With Columbia Pictures recently announcing plans to expand the Spiderman universe with Venom and Sinister Six spinoffs, it's become increasingly clear that the new films aim to be big blockbuster cash grabs. The second film in Spidey's reboot certainly lives under that header, bringing fantastic visuals and digital effects to showcase its onslaught of action.

The cinematography is more of what was seen in the previous film -- quick, stylish shots, dizzying pans, and a lot of eye-catching slow-mo to showcase Spider-Man's more intricate movements in battle. This is Spider-Man at his best, and the fight scenes are pure summer spectacles. Although I'm not a fan of 3-D films, I gave it a chance and found that it really enhanced the picture; unlike a lot of other films, I rarely caught myself self-aware of the format.

Unfortunately, the film's script follows the same formula as its cinematography; it attempts to juggle three or four different storylines, and although it certainly does so with more care than Spider-Man 3, it still comes across as unfocused and uneven. Peter (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen (Emma Stone) have great chemistry together, but in moments of turmoil, the acting takes a turn for the worse and ends up being comically over-dramatic. On the other end of the spectrum, we don't see nearly enough of Harry to justify such a large role in this film; the backstory and appearances of Harry and Norman Osbourne are suspect at best, and the relationship between Peter and Harry is shaky and rushed. Had they introduced Harry in the first film, his appearance here would have been much less superficial.

And what's up with his hair, anyways? Harry Osbourne

The only storyline that I can comfortably back is Electro's. Jamie Foxx plays an entertaining Max and gives the first 30 minutes some life in between the mushy-gushy of Peter's relationship with Gwen. As Electro, he looks fantastic, and the effects are pretty eye-catching. What really stands out during Electro's scenes, however, is Han Zimmer's soundtrack. The soundtrack is heavy on the electronic/dub sound and gives off a really intense, modern vibe. The action on screen intertwines with the beats and drops of the soundtrack, making Electro's presence truly unique and memorable. Yes, the logic behind Electro's resentment of Spider-Man isn't exactly fool-proof, but his action scenes stick out in my mind as the best parts of this film.

Overall, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a great, action-packed blockbuster with beautiful visuals and a clean, modern soundtrack. Unfortunately, the plot suffers from being too jam-packed with material, and it is pretty obvious that the writers were forced to rush some of the storylines to plant the seeds for future sequels. As a Spidey fan, I look forward to the next few movies -- with great hopes for the action, and little hope for the plot.

The short run-time of Fred Zinnemann's uncommon western belies its surprising amount of substance and polish. Not a second is wasted on overzealous information or inconsequential subplots, and the events are paced near perfectly to coincide with the true 85-minute run-time of the film. The time is always ticking and looming over marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) as he tries to round up a small village to back him up against an old adversary, and with each failure, we gain insight into social perceptions, human behaviors, and group mentalities.

The film does not ride on the coattails of beautiful cinematography, nor does it rely on its soundtrack to convey emotion. There is only one memorable song in this film, and it is a song that gets played over and over again from beginning to end. The film is all about its characters, about examining undeterred courage and common cowardice, and perhaps in that the film serves as Kane's greatest testimony. High Noon is understated and soft-spoken. It sticks to its guns and you're not quite sure how it'll turn out, but regardless of the outcome, it proves its worth and has its place in history.

Mar 28, 2014

Up in Smoke (1978)

Let's be honest: Cheech and Chong make films for stoners, and although this first outing probably would've been better had I been high off my rocker, it is still the definitive stoner flick. There is no drama or tension, no true conflict or moral of the story; if it had a plot, it certainly fell to the wayside by the 5 minute mark. This film is about two stoners who ride high and bang chicks, with scene after scene of ridiculous situations and nonstop fun. Up in Smoke starts off with probably the best sequence of the movie -- an extended scene of our two protagonists toking up in a beat up car -- then rolls onward to stranger and stranger situations, ending before you know it. 96 minutes of weed, weed trucks, and weed-based decisions.

Judging by the almost universal acclaim and adoration for this film even 50 years after its release, it took me about twenty years too long for me to watch this film. I've never been particularly enamored by lengthy films, and a movie long enough to have an intermission is certainly in that category. After viewing it for the first time, however, I can honestly say that this is one of the best films I've ever watched.

Despite being nearly 4 hours long, the writers set a fantastic pace for the film's story that easily makes it go by quicker than films half its length. It's impressive how quickly it seems to shift from Lawrence making a fool of himself, to conquering cities with an Arabian army at his stead. The then-novel time-shift narrative serves well as a vehicle for the film's psychological analysis of the titular character, who struggles throughout to understand his motivations and allegiances between the conflicting desires of the British military, the Arabian masses, and his own moral compass, and O'Toole handles the role with care and finesse as he depicts Lawrence at varying stages of his impressive military service.

Lawrence of Arabia's enormous production budget is evident in all aspects of its creation, from its vast landscapes and awe-inspiring battle scenes, to its hugely affecting soundtrack. The picture quality is beautiful and a real treat given the year of its release, and cinematographer Freddie Young takes full advantage of it with a mix of eclectic Arabian landscapes. These landscapes feel foreign to the eye, and, when combined with the now-iconic soundtrack, feel like an entirely new planet away from the comforting familiarity of civilization. The film, above all, succeeds in painting the unique world of Arabia with beauty and finesse, perhaps the way T.E. Lawrence truly saw it.

John Huston's mad adventure about a seedy man (Humphrey Bogart) and his two gold-mining companions (Walter Huston, Tim Holt) opens up with a usually clean-cut Bogart begging for money on the streets of Tampico. The rest of the film's arc is foreshadowed early on, but it's the execution of its brotherly camaraderie and subsequent descent into darkness that stands out and makes The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) memorable and easy to enjoy. The characters are the film's heart and soul, and we get the full range of human interaction and expression through the wise old man, the money-hungry Dobbs, the young man with a good heart, and their encounters with a cast of auxiliary characters that continually throw a wrench in their plans.

Although the entirety of the film is entertaining, no portion is more gripping than the last hour or so, when old man Howard leaves and Dobbs fully gives into his delusions. Bogart plays the madman to its full, glorious potential in a breakdown of Shakespearean proportions (King Lear). No matter how heavy and depressing this movie gets, however, there are always moments of humor and laughter, whether in lighthearted banter or in painfully ironic situations. The final scene, especially, is almost like a cosmic joke played out on our protagonists, and they are surely aware enough to get their share of laughter out of the way. As the film gets closer and closer to that point, one begins to notice the stark realism and honesty in the world's portrayal: true Mexican landscapes, with true Mexican actors, speaking their language for scenes at a time with no translations. In a film filled with action, humor, and tension, it's the honesty of Sierra Madre that wins out and makes it all worth it.

Feb 13, 2014

Latino Images in Film

The first thing one notices about The Ox-Bow Incident is its striking black-and-white visuals -- its surreal lighting carves deep contours into each character's face, providing the first hint that something is off in William-Wellman's quiet film. Its vast surroundings hammer it home, imposing a feeling of isolation and endless expanse in an early America where the law ran wild and civilians took it upon themselves to set things right.

Released in the midst of World War II, at a time when men, women, and children were united in their love and patriotism for their country, it's not a movie that one would expect or want to see. The film gains its personality from painting its characters with shadows of a doubt, going against the commonly heroic protagonists of other westerns. It brought into question several social and cultural standards at the time, including the righteousness of crowds and the American people, the expectations of males and masculinity, and the roles of black actors in society. Despite less-than-stellar success at the box office, The Ox-Bow Incident has become a fan favorite over the years for its subtlety, complexity, and diverse cast of characters. It runs a short 75 minutes, but you certainly get your money's worth.

Bordertown is a great example of a film that starts off with an intriguing prologue, enters the main act strong, and then manages to lose its handle and go completely off-the-rails. The problem with Bordertown isn't the fact that it centers around the rise of hot-blooded Mexican lawyer Johnny Ramirez, who is portrayed by the Jewish Paul Muni. In fact, Paul Muni is known for being able to disappear into his roles, and does a fairly good job here despite being a little over the top in his portrayal. The problem with Bordertown is that it tries to shock and astonish its viewers more often than necessary in the latter third of the film, putting on a heavy dose of melodrama that it never recovers from.

Bordertown is the story of a righteous Mexican lawyer who fights to achieve the American dream, and gets repeatedly trampled on despite his successes. The prologue is largely stereotypical of American opinions on Mexicans at the time, and the ending is ridiculously racist and depressing given the trajectory of the film up until that point, but Paul Muni manages to carry a good charismatic energy throughout the film that keeps things alive and interesting. Eugene Pallette provides an immense comedic spark early on as Charlie Roark, the oblivious husband and owner of a Tijuana road house, but the real star of the show is a young Bette Davis, who plays femme-fatale Marie Roark.

Bette Davis has the unique trait of seemingly being on or coming off of cocaine in every scene she's in. This unique trait is what launches her into stardom at the end of the '30s and into the '40s, and its what makes her performance in Bordertown a remarkable one. In one iconic moment, she blows so much cigarette smoke out of her orifices that I expect somebody was running to pull the fire alarm afterwards. Her increasingly manic performance is sudden and unbelievable, but her raw acting chops are certainly on display here, and it was obvious to her future directors that she could be an icon given the right screenplay. Despite a less than perfect script, there is enough wit and charisma early on to prop Bordertown up as an enjoyable movie.

Wes Anderson's unique stop-motion picture is an amalgam of surreal images, of disturbingly human animals and stylized picture book settings. It reaches into the depths of the Uncanny Valley and comes out with an almost hyper-aware sense of its own oddity, mocking the traditional arc of character development in the form of furry skins and dry quips.

The film is especially amazing in its first half, which opens with a vibrant set piece of Mr. Fox and his enigmatic tree. Wes Anderson makes use of the oldest form of animation, and the results are eye-catchingly beautiful when combined with his colorful palette. The sound design is equally crisp, and they found a great group of voice actors to match the manic energy of the film's animated characters.

The film's screenplay is smart and refined, with sharp-shooting conversations and an abnormal number of classic one-liners pouring out from furry lips. The script is constantly making fun of traditional Hollywood films, in one scene knocking the deep existentialist questions that every protagonist seems to have, and every sidekick seems to have the answer to.

Unfortunately, the film falls into a lull during its second half, getting bogged down by a thin plot and rushed attempts at character development that hinder the humorous, satirical nature of an otherwise brilliant script. It gets much closer to the typical animated fare of Hollywood once the main conflict gets underway, and I absolute abhorred the ending scene, which I found to be bland and useless. Nevertheless, as with all Wes Anderson films, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a fresh cut away from the typical fare coming out of L.A.

Fred Astaire never ceases to amaze me. The dynamic duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is on full display in their first screen pairing, a wacky musical with a witty, energetic screenplay. Produced during the rise of talkies and before the enforcement of the Hays Code, the characters of Flying Down to Rio are charmingly frank, making one risqué comment after another without the fear of censorship by the MPAA (formerly the MPPDA). The film is chock-full of quotable lines, although a few of them may slip through the cracks due to differences in cultural contexts.

This is the type of movie that makes you long for simpler times, when the world was free and uncaring, and everyone knew how to jive and get down. The carioca dance sequence is absolutely joyful to watch, hitting the audience with one variation after another as Latinos, African Americans, and the electric Fred and Ginger pair all take a stab at the addictive upbeat tempo. This is a film that knows what it wants to be and embraces it -- it is fun and playful the whole way through, and ends with a completely ludicrous aerial sequence as its grand finale.

Of course, Gene Raymond and Dolores del Rio received top billing for this movie, and they are also quite phenomenal as the center of a classic love triangle. Raymond is charismatic as lady-killer Roger Bond, and del Rio is lovable playing the leading lady. The editing gets a little crazy with so many different transitions used, but it matches the playful style of the film and is a good sign of their willingness to experiment. This is a great piece of early cinema with a clever script and great choreography.

Ernest & Célestine is a heartwarmingly faithful adaptation of the popular Belgian children’s stories by Gabrielle Vincent. The story is centered around the budding relationship between the two titular characters, Ernest the bear and Célestine the mouse, who struggle with their friendship in a world where their societies are at odds with one another. Although you can likely determine the theme of the story from a mile away – one of bigotry and intolerance – it is the sincere methodology in which directors Vincent Pater, Stephane Aubier, and Benjamin Renner have pieced this film together that captures the imagination and makes Ernest & Célestine a clever depiction of a timeless bedtime story.

Reflecting the musical talent of Ernest and the artistic talent of Célestine, the art and music of Ernest & Célestine are its greatest strengths. Off the bat, the film eases you in with its beautiful, hand-drawn artwork; the storybook universe is brought to life by a number of gorgeous set pieces that could all be suitably hung up as living room paintings, and the computer animation allows characters to betray a ton of emotion with just their movements and expressions. Ernest’s dopey naivety and theatrical flair, combined with Célestine’s warm optimism, wits, and fierce personality, provide a great dynamic that makes their growing relationship natural and lovable.

Meanwhile, the sound design is crisp and clear, whether it be the soothing vibrato of Ernest’s piano, or the individual clatter of falling plates and pots as he tips over everything in his cabin. The film’s soundtrack is equally robust, with each song having a child-like bounce and step to it that vitalizes each scene.

Perhaps the most surprising part of Ernest & Célestine is that there is always something interesting going on, whether it be in the foreground or background. When Ernest first comes back to his cabin, he throws his hat away into the dark and misses the coat hanger, which quickly falls with a resounding clank. The animators know when downtime can be used to insert a little whimsical humor, and when to let silence take over and do its work. As a result, the world feels fully alive, as if even the props and surrounding scenery are interacting with its characters and, oftentimes, mocking them.

Unfortunately, the price of intricate detail is the film’s short 80 minute runtime. It feels as if the movie is boiled down to its best parts, which inevitably left me feeling unsatisfied by the film’s quick and sudden ending – although I enjoyed every minute, I was left wanting more as the credits started rolling.

The film does not try to play down to its audience – there are some beautifully dark moments in the film, and they stick out in my mind as some of the most unique and memorable of the film. Together, the artists and musicians of Ernest & Célestine even manage to insert a few surreal dream sequences, each of which have their own unique style and are gorgeous with or without their contexts.

In the end, Ernest & Célestine is a simple children’s story about a bear and mouse who fall in love despite society’s bigotry and intolerance. Yet, in its sincerity and clever screenplay, the film shines as a beautiful European alternative to the standard 3D-animated Hollywood fare.

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