Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My 30 Favorite Comic Movies

The year is 2011, and the comic book hero has become such a blockbuster staple we're seeing Thor and The Green Lantern get huge-budget releases.  Marvel Studios is underway in producing a starting film for each Avenger, which is funny considering many comic book movies from the past decade follow an identical formula:  Our ordinary man encounters an unfortunate encounter which renders him super, but with great power comes great responsibility.  And a great deal of exposition that bogs down nearly half of each film, though it's usually pretty much the same story.  They encounter some mini-bosses before having to accept a weakness and save the universe.

This isn't to say that minor heroes are all that is left, or that the genre is played out (I have to remind myself we're rapidly approaching the ten-year anniversary of Daredevil), only that I think it's reached its point of saturation and will ebb as far as blockbusters go.  DreamWorks, Disney, Warner Bros., The Weinstein Company and even Marvel Studios' Avengers sat out San Diego's Comic-Con this year, and the less than stellar performances by (honestly dark horse candidates) Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, Sucker Punch and even Kick-Ass probably should have studios pumping the brakes a little bit.  Not every 300 will find its cult in college dorms.

Despite these downward tendencies, it has been a very fertile time for the comic book amid this meta culture.  And as someone who has been accused of condescending in favor of older pictures (and hates when other people are guilty of the following), I was a little surprised to see how many of my favorites are from the past ten years.

This is a list of my 30 favorite comic adaptations for the screen: book, strip, or graphic novel.  For the sake of diversity (sorry, Raimi, Nolan and Mamoru Oshii), I have limited each director to one film per franchise.  This does not mean that each world is limited to its definitive film, or that each director is limited to one franchise (congratulations, Bryan Singer and Guillermo del Toro).

30. Annie (1982, John Huston)
John Huston (mis)directs a strange amalgam of things I'm not too convinced he cares about: musicals and Little Orphan Annie.  Carol Burnett steals the show as a selfish wench and FDR even makes a singing appearance, the circumstances I can't remember for the life of me, with a winning song that undermines the depression.  Annie is one of those movies that was a cornerstone of my childhood:  I don't really want to revisit it, but it's something I wouldn't want to do without.

29. Li'l Abner (1940, Albert S. Rogell)
It's hard to even call this an adaptation.  Al Capp's intentions are nowhere in this piece, but the inanity remains highly enjoyable due to the cast.  Nearly forgotten stars of the silent era run a gerbil cage here, and Buster Keaton makes an appearance as Lonesome Polecat.  The plot is best summed up by IMDb user gftbiloxi: "Daisy Mae loves Abner, Cousin Delightful wants him for herself, and Abner prefers pork chops." What more do you want?

28. Art School Confidential (2006, Terry Zwigoff)
A lot of people hate this movie, even more forgot about it.  Zwigoff frustrates the audience to no end with a dramatic shift in tone halfway through in this scathing look at the art world.  Bravo for a film that suggests there is such a thing as objectivity in art.  Also, a pitch perfect wiener joke.

27. Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000, Curt Geda)
Of the DC Universe/Warner Bros. Animation collaborations I enjoy (and I enjoy a great deal, including Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and the difficult to adapt All-Star Superman), Return of the Joker is the finest.  Gotham is a dark, dark place and the cartoon isn't afraid to show it.  In a brilliant flashback sequence, we see the Joker (Mark Hamill(!)) at his sadistic best.

26. Kick-Ass (2010, Matthew Vaughn)
For all the comic book adaptations surrounding Nic Cage (he'll never get a shot at his beloved Superman, and instead resorts to things like Ghost Rider), one of his finest roles has him channeling Adam West.  With many of the best comic films (no, any films) Vaughn goes beyond the source material to create a kinetic love letter to John Woo.  Oh yeah, and people are really into a little girl in this also.

25. Blade II (2002, Guillermo del Toro)
Giving Wesley Snipes's Blade a fully realized duality while at the same time never skimping on the FX is what we've learned to love about the Guillermo del Toro touch.  Blade II goes beyond the simple blockbuster with a rare depth in a project from which most people expected none.

24. V for Vendetta (2006, James McTeigue)
Before Natalie Portman was winning awards under Darren Aronofsky, it should be noted that V for Vendetta is what pulled her career out of the dregs of chick flicks, feminine (Anywhere But  Here) and masculine (Garden State) and proved she could act as an adult.  The film is a timely critique that suggests that perhaps people weren't too happy with the Bush Administration.

23. Popeye (1980, Robert Altman)
Robert Altman's Popeye is close to insane.  It bears little resemblance to E. C. Segar's original strip nor Max Fleischer's long-running cartoon, but instead is inspired enough to cast Shelley Duvall as a perfect Olive Oyl and Robin Williams (with leg-of-lamb forearms) in his best-ever performance: a musical.

22. Weird Science (1985, John Hughes)
Weird Science is of the same ilk as those strange coming-of-age adolescent fantasies that tread ground of voyeurism, sexual frustration and social inadequacy (Zapped!, Mannequin) that fueled drive-in theaters for ages.  Only in the hands of an auteur like John Hughes, he respects his characters enough to give us a situation in which our characters understand the dilemma they're in, go further than we know they should (without condescending interference from the director) and somehow has us learning life lessons along the way.  It was the sort of thing Hughes was a master at.

21. Superman II (1980, Richard Lester)
About as close as you can come to breaking my one-film-per-franchise-per-director rule as you can get, Lester's adoption of Richard Donner's Superman II is a fantastic and fantastical romp that should have been a train wreck.  Superman must battle three hilarious, cartoonish villains (Sarah Douglas, Jack O'Halloran and Terence Stamp) set on taking over the world.  Also, time travel.

20. Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence (2004, Mamoru Oshii)
At its core, a film not all too unlike Malick's The Tree of Life in that it explores the weight of adulthood.  And like the trees of both life and the knowledge of good and evil, it explores the costs of both knowing and not knowing.

19. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984, Hayao Miyazaki)
Even more potent after Japan's recent nuclear scare, Nausicaä set the precedent for all Miyazaki's lifelong themes, not the least of which, the struggle between civilized man and pure, majestic, even obscene nature.

18. Josie and the Pussycats (2001, Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan)
Possibly the most unfair entry on the list, 2001's Josie and the Pussycats shares little with its source material outside of its name.  It's a ludicrous movie of subliminal messages and product placement (worlds ahead of Morgan Spurlock) featuring Parker Posey as a villain, Rachel Leigh Cook as our gorgeous lead and one of the best soundtracks (courtesy of Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo and executive production by Babyface) of the least twenty years.

17. Atom Man Vs. Superman (1950, Spencer Gordon Bennet)
This 15-episode, pre-television serial is the best superhero serial I've seen.  Perhaps, this was the truest form to film a comic book in a complete arc with fourteen cliffhangers.  Cinematically, it's a format successful since The Perils of Pauline through "24", and though television took over the Saturday morning trips to the cinema, Atom Man Vs. Superman isn't merely a subject for kids.  The chemistry between Clark and Lois is genuine and truer than many later adaptations.  Luthor's maniacal plan is something only of the comic book, but the serial plays it straight.  Animation is used cleverly and effectively to mask the serial's fiscal constraints.

16. Sin City (2005, Robert Rodriguez)
Frank Miller is credited as a director, and it's only fair.  Rodriguez, normally a director unfairly given wild, free range on every one of his projects, elected to allow every last frame of comic book serve as storyboard.  The results are often a matter of style over substance, but its treatment of the antihero has had me return to it more than anything else.  Note, before Mickey Rourke was winning awards under Darren Aronofsky, it was Sin City that resurrected him from the grave.

15. Persepolis (2007,Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi)
Like Sin City, Persepolis mimics the look of its source material (Marjane Satrapi's autobiography), but to a different end.  Where Sin City's stylization strives to romanticize a mis-remembered era, the overtly simple drawing of Persepolis brings the humanity of a much disdained nation to the Western world.  The film purposely tones down the politics, instead showing us a longing for a free world and a love for Michael Jackson.  Don't sleep on it.

14. Superman (1978, Richard Donner)
I suppose in a decade people will still refer to Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, but no one really owned a role quite like Christopher Reeve did Superman.  Few films evoke the wide-eyed wonder of being a child, and Superman reminds us of what we loved about superheroes in the first place.

13. Batman Returns (1992, Tim Burton)
Darker and more violent than Burton's original, Batman Returns is something I return to because Burton's two greatest gifts are utilized to their fullest: eccentric characterization and visual atmosphere.  Of the many Batman incarnations, this one seems to strike the balance of humor, depravity, action and loss that is at the heart of Gotham City.

12. Spider-Man 2 (2004, Sam Raimi)
The seminal film in a franchise that disappointed early before growing into its shoes, Spider-Man 2 is rife with real world examples of its cliché: with great power comes great responsibility.  Peter is lost: he loses his job, his girl, his grades.  He must even come to terms with his continual search for a surrogate father.  Spider-Man 2 is a painful movie, but one with great humor (of the Raimi variety) as well.  As a summer blockbuster, it's the complete package.

11. Oldboy (2003, Chan-wook Park)
Not to unfairly stereotype a nation, but judging from what I've seen over the past ten years, what the hell is going on in South Korea?  Making their presence known on the world stage, Chan-wook Park, Jee-woon Kim and Joon-ho Bong are leading the nation in film innovation, and there's an awful lot of vengeance going on.  Oldboy, the second installment in Chan-wook Park's Vengeance Trilogy, comes from the Japanese manga by Nobuaki Minegishi, but I'll be damned if it isn't a little Greek.  Oldboy is a difficult, harrowing picture that strips its characters bare and asks for more.

10. A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969, Bill Melendez)
You know what I hate about goddamn Eeyore?  He doesn't have the humility of Charlie Brown.  Don't get me wrong, Charlie Brown is one mopey dude, but his lovable loser always seems a little bit of a front, because his unblemished optimism is always just beneath the surface.  Here Charlie Brown loses a spelling bee and has to accept that, not only does life go on, but maybe people like him in spite of his failures.  This, the first of four theatrically released Peanuts films, has a spark in the animation that disappeared by some of the lesser television specials.  It is a joy to see the imaginings of day-to-day events through the eyes of childhood:  Schroeder's piano recital of Beethoven's "Pathetique Sonata (2nd movement)", the kids singing "The Star-Spangled Banner", a baseball game: Peanuts isn't an internalized Hundred Acre Wood, it's a beaming, humanistic Americana.

9. Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991, Ngai Kai Lam)
Spoiler alert...

Riki-Oh AWESOME Fight scene by MrBeuheuFail

8. Superman Returns (2006, Bryan Singer)
Blasphemy that I consider Bryan Singer's Superman Returns to be the Man of Steel's finest hour?  Possibly.  Granted, I had to forgive Kevin Spacey, but Singer's eye has me returning to a scene over and over again.  The scene-- reminiscent of the best parts of Spider-man 2 and Superman II-- presents Superman with a longing in his eye, but an almost creepy, omniscient one as he must accept Lois making a life of her own.  I can't shake it.

7. X2: X-Men United (2003, Bryan Singer)
If the X-Men have always been a metaphor for homosexuality, X2 forces us to ponder, like Steve Zissou, supposedly everyone is part gay.

6. Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972, Kenji Misumi)
The first installment in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, Kenji Misumi's Sword of Vengeance is the kind of hyperstylized violence it took him years to cut his teeth with in the Zatoichi franchise, but with greater stakes.  Nothing seems mystical about our hired assassin's powers, and the strings of fatherhood avoid cliché in their effective pathos.  It's hard to pick just one film in the series, but this is as strong a starting point as any.

5. A History of Violence (2005, David Cronenberg)
I feel like this is a misunderstood film and, perhaps had more people known the source material of David Cronenberg's A History of Violence was a graphic novel, it would have found its audience.  Perhaps the barbs wouldn't have been so sticky, perhaps the satire more easily digestible.  Perhaps we would have been more willing to root for our tortured, vilified everyman.  Of course, its barbs are the point, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

4. Ghost World (2001, Terry Zwigoff)
Man, the Zwigoff touch is weird.  In Bad Santa, he has Thurman Murman offer the gift of a blood-stained wooden pickle to Willie, since no one gives Santa any presents.  Ghost World gives Zwigoff the Daniel Clowes platform in which he can flourish, giving screentime to an R. Crumb record and making a grotesquely racist poster for Coon's Chicken a plot-changing prop.  Ghost World retains a Zwigoff bite and a Clowes aimlessness, but resonates deeply.

3. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008, Guillermo del Toro)
Beyond the "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" sequence from Spider-Man 2, I'd like to point out the single moment of Hellboy II in which Guillermo del Toro had the guts to do something deliberately corny that managed to speak volumes about pathos.  Hellboy and Abe Sapien drink some cheap beer and sing along to Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You".  The moment is perfect in its ache and understanding of what draws people to bad songs (and drinking) in the first place.  And it's pure del Toro.  An instance of a great director understanding the source material so well that he can insert something of his own and doesn't skip a beat.

2. The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)
If there's one thing Inception taught me from the nausea that followed every Facebook status in July 2010 which stated "just had my mind blown," it was that I really am a much bigger Batman fan than Christopher Nolan fan.  Accuse Nolan for relying on source material too much (even Inception was an adaptation of a Scrooge McDuck comic, right?), but there's is something to be said for reading it well.  The Dark Knight posed the real threat of the hero becoming the villain in his own moral code better than Spider-Man 3 (which, still, is better than people give credit for), and is possibly the single greatest popcorn thinker.

1. Danger: Diabolik (1968, Mario Bava)
If the movies are (and God knows the comics are) a form of pop-art, you can aspire no higher than Danger: Diabolik.  It's a film daring you to call it tongue-in-cheek, if it weren't so sincere.  It begs to be mod kitsch, but then what does that make of your beloved James Bond?  Danger: Diabolik is made of the things that made us love movies and throws them together in such a nutso fabric we don't have time to catch our breath.  Ennio Morricone's score alone is worth the price of admission.

If there is one thing I hate about "Mystery Science Theater 3000" (though I find myself coming back to it time and time again), it's the cult of condescension it created, allowing lazy, wannabe film buffs access to films predisposed as bad.  Sure, there's The Creeping Terror, but of course This Island Earth is going to suffer when you cut it to pieces and talk over it for 73 minutes.  I know I am just as guilty as this when it comes to comic books, but it turns out sci-fi, superheroes and pulp are important.  Danger: Diabolik is essential viewing.

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

My 42 Favorite Woody Allen Movies

For years I held the opinion that Woody Allen’s DreamWorks contract merely enabled him to pump out half-hearted, under-baked nihilist comedies more nihilist in execution than tone -- easy paychecks that could continually make enough overseas to fund the next project and keeping the elusive, sprawling jazz documentary he always hoped to film at bay.  My perception of his post-Sweet and Lowdown pictures as sub-par never allowed me to accept that these were movies he ever wanted to make.  Worse, it perpetuated the opinion that, since Cassandra’s Dream wasn’t my favorite movie, I should be informing the now-75-year-old how to make films.

Then every couple of years a Match Point or a Vicky Cristina Barcelona would come along and purport to be a “return to form,” as if we would want nothing more than a rehash.  Whatever Works excited by claiming to revive a Manhattan-era screenplay.  Only too late did we realize that it was left in the closet for a reason. 

2011 and three-quarters of a century.  Makes a guy think.  Woody Allen releases Midnight in Paris and I refuse to call it a return to form, because that is precisely the point.  That bird has flown.  F. Scott Fitzgerald shows up in the picture as if to undermine Gatsby’s philosophy about repeating the past.  Allen continues to be an uncompromised American voice whether by pioneering psycho-slapstick in 1973’s Sleeper or stubbornly refusing to flesh out characters in Melinda and Melinda.  God, it’s patronizing to refer to Woody Allen as anything like a “national treasure”, but there’s a reason why even You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger can play in New York for eleven months.  Some of us still need the eggs.

(Note: this countdown refers to Allen’s directorial pieces only.  The Front and Play It Again, Sam would rank about 22 and 19, respectively.  Additionally, New York Stories would rank around 25, though it is hampered by weaker efforts by Coppola and Scorsese.  Allen’s third, “Oedipus Wrecks” is easily the highlight of the picture.)

42. Anything Else (2003)
My strong infatuation with Christina Ricci ran from about 1997 through 2000 when a number of atrocious career decisions tainted her legacy.  Sure, I should have thought twice when she claimed “Detachable Penis” was her favorite song, but I didn’t know it would lead to Pumpkin, Miranda and Prozac Nation.  Then she took a job with Woody Allen and things were looking up.  Unfortunately, the title left me wishing for exactly that.

41. Scoop (2006)
Never has Woody Allen looked more like Jack Kevorkian.  Never did I wish his services used on a shuddering, lurching film more.

40. Don’t Drink the Water (1994)
Diane Keaton > Mia Farrow > Scarlett Johansson.  Thank God we didn’t have to add Mayim Bialik to this equation.

39. What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1968)
Plays like a smug episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" in which Allen showcases he can write stand-up material, but never convinces us he cares about his subject matter.  Parody without affection is dead.

38. Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)
A 1940’s period piece which isn’t too dissimilar in tone from Small Time Crooks (and not altogether detestable), only much of the jokes seem to be written while Woody Allen looked like this:
37. Whatever Works (2009)
A tried and true Allen premise and an inspired casting of Larry David are floundered by half-assed performances and weak 21st-Century rewrites to force “relevancy”.  Though Larry singing “Happy Birthday to You” while washing his hands is pretty hard to shake.

36. Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
In case you didn’t know, Groucho Marx was the first thing listed that makes life worth living for Allen’s Isaac in Manhattan.  Few will find Edward Norton’s singing to rank among their other ten.

35. Take the Money and Run (1969)
"Take the Money and Run has some very funny moments, and you'll laugh a lot, but in the last analysis it isn't a very funny movie. It isn't really a movie at all. I suspect it's a list of a lot of things Woody Allen wanted to do in a movie someday, and the sad thing is he did them all at once.” – Roger Ebert

34. Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
A pleasant excuse for Allen’s neuroticism in a film that gives reason to mind your own business, but often feels like you’re watching A&E.

33. Celebrity (1998)
The universal pan of Celebrity is wholly unfair.  The casting of Branagh is a stroke of genius and he weaves in and out of the Allen type in an engaging way relative the subject matter. 

32. Hollywood Ending (2002)
A self-conscious film whose failure is due largely in that we start to disbelieve Allen’s fear of writer’s block when he’s able to put out one of these films a year.  (However, a hilarious conversation about “artistic masturbation” has to have an element of self-parody as well.)

31. Cassandra’s Dream (2007)
Oedipus Wrecks the boat.

30. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)
A slight improvement on Whatever Works that doesn’t quite add up to Vicky Cristina Barcelona in a movie that isn’t too dissimilar from either.  Essentially, unhappy people refuse to be happy.

29. Bananas (1971)
Never been the biggest fan of Allen’s most political works, and where this movie fails (despite its great concept) is in ignoring the whole product for the sake of the aside.  Despite its brilliant title the film never really resonates together.  But Woody Allen wears a fake beard and it rules.
28. Small Time Crooks (2000)
Rather than watching privileged characters piddle their lives away into avalanching mistakes, I think the joke in Allen’s meditations of the futility of life resonate more when luck is sometimes, genuinely on your side – not that it makes life any more valuable, but it’s almost disingenuous to take on a worldview where everything is left to chance and never works out.  I like Small Time Crooks because, though slight, it is never glum.

27. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972)
Like my issues with Bananas, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex is compassless.  However, the film has the decency to play it for what it is: a series of vignettes.  It also never quite resonates together, but Woody Allen is dressed as a sperm and it rules.

26. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
A rare Allen film in which characters make life decisions which are a little more conventional (and a little less psychoanalytical).  A movie full of beautiful people, if not completely engaging characters.

25. Melinda and Melinda (2004)
I dig the 21st-Century Woody Allen films in which he doesn’t try to do more than the film allows.  Melinda and Melinda is effective in sticking to its experiment and draws out one of Will Farrell’s best performances.  Would have preferred to have seen Winona Ryder and Robert Downey Jr. in the picture, but Allen really got the most out of what he put in here.

24. Deconstructing Harry (1997)
The world rallied behind Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but where is Robin Williams’s Oscar for one of his three most likable performances in his career?

23. Shadows and Fog (1991)
Not quite up to snuff with his Ingmar Bergman pictures, Shadows and Fog is a very atmospheric experiment with much more easy gags than your typical Fellini picture.  It’s a bit of easily-digestible absurdism.

22. Alice (1990)
You know, I never really dug Lewis Carroll, so a Woody Allen psychosomatic take on Through the Looking Glass is never blasphemous and always fair game.  The plot meanders (sometimes to a fault), but so does the source material.  It’s something of a female empowerment picture that feels somehow condescending.  Mia Farrow plays the morose straight, and the colors play for strong effect.

21. Match Point (2005)
As much as I didn’t buy into Match Point being a “return to form” or “Hitchcockian” upon its release, its style is undeniable and its ending really digs into me.  It’s a film of Allen’s typical existential worldview, but one in which people are forced to live their lives with consequences and meaning (or rue for its lack thereof).

20. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982)
Woody Allen’s take on Ingmar Bergman’s take on Shakespeare.  Misguided at times, but salvaged by a brilliant Jose Ferrer.

19. September (1987)
At once a recycled Allen problem – couples trapped in unsatisfying relationships – the tone is played winningly in his best “stage” depiction.

18. Another Woman (1988)
A more sincere take on female psyche than Alice, Another Woman speaks strongly not only of Allen’s inherent realization of women on screen, but of a struggle Allen still faces every year: relevance in a changing world hindered by age.

17. Midnight In Paris (2011)
Owen Wilson’s “oh, boy” persona echoes a late-‘70s Woody Allen that allows for more self-effacing than Allen’s intellectual ever could.  A line delivered to T.S. Eliot about “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” seems to fall right out of Annie Hall but, just like the theme of the picture, the laughs aren’t for the sake of nostalgia, but are genuine. 

16. Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
If Love and Death jabs Dostoevsky for easy gags, Bullets Over Broadway lets the philosophy brew in one of Allen’s best depictions of moral dilemma.  Jennifer Tilly delivers an Allen performance for the ages.

15. Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
Perhaps as straight a rom-com as Allen has delivered since Annie Hall, Mighty Aphrodite succeeds in its oddball Greek asides that beckon to Allen’s early ‘70s anarchism without detracting from the absurd narrative.  Mira Sorvino is great and all the pieces fall together.
14. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
More a chick flick than most Allen fans are willing to admit, it’s a rare Allen picture in which happy endings fall into place despite themselves.  The cast hands out excellent performances (Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest won Academy Awards and who hadn’t loved to see what Woody Allen can do with Max Von Sydow?)  For me, Hannah and Her Sisters works in spite of itself.  The cast carries gaps in rationale and monotonous subplots.  It’s a spectacle of an actors’ picture which Allen bobbles.

13. Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Combines some of my favorite parts of Radio Days (nostalgia for a non-filmic form of entertainment) with my favorite parts of Manhattan (glamorizing even the seediest parts of the city with astute black-and-white), but the parts don’t equal as great a whole.  Allen’s performance is subdued, and that is its strength.

12. Sleeper (1973)
The best of Allen’s slapstick farces, Sleeper is the first film in which Allen comes into his own as an auteur.  Yes, the script is often carried by punchlines, but they are among his best punchlines. 

11. Radio Days (1987)
One of the things I respect most about Woody Allen is his interest in things other than film.  He loves his Swedish arthouse, but his movies respect the medium without necessarily idolizing it.  Radio Days is similar in tone to Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon as a bittersweet picture enamored of a time gone by.  As a cinephile, I almost respect that Allen’s interests are more broad.

Stardust Memories10. Stardust Memories (1980)
It took a lot of guts to do what Woody Allen did in 1980.  Stardust Memories is acerbic and confrontational.  It risks selling his fanbase down the river and doesn’t send them off with so much as a tip of the hat.  Stardust Memories is one of the few, complete works of an artist disillusioned by fame who has the balls to put himself under the microscope at its center. 

The Purple Rose of Cairo9. Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Woody Allen allows many of his pictures to appear economical and uncinematic.  Films like Radio Days and Broadway Danny Rose (and even the standup sequences in Annie Hall) flirt with presenting an Allen who uses film as a medium for a purpose rather than an end.  Purple Rose of Cairo informs us that it was the movies that broke his heart, but what sweet pain. 

Love and Death
8. Love and Death (1975)
The tenderest display of the love between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, Love and Death attempts to wax philosophic about life’s big questions, but it all goes back-burner when we see the vitality and chemistry between the film’s two leads. 

Crimes and Misdemeanors 

7. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Crimes and Misdemeanors may be the most definitive Woody Allen picture: where is the line drawn between comedy and tragedy?  It is more about love and death than Love and Death.  It’s about science and religion and every heavy Allen topic, but handled in a way that refuses to skirt the issues, trivialize them or take them for granted.  It is self-assured, serious and the jokes – among his best – not only hit, but sting. 
6. Zelig (1983)
Zelig is Woody Allen’s greatest achievement in moving beyond the one-liner, meshing his wryest social commentary with one of his best comedies in a film that attempts to use film language so on-target it’s a shame he never attempted it again.

Sweet and Lowdown 

5. Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
For all the talk of Allen’s “Bergman era”, little is mentioned of his Fellini takes.  Shadows and Fog, Broadway Danny Rose and here, in a loose-telling of La Strada, Allen displays a tenderness and affection of human drama without its trappings of cinematic weightiness.  Sean Penn delivers one of the two or three best performances of any Woody Allen picture, and its tone resonates deeply.

Annie Hall4. Annie Hall (1977)
Suck it, Star Wars.

Husbands and Wives 

3. Husbands and Wives (1992)
Woody Allen’s breakup masterpiece is, in some ways, a philosophic blueprint for everything he’s made since: Change is inevitable; everyone hates change.  Allen’s neurotics aren’t played for laughs here – they are touching, universally resonating fears.  Part of what bothers me in Allen’s later films is the flippancy of relationships.  Husbands and Wives understands what couples will put up with to avoid goodbye.

2. Interiors (1978)
It’s my suspicion when Woody Allen says of the making of Interiors, "It's always been my fear. I think I'm writing Long Day’s Journey Into Night and it turns into Edge of Night," that a part of him means he dreads losing the comic mask.  To make an intensely personal drama of unknown fears (if Allen’s psychoanalysis record has anything to say about it, maybe even unknown to him), one risks the label of pretentiousness.  But pretension is the antonym of sincerity, and I never question in my viewings of Interiors that Allen is pretending anything.  That’s where the fear hits home.

Manhattan1. Manhattan (1979)
I once had a professor lecture on Tracy’s final lines of Manhattan in which she tries to comfort Isaac by telling him that “not everybody gets corrupted”, but misheard what she said and built the Woody Allen theory that “everybody gets corrupted.”  And in Allen’s work and life since 1979, I can see how he misheard it.  That famous Manhattan sunset was also the sunset of his relationship with muse Diane Keaton.   

To accuse the directorial bulk of Woody Allen’s career of being self-important misunderstands what it is to be an artist and diminishes the gut-wrenching autobiographical nature of his best works.  Life goes on for Allen, and we are lucky enough to see a new picture every year.  His inspiration may ebb and flow, but at its core, not everything gets corrupted.  Not even the bad eggs.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

X-Men: First Class (2011, Matthew Vaughn)

Hardly a compliment to say X-Men: First Class is a better film than X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (which may be a different franchise entirely?  What happened to X-Men Origins: Magneto?), if anything it's a wonder Fox botched the franchise so badly.  They let Brett Ratner implode the universe beyond any recognition and, worse, let Bryan Singer walk away from it not once but twice.  What we are left with in First Class has been considered a reboot, is likely a compromise, but most clearly resembles a patchwork of decent ideas badly re-written several times.  Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn has proven kinetic genre chops, but the film can't overcome its crutch of a script.

One can only imagine what Singer intended for the proposed X-Men Origins: Magneto film, but Vaughn's opening scenes aren't a bad alternative.  The pulp of the Polish ghetto and Erik Lehnsherr's subsequent hunt down of Nazi conspirators in Argentina read like a rapturously enthusiastic prepubescent Inglourious Basterds.  It's frenetic in a way that respects the genre without taking it so seriously that it chokes itself out.  One almost respects the economy of the slipshod introductory scenes between Xavier and Raven; like his treatment of Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass, Vaughn exhibits an understanding of carefree youth before the screenplay's six writers demand they begin trying to talk like grown-ups (and worse in the case of Hank McCoy, angsty adolescents). 
How The Grinch Stalled Khrushchev

What stuck after the wringer of rewrites weren't (still, often trite) gems of the pain of responsibility and sacrifice with a strict adherence to narrative continuity from the franchise's watermark X2, but easy jokes for a knowing audience that aren't interested in much of a back-story because the film is never comfortable living in the past.  What we get, instead is well-worn sentiments about self-acceptance and a handful of self-referential jokes (including Xavier suggesting he may bald and a Hugh Jackman cameo that brought the house down).  For a franchise already too dependent on character familiarity and sweeping statements in place of true development, First Class becomes a parody of itself as the films become the joking source material.  The writers treat the audience as if the only thing interesting in an origins story is how the characters got their names ("I think I got a new name for ya:  'Beast'", "We're still g-men, just without the 'g'"/"No, you're your own team now.  It's better.  You're... X-Men.")

For a movie that markets itself on the recent success of the genre's historical reimaginings, First Class fails to be as interesting as the mere prologues of Watchmen and even Wolverine.  It selects the Cuban Missile Crisis as its crux, but assumes tension rather than constructing it.  A missile is redirected, blowing up a Russian tanker threatening to cross a blockade and some smarmy humans kinda high-five each other.  The only performance through which we believe there are any stakes is that of John F. Kennedy.  Worse, the film should serve as the relational bedrock for the lifelong mutual respect between Professor X and Magneto, but the script spends so much time between lesser soap opera pairings (Raven/McCoy, Lehnsherr/Raven) driving home the obvious point of feeling comfortable in your own skin that a brotherhood is never forged.  The film relies on what we already know about the characters (through both the X-Men mythology and the films') to cover its failure of any character development outside of Michael Fassbender's winning performance.

Any praise due the film goes to the eye of Vaughn whose visual style shines through at times despite his obvious lack of elbow room behind the camera.  Not only did Vaughn inherit problems to rile fanboy fodder (how is an omni-powerful villain killed so easily by something that made him powerful every previous time?), but was forced to use more uninteresting characters than anyone would know what to do with.  The film is bogged down by a script of low-bar hokum and undefendable running time in a dish that reeks of too many cooks on both sides of the camera. -- **/four stars

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