Monday, June 30, 2008

8 Late Summer Movies I'm Looking Forward To

A friend of mine left me a voicemail the other day, in which he rather incredulously announced that in the next couple of months, there are a lot of movies coming out that actually look good. I know, it's weird, especially since the summer season has already been quite good (Iron Man, Wall-E) but there's reason to be excited about big studio movies between now and September, before the Oscar-bait pictures start rolling in. Here's what I'm looking forward to, with my excitement on a Bale-scale from 1 to 5 (note, even if a film gets only a single Bale, I'm still excited!):

1. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Release Date: 7/11/08
Excitement Meter:
Why It Should Be Awesome: The people who've seen this movie have described it as Hellboy + Pan's Labyrinth, and that sounds fantastic to me. Guillermo del Toro designs weirder creatures than Miyazaki himself, and Ron Perlman has been a favorite for a while.
Reasons for Reservations: Del Toro is not a master of pacing (ie his movies are slow) and something this epic could get even slower. I'm not too worried.

2.The Dark Knight
Release Date: 7/18/08
Excitement Meter:
Why It Should Be Awesome: If you don't know already...
Reasons for Reservations: N/A

3.The X-Files: I Want to Believe
Release Date: 7/25/08
Excitement Meter:
Why It Should Be Awesome: The show was great, but frequently got bogged down in endless in-references and pointless mysteries. No time for that in a movie, plus this one's got Billy Connolly.
Reasons for Reservations: What seemed creepy when I was like 10 might not be too scary now

4. The Mummy 3
Release Date: 8/1/08
Excitement Meter:
Why It Should Be Awesome: I really liked the first one, and any movie that has Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, and Brendan Fraser recently trained in Israeli martial arts has got to have its moments.
Reasons for Reservations: No Rachel Weisz, a new director, and what looks like 1 (or 1000) too many CG shots.

5.Pineapple Express
Release Date: 8/8/08 (make a wish!)
Excitement Meter:
Why It Should Be Awesome: The 80s greatest genre, the buddy action-comedy, has fallen on hard times lately. Who better to revive it than Judd Apatow and his golden touch? And as far as I'm concerned, Seth Rogen can do absolutely no wrong.
Reasons for Reservations: James Franco...not so great actually.

6. Tropic Thunder
Release Date: 8/15/08
Excitement Meter:
Why It Should Be Awesome: Ben Stiller's been in a rut lately, but this action-comedy about a group of actors who think they're filming a war movie but are actually in an actual war looks like a real winner. I'm particularly excited (and already offended) by Robert Downey Jr's performance as a method actor who has blackface surgically applied to play the African-American soldier.
Reasons For Reservations: Did I mention Stiller hasn't done anything good for a while?

7.Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Release Date: 8/15/08
Excitement Meter:
Why It Should Be Awesome: If this prequel to a prequel is anything like Genndy Tartakovsky's earlier series, it should have scintillating action to spare. And since everything is already CG already, George Lucas' tendencies to pick terrible actors, direct them terribly, and surround them with CG are rendered moot.
Reasons For Reservations: Did I mention this is a prequel to a prequel? Episode III made me want to hurt myself...if this is like that, God help us all.

8.Burn After Reading
Release Date: 9/12/08
Excitement Meter:
Why It Should Be Awesome: The. Coen. Brothers. Also, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, and Brad Pitt in a Coen Comedy about a spy whose dangerous memoirs have been stolen. Can't wait.
Reasons For Reservations: I thought The Ladykillers would be good.
Trailer (Redband!):

Review: Mongol


Although Mongol, as the first entry in an epic trilogy, has already been labeled the Mongolian Lord of the Rings, a better description would be Genghis Begins or Khansino Royale (sorry). It's the origin story of Genghis Khan, and as such follows the conqueror, back when he was just called Temudgen, as he seeks power in Mongolia years before his famous conquests. Although the film is far from perfect, it is an impressive example of filmmaking on an epic scale.

Like many epics, the true star of this film is not the title character but the gorgeous landscape and its exquisite rendering in extreme-long shots. Russian director Sergei Bodrov filmed in Kazakhstan and China's Inner Mongolia, and we're treated to beautiful vistas in a vast array of locations: mountains, hills, deserts, and rolling grasslands.

The film's plot more or less follows a love triangle, established in the first half-hour of film, while our principals are children. Temudgen, against his father's wishes, chooses Borte, a girl from a weak tribe, to be his wife. After his father's untimely death, Temudgen - as a threat to the new clan Khan - must flee, and meets and befriends a blood-brother, Jemukha, while on the run. As an adult, Temudgen is pulled in different directions by his brother, who wants him as a second-in-command, and his wife, who dreams of greater things.

Although the opening portion of the film drags, the movie gets going roughly a third of the way through, when we meet our adult actors and both blood and humor start flowing (since we're dealing with Mongols, they frequently flow simultaneously). Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano imbues the tile role with appropriate gravitas, and Khulan Chuulun brings a grave intelligence to role of Borte, who is both Temudgen's long-suffering wife and canny adviser. But Chinese actor Honglei Sun steals the show as Jemukha; he plays the role with a mix of warrior pride, bloodthirstiness, and wicked humor that I found captivating.

Mongol certainly qualifies as classic epic filmmaking, of the kind once practiced by David Lean and driven lately by Ridley Scott and Peter Jackson. Although the film's pace and plot can be spotty, the story is deep and resonant, and the action sequences recall Gladiator with their depiction of gore in jumpy, hand-held camera work. But Mongol is ultimately more than an epic: it is mythic filmmaking. Temudgen is the ur-Mongol, he is the law-giver and order-bringer - he both upholds the old ways and reshapes them to suit his needs. When the time finally comes to strike down his enemies, the heavens themselves open up and offer aid. In short, Genghis Khan is the Mongolian Paul Maud'Dib.

My only reservation is, after I liked and enjoyed the first volume of the Russian Lord of the Rings, Night Watch, the second volume was both lackluster and, unfortunately, not released in theaters in my area. The third volume still hasn't come out yet, as the Russian Peter Jackson was busy making this weekend's Wanted. I can only hope that, in terms of reception and distribution, the Mongolian Lord of the Rings fares better.

Update: The third "Watch" movie, Twilight Watch, might get canceled. Epic trilogy lovers, beware; let's hope Mongol 2 and 3 are immune:

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Western Star of the Week #3: John Wayne

Star: John Wayne
Type: Hero
Height: Really Tall
Era: Classical Hollywood
Politics: Conservative

Go-to Director: John Ford
AFI Male Star Ranking: #13

Historical Importance: Highest

In cult classic Repo Man, one of the repo men suggests that John Wayne was gay. As a result, the rest of the repo men heap him with insults, concluding with the declaration "John Wayne was the greatest American who ever lived." I don't know any better way to sum up John Wayne's mystique: although the man was not an actual Western hero, although he didn't actually fight in a single war, although he had the acting range of a grapefruit, there are still plenty of people who regard him as the greatest American who ever lived. Although the AFI lists him as only the 13th greatest male star of all-time, I think he'll be the most loved movie star of all time until the last baby boomer dies, and maybe even after that.

Marion Michael Morrison's early career was made up of a series of bit and lead parts in B-Western, broken only by Raoul Walsh's 1930 Broken Trail, a massive experiment in wide-screen filmmaking that only recently saw the light of day on DVD in its widescreen format. The film wasn't a hit, but it was notable for one reason: Walsh renamed his young star John Wayne. Nine years later, master filmmaker John Ford decided to make his first Western in a decade, and cast his former bit player Wayne in the leading role. The result, 1939's Stagecoach, is still regarded as one of the greatest Westerns ever made, and launched Wayne's mature career.

Even if you've never seen a single John Wayne movie, you probably already know the John Wayne persona. Tough but fair, hard but with a heart of gold, harsh to men on the trail and contemptuous with tenderfoot "pilgrims" but with a soft spot for children, animals, and the occasional pretty woman. If you think that all sounds a little corny, well:
1. You're right
2. Even so, it sure works, and set the stage for all future action heroes
3. Most, if not all, of Wayne's best performances offer up a more problematic version of this portrait.

John Wayne, a man's man who nevertheless always ended up with the lady, is probably the most enduring movie star of all-time. For the "Greatest Generation," he was everything they wanted to be - heroic in an old-fashioned way. For the Baby Boomers, he represented a god-like and stern father figure, and his roles in the 50s and 60s, which represented both his best acting and his greatest willingness to take chances and portray morally suspect characters, solidified this particular persona. Today, I think John Wayne is most remembered as a great actor who could give a solid, if undistinguished, performance in his trademark persona while asleep but, when asked by the script and director to do more, always delivered a character of tremendous depth and profoundly effective emotions.

The Films:
John Wayne made more than 140 movies and his favorite genre was the Western, so choosing the usual 3 is pretty much impossible. I have somehow confined myself to 4 - as always, in order of greatness.

1.The Searchers (1956)
Dir. John Ford
Political philosopher Robert Pippin points out that, although non-Western lovers tend to praise Westerns for their clear-cut distinctions between good and evil, the greatest Westerns always feature deep moral ambiguity. No western character is more problematic than Ethan Edwards, a man whose search for his kidnapped niece seems less driven by familial love and more driven by a racist desire to ensure that the Indians who kidnapped her don't contaminate her with their culture and bloodline - even as he is deeply embedded in Comanche customs. Ford's greatest film, Wayne's greatest role, and a movie that is still frequently chosen as the greatest ever made.

2.Red River (1948)
Dir. Howard Hawks
When John Ford saw Red River, he reportedly claimed that he hadn't previously known that Wayne could act - even though the two had spent the last decade collaborating. Wayne is Thomas Dunson, a rancher who befriends a young boy and, post-Civil War, embarks on a historic cattle drive. The boy grows up to be Montgomery Clift, and their eventual confrontation is both a deep political problem - the paternalistic Wayne wants to rule over his men with the power of life and death, and Clift oppose him - and representative of a shift in film acting, as Clift's method acting brings out previously unknown depths in the Hollywood style of Wayne.
Update: Something I forgot to mention: Red River has the gayest scene ever recorded in cinematic history. Clift and John Ireland, trying to feel each other out, hand each other their six-shooters and proceed to rub, admire, and vocally praise each other's "gun." It's so homoerotically charged, it could have been written by Whitman.

3.Stagecoach (1939)
Dir. John Ford
Orson Welles claimed to have learned how to make films by watching Stagecoach over and over again. Who could blame him? Stagecoach is more or less perfect. It follows a charming outlaw (Wayne), a sheriff, a Southern gentleman, a cavalry wife, a woman of ill-repute, a drunk doctor, and a traveling salesman trying to survive a stagecoach ride through Indian country. Each of the characters has strengths and weaknesses; each of them grows or changes on their journey. It sounds cliched now, but for a 1939 Western, it was positively revolutionary.

4.Rio Bravo (1959)
Dir. Howard Hawks
Conservatives Hawks and Wayne disliked High Noon's liberal message, so they set out to make a film that repudiating every aspect of that classic. Twice as long as High Noon and leisurely paced over several days, Rio Bravo follows Sheriff Chance's brave effort to hold a murderer against the thugs hired by the prisoner's brother. Whereas High Noon's marshal begs the townspeople for help, Sheriff Chance will accept the aid only of the best trained professionals and would never ask them for help. Ultimately, Hawks' career was about hardened professionals doing the tough and dirty jobs that the sniveling populace couldn't handle, and it doesn't get any harder than Sheriff Chance.