Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne

Weekend Wrap-up: Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West & more

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 17, 2012

An early scene in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Once Upon a Time in the West: Made in 1968, two years after The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Sergio Leone returned from semi-retirement with a veritable epic that showed how much he’d matured in his filmmaking (and that there’s no one that can make movies like him paired with composer Ernio Morricone, but we already knew that). The ravishing Claudia Cardinale stars as a newly-married prostitute-turned-wife who arrives in the dust desert town of Flagstone to find her new husband and his family massacred, victims of the nasty Frank (Henry Fonda), a hired gunslinger working for handicapped railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). Read the rest of this entry »

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Trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln released

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 13, 2012

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.

As expected, Daniel Day-Lewis seems to be giving out a brilliant performance here in Steven Spielberg‘s  Lincoln. Portraying our favorite American president during a turmoil-filled period of history in our nation, he’ll certainly catch the eye of the Academy voters, win a lot of awards, etc. Everything else in the trailer though….? I’m not convinced that this is a major standout film more than, say, War Horse was last year.  Nothing seems to be particularly outstanding or new or exciting or oh-my-god-this-looks-so-good-I-can’t-wait-till-November quality. Except, again, Day-Lewis. Music by John Williams and cinematography from Janusz Kaminski, as usual, with Tony Kushner (Munich) writing the script based on Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s bestselling historical novel Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

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Double Feature: Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, Part One

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 9, 2012

Nikolai Cherkakov in Alexander Nevsky.

[Note: Every week or so a pair of old, classic films that deserve modern attention will be spotlighted in the “Double Feature” column.  If you have suggestions for future installments feel free to hit me up on Twitter.]

In 1938, Sergei Eisenstein, the immensely talented composer Sergei Prokofiev, and Joseph Stalin‘s favorite actor Nikolai Cherkakov were brought together to create Alexander Nevsky, a thinly-veiled propaganda piece designed to stir up proud patriotism in the Soviet people and perhaps even scare the eminent threat of German invasion away. And what better way to do that then with a 17th-century-set medieval epic, about one of Russia’s most legendary princes nobly leading his people against an assault of Teutonic knights invading his homeland — and valiantly succeeding, of course? But Alexander Nevsky, which was hastily pulled from circulation when the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact came into existence a year later, and promptly reinstated in 1941 when Adolf Hitler did invade Russia, is one of those films that go beyond their original purpose. It’s a breathlessly grand and superbly enjoyable spectacle in the greatest sense of the word, made to inspire and rouse audiences even just through the awesome power of its visuals.

The climatic Battle of the Ice — which commences roughly halfway through the film — is the main draw, and it is quite spectacular indeed when matched with Prokofiev’s resonant score. (And we still see its influence in almost every film which included an epic medieval battle.) The Teutonic knights, purportedly deeply religious yet still prone to barbarically throwing babies and infants into fires, make for a fearsome lot, charging on their horses on a frozen lake with their large square-ish helmets and billowing cloaks. But no matter, for as a victorious Alexander Nevsky sternly reminds the people of Novgorod at the very end, “He who comes to us sword in hand, by the sword shall he perish.” Yes, it’s cheesy propaganda, but do you really care after watching such a fantastic film?

A scene from Ivan the Terrible, Part One, with Cherkakov’s shadow reflected on the wall.

1944’s Ivan the Terrible, Part One, which reunites Eisenstein, Prokofiev, and Cherkakov for yet another Stalin-approved depiction of a historical figure, is quite a different beast than Alexander Nevsky. The main antagonists are not helmeted German invaders, rather scheming boyars lurking in the shadowy confines of the tsar’s castle and who oppose Ivan’s dream of a united Russia; similarly, a poisoned cup of wine is of more deadly importance here than a plain sword or an axe. Mikhail Nazvanoz and Lyudmilla Tselikovskaya give fine supporting performances, while Cherkakov dons an scraggly long beard and dark robes for his role as Ivan, willingly casting off some of his boyish good looks that he used to fully advantage in Alexander Nevsky. (But, seeing as it passed the censors with no problem, you’d have to wait until Ivan the Terrible, Part Two, which Stalin restricted until 1956, for something that offers a taste of the more unpleasant side of Tsar Ivan.)

Ivan the Terrible, Part One is murky and moody and awfully melodramatic, and Eisenstein certainly recognized the acute difference in style and milked it to full potential when it came to the visuals. With his cinematographer Andrew Moskvin, Eisenstein expertly played with harsh shadows and light and the extreme ends of the available black-and-white spectrum to create lavishly detailed (all those heavily bejeweled Russian costumes help) and striking aesthetics that even bring to mind that of Citizen Kane, in some scenes. While the story might not be as easily captivating and rousing as Alexander Nevsky, if you can get into it, it’s rewarding enough. Both are classics in their own way, and more than deserve to be seen outside the limited realm of  film studies classes and scholarly lectures, that is, if you don’t mind sitting through a bit of Soviet propaganda — and two very fine films.

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Citizen Kane celebrates its 71st anniversary

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 5, 2012

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane was released on September 5th, 1941, this day exactly, marking its 71st anniversary. Obviously, much heated talk of this film has been circulating around the blogosphere much these past few weeks what with the newest installment of BFI’s once-a-decade Sight & Sound “Greatest Films of All Time” list, and the subsequent results of such that by now you must know.

Within the withering spotlight as no other film has ever been before, Orson Welles‘s “Citizen Kane” had is world première at the Palace last evening. And now that the wraps are off, the mystery has been exposed and Mr. Welles and the RKO directors have taken the much-debated leap, it can be safely stated that suppression of this film would have been a crime. For, in spite of some disconcerting lapses and strange ambiguities in the creation of the principal character, “Citizen Kane” is far and away the most surprising and cinematically exciting motion picture to be seen here in many a moon. As a matter of fact, it comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood. (Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, May 2, 1941)

Why did I include the the above snippet from the Times review? I’m not entirely sure, though I did have a purpose in mind. I guess I wanted to remind everyone that the important thing is that Citizen Kane is indeed an outstanding and unsurpassed achievement, and you don’t need a silly list to make up your mind about how good it is or indeed any other film. In 1941, Crowther and the other critics knew that (even if unknowingly they were kickstarting what would become this very conversation) and it’s important to separate a brilliant classic from the preconcieved legend that’s always surrounding it. Sometimes it’s nice reading a vintage review, and and feeling what it must have been like to be some of the first experiencing such a film. That’s all.

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Hal David, co-writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid‘s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” dies at 91

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 1, 2012

Hal David and Burt Bacharach (center) accepting their Best Song Oscar in 1970, with presenter Candice Bergen.

Legendary lyricist Hal David — who along with Burt Bacharach wrote the famous Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid tune, “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” which won them a Best Song Oscar in 1970 — has passed away at the ripe age of 91. David and Bacharach did a lot more than just that one (massively successful) song, of course, but “Raindrops” is still the one which resonates the most within cinema to this day. Its inclusion in Butch Cassidy helped make one gloriously happy scene, involving Paul Newman, Katharine Ross, and a very lucky bicycle, one of the most memorable ones in the entire 1969 film. Right there alongside the knife fight, the river jump, and the climatic shootout in Bolivia. You just feel like smiling all the time.
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Review: Violent bootlegging drama Lawless highlighted by Tom Hardy’s great performance

Posted by Max Lalanne on August 31, 2012

Tom Hardy in Lawless.

If you have to have one reason to see Lawless, John Hillcoat‘s violent and grimy bootlegging film set in Depression- and Prohibition-era 1930s rural Virginia, make that Tom Hardy. Coming off The Dark Knight Rises, you might consider his role here — as the hulking and seemingly “invincible” Forrest Bondurant, who conveys more with his imposing physicality that with words — a slight improvement on the masked terrorist Bane that he played in the July superhero blockbuster and nothing much more.

That would be a mistake, certainly, as what makes Hardy a riveting, spectacular and natural screen presence in Lawless is the surprisingly delicate, finely perfected subtleties that he brings to his character, what he conveys with a single glance from his eyes, or even unintelligiblely clumsy mumbling (which he does a lot in the marked presence of runaway showgirl Maggie, played by Jessica Chastain in all her fragile yet enduringly strong pale beauty).

This has probably been said before, but it deserves to be said again — Tom Hardy is a mighty fine actor and will be nominated for an Oscar one of these days. Read the rest of this entry »

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Can Johnny Depp, Quentin Tarantino, and Natalie Portman all help revitalize the fading Western genre?

Posted by Max Lalanne on August 29, 2012

Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained.

One is a gigantic, $215 million upcoming Disney blockbuster from the director, star, and producer behind that other lucrative franchise from the Mouse House, Pirates of the Caribbean. Another is a pulpy, violent joyride from a veritable pop culture messiah, known for his energetic and whizbang style of filmmaking, being released this Christmas. And last but not least, the other is a recently-announced, yet highly-promising, project from the female director of last year’s acclaimed indie We Need To Talk About Kevin, with already one Oscar-winning actress attached to star in and produce and certainly more notable thespians to come. What makes these completely disparate productions — all made differently for a different audience and all being released at different times — fit in the same paragraph? Uncommonly enough, they all share the Western as their main genre, and might just help revitalize the ingloriously fading genre. At least, one can only hope.
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Chicago producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron to work their magic on the 85th Academy Awards

Posted by Max Lalanne on August 23, 2012

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A scene from Chicago…or this year’s Oscars?

The prolific duo of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the producers behind the 2002 Best Picture winner Chicago, NBC’s musical series Smash, and the Tony-winning revival of Broadway’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying — among others — have been tapped to produce this year’s Oscar ceremony, airing on February 24th, 2013. Expect a lot of musical numbers. Well, okay, more than usual. I think.

“Craig and Neil are forward thinkers who bring a unique perspective to the Oscar show,” Academy president Hawk Koch said in the official press release announcing the decision. “Their enormous collective talent, coupled with their love of film, serves our show perfectly.” CEO Dawn Hudson added “Craig and Neil have great talent relationships and bring an infectious energy to the production. They are creative producers in the best sense of the word.”

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What do all those sneak screenings really do for The Master?

Posted by Max Lalanne on August 22, 2012

Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master.

When the news first got out that unsuspecting attendees on August 3rd, who had gone to the Aero Theater in Santa Monica expecting just a night of crazy Jack Nicholson in The Shining, had been treated to a secret 70mm sneak screening of The Master — I mean, come on. It was an honestly brilliant stroke of marketing and publicity genius on the part of Paul Thomas Anderson and the Weinstein Company.

What more, since it was a complete surprise, the only semi-respectable reactions were all enthusiastic tweets and comments (and plenty of envious forehead-slapping from the unlucky many), not full-length reviews from critics. The anticipation, or at least for me, was raised triple-fold for The Master‘s September 21st release in the US, and for those heading to the Venice and Toronto fests — where the film is playing in competition — it was undoubtedly an excitement booster as well. All is good, right?

What I don’t understand is why Weinstein didn’t just leave it at that. Instead, a public showing was announced and organized, also in the much-loved (duh) 70mm format, at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago on August 16.The reaction? Waves of raves for the 70mm, of course, and some polarizing if mostly positive opinions for The Master itself. On August 19th, the film reportedly had two unannounced sneak screenings in New York; one at the Film Forum and the other following a revival of Taxi Driver at Brooklyn’s Museum of Moving Images. And on August 21st, yesterday, The Master played in San Francisco, as well as in Philidelphia (and New York again).

There’s much chance, if it hasn’t already been confirmed, that these 70mm screenings, whether publicly announced or secretive, will continue nationwide until at least next week (where The Master will “officially” hold its world premiere over at Venice in competition). And while there’s absolutely no doubt that these screenings are an unexpectedly great thing for 70mm, what do they really, honestly do for The Master itself? I’m asking as someone who didn’t attend any of the screenings — but I swear I’m not bitter, really — and as a moviegoer to whom The Master was one of the most highly-anticipated films of the year.

That excitement, I’m afraid to admit, has diminished somewhat. This film was one that was shrouded in mystery just one month ago, it was either a masterpiece or a complete failure; no one knew what sort of film The Master exactly was and that added to the thrill of the whole thing. Now, the curtain has been lifted before the film hits festivals (at least one programmer has to be unhappy) and spoiler-y articles and early reviews are prominent in the blogosphere everywhere. Yes, the reaction has been good. For those who attended the screenings, I’m sure the visual experience was terrific, awesome. But I still believe, in the long haul and in future retrospective, that I won’t be the only one thinking these screenings may not have helped The Master as much as done some minor, yet notable damage.

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A long-overdue appreciation of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Posted by Max Lalanne on August 18, 2012

Barry Lyndon

Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, starring Brad Pitt as a shadowy mob enforcer, is one of the most highly-anticipated titles to be released later this year. Truth be told, I wasn’t as excited for the gritty crime drama as others, but that’s perhaps because I hadn’t yet seen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which I called “elegiac and lyrical, hauntingly grim and poetically gloomy” in my latest review for Static Mass Emporium.

I absolutely loved Dominik’s second feature film, unlike so many others. And I had had an odd feeling that I would love Jesse James very much for a good many months before finally popping in the rented DVD. Honestly don’t know why I had waited that long to see this film, but boy, am I glad I did. It’s a true shame that it isn’t on Netflix streaming, readily available for unsuspecting audiences who might expecting an action-packed Western…and instead will land on one of the most remarkable films from the past few years.

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