Leonardo Dicaprio and Scorsese, or Jack Nicholson with James L. Brooks. Celebrity actors like working with filmmakers that they're comfortable with. The more comfortable they are, the better they are at being themselves, or a version of themselves. What sometimes results is a film that's basically a showcase for that actor and may even depict a certain part of that actor's life (Warren Beatty in Shampoo, George Clooney in Up in the Air). The best types of films are ones that aren't hindered by the celebrity actor or is tailor made for a celebrity actor, but moreso it's a great film on its own that perfectly utilizes that actor's talents. It's a director who knows how to get the best out of that actor. Or maybe the actor is so enamored with the material that you get the best out of him. Either way, a celebrity actor at his best is usually a front runner for awards of all kind.

So, yes, Jack Nicholson may play a version of himself in every movie he's in and George Clooney may always be George Clooney... that's who they are, you can't change that. That doesn't mean they're incapable of starring in good movies or that they can't be believable with the characters they play. Great movies with celebrity actors are ones where the character and the actor are practically inseparable.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows part 1 review

The key to a "part 1" movie to work is the ability for it to stand on its own and to be a worthy film regardless of whether or not there is a part 2. That's the difference between a film and a mini-series. One film, no matter if it's a part of a series of films... or not, must be able to work on its own. The quality of the film is severely hampered when that's not the case.

"Deathly Hollows Part 1" is an interesting situation because it's a very entertaining film on a superficial level despite those who claim it's "boring" (there's like an action queue every 5-10 minutes, how is that boring? [i use the term "action queue" loosely since that really just means something wizard-like is about to happen]). It's true, it is a fairly entertaining film. Actually, Deathly Hollows part 1 had all the right tools to be a great film on its own, but unfortunately, it ended in a rather subdued fashion. It was a clear indicator that you must watch part 2 in order to "complete the journey." The ending definitely feels like a middle rather than an actual ending and that's the problem with the film. It's sort of the way Kill Bill vol. 1 ended but at least that film was very lean and strong on action. Deathly Hollows part 1 has a deliberate pace and it's carefully constructed. The emotion is definitely strong and all the actors have really grown into their roles nicely, but you can't possibly fully judge this film on its own merits because it's the first half of a full film. So, we all watched half of a film. And what good is half of a film?

If you don't know what's happening in Harry Potter land at this point, then that's ok. All you really need to know is... Dumbledore is dead, Voldemort wants to kill Harry Potter, and in order for Harry to kill Voldemort is to find more of his horcruxes and destroy them. That's really the jist of the whole story. That's basically where we're at and Deathly Hollows part 1 doesn't really change that. Some things happen, but nothing big. But we're pretty much guaranteed a very climactic, and hopefully satisfying, ending.

So, while Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 1 does leave us much hope for the 2nd Part, on its own, it really only adds up to half of a film. There's enough good in Part 1 that it deserves to be watched, but really, I wish I could just watch Part 2 immediately after. As it stands, Part 1 barely delivers.

Rating: 6.5/10

Thursday, November 11, 2010

three movies, three short reviews

Been awhile, I know. Stop crying. Let's just do this.

Due Date - I'm a fan of Robert Downey Jr., I'm a fan of Zach Galifianakis, therefore, I enjoyed this film. Having said that, I did not enjoy it as much as I hoped I would. Todd Phillips, coming off his career high with "The Hangover" has made a fairly enjoyable, decent road trip comedy that harkens back to similar comedies such as "Plains, Trains, and Automobiles." PTA is a classic John Hughes film with the very funny Steve Martin and John Candy. Like PTA, "Due Date" features two characters that are constantly at odds with each other. Ethan Tremblay, played by Galifianakis, is an aspiring actor and a complete buffoon. Peter Highman (Downey) is an architect who is trying to return home to Los Angeles where his wife is about to have a baby. Both Peter and Ethan have their character flaws, but unlike PTA, Ethan's character flaws aren't quite as tolerable as John Candy's. Whereas John Candy's character has a naive-like innocence to him that could be annoying to someone like Steve Martin, Ethan Tremblay could be annoying to just about anybody. Luckily, Zach Galifianakis is a funny enough actor where he can make this odd, quirky character work even if he's ungodly annoying. Galfianakis's character here is pretty similar to the one he played in "The Hangover," in fact, they're almost identical. I don't know whether to fault the actor or the director for that. Sure, Zach is funny and he has shown some surprising range as an actor lately, but Phillips is starting to turn him into a one-note character. That note? Say something really strange and awkward for laughs.

It worked well with "The Hangover," it mostly works here, but I don't know how many people would be able take much more of that. Overall, Downey and Galfianakis have an odd chemistry together that makes this film really fun to watch. However, the movie falters when it tries to add some sincerity to it which, unfortunately, tends to ring hollow. Also, the supporting actors (Jamie Foxx, Danny McBride) don't quite satisfy or get to do much. If you're looking for a pretty good time, you'll find it with this movie. Just don't expect to pee your pants from laughter.

Rating: 7/10

Despicable Me - I managed to catch Despicable Me a few weeks ago, and here's my late review on the film.

Despicable Me is a charming little movie featuring a great voice acting performance by Steve Carrell. The jokes, obviously aimed squarely at kids, don't really resonate well with the older audience. It's a pretty fun movie with a good amount of heart. If you have to take your kids to see this movie (or, at this point, rent it) they should have a good time, and you won't be wasting too much of your time. However, on its own, Despicable Me doesn't quite hold up. Recommended for kids, but not necessarily for grown ups.

Rating: 6/10

Never Let Me Go - Never Let Me Go is an interesting enough film directed by Mark Romanek. This is only Romanek's third film and I've only seen his previous effort "One Hour Photo" before this. The verdict for this film is pretty similar to how I feel about "One Hour Photo." This is a movie filled with a lot of promise with some really good performances, but unfortunately, it doesn't go beyond "promising." This is a really soft, tender, sad movie that never rises to a climax or a focal point. In fact, overall, the film is fairly anti-climactic. It reminded me, in a way, of "Curious Case of Benjamin Button" where the premise is set up in such a way where you know what's going to happen, and the movie doesn't really go beyond that. But whereas Curious Case of Benjamin Button tells a pretty interesting story and David Fincher is a master craftsman who does nothing but elevate the material he works with, Mark Romanek is a notch below that. He's a wonderfully visual director, like Michel Gondry (although not as inventive), but he doesn't quite elevate the material that he's working with (whereas Gondry can elevate other people's material, just not his own).

Never Let Me Go tells a story, in an alternate universe, of three kids who grow up in a boarding school who have trouble adapting to the outside world. Ultimately, you find out why they can't really connect to the outside world, and what follows is a fairly heartbreaking, sad story. Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, and Carey Mulligan all do a wonderful job with their characters, but unfortunately, the emotional atmosphere never really rises or amounts to much. So what you have is some beautiful images, some solid low-key performances (aside from some short bursts of anger from Andrew Garfield), and a very sad, glum story. I wanted very much to like this film and recommend it to you all here, and you may very well want to ignore my advice and see this film anyway. But, personally, the film just doesn't really add up to much for me and, because of that, it just wasn't as strong or as powerful as it could have been.

Rating: 6.5/10