Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Narrow Margin

Two police officers are escorting an icy mob bosses' widow by train from Chicago to L.A. to testify in a  racketeering trial. When they arrive to pick her up, one of the men is gunned down. Now it is up to one man to guard the uncooperative and unappreciative witness on the locomotive while dealing with assassins, bribes, a mysterious woman riding the train with her son, and other possible threats. The Narrow Margin is a fabulous motion picture and is often cited as one of the best B-pictures of all time. Directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Charles McGraw, it is an exciting motion picture that ratchets up the tension with great plotting and wonderful direction. There's not a slack moment or false note in this fine noirish movie.

The Hammer

From a story he wrote, The Hammer stars comedian Adam Corrola as Jerry, a 40 year old who has just lost his job and his girlfriend. Once a promising young boxer, he is approached at the gym by his old boxing trainer with an opportunity to train for a tryout for the Olympics. The unlikely boxer takes his chances and begins gearing up for the big fight, not knowing that he is being used by his trainer. The Hammer is a slight film that benefits tremendously from Corrola's dry, sarcastic sense of humor, something I have always responded well to. The story is not well realized, the same goes for the supporting characters, and the ending is laughable, but Corrola is able to carry the film to a certain level of enjoyment even if it isn't a total knockout.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Marion Jones: Press Pause

Marion Jones: Press Pause is about 20 minutes of an intriguing story dragged out for the course of an hour. Directed by John Singleton, it tells Jones' story as a phenom athlete in high school to her unmeasured Olympic track and field success up until her downfall and disgrace when she was imprisoned for lying to federal investigators about her performance enhancement usage. Jones herself participated and its intriguing hearing her version of events. However redundancy begins to take over and certain points are hammered relentlessly. The attempt to depict her redemption by her showing her playing in the WNBA doesn't quite come off well either. 

The Office

In 2001 Ricky Gervais and collaborator Stephen Merchant introduced the world to their brand of comedy in the form of a mockumentary focusing on a group of employees at the paper company Wernham Hogg in Slough, England which is facing downsizing. Starring Gervais as regional manager David Brent, he is a man who is more concerned with his own popularity and comic stylings then with the performance of the branch. We also meet salesman Tim who longs for receptionist Dawn who is already taken by one of the warehouse workers. Then there is Gareth, the rigid paper salesman who is obsessed with the military and follows procedures to a T. The Office is an uproarious series, thanks mostly to Gervais' comic sensibilities. The romance story between Tim and Dawn is handled wonderfully. Running for two seasons and with a feature length special, this is the kind of quality in television rarely found, and not even scarcely seen in the American export which doesn't even begin to measure up to the riotous original.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Limitless

It opens on a slovenly composed man walking the streets of New York City. In his own narration, he says that he's surprised that the man you are seeing is not a bum. He's a writer with a book contract and a severe case of writer's block currently living off of his girlfriend. One day he runs into his pill pushing ex-brother-in-law who gives him a mysterious pill he says will increase brain function, awakening new neurons and causing more of the brain to work. Soon, the writer has finished his novel in a few days, has cracked the stock market, and is about to become part of one of the biggest mergers in history. However, he begins to feel the side effects of the unapproved drug and quickly learns that others who have taken it are dying. He is also contending with a ruthless Russian gangster who himself has grown accustomed to the drug and the police who have implicated in the murder. Limitless, directed by Neil Burger, takes a fascinating idea and uses many stylish and creative ways to demonstrate how the protagonist's mind is working. The script is well written and Robert De Niro is great as a shrewd tycoon who brings the young writer in on the major deal. For everything the movie does right however, star Bradley Cooper unravels. Cooper is such an uninteresting presence and poor actor. He brings nothing to the role and his laconic approach detracts from the material. All the other pieces are in place, yet due to poor casting in the lead role, this one is chalked up as a disappointment.

Green Lantern

This movie is ridiculous from the word go. It begins with thousands of space men who are part of a lantern clan that wears rings which they use to protect the galaxy. When an evil force called The Parallax mortally wounds one of the finest Lantern soldiers, the soldier journeys to earth to find the most worthy recipient of his ring before kicking off. The person the ring brings to him is cocky, reckless, and self-centered test pilot Hal Jordan who takes the ring, becomes the Green Lantern and the first human to don the ring, and protects the earth from The Parallax and his evil childhood friend who is now a doctor and has been infected by the the evil space people. Without really needing to say it, The Green Lantern is kind of a sorry excuse for a superhero. His world is uninspired and what fun is a superhero who can basically do anything. Ryan Reynolds is not as horrible as I expected as the lead and fits OK into the lanterns shoes. Blake Lively is delightful as the love interest, but her character's interaction with Reynold's mirrored too closely to that of Superman and Lois Lane. Additionally, I didn't know what was more unbelievable her beautiful, young, smart, and successful character or the The Green Lantern's will powered shape shifting ring. Peter Saarsgaard's character is disappointing in a poorly realized and underdeveloped role as the villain, and we have come to expect more from the actor. The movie is also loaded with inspirational speeches about courage and fear, which becomes too much to handle very quickly. For what it is this movie is so so. The effects in the final battle between The Green Lantern and The Parallax are impressive. Still, this is a lackluster superhero movie and should be a call to Hollywood to slow down on the churning out of comic book character films.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Gone with the Wind

Producer David O. Selznick and director Victor Fleming's adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's novel about a selfish young girl in the fading of The South was a massive undertaking resulting in a lavish film of epic proportions. Despite its four hour, Gone with the Wind never ceases to be thoroughly entertaining and is one of the finest examples of storytelling on film. Viven Leigh stars as Scarlett O'Hara who lives on the plantation of Tara. When she hears that her beau Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) is marrying Melanie (Olivia de Havilland), she throws herself at him at a party and throws a temper tantrum, all of which is overheard by the scoundrel Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). As the South engages in The Civil War, falls, and Atlanta is burned, we see Scarlett and Rhett's tumultuous relationship take wing during these events. Gone with the Wind is a lavishly beautiful film, shot in Technicolor at a time when few films were. The acting is wonderful all around as well. Vivien Leigh won an Oscar for her wonderful portrayal as the self-centered Scarlett and Clark Gable is absolutely delightful as the devilish Rhett. Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar in her performance as Scarlett's servant and Olivia de Havilland is delightful as the saintly Melanie. Gone with the Wind is a wonderful film on so many levels and a prime example of cinematic entertainment.

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane usually tops great movie lists and is often cited by critics and scholars as our greatest film. Orson Welles' 1941 debut film holds this honor due to the fact that it took all the techniques known to the movies at the time and utililized them while creating a few techniques of its own therefore influencing generations of filmmakers over. On top of being a great film and an extremely influential film, it is also simply an extraordinarily entertaining picture. Citizen Kane stars Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane, inspired by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst who did not take too kindly to the movie's depiction of him. The film begins with Kane's death in the great estate of Xanadu where, while dying alone, he utters the most famous words in cinema before kicking the bucket: Rosebud. A newsreel producer wants to learn the significance of the word, so he sends a reporter to interview the people who knew him best. Through these men and women we learn the story of Kane's rise and tragic downfall and his eventual loss of childhood innocence signified in his dying words. Citizen Kane is a rich movie and the kind that you can watch over and over again and still feel you can revisit and get something more out of it. With his first film, Welles was able to achieve greatness on so many different levels and craft a movie that would be an inspiration to many great filmmakers to come.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Kennedys

The Kennedys eight part miniseries covers familiar territory, showing scandals and events mostly during John F. Kennedys presidency. Although there is nothing spectacular or revelatory about this program, what does stand out is the acting. Greg Kinnear, an actor who I do not particularly admire, makes a fine JFK nicely embodying the 35th president. Not so great however is Katie Holmes, who resembles Jackie Kennedy but does not have the acting chops to pull off her portrayal. Barry Pepper, a background actor who has came to the forefront recently with really nice turns in True Grit and Casino Jack, is spectacular as Bobby Kennedy. Finally, the great Tom Wilkinson sinks his teeth in the role of Joe Kennedy and hams it up in a fun performance. Here is a breakdown of each of the eight entries:
Episode 1 “A Father's Great Expectations"
As the family prepares for election day, we are shown flashbacks to the days of WWII when Joe Sr. awaited news of Jack's well being after his PT boat was attacked in the Pacific and received word that his oldest son Joe had been killed in a plane crash.
Episode 2 "Shared Victories, Private Struggles"
As the family waits for election returns to come in, we see Jack's 1946 congressional campaign as Joe pulls strings to see him elected. We also see Jack meeting and marrying Jackie, while she deals with his infidelities and considers divorce. Bobby looks forward to giving up politics after the election and gets his father's blessing, which is quickly taken back as soon as Jack becomes president.
Episode 3 "Failed Invasion, Failed Fidelity"
Jack makes his famous inauguration speech, appoints Bobby as the Attorney General, and just a few months into his presidency, makes the decision to surreptitiously invade Cuba which will eventually come to be known as the Bay of Pigs debacle. Also, Jack's indiscretions continue to alarm Jackie and give a slighted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover the ammunition he needs to gain an upper hand on the Kennedys.  
Episode 4 "Broken Promises and Deadly Barriers"
As the Russians build the Berlin Wall, Jack struggles with mounting health problems and Jackie deals with her rigorous schedule. An ill advised promise made by Frank Sinatra to Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana on the Kennedys behalf comes back to bite the family as Bobby begins to aggressively go after organized crime.
Episode 5 "Moral Issues and Inner Turmoil"
After Joe has a massive stroke, Rosie remembers how they handled their daughter Rosemary's developmental disability. As racial tensions ignite in the south, Jack and Bobby go back and forth with Mississippi governor Ross Barnett over James Meredith's admission to the state's university in an increasingly escalating affair.
Episode 6 "On the Brink of War"
As Jackie contemplates leaving Jack due to his continuing philandering, surveillance photos depicting nuclear missiles in Cuba are taken sparking the intense week and a half that would come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the crowning achievement of the Kennedy administration.
Episode  7 "The Countdown to Tragedy"
On the morning of November 22, 1963 Jack and Jackie reflect on their recently lost child, Bobby deals with a surfacing scandal involving Jack and the deceased Marilyn Monroe, and Joe and Rosie look forward to seeing their kids for Thanksgiving as Lee Harvey Oswald makes his preparations in the book depository on that fateful day in Dallas.
Episode  8 "The Aftermath: A Family’s Curse of Misfortune and Heartbreak"
Following with JFK's assassination Jackie deals with press bombardment in her personal life and decides to marry Aristotle Onassis to obtain security for her and her children. Bobby blames himself for his brother's fearing it to be the result of the many enemies he had made over the years. After some consolation from his wife Ethel, Bobby decides to carry on for Jack and run for President in 1968 until he is tragically cut down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Thin Red Line

Reclusive and seldom active writer/director/philosopher Terrence Malick used his expansive sensibilities to bring James Jones' once before filmed novel to the screen. Set during the Battle of Guadalcanal, The Thin Red Line is a philosophical polemic about the conflict, beautifully shot over vast expanses, focusing in on several soldiers in a platoon. We meet a young deserter (Jim Caviezel), a reflective pacifist who seems content with the island people but would honroably give his life for country. There is also a gruff sergeant (Sean Penn), who has a rough outer shell but still has some humanity left inside him. Then there is a captain (Elias Koteas) who refuses to sacrifice his men's lives for minimal gain as the behest of a lieutenant colonel (Nick Nolte) who is in his last years in the service and is only interested in career advancement. Then there is another private (Ben Chaplin) who's memories of his wife back home keep him going during his arduous service. Malick is a director who only thinks on a large scale, and The Thin Red Line is a measured, but always captivating and beautiful. It doesn't seek to make grand statements on war or offer pulse pounding battle sequences. It wants to introduce you to its characters, get taken away by its visuals, and reflect on your own, all goals which it achieves completely. I don't believe it to be a perfect film, but when a movie can create feelings in you so profound through acting so great and visuals so beautiful, how can this be anything less than four stars.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Way Back

In 1941, seven men escaped from a Siberian gulag and made the arduous trek across 4,000 miles of varying, unforgiving terrain. From the treacherous freezing cold of Russia, into Mongolia and the Gobi Desert, and through Tibet, while not only battling the elements but also themselves, three of the men eventually crossed over the Himalayas into India and freedom. The Way Back is the incredible and likely exaggerated story of perseverance brought to the screen by the great Australian director Peter Weir. Weir has a knack for envisioning expansive movies and translating them to the screen, and he succeeds here again crafting a beautifully shot film made on many different locations. Some critics panned this film for being boring, showing only a long arduous journey, but I found it to be intriguing. The story alone holds an inherent fascination and Weir does a wonderful job of evoking that. The film stars Jim Sturgess as one of the wrongly persecuted escapees, and he is another in a line of bland young actors who shouldn't be in films. He's not terrible, but he's just not interesting. Thankfully he's surrounding by the always surehanded Ed Harris who plays an American prisoner, Colin Farrell who plays a cutthroat loyalist prisoner, and Saoirse Ronan who plays a young girl who joins the gang along the way. The Way Back is a great example of how to translate a large expansive potentially boring story into a successful entertaining movie.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Super 8

Super 8 is writer/director JJ Abrams first stab at a nonfranchise film and was produced by Steven Spielberg. It takes place in a small Ohio town in 1979, and seems to be inspired by Abrams memories of childhood and surely several of Spielberg's own films from that period including E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. From the moment the picture opens with the Amblin production credits, Super 8 is a mostly magical recreation of those beloved films. We meet Joe, a young boy who has just lost his mother in factory accident. His father and police deputy wants him to attend a baseball for the summer, but Joe wishes to spend his time with his friends who are engaged in making a zombie picture for the amateur short film festival. While filming near the railroad one night, a truck drives onto the tracks and slams into an approaching car, causing a major derailment in an exciting wonderfully filmed scene. Now as the children begin to incorporate the new footage and unexpected ongoings into their film and Joe develops a crush on a girl he has been forbidden to see, strange and even supernatural events begin to throw their small little town into an upheaval. Super 8 works best when it focuses on the children and their moviemaking efforts. I especially liked the work of Riley Griffiths as the domineering director and Elle Fanning as the sweet young girl who catches Joe's fancy. Super does not as well when it brings in undeveloped adult story lines and when the supernatural elements of the story come into full focus. Still Super 8 is entertaining Spielbergian fare throughout and maintains an innocence and even brilliance when focusing on its young filmmakers in the making. 

Ricky Gervais: Out of England - The Stand-Up Special

Ricky Gervais' television programs The Office and Extras were like a breath of fresh air for the comedic world and in 2008 he brought his distinct and extremely funny comic stylings to New York City for a standup special, which is the profession where he got his start. More or less bringing his David Brent persona to the stage, Gervais offers his take on charity work, AIDS, The Holocaust, obesity, and America in general. The material isn't the most inspired work, as it consists moreso of stories than personal observations, but Gervais is such a naturally funny individual, making this a mostly funny affair.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

We Own the Night

In the 1980s in New York City, drug related crime ran rampant and the police adopted the slogan "We Own the Night" as part of their efforts to battle the criminal element. In James Gray's film, we meet two brothers on both sides of this war. One is Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), quickly rising in the force and taking after their Police Chief father (Robert Duvall). The other is Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix), a successful nightclub manager with a loyal girlfriend (Eva Mendes) whose job description requires him to turn a blind eye to the illegal activities going on in his place of business. When the police declare war on the Russian family who own the club and pedal harsh narcotics there, Bobby's family is declared a target and he must decide on which side his loyalties lie. Gray captures this gritty picture in the same beautiful pallette that he used to film his likewise wonderful Two Lovers, which also starred Phoenix. In addition to the great look of the film, Gray offers us a compelling tale filled with no less the three heart pounding action sequences. Wahlberg delivers a performance I believe to be superior to that of his Oscar nominated work in The Departed. Here he plays a more complex character with a more nuanced portrayal. Backed up by the always assured Duvall. Phoenix's performance leaves a little to be desired and some later plot developments and character choices are extremely ridiculous but despite its flaws. We Own The Night is still an excellent police/family drama.
note: It was kind of neat to so former NYC mayor Ed Koch in a cameo playing himself early in the film.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

You Can Count on Me

Sammy and Terry lost their parents in a car accident when they were young and have since shared an emotional bond although their lives have taken divergent paths. Sammy is a single mother raising a young boy, but she has a stable job at a local bank in their small upstate New York town. Terry has drifted since he left, occasionally returning for money, and he has recently reentered Sammy's life to obtain money for his pregnant girlfriend. As Terry's arrival, along with relationship problems with her on again off again boyfriend and a new perfectionist boss have thrown Sammy's life into upheaval. Now she must weigh her relationship with her brother, and decide whether he is a healthy influence on her son. You Can Count on Me is the directorial debut from screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan and it is a well observed family drama that effectively blends comedy and drama. Laura Linney, in an Oscar nominated performance, shows what a gifted and underappreciated actress she is as she wonderfully portrays a reliable woman who somehow can't avoid destructive relationships. Mark Ruffalo is fine as well as Terry, a good guy at heart who always seems to shirk responsibilities and can't seem to stay out of trouble. I also really liked Matthew Broderick's character as Linney's boss, who is rigid and unbending on every issue at the office and develops an unexpected relationship with Linney, who at first seems to not be able to stand in. You Can Count on Me is a nicely realized family drama that feels authentic as we think we are witnessing a true to life dysfunctional family on the screen.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Director David Lean did not know how to do anything on a small scale. His films were filmed on location and epic in scope and The Bridge on the River Kwai, his 1957 Best Picture and Best Director winning tale of madness in a Japanese prison camp, may be his grandest of all. The movie opens in the encampment in Ceylon as a new unit of British captives are led in by Col. Nicholson (Oscar winning Alec Guiness). A longtime captive played by William Holden looks on with amazement and disbelief as the colonel engages with the commander of the camp over the commander's infractions of the Geneva Convention, including having the officers perform manual labor. After the colonel perseveres after being subjected to torture, he finds it his personal duty to oversee the completion of the title bridge, which he sees as a morale booster. Meanwhile, Holden's character has escaped and been recruited by a British outfit trying to destroy an ammunitions train and the very bridge Colonel Nicholson has devoted himself and his unit to complete! The Bridge on the River Kwai is a blockbuster action picture and grand entertainment, the likes of which is scarcely scene today. It is also a wonderful study of madness embodied in the characters of Col. Nicholson, the Japanese commander, and the British officer who cares nothing except for his mission to blow up the bridge. Guiness and Holden are also pitch perfect in their roles. David Lean has crafted an expansive film that is great on many levels and still superior to the action filmmakers of today with unlimited CGI and special effects at their disposal.

X-Men: First Class

I entered X-Men: First Class with a little trepidation. The previous reboot film Wolverine: X-Men Origins was a complete disaster and the one before that was not much better. However my sense of worry was soon eased as I realized I was watching a rejuvenated franchise thanks to some fine young actors. The story begins with the slawart mutants Charles Xavier and Magneto as children. Charles, who has the ability to read minds, discovers he is not alone when encountering the young Raven, a shape shifter, breaking into his parent's mansion. Magneto, or Eric is in a concentration camp where an evil Nazi (Kevin Bacon) has become aware of the young boy's power and begins to run cruel tests on the boy. Now, as adults played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, the two mutants go their own way, one seeking to spread mutant awareness and the other seeking revenge. Soon they will band together and train others like them to fight Bacon's evil character who seeks world destruction. However, their philosophies on how they should deal with their own identities soon drive them apart. What makes X-Men: First Class superior to the recent outings is the acting. McAvoy and Fassbender, who have both done fine work before, bring power and believablity to their characters making you care for them. When the plot gets beyond silly when Kevin Bacon is revealed to be the cause behind the Cuban Missile Crisis, McAvoy, Fassbender, and the rest of the cast bring things down to a believable and enjoyable level.

My Left Foot

My Left Foot tells the story of Christy Brown who was born into a large Irish family in the slums of Dublin with debilitating cerebral palsy, leaving him with control only over his left foot. Written off as retarded and helpless, Christy was able to overcome his affliction and personal doubt with the help of an indomitable mother, a supportive family, and a doctor who believed in him. Eventually, he would become a renowned painter and writer, creating his greatest works with only his left foot. Irish director Jim Sheridan brings Christy's tale to the screen with no sentimentality, presenting an honest view of the disease and a not always flattering view of Brown. In a performance that won him an Oscar and brought him into the foreground for most moviegoers, Daniel Day-Lewis gives a remarkable performance, leaving no trace of himself as Brown. It seems almost painful the way he throws himself into the role. Also great is the young Hugh O'Conor who plays Christy as a child. Brenda Fricker is wonderful as well in an Oscar winning role as Brown's mother. My Left Foot is both an example of tremendous acting and how to craft a film about a handicapped person that transcends above the disease of the week stock and becomes something truly wonderful and inspiring.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Steamboat Bill, Jr.

For being one of the titans of the silent comic era, Buster Keaton never looked like he was having much fun. Known as the great Stone Face, Keaton never changed expression in his films while performing dangerous stunts, all without a double. In Steamboat Bill, Jr., he borrowed elements from his previous films, replacing the train from The General with a steamboat and using his family feud storyline from Our Hospitality. Add to this a spectacular hurricane finale and the result is classic silent comedy from one of the masters. The story involves a gruff riverboat captain whose business is dying thanks to his hated rival's majestic new ship. Now his sissy college educated son (Keaton) has come to see him for the first time and the captain must turn him into a man. Yet this proves to be a difficult task and to make matters worse the son has fallen for the daughter of the captain's rival! As things go from bad to worse and it appears nothing can be done for his son, the aforementioned storm strikes the river giving the lad the opportunity to prove his worth after all. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is not the greatest of Keaton's work, but due to some wonderfully inspired gags and some eye-popping visual effects during the storm scene, this film gladly ranks towards the top of the great comic silent films canon.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Detour

A drifter gets into a spat with a customer and the owner of a local diner. As a song plays on the jukebox, it takes him back just a few months to when he was a nightclub singer in New York. His girlfriend had decided to go out west to see if she could make it in Hollywood, and after she had been out there a little while he decided to go out there and marry her. Taking to the road by hitching rides and having a tough go of it, he finally encounters what appears to be some good luck toward the end of his journey in Arizona. A seemingly well to do slickster offers him a ride and picks up his meal checks. Then one night when he has taken over the wheel, the car's owner dies. In a panic, the man steals his car and wallet and assumes his identity in fear that he will be mistaken for his killer. Then, just when he is about to ditch the car and hope to be free from this mess, he offers a ride to an icy woman with ties to the dead man who puts the drifter in a precarious position and seals both his and her fates. Detour is a B movie by Edgar G. Ulmer starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage in fine performances. It was shot in a matter of days and does not contain the best production values. However it is such a competent and well directed picture with such a tangibile feeling of doom that it was one of the first and most influential of all film noirs. With its ne'er do well leading man, femme fatales, murder plots, and shadows cast in black and white, Detour first made for exhilirating entertainment, and second helped lay the bricks for one of America's coldest and most beloved genres.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

All the Pretty Horses

In the mid 20th century in the fading west, a young cowboy's grandfather, whose ranch he had always worked on, passes away. After being informed that the property will be willed to his estranged mother who holds no intention of keeping the place, the young man sets out for Mexico with his friend in search of the cowboy way of life. While down their the two find trouble in the forms of a young boy on a similar journey riding a stolen horse and in a wealthy rancher's daughter who takes up a dangerous affair with the young man. All the Pretty Horses is Billy Bob Thornton's second outing behind the camera following Sling Blade, and is a well filmed, leisurely adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel. Matt Damon shines as the young and idealitistic cowboy, and Lucas Black as the young kid and Bruce Dern as a judge are fine in smaller roles. The film is somewhat disengaging but there is just enough plot to go along with the beautiful settings and the nice performance by Damon to make this a worthwhile experience.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Pandora's Box

In the late 19th Century, a beautiful but naive young woman flaunts her sexuality and inspires desire, jealousy, and even violence in the men around. After cornering an older doctor into marrying her, she galavants with another man on their wedding night and as he waves a gun around in a fit of rage, he somehow falls dead by her hand. After being found guilty and fleeing from justice, the young woman and the doctor's soon make their way around Europe and wind up impoverished on the streets of London where the young woman meets her fate with a notorious figure from history. Pandora's Box was directed by the legendary German director G.W. Pabst and was a silent film that came out in 1929 well into the talking period. Still, the film held power and captivated audiences due to the wonderful direction and the crisp use of black and white, the beauty and acting ability of Louise Brooks, as well the controversial nature of the film which was rare in those days and caused a stir. Pandora's Box is a wonderful looking film of a tragic character that would enthrall anyone who could get passed the fact that they were watching a silent film.

Inspector Bellamy

Inspector Paul Bellamy is one of the best detectives on the force and with such a reputation that he has gained a semblance of fame. While on vacation with his wife, two people unwillingly enter his life: his younger and troubled brother comes to live with him and an insurance agent suspected of killing a homeless man in an insurance scheme seeks his counsel. While dealing with the turmoil at home created by his brother's arrival Bellamy finds himself drawn more and more into this case of fraud. Inspector Bellamy is the final film from renowned French New Wave director Claude Chabrol and is the first of his films I have seen (I plan on seeking his great works out). Starring France's most famous star Gerard Depardieu in another fine performance, Inspector Bellamy is more of a character study than it is a police procedural. Chabrol is more interested in how Bellamy reacts to his disruptions at home as well as developments in the case which gives us insight into his detective skills. He is not really interested in solving the case, just in seeing how it develops. Inspector Bellamy is a small but well realized film that showcases the talents of two of France's greatest talents, one in front of the camera and one behind it.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

During the Prague Spring of 1968 with the communist Russians invading and the Czechoslovakian people asserting their independence, a Czech doctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) seems only concerned with sex. Of all his women, he claims that only one (Lena Olin) truly understands him. While on business he meets a young waitress (Juliette Binoche) and the two marry while he keeps up his affairs although she desires monogomy. Soon however, the two are thrust into political turmoil and forced to flee the country, which is when their love is truly allowed to blossom. Directed by Philip Kaufman from a major novel by Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a leisurely paced and extremely erotic movie which Kauffman allows to take its time and flesh out, while getting to the heart of the story which may not appear to be what it is at first. In one of Day-Lewis's first starring roles, he shines as a callow man who soon comes to terms with the woman he loves. Olin and Binoche are wonderful as well in challenging roles. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is not for all film goers, but for those who give it a shot, they will find a beautifully realized love story where they weren't expecting one.

Pony Excess

In the early 1980s, Southern Methodist University in eastern Texas assembled a knockout football team which included running great Ernest Dickerson and surprised much of college football. However, it was soon revealed that many of their star athletes were given bribes and incentives to attend the university, and this scandal reached all the way up to the president of the university, the former and soon to be governer of Texas. When the school could not stop paying their athletes, the NCAA handed down the "death penalty", a measure that banned football from the school for a year, a measure which the program is still recovering from. Pony Excess has an interesting story to tell and goes about presenting it in the most bombastic unintersting method. Instead of simply telling its story, a slew of talking heads experts as well as people involved offer their commentary on what happened. This poor presentation on top of an overlong two hour running length make Pony Excess a disappointment, even if it is still relevant to current ongoings at Ohio State.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mississippi Burning

In 1964 Mississippi, three young Civil Rights workers nervously travel down an empty strectch of road, when three cars begin to closely follow them. Relieved when the sirens begin to flash, the boys pullover and are quickly executed by the members of the sheriff's department as well as the KKK. Afterwards, two FBI agents are sent south to investigate their disappearance. The two men couldn't be anymore different, one older and a southerner who prefers good old boy methods, while the other is a young idealistic Yankee who likes to play things by the book. Soon, both of their methods fail before eventually working and cause a stir in the small town as well as even danger. Soon a small army of federal agents is sent down to aid in the investigation, and the older agent sees a Klan member/sheriff deputy's wife as the key to blowing the lid off the case. Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning vividly and completely captures 1964 small southern town completely in every aspect. The town is alive on the screen and the screen oozes with atmosphere and details. As the older FBI agent, who was previously a sherrif in similar small southern town, delivers the performance of his well rounded career. Willem Dafoe, as his junior agent, and Frances McDormand as the deputy's wife are solid as well. There are problems with the screenplay, which is surprisingly weak and poorly written considering the rest of the talent involved with the film. There have also been complaints about historical inaccuracies and the compressing of events, but the film is such a great realization of time and place, and Hackman is so wonderful in the lead that the film's merits overcome its flaws.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Fish Tank

Mia is a troubled 14 year old living in an Essex prjoect apartment in Great Britain with her loveless mother and younger sister who finds solace and maybe a potential means of escape in hip-hop dancing. Having recently being thrown out of school and having befriended an older boy at a local mobile home, matters are complicated even further when her mother brings home a rugged young man who seems to have Mia's best interests at heart but may have ulterior motives. Fish Tank was directed by Andrea Arnold, whom I read grew up in a similar housing project, brings such a raw and authentic feel to this film. Everything that happens in the film plays out as we think it should in real life, and no easy paths are taken and happy resolutions are utilized. Young Katie Jarvis, who stars in the film and had no prior acting experience, is remarkable as the foul mouthed teenager who doesn't know how to react when her relationship with her mom's boyfriend doesn't go as expected. Michael Fassbender, who is building quite the resume in his young career with nice roles in Hunger, Inglourious Basterds, Jane Eyre, and the upcoming X-Men: First Class, is great as the charming boyfriend whom we never quite know what he is thinking. Fish Tank is a bright independent film that challenges cinematic conventions and presents a rugged and realistic portrait of a young, confused, and impoverished existance.

Le Cercle Rouge

After spending five years in prison, a thief is tipped off by a guard of a jewelry store that is ripe for the picking. The day after being released from custody, an escaped convict stows away in his trunk and after the fugitive saves the man's life, the two form a bond and the thief returns to his life of crime. The men enlist an alcoholic retired cop, who just so happens to be acquainted with the man chasing the escaped convict, and plot to take down the jewelry store, although their fates may have already been sealed. Le Cercle Rouge is a stylish and well executed thriller from masterful French New Wave director Jean-Pierre Melville, who is here reteamed with lead actor Alain Delon, whom both scored huge marks with the wonderful Le Samourai. In a film of coincidences, which have fallen in favor in modern day films, Melville focuses not so much on these happenings as he does on pure filmmaking. The crisp film looks great and the dialogue and the plotting are well handled. The dialogue free heist is also a highlight of the film. With Le Cercle Rouge and following Le Samourai, Melville further proves that action films can be intelligent as well as entertaining.