Friday, July 29, 2011

Tabloid

Today we buy tabloid magazines at the supermarket or tune into gossip programs to hear about the latest antics of our favorite celebrities. None of them however compares to the exploits of Joyce McKinney, a Wyoming beauty queen with an IQ of 168 whose story involves kidnapping, a manacled Mormon, rape, doctored tabloid pictures, attempted suicide, a pit bull attack, and canine cloning. In Errol Morris' latest documentary, the delusional, passionate, and intelligent McKinney tells her side of the story while others involved, including two tabloid reporters, a pilot/accomplice, and a Korean genetics doctor. In addition to the incredibly bizarre nature of this story, it is also uncanny how all involved, including McKinney, present plausible versions of events. Errol Morris is the foremost documentarian of our time. With his self-made Interrotron, allowing his subjects to maintain eye contact with both himself and the camera, and hypnotic music, no one makes movies as engaging as he does. Still, McKinney's story, though engrossingly told, left me feeling the same way I feel after watching TMZ or leafing through a National Enquirer in the checkout line. It's immediately interesting but all and all, what's the point?

Cowboys & Aliens

A man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the Arizona desert with a strange contraption on his wrist and no recollection of who he is. After attacking three men who were aiming at taking him in for possible reward money, he rides into an unfriendly town run by a Civil War colonel and now cattle baron (Harrison Ford). Soon the town is under attack by aliens, or demons as the townspeople call them, and the stranger with the mysterious past and bracelet may be their only hope for survival. Cowboys & Aliens is a genre mashup to the extreme, but it works because both genres, especially the western are respected. The story is not particularly inspired, but the movie is well filmed by director Jon Favreau and contains some spectacularly shot vistas to go with the CGI, which is well used and thankfully (and surprisingly) not in 3D. Craig and Ford are strong here but I think their iconic roles precede them and they are hard to buy as Western heroes. However, supporting actors such as Keith Carradine, Sam Rockwell, the beautiful Olivia Wilde, and Clancy Brown fit comfortably in their Western roles. At its most basic level, Cowboys & Aliens is a fun action film that doesn't go for overkill in the special effects department and is made by people who appreciate the two genres they are mashing up.

Shampoo

On Election Day 1968, a Los Angeles hairdresser (Warren Beatty) tries to secure a bank loan for his own salon while pleasing his girlfriend (Goldie Hawn) and the wife (Lee Grant), mistress (Julie Christie), and daughter (Carrie Fisher) of a prospective investor (Jack Warden). Directed by the great 70s director Hal Ashby and written by Chinatown scribe Robert Towne and Beatty, contains a slew of great performances from a spectacular cast with the underappreciated character actor Warden tremendous here as well as Grant in an Oscar winning performance. Shampoo is a muddled movie that strives to be a satire, lamenting the loss of 1960s innocence as well as the Nixon administration which would have been timely as the movie was released shortly after the Watergate scandal. Although I feel it falls short as satire, the film really comes together nicely in its final third and ends with a wonderfully realized finale. This, along with the performances, make the film worth seeing.

Mesrine: Public Enemy #1

Following his daring escape from and attack on a Canadian penitentiary, Jacques Mesrine is back in French custody. After taking a judge hostage during his trial and narrowly escaping again only to be recaptured and placed in a maximum security prison, Jacques begins to write his memoirs, plan his next escape, and further develop his image as a Robin Hood like gangster. Public Enemy #1, the follow up to Killer Instinct, is really the second half of one whole, shot in the same style as the first film. The difference though is that in this film Mesrine is devoid of all humanity and what remains in a convoluted delusional psychopath who rationalizes his atrocities and even finds good in them. Vincent Cassel's portrayal is again riveting, embodying the complexities of the infamous gangster. I also liked the work of Mathieu Amalric, who plays Mesrine's partner in crime but is quiet, reserved, and essentially his opposite in every way. The film is intense and nicely filmed as well, particularly during a manhunt scene following a casino robbery. I felt there were some mistakes in the film with structure, namely the extended shootout scene at the end of the film which we already know the outcome of as it was shown at the beginning of both films. Still, Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Public Enemy #1 tell the story of a brazen gangster with flair and contain a virtuoso performance from Vincent Cassel.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sanctum

A team including a father and son and their financier go diving in an unexplored cave system in Papua New Guinea. When one of the divers dies after her gear malfunctions, the team races towards the exit which they see has been blocked by flash floods. Now they must find another way out through the labyrinthine cave system while battling the treacherous hurdles in their way as well as each other. Produced by James Cameron and directed by Alister Grierson, Sanctum is like other Cameron productions in that it is strong on visuals and weak on characterizations and scripting. The screenplay is by the numbers, characters are standard, and the actors are wooden. Although there are some breathtaking exterior shots early in the film, the cave scenes are murky and make it hard to discern what is happening. Having seen it on Blu-ray I can only imagine how dark and muddled the movie must have been in 3D. Despite its weakness though, I did kind of enjoy the movie for what it is, a simple old-fashioned adventure flick.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Company Men

In 2008 as the recession kicks into full gear, three men at different pay grades in a Boston shipping company are downsized and take their situations in a different way. Bobby (Ben Affleck) is too proud to give up certain luxuries or take a lesser paying job. Gene (Tommy Lee Jones) questions the actions of the company he helped found and wonders if it all has been worth the comfortable lifestyle it has afforded. Phil (Chris Cooper) is past his prime and finds himself outmatched by younger, more hirable candidates. The Company Men is a relevant movie with its heart in the right place with a remarkable cast which also includes Kevin Costner, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Maria Bello. Unfortunately, it is also an empty movie that is painfully obvious and offers no surprises we didn't see coming. Its cast, particularly Jones who always seems to fit perfectly into his roles, carries it for a long while but ultimately there just isn't enough here to keep the film afloat.

Barney's Version

After an opening scene where he makes an extremely inappropriate phone call to his ex-wife's husband at three in the morning, we see Barney Panofsky at a bar. An old detective hands him a signed copy of his new book which details a murder investigation where Barney was the only suspect. We then flash back thirty years to get Barney's version of events in his life, starting with his first marriage to a free spirit, and including when he met Miriam the love of his life, at his second wedding. Sometimes, like the first glimpse Barney catches of Miriam, a movie can sneak up on you and absolutely floor you. Barney's Version, directed by Richard J. Lewis from the beloved novel by Mordecai Richler, is a wonderfully delightful film that manages to take the story of a misanthrope and draw humor, drama, and sentiment out of it. It features a virtuoso performance from Paul Giamatti, who plays Barney from about the age of 30 to 60 in remarkable makeup that flawlessly ages him both up and down. Rosamund Pike is endearing as well as Miriam and Dustin Hoffman offers wonderful support as Barney's father. I was recently lamenting a film about a reprehensible character for not making him likable. Barney's Version takes a politically incorrect curmudgeon and has you on his side for the entirety of the picture. This is a wonderful film.

Fair Game

Leading up to the second Iraq War, CIA agent Valerie Plame was put on a task force to locate weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When there is word that Saddam Hussein purchased a large amount of uranium from Niger, her boss asks if her husband Joe Wilson would be a good candidate to investigate the purchase. Since he has experience as a diplomat in the country, Valerie says he would be a good fit and Wilson is sent over. He reveals that he believes such a transaction did not take place, yet the White House ignores his report and declares war. When he sees a piece on the news about the uranium purchase he submits an op-ed piece to The New York Times entitled "What I didn't find in Africa." In retaliation to this, White House staff members Karl Rove and Scooter Libby have Valerie's cover blown and their marriage begins to fall apart as Wilson fights back. Fair Game is an effective recent events thriller from Doug Liman, who helmed The Bourne Identity. Starring Naomi Watts in a stellar performance as Plame, she affirms further that she is one of the top female talents in Hollywood. Sean Penn, despite the fact that you can almost see him licking his chops at the chance to star in a movie discrediting the Bush administration and the Iraq War, submits his usual solid work. Movies about recent events are hard to do and I admired this one for pulling it off so well. I was reminded of last year's Green Zone, also about Iraq and WMD's and directed by a Bourne helmer, and how that film just did not work. Despite the fact that Fair Game has a tendency to be preachy especially in the end, it is a fine example of how to make a movie about recent historical events.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Winchester '73

A marksman and his friend ride into Dodge City to enter a Wyatt Earp hosted shooting contest where the grand prize is a 1973 Winchester rifle, a "1 in a 1000" gun that is so perfect that the manufacturer won't even sell it. While in town, the man runs into the outlaw who killed his mentor and when he beats him in the shooting contest, the fiend jumps him and leaves town with the Winchester. As the marksman hunts his enemy, the rifle makes a journey of its own as it changes hands across the old west. Anthony Mann's Winchester '73 is a fast paced Western with an interesting original concept in the story of both the journey of the hero and his weapon. Jimmy Stewart gives his usual commanding performance in the lead and Shelley Winters contributes a fine performance as well as a young singer who keeps crossing paths with Stewart during the course of his journey. Also, the way the story is structured allows for some nice characterizations. I felt the mountain ridge shootout at the end was anticlimactic, but all and all this is a brisk and enjoyable Western.

Deliverance

Three suburbanites are convinced by their adventurous friend to take a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River in backwoods Georgia before the beautiful scenic area is flooded by the power company. After arriving and having two locals park their vehicles down river and engaging a young inbreed in a rendition of "Dueling Banjos", the men begin their trip down river and admire the beauty that lies before them. Soon, their luck begins to turn and they see the other side of nature and the dark side of man as well. Deliverance is both an exciting adventure story as well as a horror filled survival tale. From a script by James Dickey who also wrote the novel, it is directed by John Boorman who wonderfully captures the rustic scenery. The movie contains riveting performances by Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight, two actors most don't much consider for their acting abilities, as well as good work from Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox. The sense of dread created is palatable thanks in large part to the hillbilly characters who populate the film, particularly the two in the notorious rape sequence. While watching the film, I had trouble in several instances discerning what was going on in key scenes. Though critical at first, I soon appreciated this effect, as it must be the same disorientation being felt by the characters in the film. Deliverance is a wonderfully crafted film with fine performances that shows an all encompassing view of both human nature and nature in general.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bad Santa

A vile misanthropic alcoholic Santa and his African-American elf travel from town to town each holiday season, secure jobs at the local malls, and proceed to rip off their employers. At their latest gig in Phoenix though, Santa's increasingly bizarre behavior threatens their jobs as well as a suspicious mall manager and an ambitious security guard. When a Santa loving bartender and a young overweight outcast come into his life, a wrench is thrown into his life which further complicates matters. Bad Santa is a one joke movie where the one joke isn't even particularly funny. Director Terry Zwigoff, who was able to find the right tones to capture odd characters in Crumb and Ghost World, does not succeed here and many jokes come off more as shocking than humorous. I did not really like the work of Billy Bob Thornton here either whose character generates nothing but disdain. The movie is kept afloat by a fine supporting cast though. Tony Cox is very funny as the vertically challenged sidekick and the same goes for Bernie Mac as the mall cop. John Ritter, in his last film role, is riotous as the mall manager when he describes the antics of Santa to Mac's character. I liked Lauren Graham as well as the bartender with a Santa fetish and Brett Kelly, who plays the kid, may have contributed one of the finest performances of young actor, right up there with Henry Thomas in E.T. Although there are some fine characterizations the main elements of the movie are just not right. Bad Santa overplays its hand and could have benefitted from dialing down its lead character's antics.

Friends with Benefits

A headhunter convinces an art director from L.A. to take a job in New York at GQ. The two strike up a friendship and soon realize that they are both emotionally unavailable people who have relationship issues. They decide to make a pact to see if they can have a strictly physical relationship while remaining friends which of course cannot possibly work. Friends with Benefits, the second movie this year featuring a Black Swan lead about commitment free casual sex, is brimming with pop culture references and plays out exactly as you would expect it. It is however buoyed by the immense likability of its two young stars who are given a large assist by a fine supporting cast. Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake are both two beautiful people, but underneath all that they are extremely likable as well. Kunis embodiment of a real person and Timberlake's willingness to put himself out there give this film weight and help make us care about the characters. The supporting cast, which many would argue makes a film, is wonderful which includes Woody Harrelson, hilarious as Timberlake's flamboyant coworker, Richard Jenkin's as his dad, Jenna Elfman as his sister, and Patricia Clarkson, hysterical as well as Kunis' mother. Another asset of the film is the steady direction of Will Gluck who nicely captures the city and brings the same kind of charm he brought to last year's Easy A. Friends with Benefits is light and poppy but its entertaining as well due to good acting and nice craftsmanship.

High Plains Drifter

A drifter rides into a small southern town and is greeted with unwelcoming gazes from its residents as he passes by. Confronted by three men in the saloon, he soon takes them out when they make a move when he is having a shave across the street. Due to the fact that the three dead men were hired to protect the town as well as the gunfighter's considerable skills, the townspeople hire him to stave off three convicts about to be released whom the local mining company railroaded a few year's back. Yet this is not a simple revenge story, and the town may have bit off more than they can chew with the gunfighter who may have motives of his own and what awaits all involved is a showdown of biblical proportions. In his second film as a director, Clint Eastwood plays The Stranger character that brought him so much acclaim in Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy. High Plains Drifter is an antiwestern, competently directed by Eastwood which maintains an eerie mood and incorporates supernatural elements into its story. It is unlike most other Westerns as it presents a reprehensible hero and acts as a treatise against cowardice and religious hypocrisy. Actor Geoffrey Lewis also adds to the picture making an extremely effective villain. I read that crowds ate this up when released, but I am curious how they reacted to Clint's character. I was taken aback in an early scene when he is confronted by a fiery woman and drags her by her hair to a barn and essentially rapes her, and his behavior remains despicable throughout the picture. High Plains Drifter is a fresh take on a genre that can seem generic at times, and the eerie mood sustained in the film make this a fine entry.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Perfect Host

A man has just robbed a bank and is on the run. His foot is severely cut and in need of medical attention and the police have his car's make, model, and plates. He stops at a house in an affluent neighborhood, rifles through the mail, and finds a postcard addressed to the house owner from a friend. John rings the doorbell and pretends to be a friend of the friend who sent the postcard and says he is in need. The owner of the house says he is about to have a dinner party but, being the consummate host, invites him in. The robber first ingratiates himself, then reveals who he is, taking the homeowner hostage and forcing him to cancel his dinner. However, the host has no intentions of actually doing so and soon a psychological game of cat and mouse ensues where neither man is exactly what he seems. The Perfect Host has an amateur feel to it, with its hazy picture and uninspired direction. Its story, which was creative at first quickly gets out of hand, throws credibility to the wind, and insists upon adding twist upon twist. The subplots involving the robber's motives for committing the robbery as well as the detectives investigation into it are handled too lightly. Yet, this mess of a movie is largely redeemed by the performance of David Hyde Pierce who is devilishly wonderful as the proper and maniacal host. Still, if you are intrigued by the premise I would recommend seeking out Sleuth, the 1972 film where Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine played a similar type of sinister game.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Bug's Life

An ant colony spends its days gathering food for the grasshoppers who provide protection. When an accident prone ant named Flik accidentally sabotages the offering and the evil grasshopper leader threatens to kill the colony if they do not have double the food by the end of summer, Flik sets out on a mission to find heroic ants to protect his kind from the grasshoppers. Instead of heroes he comes back with a band of misfit circus performers who endear themselves to the ants and come up with a crazy plan to rid the colony of the grasshoppers. When I decided to revisit the Pixar films and looked over the digital movies they made, I was surprised that A Bug's Life was an output of that studio. Now having rewatched the movie its no shock that I had disassociated it. A Bug's Life is kind of a lame movie, the type of animated film that blends in with the rest of the crop and doesn't meet the standards that Pixar has set, those standards being endearing characters, intelligent plotting, and material that appeals to adults as well as children. On top of not meeting these criterion, I didn't even find the animation to be very inspired. Also insects are simply off putting and this movie just can't make them likable. I did like some of the sequences in the film, particularly some of the circus scenes and the segment with the manufactured bird. I also enjoyed some of the voicework as well, particularly by Kevin Spacey and Richard Kind as two of the grasshoppers. Still this is not the kind of work indicative of its makers, and considering that it was written and directed by Pixar titans John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, this one really is a disappointment.

Geri's Game
This was the short that played before A Bug's Life during its theatrical run and is also available on the DVD. I've posted it below as well. It is a nice little Academy Award winning short about an old man in the park contesting himself in a chess game.

Captain America: The First Avenger

After another inexplicable opening involving an abandoned spacecraft, Nazis, and a mysterious life force, we embark on the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). Wanting to follow in his father's footsteps and be a war hero in World War II, Steve is hardly qualified with his 90 pound frame and history of illness. After repeated enlistment attempts he finely gets his shot when a doctor (Stanley Tucci) tells him he is an ideal candidate for a secret project under the command of a gruff colonel (Tommy Lee Jones) who is aided by the beautiful private (Hayley Atwell). Rogers is injected with a serum that enhances his inner courage and makes him into Captain America, a super soldier who must fight HYDRA, the evil group of Nazis harnessing the mysterious energy source and led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who has had the same injection which highlighted his evil nature. Captain America: The First Avenger has a lot of problems but many likable qualities as well. To start with the bad, the Steve Rogers' character's piety grows wearisome and there is nothing interesting whatsoever about Chris Evans. Hayley Atwell is lackluster as well and I felt her character held no appeal and both her and Evans had no chemistry. The dialogue is trite and uninspired and the finale is just another albeit expected mindless action sequence and is extremely disappointing in its execution. There were some things I liked about the picture though. The old fashioned look and feel of the film and the 1940s atmosphere which was done so well was a nice change of pace for these recent superhero pictures. I also liked the supporting cast: Tommy Lee Jones playing the no nonsense type of character he does so well. Stanley Tucci as the Jewish doctor. Hugo Weaving as the evil power obsessed Nazi. Toby Jones as his weary assistant. I also liked how other Marvel elements were incorporated in the movie such as how the army is supplied with weapons by Stark Enterprises. With Captain America the table is now set for next summer's The Avengers. After a series that ranges from piss poor (The Incredible Hulk) to mediocre (Thor, Captain American, Iron Man 2) to excellent (Iron Man), I hope the Marvel team can utilize the best elements of these films and leave the rest on the cutting room floor.

Auto Focus

Bob Crane, the star of the TV sitcom Hogan's Heroes, was the victim of an unsolved brutal murder in 1978. Auto Focus follows Crane's life beginning in 1964 when, as the likable family man and California disc jockey was given a breakthrough role as Col. Robert Hogan in the surprise hit. Crane's new found made women more accessible and he began to foster a sex addiction which was even more enhanced through a friendship with an electronics salesman named John Carpenter. Carpenter was able to provide Crane with state of the art video equipment which they used to film their escapades, and as Hogan's Heroes got cancelled, Crane's life would spiral out of control with his obsessions growing until that tragic day at his Scottsdale, Arizona apartment. Though not scripting, director Paul Schrader finds in Bob Crane's life a story of man unable to control his temptations, the type of story he does so well. Greg Kinnear wonderfully embodies Crane, presenting a likable almost phony exterior while also conveying his inner demons. Willem Dafoe is his equal as the latcher on Carpenter who himself grows obsessed with Crane and was the probable culprit in his murder, but was able to walk due to shoddy evidence. Ron Leibman does fine work as well as Crane's agent who tries to help the man and warn him against his scandalous behavior. Auto Focus transcends the celebrity biopic that tells a story of human weakness and obsession, and does so in a captivating fashion.

DVD Extras: There is an excellent documentary in the Special Features called "Murder in Scottsdale" which interviews detectives and attorneys involved in the Bob Crane murder investigation and explains how poor police work and lack of evidence allowed John Carpenter to be acquitted.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Destry Rides Again

In the lawless town of Bottleneck, the sheriff is murdered by a land baron when he tries to correct a rigged card game. When the baron along with the crooked judge appoint the town drunk as the new sheriff, things don't play out just as they planned. The town drunk knows the score, gets his act together, and deputizes Tom Destry, the son of the great lawman he once worked under. However, Destry is not what he expected, and is a peaceful type who doesn't believe in the use of firearms. Soon though, the new deputy wins over the faith of the town and heart of a fiery dancer as he sets his sights on the evil land baron. Directed by George Marshall, Destry Rides Again is magnificent entertainment. It is a send up of the Western genre, with all the characters painted in broad strokes. Released in the same year as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart gives another endearing performance again portraying a fish out of water type. Marlene Dietrich is wonderfully scandalous in a role that had to be the inspiration for Madeline Kahn's Lili Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles. Also Charles Winninger is a hoot as the town drunk/sheriff. Destry Rides Again is wonderful and hilarious entertainment that simultaneously manages to mock the Western and fit comfortably in its boots.

The New World

As Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) arrives in Jamestown in chains in 1607 and is pardoned for his mutinous ways, he is sent on a mission by Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) to trade with the local tribes. There he has an extended stay as he learns the ways of the native people and falls in love with Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher), the beautiful and beloved daughter of the mighty Chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg). When he returns to the settlement, his pacifistic nature upsets the settlers who begin to engage the natives in war. Smith continues his love affair with Pocahontas until he is sent on an exploratory mission. At this point, she is brought to live in the settlement and eventually marries John Rolfe (Christian Bale), an admirable plantation owner. The New World was Terrence Malick's fourth film since his career began some 33 years prior and contains all the beauty and wonder we have come to expect from his films. Shot on location in Virginia, The New World almost casts a spell with its stunning imagery and trademark Malick laconic narration. The film also contains a spectacular and should have been breakthrough performance from Kilcher as the intelligent and playful Pocahontas. Although the film is typically light on narrative, Malick once again crafts such a hypnotically spellbinding wonder that makes it difficult to harp on its shortcomings.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Oceans

Following Earth, Oceans is the second feature released in the Disneynature series. Through the use of beautiful photography which has become the standard in nature documentaries lately, director Jacques Cluzaud and Jacques Perrin magnificently capture the wonders of the ocean including but not limited to coral reefs, great white sharks, dolphins, crabs, octopus, and blue whales. Wisely, the film has limited narration as I believe the filmmakers realized that the real show is the visuals and excessive narration only detracts from that. Pierce Brosnan makes a fine narrator, not calling too much attention to himself, but the ramblings he is given to read are all over the place and too preachy regarding ocean activism and preservation. Still the beauty of sea life photography truly is breathtaking (I caught myself talking out loud in amazement at several instances). The film makes much about how little is known about our oceans and they are right. Going into this I thought it would be a boring excursion, but I was quickly disproven after witnessing the majestic images on display in this film.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

James Cagney: Top of the World

James Cagney was a vibrant screen presence and one of the top stars in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Known mostly for his roles as a gangster in films like The Public Enemy and White Heat he was also a wonderful dancer from his early days in Vaudeville, which he demonstrated in his Oscar winning turn in Yankee Doodle Dandy. As tough in real life as on screen, yet kind and gentlehearted, he was a family man who saw acting as a way to pay the bills and sought a more simple life. He fought the studios, founded the Screen Actors Guild, and contributed to worker's rights. James Cagney: Top of the World is a tribute to his life and work by family members, coworkers, and friends. Hosted by Michael J. Fox, it is not the finest written documentary with Fox uttering phrases that sound as if they were written by one of Cagney's characters (Now Cagney was never the type to take nothin' from nobody see). Still, it is a pleasure to go through clips of Jimmy's career, who probably had the most screen presence of any actor ever.

Stagecoach

In a small Arizona town, the sheriff, a sickly pregnant woman, a nervous preacher, an embezzling banker, a drunken doctor, a beautiful whore, a notorious gambler, and the gregarious driver board a stagecoach to catch a ride to a nearby settlement, despite warnings that Geronimo has been encouraging Apache attacks. On their way they pick up a strapping young outlaw named The Ringo Kid and ward off Indian attacks while they get to know each other. Blending humor, drama, romance, and adventure, director John Ford took the Grand Hotel formula, applied it to the Western, and set the bar for what would be one of the most sturdy genres for the next thirty years. Stagecoach is also the film that made John Wayne a star, and his entrance as The Ringo Kid with the quick cut and then closeup is one of the most famous entrances in motion picture history. From top to bottom, Stagecoach is a downright entertaining film replete with laughs and exciting action sequences. The extended Apache attack sequence is a wonder for its time (any time for that matter), and as The Duke climbs on the roof of the coach to pick off charging Indians, shoots one of them off the carriage's horses, then jumps onto them to take the reins, we sit back and regard in amazement. Stagecoach launched the career of John Wayne as well as the Western, the two of which may be one in the same. On top of being important and influential, it is simply a rousing all encompassing entertainment.

Friday, July 15, 2011

John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker and the Legend

Director John Ford and actor John Wayne were two titans of the film industry and their complicated partnership led to a rich body of work that encompassed much of who we are as Americans. Ford was an up and coming director in the 1920s when he discovered a striking B-movie actor named Marion Morrison, whom he asked to be in his pictures. Morrison changed his name to John Wayne and that was the start of their working relationship which over the years would see differences regarding work, politics, and stances on World War II. They would also craft some of the finest American films including Stagecoach, Fort Apache, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker and the Legend is a wonderful documentary which includes interviews family, friends, and collaborators of both men, as well as experts including Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, and Richard Schickel. From an honest and personal portrait, we learn about the lives of both men and their wonderful contributions to the world of cinema.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

As Harry, Ron, and Hermione search for the remaining Horcruxes, their journey ends back where it began at Hogwarts, which is currently being run by Snape. As certain truths come to light, Harry begins to realize that he may have to make the ultimate sacrifice to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort and restore peace to the world of wizardry. The Harry Potter saga, one of the most successful book and film franchises in history, has come to an end, and in what spectacular fashion has it done so. The second half of the final film is a beautiful, sad, thunderous, and triumphant conclusion to the series. Directed by David Yates, whose skills I doubted when he came aboard with "The Order of the Phoenix", took command with "The Half-Blood Prince" and really soared with "The Deathly Hallows", this installment being the best of the Harry Potter movies. Though I did have trouble keeping characters and storylines straight, thought some of the plot developments and resolutions were a little too convenient, and found the 3D to be unnecessary, this is full-blooded filmmaking combining beautiful visuals, unmatched CGI, nonstop action, and well realized drama and fantasy. The film climaxes with a wonderful duel (maybe a little too close to The Empire Strikes Back) and has a wonderful finale. Looking back on the series, I have loved how the films have evolved with the young actors, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, and grown from campy kids films to top notch more mature fare, just as the trio have filled out as fine young actors. I was also pleased how much of the wonderful adult cast was present in this film, including Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Robbie Coltrane, Jim Broadbent, Helena Bonham Carter, and Ralph Fiennes, who plays evil maybe better than anyone in Hollywood. I was skeptical when I began the Harry Potter series recently (and rightfully so early on), but now I'm a little sad to bid farewell to what has grown into one of the finest film franchises movie goers have ever been witness to.

The Year of Living Dangerously

Amidst the 1965 communist rebellion in Indonesia, an Australian reporter (Mel Gibson) arrives in Jakarta to cover the uprising and finds himself being shut out by the government until he meets a well connected photographer (Linda Hunt), who introduces him to important people including a member of the British Embassy (Sigourney Weaver). The journalist starts an affair with the attache which not only draws the ire of the jilted photographer but also endangers the girl when he decides to write a story which will blow her cover. From a novel by C.J. Koch, The Year of Living Dangerously was directed by the great Australian director Peter Weir who makes a nice use of color, location (particularly during a scene where Gibson journeys to the country), and score by Maurice Jarre, as well as two fine early performances from Gibson and Weaver. Although it is clear that Weir is a great director, I find that he often keeps a distance between his films and the audience, not fully engaging them in the story, and I think it applies here. Also the idea of casting Hunt, who won an Academy Award for this performance by the way, to play a male half Chinese dwarf is ludicrous and extremely distracting. I don't understand why someone who fit the bill wasn't cast, which would have made more sense and been more effective. The Year of Living Dangerously has many fine elements but its languid pacing, Weir keeping the audience at arm's length, and the disastrous casting of Hunt make this a near miss.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Great Expectations

Pip, a young boy being raised by his abusive older sister and her kindhearted blacksmith husband, is visiting his parent's grave on the British moors when he comes across a gruff escaped convict whom he shows a great kindness too. Soon he has been sought out by Miss Havisham, a vindicative old woman who wishes Pip to be the playmate of her adopted daughter Estella. Pip is really there so Havisham can see Estella break his heart as Pip naturally (and instantly) falls in love with her. A few years later as a young man, he receives word that he has a secret benefactor who has great expectations for him and wishes for him to travel to London and become a man of means and style. Charles Dickens' classic novel was brought to the screen by David Lean, a man of great vision who was known for his later epics but even here fashioned a grandiose film out of a great Victorian novel. The film is composed of stark black and white cinematography by Oscar winner Guy Green, and successfully compresses the story into a fast paced and thoroughly entertaining film. The cast is terrific: Anthony Wager and John Mills (both excellent) as young and old Pip, Jean Simmons and Valerie Hobson as young and old Estella, Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham, Alec Guiness in early role as Pip's friend Herbert Pocket, Bernard Miles as Blacksmith Joe, Francis L. Sullivan as a barrister, and Finlay Currie as Magwitch the escaped convict. Great Expectations is classic literature brought to the big screen in one of the finest adaptations ever conceived.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bridesmaids

A woman (Kristen Wiig) is asked to be the maid of honor at her best friend's (Maya Rudolph) wedding. As she helps plan the wedding and engages in the rituals with a snobbish bridesmaid (Rose Byrne) and the rest of the bridal party (Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper), her life begins to spiral out of control as she feels she is losing her best friend. Directed by Paul Feig and produced by Judd Apatow, Bridesmaids is the female answer to The Hangover, with women engaging in bad behavior and gross out gags. It is an exercise in two schools of comedy that have grown tiresome over recent years, the first being the Tin Feyesque comedy that crippled SNL and the second being Apatow's alternately lewd and sweet brand of comedy. Also, clocking in at two hours, I was left wondering just who the hell Apatow thinks he is, leaving his movies untrimmed and assuming that moviegoers want to sit through two hours of his bloated films. This movie is uncomfortable and not in the funny way the filmmakers intended. Also, not to be mean, but Maya Rudolph is hideous. Why is she in pictures? I don't mean ugly people shouldn't be in films, but the way she is always presented as attractive bothers me. So that is not to say the film is a complete waste. Kristen Wiig, who also cowrote the movie, is adorable and has the comic talent to pull off her role. At a time when comic stars are not capable of pulling off leading roles without loads of support, Wiig does so nicely. Also supporting players McCarthy, McLendon-Covey, Mad Men's John Hamm, Chris O'Dowd, and Jill Clayburgh in her final film role are all funny and excellent. Still, these positives don't excuse Apatow's excesses and arrogance and the many parts of the film which largely do not work.

Swimming with Sharks

We are at the scene of a murder and as the corpse is being wheeled into an ambulance a female voiceover tells us that this is not going to be a tale of love conquers all. We then see a young film executive's assistant takes his boss hostage and begins to torture and demean him, while we are shown flashbacks of the last year in the young man's life as he endures abuse after abuse at the hand of the insufferable employer. Swimming with Sharks is an over the top satire of breaking into the film industry. This ripoff of Robert Altman's great film The Player is smarmy and uneven (Altman is even knocked here, or maybe paid tribute I couldn't tell). I also didn't by Frank Whaley's character's transformation from doormat into ruthless executive and this is made even more clear through the flashback narrative structure where we can compare past and present and realize that the character simply lacks credibility. Still, I appreciated the dark cynicism of the screenplay and the early performance from Kevin Spacey is an absolute knockout as he plays that kind of sleek and hateful character which he does so deliciously well.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

A lifelong army man in the southwest is a week away from his retirement when General Custer is killed in battle and the nation is in fear of an Indian uprising. Determined to retire peacefully, he is forced to escort a mother and daughter to a nearby settlement to catch a stagecoach back east on his last patrol, all the while warding off Indian attacks. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is the second film in John Ford and John Wayne's Cavalry Trilogy, following Fort Apache which starred Henry Fonda playing a Custer like military man and ended with him leading his troops into a precarious battle. Although the bulk of this second film takes place during the unit's patrol where not much is going on, it contains one of the finest performances The Duke ever committed to film, commanding the screen as he always did while showing his jovial side as well playing a character years beyond his age. John Ford and his Oscar winning cinematographer Winton C. Hoch wonderfully capture Ford's beloved Monument Valley in all its beauty and color. There are also two wonderful scenes toward the end, one involving Victor McLaglen's drunken Irish behemoth giving his farewell and Wayne's response to receiving a retirement gift from his men. Although there are some lulls in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, there are many great elements that subside the negative ones and help make this a fine picture.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Eastern Promises

In London, a 14 year old Russian prostitute dies in childbirth and the delivering nurse becomes concerned about the surviving baby girl, not wanting her to fall into the hands of foster care. Looking through the dead girl's belongings she finds a diary which leads her to a restaurant owned by a Russian mob boss. After having him translate the diary which contains incriminatory evidence, she finds herself way in over her head with members of the Russian mob, including a mysterious tattoo covered chauffeur who may not be what he seems. Eastern Promises reteamed director David Cronenberg with actor Viggo Mortensen following their success with A History of Violence with spectacular results. This atypical mob picture is wonderfully filmed by the veteran Canadian director, interestingly violent, and utterly engrossing. Mortensen delivers a knockout performance in an Academy Award nominated role as the principled driver and mob enforcer. Also turning in fine work are Naomi Watts as the nurse, Armin Mueller-Stahl as the mob boss, and Vincent Cassel as his hot tempered son. Eastern Promises is a stunning work with an ingenious plot and several wildly imaginative and violent scenes, particularly one involving Mortensen and some hitmen in a bath house. The images, direction, and the story are so alive and captivating, and make you realize just how many movies simply aren't.

All the Real Girls

A lothario in a small North Carolina town starts what may be his first meaningful relationship with a young girl home from boarding school, much to the chagrin of her older brother who is also his best friend. All the Real Girls is the sophomore outing for David Gordon Green. Following George Washington, he took all the elements he successully used in that film while ironing out the ones that didn't work so well and the result is an extremely satisfying film where he seems to have honed his directorial skills. Tim Orr's cinematagrophy once again beautifully captures the small town locations and landscapes. The characters in the story are captivating as we come to care about them. Paul Schneider who also cowrote the story is wonderful as the goofy yet charming ladies man, and the adorable Zooey Deschanel does fine work in an early role as the apple of his eye. Shea Whigham gives a nice performance as Deschanel's older brother, Danny McBride is humourous as a member of the crew, and Patricia Clarkson gives her usual sunny performance as Schneider's free spirited mom. While I felt that some of the scenes in the film didn't feel right, the movie as a whole is a wonderful slice of life as well as a touching love story. With his second feature, David Gordon Green seemed to have found his directorial footing, which he would demonstrate again in films like Undertow and Snow Angels. Hopefully he will give up the big budget comedies which he has engaged in recently and return to the small town low budget films which he makes so wonderfully.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Navigator

In a port in the Pacific, two countries are at war. One purchases the title ship and the other plots to cut its lines and set it adrift. Before they do so, a millionaire's son and the ship owner's daughter whom he had just been rejected by are stranded on the ship. Now the hapless couple are in for adventure on the high seas, and must learn to fend for themselves for the first time in their lives. Silent film legend Buster Keaton's The Navigator contains his usual stunts and gags, one involving a picture over a porthole being particularly funny. However, segments in the film seem to stretch out with very little payoff. This however is redeemed by a fantastic finale involving Buster in scuba gear scaring off cannibals who have abducted the girl, retreating to the boat with the girl treating him like a boat, and warding off the attacking natives with roman candles and coconuts. The climax elevates the entire movie and proves what a genius Buster Keaton was at physical comedy.

Friday, July 8, 2011

John Adams

John Adams was a founding father and an instrumental voice during the American Revolution. He fought for separation from Britain, signed the Declaration of Independence, was a foreign dignitary, and served as the first Vice President and second President of the United States. Yet, he is an unsung hero, often remembered for his shortcomings if remembered at all while men like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson are heaped with praise. John Adams is a seven part HBO miniseries covering 50 years in the life of the second president, from the revolutionary years up until his death. Based on the biographical novel by David McCullough, John Adams is a beautifully mounted biopic with great scope. Directed by Oscar winning director Tom Hooper, he wonderfully captures Adams' personal and private life through the use of a large camera shot (I am not versed in camera types) which can capture an entire room from top to bottom as well as large exterior vistas (he used the same technique in The King's Speech). The film is wonderfully cast with Paul Giammatti delivering a phenomenal performance as John Adams, capturing the brilliance as well as the petulance of the president. Laura Linney is his equal playing Abigail Adams, John's beloved wife and counsellor. The supporting cast is spectacular as well, most notably being Stephan Dillane who so wonderfully portrays Thomas Jefferson as a brilliant, reserved, and sad character. Also standing out are Tom Wilkinson as the crude and ingenious Benjamin Franklin, David Morse as an honorable George Washington, Danny Huston as Sam Adams, the firebrand cousin of John. Rufus Sewell as the devious Alexander Hamilton, and John Dossett as the loyal confidant to John Adams, Benjamin Rush. John Adams is history captured beautifully, that would have been worthy of the large screen. The series gets better as it progresses up until the incredibly moving finale and is the kind of work that is impossible to remove your gaze from. It is an example of filmmaking in the highest degree. Here is a synopsis of each of the episodes:

Part I: Join or Die
Struggling attorney John Adams (Paul Giammati), with the love and support of his wife Abigail (Laura Linney) takes the case of the British officers accused of firing upon the colonists during the Boston Massacre, much to the chagrin of the rebellious natives, especially his cousin Sam (Danny Huston) who is a volatile anti-British advocate. After much persuasion, John finally takes the side of the colonists and is elected to the First Continental Congress.
Part II: Independence
As the Massachusetts colonists take up arms against the British at the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, Abigail Adams shields her family from war and disease while faces opposition in his attempts to have the Continental Congress take action against the Crown. While in Philadelphia he sees George Washington (David Morse) appointed leader of the militia while forming alliances with Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) and Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane), as they move closer to war and independence.
Part III: Don't Tread on Me
As the war with the British rages on, John and his his son journey to Paris in an attempt to secure funds and a stronger naval fleet. Much to Abigail's dismay, the two depart on an arduous voyage across the Atlantic where they encounter enemy fire. In Paris, John finds himself unaccustomed to French manners and finds himself displeasing the French government and diplomat Benjamin Franklin. After being removed as minister, he travels onward to the Netherlands where he again finds no help in securing funds becoming deathly ill, at around the same time that General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington.
Part IV: Reunited
After receiving the triumphant news of British surrender, John travels from Holland back to Paris where he is finally reunited with his loving wife. While starting a rivalry with Thomas Jefferson who is replacing Benjamin Franklin as foreign minister, John is appointed ambassador to England and becomes the first American to address King George III. Unhappy as outcasts in London, John and Abigail return home to enjoy their retirement until he is encouraged to take place in the inaugural election, where he comes in second to George Washington and becomes the first Vice President of the United States of America.
Part V: Unite or Die
John finds himself the office of the Vice President to be utterly useless, as he is excluded from cabinet meetings and Senate debates where he is openly ridiculed by its members. He also finds his relationship with Thomas Jefferson strained over their differing opinions on what America's role should be in the war between England and France. When George Washington declines to run for reelection following his second term, Adams as well as Jefferson, face opposition from Alexander Hamilton who strongly backs a third candidate, Thomas Pinckney. When John is finally elected the second President of the United States, he finds depression has washed over him as well as a ransacked presidential mansion.
Part VI: Unnecessary War
Alexander Hamilton's men in John's cabinet leftover from George Washington's administration are pushing for war with France in that nation's conflict with Britain, although John fervently tries to remain neutral. His relationship with Vice President Jefferson is further damaged when he takes defensive measures against the French such as signing the Alien and Sedition Acts. Following the death of George Washington, John and Abigail move to the newly formed municipality of Washington into the newly built White House. A family crisis occurs when John disowns his alcoholic son Charles for leaving his family penniless and matters become graver when he dies and John is unable to forgive him. A peace is soon negotiated with France, much to John's delight, but he loses reelection to Thomas Jefferson, thanks in part to a smear campaign by Alexander Hamilton in response to having his army disbanded. Disappointed yet relieved and proud for keeping the country out of war, John returns to his Peacefield home in Massachusetts.
Part VII: Peacefield
John is unsatisfied is retirement, bitter and resentful at his career which is made worse by the revelation that Thomas Jefferson smeared him behind his back when he served as his Vice President. Writing his memoirs to set the record straight, he is beset by personal tragedy, first when his daughter Nabby dies then when his dear Abigail passes. John extends an olive branch to his old friend Jefferson and the two exchange letters for the rest of the their lives until they both expire on July 4th, 1826, the 50 year anniversary of the birth of America.

George Washington

In a depressed southern town, a band of preadoloscent friends reflect on their ambitions and relationships. When one of them is killed in a tragic accident, the rest of the group covers it up and responds to the situation in different ways. George Washington is the debut film of David Gordon Green, the director of such powerful indies as Undertow and Snow Angels. This film is a beautifully filmed and often poetic and recalls the work of Terrence Malick with its stunning visuals, colorful palette, and detracted narration. At the same time, where Malick's films manage to hold interest even in their minimalism, George Washington suffers from an aimlessness and doesn't know what it wants to be about. Instead of a film, what has resulted is something resembling a meditation. Still there is much to admire in the film, and the performances from the child actors as well as the adults are moving. The worthwhile elements of this film would be utilized in Green's later work which demonstrate a better ability at storytelling.

Bullets Over Broadway

In Prohibition era New York City, a struggling writer (John Cusack) is unwilling to compromise his new play until his agent (Jack Warden) gains the backing of a local mobster. With the stipulation that the thug's talentless floozy girlfriend (Jennifer Tilly) be cast in a major role, the writer and now director must also contend with his star (Dianne Wiest),  a diva in the Norma Desmond mold he is starting to fall for, a suspicious girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker) who herself is falling for a blowhard hack writer (Rob Reiner), a lead actor (Jim Broadbent) with an eating disorder and appetite for the mobster's girl, a supporting actress (Tracey Ullman) with an annoying dog, and the gangster's bodyguard (Chazz Palmintari) who is keeping an eye on the girl but also has an uncanny knack for screenwriting. Bullets Over Broadway is an extremely entertaining and occasionally riotous film from director Woody Allen and cowriter Douglas McGrath. Allen brings to vivid life the period of the 1920s which he recently demonstrated such a warm fondness for in Midnight in Paris. The scripting is brilliantly conceived and the jokes are often hilariously on the mark. John Cusack, an actor I do not hold in high regard, fits nicely into the role of the uncompromising producer who finds himself making concession after concession, even in admitting the lack of his own talent. Dianne Wiest is a ball of energy is an Academy Award winning performance in her portrayal of an over the top Broadway star who still holds the powers of manipulation. Jennifer Tilly and Chazz Palminteri are wonderful as well in roles that garnered Oscar nods. Palminteri is a particular scream when he is barking out script changes and insisting on nothing less than greatness for his work. Bullets Over Broadway is a wonderfully inspired film and an entertaining one that functions incredibly on several different levels.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Source Code

I watched Source Code for a second time and again found it to be an effective thriller that creates an alternate reality and succeeds in demonstrating it. I also enjoyed the heartfelt elements of the story involving Jake Gyllenhaal's character's relationship with his father. I also appreciated the acting more the second time around and was impressed with the work of Gyllenhaal, Vera Farmiga, and the particularly endearing Michelle Monaghan. I look forward with great anticipation to the next film from Duncan Jones.


4/3/11 A man wakes up on a Chicago bound passenger train not knowing who he is, and claiming he is an Air Force captain on tour in Afghanistan. As he tries to come to terms with what's going on, he talks to a pretty young woman who seems to be smitten with him. Then suddenly an explosion rips through the train, engulfing everyone aboard whereupon the captain wakes up in a chamber as himself. He is informed that he is part of a secret mission by a secret branch of the military where he can be sent back in time into another person's body to live out their last 8 minutes with the hope that he can find the person responsible for the bombing and prevent a series a terrorist attacks. Source Code is another complex sci-fi film about multiple realities made by Duncan Jones who also brought us the fine film Moon. Here we have a high concept plot that is executed really well. We get some nice performances from Vera Farmiga as the no nonsense mission operator who may have a soft spot. Jake Gyllenhaal is effective as the captain and his short lived relationship with Michelle Monaghan is surprisingly poignant. Like Groundhog Day and Run Lola Run, films dealing  with repeated time travel (though here we learn that it isn't exactly what this is) are fascinating to watch because as we become familiar with the setting it is intriguing to see how different choices affect that reality. This movie understands that and takes that to a new level.

The Dreamers

In 1968 Paris, during the student riots in response to cofounder Henri Langlois' ouster from the Cinematheque Francais, a young American film buff befriends a likeminded brother and sister who have a way too comfortable relationship with each other. After the siblings' parents leave for vacation, the trio begin playing movie oriented sex games, while they ignore the riot which has taken on a new leftist meaning and keeps growing right outside their window. As the American begins to grow affectionate for the girl, he discovers that the brother may be more militant than he leads on, and she will always have an unnatural attachment to him. The Dreamers is daring and very adult filmmaking from Bernardo Bertolucci, a director who has specialized in such provocative adult geared films. Written for the screen from his novel, Gilbert Adair's work is fascinating to watch due to its movie literate script and characters, as well as its adult material which is rare to find these days where adult films are often mistaken for ones that have to do with jokes about bodily functions. Instead, we have a well written and realized film that expects a lot from its three young stars, Michael Pitt, Eva Green, and Louis Garrel, who pull off their complex roles amazingly. I felt the film lost its footing for awhile towards the midsection, but regained it for a fantastic ending. The Dreamers is challenging, stimulating, and welcome cinema when in an era when many studio offerings are none of the above.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Neighbors

A boy falls in love with the girl who lives on the other side of the fence of his New York City backyard. However, their hostile families prohibit them from seeing each other. What results is a sight gag filled romp as the boy attempts to court the girl despite their parents' opposition. Neighbors was one of Buster Keaton's solo films after leaving his partnership with Fatty Arbuckle, and plays off one of Keaton's favorite plots being the family feud. Neighbors is a well done slapstick that contains many wonderful stunts including a finale in which three men  stand on each others soldiers, with Keaton on top, to rescue the girl from the top floor of her home, culminating in her being in his arms on the ground level. Buster Keaton's visual stunts must be seen to be believed and his comedies, including this early short, are truly one of a kind.

The Garage

Operating a firehouse and an auto repair shop out of the same building, two men engage in a series of mishaps that range from dirtying a car they were supposed to be destroying to rescuing a young lady trapped in their garage while it is burning to the ground. Before embarking on an extremely successful solo career, Buster Keaton was the sidekick to Fatty Arbuckle, who was the most famous silent comic of his time. The Garage came at a time when Keaton's career was beginning and Arbuckle's was coming to a close (due to being beset by a scandal), and is a slapstick short pulled off in very fine fashion. Demonstrating the visual gags and high risk stunts known to Keaton and Arbuckle I'm sure, The Garage is a fine example of a partnership whose members would produce the best comedies of the 1910s and 1920s.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Horrible Bosses

Three friends all have unimaginable employers, each a beast of a different nature: Nick (Jason Bateman) has been expecting a promotion from his anal retentive boss (Kevin Spacey) who ultimately decides to fill the position himself.  Dale (Charlie Day) is being sexually harassed by the maneating dentist (Jennifer Aniston) he works for. Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) actually has a boss (Donald Sutherland) he respects, but when he kicks the bucket his coke addled son (Colin Farrell) takes over with the intention of running the business into the ground and milking the profits. Now the trio decide it is time to take the ultimate step and off their bosses. Hiring a dubious criminal (Jamie Foxx) they meet in a local dive to give them advice, they partake in a Hitchcockian plot that has unintended and unexpected results. I thought that Horrible Bosses never soars and is never the uproarious movie it thinks it is. Jason Bateman does his usual straight man bit, and Charlie Day does his Always Sunny routine, and I thought Jason Sudeikis, an actor who I'm not familiar with, was funny. Supporting players, including Spacey, Aniston, Farrell, Foxx, Sutherland, and even Ron White all have good roles but are way too underused. I would attribute the problem to a movie written by two many people (three screenwriters credited), starring too many people, that tries to give them all fair time. On top of that many of the jokes fall flat and the result is a mildly diverting film with a few laughs that probably isn't worth the price of admission.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Just before his quest for the lost Ark, Indy narrowly escaped a melee in China with an evil crimelord with his new friends a ditzy nightclub singer and a young Chinese boy. They then narrowly escape the crimelord's plane which they've mistakenly boarded and has been set to crash. Surfacing in India, they come across a local village which has been stricken with disease which they claim is due to a Satanic cult stealing their sacred rock and their children. Now, Indy and crew embark on a deadly mission to retrieve the rock and kids and restore prosperity to the village. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a downright laughable sequel, containing none of the wit or sense of adventure from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The story is uninspired, the jokes are terrible, and Kate Capshaw and the little Chinese boy are cringe inducingly terrible. This would have been a complete loss if not for a spectacular mine chase sequence followed by a remarkable rope bridge segment, comprising the last twenty minutes of the film. But when only one sixth of a movie is great, how can you recommend it. This Indiana Jones installment is a colossal failure much worse than the recent Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls entry, and the blame should not only fall on Steven Spielberg, but also equally on George Lucas who wrote this lackluster story.

Larry Crowne

Larry Crowne works at a Walmart type superstore, is exceedingly friendly and seems to know the lay of the land. Then one day he is called into the break room where he is informed that he has been downsized due to not having any college experience (plot convenience). He attends the local community college, befriends a beautiful free spirited young woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and draws the attention of his alcoholic speech teacher who has lost her passion. Larry Crowne is the second directorial effort from Tom Hanks working from a script he cowrote with collaborator Nia Vardalos. The film strives to be an upbeat recession tale in the same vein as a Frank Capra/Robert Riskin film, but oozes so much niceness and cuteness it doesn't quite achieve its goals. Stars Hanks and Julia Roberts elevate the material as best they can, but its cloying nature which I suspect can be attributed largely to Vardalos, and the fact that their attraction isn't fleshed out at all whatsoever, gets the best of them. Also, fine supporting actors are grossly underused including Bryan Cranston, Taraji P. Henson, and Pam Grier. I did go along with some of this movie and found the scenes in Roberts' classroom to be amusing as were the scenes in George Takai's economics' class. Larry Crowne is an overly earnest film that could have benefited from dialing down the cuteness and creating more authentic, well realized characters.

The Mechanic

The title character (Jason Statham) is a hitman who does his job so thoroughly that his work can never be traced and always appears to be an accident or the work of someone else. Now, he sees an offer to knock off his colleague and mentor(Donald Sutherland) and the slick politician (Tony Goldwyn) who posted it claims that the old man had bungled a job and turned his back on his men in a secret operation. See no other options, The Mechanic kills his boss then realizes he's been set up. Now on his own mission of revenge, his boss's son (Ben Foster) throws a wrench in the mix and insists that he be taken on to learn his ways and achieve the same vengeful goal. Directed by Simon West and remade from a 1972 Charles Bronson film, The Mechanic starts out fairly intriguingly, with Statham drowning a drug lord, making his escape, and returning to his secret compound where the entire house seems dedicated to his work, with photos, maps, and strategies relating to his targets on the wall. Soon, though the film regresses into a mindless and senselessly violent action picture, and the early fun is taking out of the movie. Sutherland is fine in his early scenes and Foster gives another solid performance in his young career, but Statham does his usual boring one not thing and does not bring anything to what could have been an interesting character. The Mechanic is a film that has all the right ingredients that the filmmakers have decided to overcook leaving it without any flavor.

The Madness of King George

Still reeling from the loss of the colonies five years later, King George III seems to be losing his marbles. He's throwing fits, becoming forgetful, and making lewd comments to a chambermaid. As his discontented son, the Prince of Windsor, sees this as an opportunity to seize the throne, the King is whisked away to a nearby locale where he is subjected harsh and ineffective treatment. Then, with only his queen and prime minister looking after his interest, a modern thinking psychiatrist's methods may help restore the King to his normal self and reclaim the throne. From a play and screenplay by Alan Bennett and helmed by theater director Nicholas Hytner, The Madness King George is a literate and bawdy film. Featuring a brave and fierce performance from Nigel Hawthorne, reprising his stage role, he keeps the film going through periodic lulls. Also wonderful in the film is Helen Mirren as his lovely wife and Ian Holm as the strict psychiatrist, who is probably the first person to talk down to the King. The Madness of King George is worth seeing alone for Hawthorne's fearless performance. What, what?

Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia is a spectacular movie bristling with greatness in everything from its visuals to its acting to its individual moments. David Lean's desert epic spares nothing, and at almost four hours in length, when it is finish we think that we would gladly sit through a few hours more. It was the star making movie for Peter O'Toole, who is magnificent in the title role and their are wonderful supporting performances throughout from Omar Sharif, Alec Guiness, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains, and Arthur Kennedy. The movie tells the story of T.E. Lawrence and begins with his death in a motorcycle accident. At his funeral, a group of men wander why he is being eulogized as such a great man, and an officer who knew him begins to tell his story. During World War I, while stationed in Cairo, Lawrence is sent on a mission to meet with Prince Feisel (Guiness). There he meets Ali (Sharif) and convinces them to unite with rival Arab nations against the Turks and march through the desert through thought to be uncrossable terrain in order to achieve this. Forming an alliance with Abu (Quinn), the Arabs defeat the Turks and continue their rebellion by engaging them and blowing up their trains. Lawrence encourages the Arabs to be independent which enrages the British and his behavior baffles both groups. Flamboyant and enigmatic, Lawrence questions his own greatness then in turn insists upon it to get his way. Again, Lawrence of Arabia features a superlative performance from Peter O'Toole in a role as complex as about any I've seen. David Lean, a man of great vision, creates his masterwork, beautifully capturing the desert and mounting great moment upon great moment. Lawrence of Arabia is a great film and the kind that is not seen today.

Farewell, My Lovely

Philip Marlowe is in his hotel room in LA eagerly following DiMaggio's hit streak while ducking the police who want him on questioning for a handful of murders. He tells us about a big galoot client and how the search for his girlfriend has led him down a path involving blackmail, prostitution, and murder, all leading to the beautiful young wife of a wealthy older judge. Farewell, My Lovely is the third filmization of the hard boiled Raymond Chandler novel following 1942's The Falcon Takes Over and 1944's Murder, My Sweet. Here Robert Mitchum is an ideal Marlowe, just as frank and rigid, but maybe a little worn and more compassionate. He was significantly older than Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell when they played the roles, and it is a pleasure to see how he plays it at his age. The story here is just as engaging as the 1944 version (haven't seen the '42 one) and director Dick Richards nicely captures 1940 Los Angeles as well as the noir atmosphere. Farewell, My Lovely is a fine detective story and a wonderful showcase for Robert Mitchum who fits into Philip Marlowe's shoes like a glove.

Cars 2

Enjoying his time away from racing in Radiator Springs, Lightning McQueen is goaded by his best friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) into entering the World Grand Prix, which takes place in Tokyo, Rome, and London. At the first event Mater embarrasses McQueen and then goes on to cost him the race. Depressed, the lovable tow truck soon meets two secret agents (Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer) and soon becomes involved in a complex espionage mission. The original Cars was probably the weakest link in Pixar's titanium chain, but it still offered a story that adults could enjoy. With Cars 2, the animation company breaks their string of sturdy offerings that appeal to adults and children alike, and makes a feature that is just like every other inane computer animated film. Yes, the visuals are of the highest quality and the company was wise to hire Michael Caine for voicework to replace the late great Paul Newman, but the story is not strong enough to maintain interest and the jokes are geared towards little kids. This isn't so much of a sequel to Cars as it is a spinoff of that movie for the Larry the Cable Guy's character, whose in it for so much and whose voice is only tolerable for so long. Although this is not on the same level as the other Pixar work, it is a modest and watchable entry, and with three new interesting titles in the work (a fourth Toy Story, a second Monster's Inc., and Brave, an original) I'm sure the studio will be working at the same level it made its reputation on.

The movie opens with a short featuring the Toy Story characters called Hawaiian Vacation where Ken and Barbie aren't taken along with the family for their vacation, and are treated to a holiday anyways courtesy of the other toys. It is well made and funny and made me long for some of the other Pixar titles while the feature played.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Doors: When You're Strange

The Doors created hypnotic and lasting music that captured the spirit of the 1960s. When You're Strange documents the band's fairly quick rise to stardom, and their alienation of their fans and much of America due to the perplexing antics of their talented lead singer Jim Morrison, who not only remained enigmatic until his 1971 death at age 27 in a Paris bathtub, but up until this day. The film focuses a lot on Morrison, including his childhood and his years before the band formed. This really is a fine assembly of The Doors' music as well as a documentation of the band's history. Narrated by Johnny Depp, his casual voice works nicely calling attention to the material rather than himself. The Doors and Jim Morrison's story is a strange and complex one indeed, and it is nicely captured here in a film that paints a fine picture of a troubled man and a great band.

Beginners

Oliver has always lived a maudlin life. Now his father has passed away and he has met a young French actress and has really taken a liking for her. He begins to reflect on his relationships with his free spirited mother and his father, who announced he was gay after her death and began living a fully engaged lifestyle. Hopefully his parents' examples can guide him to not push away his new girlfriend as he has done with all his other relationships. Beginners is Mike Mills sophomore effort as writer/director following Thumbsucker, and is told in the same light and whimsical way. Mills' style can be a little fanciful at times, but the movie is carried throughout by the strength of his cast. Ewan McGregor does fine work in another strong performance as Oliver and Melanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds) contributes nicely as his girlfriend. Mary Page Keller is wonderful as Oliver's mother and Christopher Plummer, who has had a career rebirth in his later years, is great as Oliver's father who has spent most of his life concealing his true nature and blossoms when he is finally allowed to be himself. Beginners is pleasant entertainment where you can sometimes appreciate the auteur's sensibilities and can always admire the acting.

Incendies

A set of Canadian twins, male and female, of Middle Eastern descent, learn at their mother's will reading that her last wishes include both of them delivering letters to their thought to be dead father and a brother they never knew they had. Separately, the siblings embark on a journey that will reveal dark secrets about their family's past, and as these discoveries are revealed we see the tumultuous path their mother's life took up until her passing. Canadian export and Foreign Film Oscar nominee Incendies is a powerful film from director Denis Villeneuve that wonderfully tells a harsh story through the use of a complicated dual narrative structure which it pulls off well. Lubna Azabal is excellent as the mother and must undergo a wide range of emotions on her brutal journey which she conveys superbly. It's been quite awhile since a film's twist has taken me aback, yet this film's secret is shocking and unexpected. Incendies is an example of filmmaking that tells a great story yet challenges at the same time.