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Thursday, Jan 13, 2011
Along with names like Renoir, Welles, Hitchcock, and Kurosawa, Leone deserves a much stronger cinematic status - even with a limited creative canon.

He was born into the belly of Italian show business: his father a famed director (Roberto Roberti), his mother a certified star (Bice Waleran). By the time he was a teenager, he was very familiar with film, and took several jobs on Hollywood and homeland period productions. While helping out on the peplum epic The Last Days of Pompeii, he was forced to fill in for Mario Bonnard when the filmmaker grew ill. Suddenly, he was behind the lens, and it would be a place he’d remain for the rest of his career. Oddly enough, he only made nine credited films from 1959 to 1984, but for fans of the spaghetti Western—a showy subgenre that brought grit and gravitas to the sagging cinematic staple—four of his films would remain major motion picture milestones.

Indeed, A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West would both revolutionize and reign in the format’s filmic impact. They become the beginning and the end of the sagebrush switch-up. But there was more to Sergio Leone than squinting antiheroes and one-horse towns draped in quick-draw bloodshed. He was first and foremost a man of extraordinary vision, a auteur’s panache that has carried over for the decades since his death. Now, with the arrival of Once Upon a Time in America on Blu-ray, it’s crucial to understand how a limited oeuvre has both driven Leone’s legacy as well as marginalized his meaning. He was more than just a hero of the post-modern horse opera, though few can see the truth behind all the trigger fingers.

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Monday, Sep 13, 2010
To me, making up some kind of overwrought homily filled with vacant, empty if wholly appropriate praise is a bigger sin than suggesting I am clueless.

I know I am showing my unbridled ignorance, opening up myself to a large amount of ridicule and am probably destroying what little credibility I’ve earned during my near decade tenure as a film critic, but the recent death of French director Claude Chabrol was like Ultavox’s “Vienna” to me - it meant nothing. I do not know the man personally, I have only the scantest knowledge and interaction with his work, and while I appreciate his place in the foreign film move from Hollywood overkill to a “New Wave” of post-modern perspective, I just can’t get all that worked up about his passing. Again, I am opening myself up for a salvo of salacious dismissals, and for that I am prepared - but it’s the truth.

What I will not tolerate is the tendency for those inside the biz to belittle my stance as anything less than honest. In my life, I have only seen ONE Chabrol film - ONE - and it was the awful 1975 effort Pleasure Party. More catatonic character study than compelling thriller, the supposed Hitchcock of France didn’t wow me with this weak Me Decade effort. Of course, I was harangued for my incredible cruel review, called every manner of name by people who claimed a greater appreciation of Chabrol than I, and in retrospect, probably was a tad too harsh on the otherwise perfectly ordinary title…but just a tad. All I gave was my opinion, not some manner of dogmatic overview.

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Tuesday, Sep 7, 2010
The Conversation is a tour de force, but it’s a quiet tour de force. In fact, it is just about impossible to imagine a movie like this being made today.

In Dostoeyevsky’s Notes From Underground the self-loathing narrator proposes that every man has secrets he will only reveal to friends and secrets he must keep to himself. And then there are the things he is afraid to admit even to himself, and the more decent the man, the more things he will find himself unable to confront.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a man less concerned with the answers to uneasy questions than the questions themselves. He is a well-regarded surveillance specialist; a self-employed spy who builds his own equipment and attracts high profile clients who will pay top dollar for his services. As he explains to his enthusiastic assistant (the always-excellent John Cazale), he is uninterested in the personal lives of his clients or what their motivations might be—he just wants to get the job done as only he can do it.

Caul, who claims not to care about the inner feelings of others, goes to great lengths to keep anyone from gleaning his personal thoughts. And from his old-fashioned eyeglasses, coat and tie attire or the see-through slicker he wears rain or shine, he projects the look of a professor or librarian more than efficient sleuth. This is entirely by design: by making himself as ordinary as possible, Caul believes he can keep others from intruding on his personal space—which we quickly understand is, for him, sacred.  As such, he is a human coil of simmering tension, all nervous energy and restraint. He is a quiet man with an urgent dialogue endlessly unspooling in his mind. Or, he has several urgent dialogues simultaneously distracting him. Or, he is ceaselessly trying to suppress these urgent, distracting dialogues. That he is unsuccessful is obvious: his discomfort around others reveals the obsessions and idealizations simmering deeply beneath his austere façade.

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Thursday, Aug 12, 2010
In the final analysis, the Star Wars prequels are a lovingly created, intricately woven story which attempts to sidle up to its predecessor by affecting a lightness that comes off more haphazard than whimsical. Careful planning and creative stall are both evident in the finished product.

The problem with the Star Wars prequels was never that the movies were bad, but that they were not good. Disappointment has a much stronger emotional effect than mere failure. The larger the existing bias, the more painful its reversal, which is to say that being a narrative run-up to the most successful adventure series in film history, the prequels had a lot to live up to. But their failure was deeper than unmet expectations. What one took from the Star Wars prequels upon first viewing was not so much irritation at some bad movies but sadness at what might have been. And we knew what might have been, because we saw the original Star Wars trilogy five times in the theatrical re-release. But what about now? Removed from the hype, how would the prequels come off? Was their poor reception merely a case of misplaced, fanboyish angst?

Short answer: No. In the final analysis, the Star Wars prequels are a lovingly created, intricately woven story which attempts to sidle up to its predecessor by affecting a lightness that comes off more haphazard than whimsical. Careful planning and creative stall are both evident in the finished product. A lopsidedness pervades the films’ tones, a richness of preproduction terminating in a series of uninspired shoots; the films themselves seem unsatisfied with the creative process from which they sprang. Years later one comes away still confused about what kind of yahoo could so painstakingly construct a story that not only enfolds but expands upon the epic Star Wars films but dresses this noble effort in dopey dialogue, jumped-up special effects, and cheap-looking set pieces?

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Fifteen examples of how Lewis Carroll's timeless classic has been twisted and turned to fit the time, and temperament, of their makers.

With Tim Burton’s wildly successful “reimagining” of the Alice in Wonderland story coming to home video on 1 June, it’s interesting to look back at some of the more noted adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s timeless tomes. One source estimates that nearly 80 film and or TV versions of the famous storylines exist, everything from straight forward interpretations to kid vid series, outside reinventions/extrapolations to deranged allegories and allusions. Seems as far back as the beginning of cinema, filmmakers were finding a way to bring the story of a little girl lost down a magical rabbit hole to life. The following are 15 of the more noted attempts, including a few entries that straddle the line between Carroll and crap, beginning with:

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