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Saturday
Jun232012

OBITUARY / ANDREW SARRIS

International cinema has lost a brilliant mind and passionate advocate with the passing of critic, author and teacher, Andrew Sarris.

For 29 years, Andrew Sarris was the voice of film criticism – or, more precisely, film appreciation – for progressive newspaper The Village Voice. His passing in Manhattan on Wednesday June 20, at age 83 from an infection that developed after a stomach virus, drew fond remembrances from both his journalistic colleagues and those that often bore the brunt of his insightful prose.

"Andrew Sarris was a vital figure in teaching America to respond to foreign films as well as American movies," said fellow critic David Thomson, referencing Sarris’ vocal support of the one-vision theory of filmmaking that was very much in vogue in the wake of the French New Wave. Sarris’ 1962 essay ‘Notes on the Auteur Theory’ and 1968 book ‘The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968’ remain landmark works. In the latter tome, he speaks of ‘The Panthenon’, a mythical home for filmmakers "who have transcended their technical problems with a personal vision of the world." In addition to Sarris’ Euro-favourites such as Truffaut and Godard, those to achieve such exalted status included Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles.

This belief in film as a singular vision brought him into direct conflict with America’s other great cinematic commentator, Pauline Kael, resulting in a rivalry that lasted both their lifetimes. In response to Sarris’ essay, she wrote a piece in The New Yorker entitled ‘Circles and Squares’ in which she derided his obsession as vague, derivative, trivial and immature. She defined Sarris’ adored filmmaking style as "an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence." Upon her passing in 2001, Sarris revisited the feud, saying that they "never much liked each other".

Others, however, were far more obliging of his opinions. In his foreword to the 2001 book ‘Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic’, longtime friend Martin Scorsese wrote, "His writings led me to see the genius in American movies at a time when the cinema was considered a mindless form of entertainment, worthy of serious attention only if it came from Europe or Asia." Fellow critic, the esteemed Roger Ebert, said, “"More than anyone else, he was responsible for introducing Americans to the belief that the true author of a film is its director. Largely because of him, many moviegoers today think of films in terms of their directors."

Upon leaving the Village Voice, he would write for the New York Observer until 2009 and held the position of Professor of Film at Columbia University, where he lectured in film theory and criticism (he also tenured at NYU and Yale). Shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2000, his most recent honour was a 2012 endowment of US$10,000 from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for "progressive, original, and experimental" criticism.

He is survived by wife and fellow critic Molly Haskell, whom he married in 1969. Upon his death, Haskell said, “"He was never unhappy. He wanted to go on living as long as he could — watching movies and talking about movies and being with me."

Saturday
May192012

THE WORST 20 OF CINEMAS BEST (PART 2)

The second part of our 'Worst of the Best' feature includes some of the world's most successful and respected filmmakers - and the terrible films they've made. Spielberg, Almodovar and Coppola are just some of those called to account for evening out the cinematic karma they too often tip in their favour. (Don't forget to check out the first 10 crimes against cinema, right here.)

TIM BURTON: You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who speaks in glowing terms of Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake or the grand missed-opportunity that was Mars Attacks! (though neither are as God-awful as their reception would have you believe). The director is merely uncaging his inner art-director on other people’s story-telling skills with films like Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (I said as much in a past piece I wrote). His biggest dud, though, has been 2003’s Big Fish, his star-laden romantic fantasy based upon Daniel Wallace novel. Really, you love it? Have you watched it twice...?

WERNER HERZOG: Only the fearless ego-driven eccentricity of the miraculously talented Werner Herzog could convince the other side of the great director’s brain that the creative decisions he made on The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (pictured, above) would pass critical muster. Not that he has ever courted favour with critic’s groups (in fact, he has steadfastly defied them), but his 2009 collaboration with that other brilliant nut-job, Nicholas Cage, has to go down as one of American cinema’s oddest moments.

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: His enormous 2-hour musical dream sequence, One From The Heart, all but ruined him (it is an extraordinary film, btw); Bram Stoker’s Dracula has its haters; his last couple of low-budget efforts, the experimental works Twixt and Tetro, were barely released. Most famously, he single-handedly tarnished his greatest legacy by botching The Godfather Part III. But Jack, the Robin Williams vehicle about a man who ages at four-times the human growth rate...ugh, it’s just awful. Even Coppola’s very first film, the 1962 German soft-core porno romp The Bellboy and The Playgirls (!!), is infinitely superior.  

STEVEN SPIELBERG: When the world’s most successful director has overplayed the sentiment, fans have revolted. Always, Hook, his episode of Twilight Zone the Movie, War Horse – all saturated in backlighting and dripping with saccharine. The film often cited as his lowest point – the 1979 comedy, 1941 – is nowhere near his worst (in fact, it grows in stature with every viewing). Where Spielberg has really stumbled is when he sets out to recapture lightning in a bottle – his sequels are non-events. The Lost World was all noise, no substance; Indiana Jones #2, The Temple of Doom (unnecessarily dark and nasty) and #3, The Last Crusade (sweet and fun but meagre) were Spielberg on autopilot. But they were works of commercial art compared to #4, The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull. Nearly twenty years fine-tuning the script was still insufficient time to make anything about this mythology-destroying embarrassment worthwhile.  

JAMES CAMERON: You’d think with a resume that kicks off with Pirahna II: Flying Killers, the choice would be easy. But the debut of cinema’s King Midas was an inventive, no-budget schlocker that revealed a filmmaker with a strong eye for FX thrills and good commercial instincts. Which leaves us with two Terminator films, the extraordinary underwater adventure The Abyss, action classics Aliens and True Lies and the ground-breaking phenomenon, Avatar. Cameron’s worst film, by process of elimination, must be Titanic. And I’ve no problem with that – a sumptuous but sappy teen romance set against the carnage of the world’s worst sea-going disaster. Billy Zane’s excrutiating presence and the worst dialogue ever for a Best Picture Oscar winner makes this Cameron’s nadir, and by some measure.

  

HAYAO MIYAZAKI: It is close to sacrilegious to speak ill of the oeuvre of Japanese animation legend Miyazaki and with good reason. He wrote the script to the just-ok 2010 film Arriety, but handed the directing duties to protégé Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Of his 9 wonderful features, which include masterpieces such as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, perhaps 1986’s Castle in the Sky (a conceptual vision he improved upon with Howl’s Moving Castle) is the least wondrous. But not be much; Miyazaki is true artistic genius.

PEDRO ALMODOVAR: The crackling eroticism and eccentric characters that populated the films of the young Almodovar set in stone his reputation as a must-see auteur. But his mature-age works have invoked a mixed response, as if critics have lost touch and fallen out of favour with his methods and motives. Volver soared, but Bad Education and Broken Embraces divided audiences. Much debated was his very latest, The Skin I Live In. Many took a similar stance to Australia’s leading critic, David Stratton , who said “Even a second level Almodovar is better than most other people.” Others were harsher (SBS Film said, “Had Alan Smithee been credited with this effort, it would go straight to DVD.”) As with most of Almodovar’s works, best to let the individual decide...

JOHN SAYLES: The great American storyteller stumbled badly with Silver City, his 2004 political satire starring Chris Cooper. His latest films, Amigo and Storyteller, have been flawed but ambitious; none ever make money, so box office returns can’t really be factored into the decision-making process. The lean, beautifully-realistic early works of 20 years ago (Return of the Secaucus Seven; Matewan; Brother From Another Planet; Eight Men Out) are still his standouts.

STEVEN SODERBERGH: Sophomore efforts like Kafka and Schizopolis went a long way to undoing the love we all felt for Soderbergh after sex, lies and videotape; Ocean 12 (the Amsterdam one) was just ok, Oceans 13 (the Al Pacino one) was terrible, but both were disposably watchable; his version of Tarkovsky’s Solaris was a struggle (but worthwhile, by my reckoning). Soderbergh has certainly tested audience patience with his experimental efforts, works admirable in their ambition but often arduous to get through. The Girlfriend Experiment, his segment of the portmanteau film Eros, the horrible Full Frontal. But it was his ‘what-were-they-thinking?’ WW2 noir-thriller The Good German, featuring a blank George Clooney and a hammy Cate Blanchett, that reps his most ill-judged effort. Unintentionally funny, when not being utterly non-sensical.

LARS VON TRIER: You’ll find plenty who hate his most revered works, and vice versa. Melancholia – I loved it; Dancer in The Dark – still haven’t seen the end of it; Dogville – amazing; Manderlay – terrible; Anti Christ – his greatest work. Von Trier is a true idiosyncratic, eccentric visionary who demands a lot of his audience, which doesn’t always sit well with the modern movie-going demographic. Most critics tend to dismiss his 1987 film Epidemic as egotistical nonsense, but some said that of his Dogma 95 manifesto, too – a period that resulted in The Idiots, an anarchic masterpiece.

Monday
May142012

THE WORST 20 OF CINEMA'S BEST (PART 1)

None of the 20 greatest living film directors achieved their exalted status by playing it safe. And lofty ambitions can sometimes lead to great falls from grace. In Part 1 of this entirely subjective look at an equally subjective list - that’s right, no Peter Jackson, Wong Kar-Wai, Bela Tarr or Clint Eastwood - of the world’s best filmmakers, SCREEN-SPACE determines the filmic equivalent of the exception that proves the rule. Here are the worst films from international cinema’s best contemporary directors....

QUENTIN TARANTINO: In his relatively short, spectacular career, Tarantino really hasn’t put a foot wrong (though he has focussed in on many); even his guest-director shots on TV series’ ER and CSI are season stand-outs. His Grindhouse segment, Death Proof, divided critics and not everyone loved the Kill Bill films, but the only real disaster has been his ‘The Man from Hollywood’ segment (pictured, above) from the omnibus film, Four Rooms. By no means the worst of the bunch (one-time indy darling Alison Anders all but killed her career with her contribution), Tarantino’s was nevertheless a badly-executed, pretentious gabfest; the actor’s smugness at being cast in a QT short oozes off the screen.

MICHAEL HANEKE: Revered and reviled in equal measure, Haneke has plenty of films that divide opinion but few that are labelled outright duds; his often brazen methods can rattle cages but rarely invoke critical disdain. Perhaps the one exception is Benny’s Video, a 1992 film that utilises the home-video camera craze of the time to paint an unconvincing, rather unpleasant portrait of teen alienation gone very bad. He hates the modern movie-goer’s key demographic (see Funny Games) and his established arthouse-only release pattern suggests they hate him right back.   

WIM WENDERS: The German auteur has what many consider the greatest film of the 1980’s to his credit - the lyrical, mesmerising Wings of Desire – but spent his time in the doghouse following the entirely indecipherable, mostly unwatchable The Million Dollar Hotel. He secured an A-list cast (Mel Gibson, Jimmy Smits, Milla Jovovich) but mired them in a single-setting murder mystery that Empire magazine called, “A plodding, self-indulgent exercise in pomposity over substance.”

MARTIN SCORSESE: The Aviator is a long, hard slog; Bringing Out The Dead is so dark as to swallow light (yet, IMHO, a great film); The King of Comedy was dismissed upon release but has now found much love. And many consider Age of Innocence to be art direction-ed to a standstill. But truth be told, perhaps his most technically accomplished film, last year’s Hugo, is his least personal and subsequently most coldly mechanical work. Scorsese has said he made this for his daughter, who loved the book and who he would never allow to watch his earlier works. It shows; every other film he made was to please himself and Hugo grinds through someone else’s vision with a detached eye for button-pressing sentimentality.    

TERRENCE MALICK: 5 films in nearly 50 years doesn’t give me much to work with. And none of them have achieved mass-market love, yet most have won some measure of critical acclaim. His literal 2005 version of the Pocahontas legend, The New World, with Colin Farrell, has been his least favoured; 2011’s The Tree of Life was a love-it-or-hate-it vision that not even the actor’s involved fully comprehended (Sean Penn told the French newspaper Le Figaro, “Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context!”). By a whisker, The New World.

WOODY ALLEN: The comic maestro copped a lot of flak for Stardust Memories, but hindsight has favoured that bitter meditation on fame (71% on Rotten Tomatoes). After the ambitious, beautiful Everyone Says I Love You in ’96, he churned out a decade of hit-miss work (Deconstructing Harry; Celebrity; Sweet and Lowdown; The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending). The worst? Probably, 2003’s Annie Hall-rehash Anything Else, with Jason Biggs riffing off the director himself; Mike LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle said, “It has taken Allen over 30 years, but he has finally made a movie that's almost unwatchable.”

JOEL & ETHAN COEN: Sorry hipsters but, yes, Joel Coen (most often with wordsmith brother Ethan by his side) has made dud movies. Burn After Reading was not as supremely clever as everyone gave it credit for; the largely forgotten The Ladykillers, with a winning, against-type Tom Hanks, is so much better than most think. Their worst was the impenetrably arty The Man Who Wasn’t There, which mashed-up Billy Bob Thornton, UFO’s, a slutty Scarlett Johanson and death-row melodrama into a hodge-podge of smarty-pants, self-knowing haughtiness.  

JEAN-LUC GODARD: The great French filmmaker’s work has been at the cutting-edge of cinema for so long, any film perceived as a backwards step is greeted with a gentle “oh well, at least he tries”. That doesn’t happen very much (though nobody got particularly passionate about his latest, Film Socialisme). Perhaps his least admired work was his slightly preposterous muscle-man take on Lully’s ‘Armide’ in the 1987 portmanteau opera-film, Aria.

RIDLEY SCOTT: There is a lot of geek-love circulating on the web for Ridley Scott as Prometheus buzz intensifies, but fact is the visualist does not always tell a compelling story. The commercial director he once was is never far from the surface; if he’s not sure what to say, he tarts up his frame with pretty pictures. Mediocre efforts include GI Jane, the pedestrian Someone to Watch Over Me and the vastly-overrated American Gangster; outright misfires include Kingdom of Heaven and the Christopher Columbus bore, 1492. But easily the worst of the bunch is Hannibal, Scott’s cheesy, cynical sequel to The Silence of the Lambs that he clearly did for the paycheque.  

DAVID CRONENBERG: His early days at the forefront of the horror genre have fuelled the fire of cynics who call him a one-note genre specialist; this, despite critically-acclaimed works like The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers and, more recently, violent crime thrillers The History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Many think he reached a little far with A Dangerous Method, but it had its supporters. But nobody liked his 1993 adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly, his biggest, most expensive disappointment to date. His muted, modern version of the classic romance, which emerged from a period when he was striving for broad artistic acceptance, was dismissed entirely by analysts and public alike.

NEXT - Spielberg, Almodovar, Soderbergh kick off Part 2 of SCREEN-SPACE's Worst of the Best Feature....

Thursday
May032012

SOFT-CORE ARTISTRY 

The poster for a forgotten 21 year-old X-rated movie is finding new love amongst online traders.

In the world of hand-painted movie-poster art, the name Olivia De Berardinis does not sit alongside such prolific standard bearers like Drew Struzan, Reynold Brown or Mort Künstler.

Though one of America’s most renowned modern artists, notably famous for her iconic interpretations of burlesque queen Bettie Page, De Berardinis - 'Olivia', as she is known to her legion of fans - has had limited success in the world of film artwork. Her long-established commerciality comes from her monthly contribution to Playboy magazine and a vast industry of by-products that stemmed from 30 years of high-profile artistry.

But a poster created for David Buckley’s 1981 adult film Angel Buns – an assignment she took in an effort to establish herself in the film industry during the early days of her commercial art career -  has become a rare collector’s piece. Featuring a Berardinis-ed version of leading lady, early 80’s porn superstar Veronica Hart (Paul Thomas Anderson honoured her legacy by casting her as ‘Judge’ in Boogie Nights), the artwork is a typically ethereal representation of her subjects sexuality, largely foregoing the extreme nature of the X-rated film’s subject matter in favour of soft-focus effects and suggestive but tasteful curves.

De Berardinis would have further opportunity to establish herself in the competitive world of movie-poster artistry, but her job assignments were attached to films whose reputations sullied all involved – John Derek’s soft-core version of Tarzan, starring his stunning but talent-challenged wife Bo, and one of Hollywood’s most troubled productions of the last half-century, Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger’s The Marrying Man.    

Saturday
Apr212012

BULLETS, BROADS AND BELLYLAUGHS IN REMASTERED B-CLASSIC

Italo-western Comin' at Ya! was not forgotten by The Alamo Drafthouse, Austin's home of cult film oddities.

Cinema in the 3rd dimension has gotten all credible lately. Since Dreamwork’s honcho Jeffery Katzenberg got up in everyone’s face spruiking the fresh technology that would eliminate the cardboard glasses and that James Cameron joint with all the blue people hit big, suddenly ‘3D Cinema’ is attracting the likes of Scorsese, Spielberg, Wenders and Herzog.

Screw that! For most of us, 3D still remains a desperate, no-holds-barred tool of the B-movie producer; 3B, if you will. One purveyor of schlock who knew this was the late Ferdinando Baldi, the Italian-born director of two 3D works that lovers of spaghetti pulp-cinema adore – 1981’s arrows-in-your-face western Comin’ at Ya! and 1983’s Raiders... rip-off, Treasure of the Four Crowns (1983).

To counter the post-Oscar box-office doldrums of early 1982, Village Roadshow launched Comin’ at Ya! (“with 3-D viewers!”) with all their marketing might and Australian cinemagoers flocked to Baldi’s ultra-cheesy tale of Old West vengeance metered out through the barrel of a six-shooter. Described by HitFix.com as “... 3Dsploitation, pure and simple...” and “...the most aggressively 3D movie ever seen,” Comin at Ya! remains notable for kick-starting a brief 3D fad in the early 1980’s (Jaws 3-D; Amityville 3-D) and for one particularly unpleasant scene that affords viewers the thrill of seeing a baby’s full nappy in the glorious third dimension. Oh, and Pedro Almodovar’s some-time muse Victoria Abril plays love-interest Abilene.

The film’s star and producer, Tony Anthony, retained rights to Comin at Ya! and has dedicated the last several years to sourcing funds that have allowed him to oversee the restoration and 3D conversion of Baldi’s film. The passion project, done in collaboration with producer Tom Stern of Sternco 3D, came full circle when Comin’ at Ya! played to packed late-night audiences during the 2011 Fantastic Fest horror and fantasy film festival.

Though it was filmed for US$600,000 and paid for by maxed-out credit cards, Anthony has always been passionate about maintaining the integrity of the 3D process he and Baldi worked so hard to master. “At one point, I pulled the film off the market, because I was disgusted with the projection,” he told an Aint It Cool News correspondent after the Fantastic Fest screening. “So when 3D came back and was being seen in digital theatres...ah, well, now we were beginning to solve the problem...”  

Kindred spirit Evan Husney, director of upstart Texas-based cult-film distributor Drafthouse Films understands the allure of 3D’s origins better than anyone and acquired the Real 3D print of Comin’ at Ya!, which premiered at the company’s underground movie-going mecca, the Alamo, in downtown Austin on February 24. “Matching quintessential 80s-style 3D with cutting-edge contemporary technology is going to make for the ultimate 3D experience for movie-goers," Husney says, via a press statement.

No distribution arrangement is in place for screenings in Australia.