Sunday, August 28, 2011

Pursuit to Algiers

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are vacationing and Scotland when they receive a very strange and cryptic message inviting them to a private meet. There they meet a secret group trying to smuggle the prince of the fictional country of Rovinia back to his homeland, his life being in danger following the assassination of his father the king a week earlier. The group wants Holmes to escort him on his trip until he is in safe hands. Travelling by sea, Watson and Holmes meet an assortment of suspicious and deadly sorts on their trip to Algiers where they are to meet their contacts. "Pursuit to Algiers" is a fun and minor entry in the Sherlock Holmes series featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Both men are entertaining again in their roles as are the supporting characters who play like cheap knockoffs of the Warner Brothers Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre crew. The movie is only an hour long which makes for brisk entertaining and though the film does seem lacking especially for its running length, the conclusion is particularly surprising and satisfying.

The Hound of the Baskervilles

On a manor on the English moors, Sir Charles Baskerville is killed by a rabid dog and an old legend is resurrected regarding a curse in the family. Fearing for the only Baskerville heir's safety, he hires the services of Sherlock Holmes to investigate the case. Instead of taking on the case himself, Holmes sends Dr. Watson to the manor to investigate, being too busy with his own affairs to take part. Yet, Holmes may not be as far away as he leads on. "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most often filmed story and was the first featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as the famed detective and his dear sidekick, both considered the foremost film actors to play the part. This adaptation of the story is thoroughly enjoyable fare blending light comedy with a good mystery. Not being a Holmes aficionado, I liked the way Holmes and Watson play off each other, Holmes acting bemused and Watson always serious. The moors add a nice aura and are a good setting for a film such as this one. The mystery unfolds in an intriguing fashion while we are given some light moments as well. "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is a fine adaptation of the beloved Doyle novel, at least for someone who is not versed in them.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hall Pass

Two restless married men with sex constantly on the brain are given a week off of their marriages by their wives. Things go unexpectedly and get out of control for the men, who aren't quite the Lotharios they have painted themselves to be. Things grow even more complicated when the wives decide the "hall pass" applies to them as well. "Hall Pass" is another raunchy comedy from the Farrelly Brothers and is largely successful thanks to the likability of stars Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis as well as the actresses who portray their wives, Jenna Fisher and Christina Applegate. They are also given nice assists Richard Jenkins, Stephen Merchant, and JB Smoove in funny supporting roles. The set-up of this movie, which consists of 40 minutes or so, is much funnier than the follow through where the men receive their passes which is just a regression into gross out fare. The movie is also far too long as it approaches the two hour mark. Yet, this is still raunch done moderately well and an improvement over much of the bodily fluid composed comedies of late. The Farrellys made some of the great comedies of the 90s and have been off track for awhile. Here, with "Hall Pass", it appears the brothers may be back on track to making the kind of films they made so well back in the day.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

After a gruesome opening scene in the basement of an old mansion, the story begins some 60 years later as an architect, his girlfriend, and his troubled young daughter move into the same house as they begin to restore it. Soon, little creatures begin to prey on the girl's fears but it quickly appears that they are anything but friendly as they try to lure her into the furnace where she will become their feast. Now, she seems doomed as her father and his girlfriend refuse to believe any of the ludicrous stories she tells them. "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" was written by Guillermo del Toro from a 1973 teleplay and directed by Troy Nixey. It is a good looking film with some great exterior photography, and it features good performances from Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes. However, the film does not go for as many scares as you would think and the ones it does go for are not handled particularly well. Young Bailee Madison does not make a compelling heroine either and I found myself not really caring what happened to her character. In the end I found myself sympathizing with Pearce's architect, not giving much credence to this poorly realized story.

Our Idiot Brother

After doing a stint in jail for selling marijuana to a uniformed police officer, Ned is kicked out of his home on an organic farm by his girlfriend and goes to live in the city where he bounces around his three sister's homes, throwing a wrench in their everyday lives with his naivety and brutal honesty. "Our Idiot Brother" is a sweet natured and often very funny movie featuring an incredibly likable performance from Paul Rudd. He is surrounded by a cast of talented and very beautiful actresses, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer, Rashida Jones, Kathryn Hahn, and Shirley Knight, and given fine support by Adam Scott, T.J. Miller, and Steve Coogan, who I found particularly funny as Rudd's priggish and phony brother-in-law. I have been griping lately about the state of  Hollywood comedies, specifically R-rated ones. Here is an R-rated comedy that eschews raunch in favor of sweetness and subtle humor and the result is innumerably preferable to the shit slew of restricted comedies that preceded it this summer.

The Sunshine Boys

In vaudeville's heyday Al Lewis and Willy Clark were a top act, performing their routine thousands of times over a number of years. Offstage, however was a different story and the two men cannot stand each other not speaking since the duo broke up. Now Willy's nephew, an aspiring agent, has gotten them a lucrative gig on a television special highlighting the history of comedy. Now all he has to do is reunite the cantankerous old codgers and make sure they don't kill each other before the broadcast. Written for the screen by Neil Simon from his stage play, "The Sunshine Boys" is a barrage of bad jokes, with an occasional zinger, given an incredible assist by stars Walter Matthau and George Burns. Matthau plays an exaggeration of the usual curmudgeon we've grown accustomed to and his performance here is fun, both physical and over the top. Burns is incredible in his first starring role in 36 years and one that won him an Academy Award. The ending of the film is also nicely realized and unexpected. There are moments is "The Sunshine Boys" that are laugh out loud funny and many that make you shake your head at their tackiness. But at the top stand two titans of comedy and the cinema, even if the material isn't always at their level.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Cold Weather

While taking a break from studying forensics, Doug returns home to Portland, Oregon, moves in with his sister Gail, and takes a minimum wage gig at the ice bagging factory. He visits his ex-girlfriend Rachel who is in town for business and befriends Carlos, a coworker whom he lends a Sherlock Holmes novel to and all four become friends. One night, Carlos frantically knocks on the door and tells Doug that Rachel is missing. Not seeming to bear much scrutiny at first, it quickly appears that something is awry regarding her whereabouts. Now Doug along with Carlos and Gail can put on their collective detective hats and put their amateur sleuthing skills to work. "Cold Weather" was written and directed by Aaron Katz, one of the foremost mumblecore artists. Those are the films that are associated with low budgets, young nonactors, and natural dialogue. Here Katz has applied the noir/mystery movie to that style to wonderful results. The movie is low key with a quiet sense of humor and takes its time to unfold its story while it gradually ratchets up the tension. The movie also makes great use of its Portland locations as well. "Cold Weather" is one of those films you don't really know where its going for awhile, but when it gets there, it is more than worth the ride.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Twin Peaks

David Lynch is a director I have never gotten. His films are murky and strange and border on the incomprehensible. However, with television he may have found a medium suited to his sensibilities, one that gives him the freedom and space to experiment. "Twin Peaks" was Lynch and Mark Frost's short-lived, critically acclaimed, cult classic that tells the story of a peculiar yet ingenious FBI agent investigating the murder of a young girl in the title town, which is comprised of equally strange people who are dealing with subversive and possibly supernatural elements. "Twin Peaks" is a superb series (2 seasons) and a wonderful blend of humor, soap opera, and crime. Kyle MacLachlan is phenomenal is the lead role as special agent Dale Cooper and is given great support by those around him. Here are the ones who really stood out for me: Michael Ontkean as the town sheriff, Richard Beymer as the conniving local tycoon, Sherilyn Fenn as his seductive and inquisitive daughter, Lara Flynn Boyle as the victim's best friend. With "Twin Peaks", Lynch has found a big enough canvas to suit his vision and with it he has crafted his masterpiece.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

"Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me" is a prequel to the acclaimed David Lynch television series and briefly shows the investigation of Teresa Wright before chronicling the last week in the life of Laura Palmer, the series' victim. The movie is an abomination in every way imaginable and does disservice not only to fans of the show but for those not familiar with it as well. For fans, there is no continuity in tone whatsoever. Instead of dark and funny we here just have strange and humorless. The R rated nature of the film is jarring, and much of the cast is missing, including Lara Flynn Boyle who has been replaced! Kyle MacLachlan is in it way too little as well. I liked the early scenes involving Chris Isaak, Kiefer Sutherland, and Harry Dean Stanton, but those are short lived. For non fans, there will be no way to comprehend the film, so I really don't know what Lynch was going for. In my review of the series I said that David Lynch is a director I do not respond to and that he is best perhaps suited for television. After the success of his show in his return to the big screen, he one again gets carried away and makes a movie solely for himself.

Freakonomics

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner wrote the book Freakonomics in which they examined human behavior and incentive based thinking in the hopes of looking at certain things from a different angle. For the film, five of the most successful documentarians currently working present Levitt and Dubner's studies and what they tell us about human behavior and our beliefs. Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me") explores how a person's name affects their success in "A Roshanda by Any Other Name". Alex Gibney ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room") explores cheating in Sumo wrestling in Japan in "Pure Corruption". Eugene Jarecki ("Why We Fight") explores the early 90s crime drop with a surprising and controversial explanation in "It's Not Always a Wonderful Life". "Jesus Camp" directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's "Can a Ninth Grader be Bribed to Succeed?" is self-explanatory and Seth Gordon ("The King of Kong") provides the transitional mini studies in the film. "Freakonomics" represents the best and worst in documentary filmmaking. With Spurlock's film we have the standard and irritating method of being assaulted with numbers and stats and cutesy narration, and Grady and Ewing's study couldn't be more vague and unrealiable. On the flip side, Gibney's and Jarecki's shorts are great examples of storytelling and not just a barrage of facts, which is what many documentarians think documentaries should be. In the end we have an occasionally thought provoking but mostly pointless series of studies that should show Levitt and Dubner's work for what it is: ultimately meaningless.

Sarah's Key

For two days in 1942 in what would come to be known as the Vel d'Hiv Roundup, approximately 3,000 Parisian Jews were detained in a large stadium, which a present day magazine editor equates with The Superdome, only a million times worse. They were then transported to a transit camp where they would in turn wait to be taken to the concentration camps, all of which was carried about by the French government. "Sarah's Key" involves a young girl who locks her brother in a closet during the roundup and is determined to make her way back to him. The story is told through a modern day reporter who is covering the horrendous event while finding her own personal life intertwined with Sarah's. "Sarah's Key" has a compelling story that is in turns horrific and touching and diminishes it by presenting it as a dual narrative. I did like how the mystery of the past unfolded in the reporter's quest, but it is hard to accept the modern marital strife of the protagonist when paralleled with the past anti-semitic atrocities. The ending of the film is pat and unsatisfying as well. And despite these setbacks, we still have a pretty good film here with several fine elements. Young Mélusine Mayance delivers a wonderful performance as Sarah and Kristin Scott Thomas is good as the reporter. We also get some good though brief supporting work from Aidan Quinn and Niels Arestrup, an older and powerful French actor who has been showing up a lot lately in many strong parts.The film also has some beautifully photographs scenes of the French countryside. "Sarah's Key" being a mixed bag is really disconcerting considering how strong much of the material really is. If the film would have focused more on the past and less on the present, we could have had one of the great films of the year.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Great Expectations

In an update and modernization of the often filmed Dickens classic, we follow Finn (Pip) as he aids an escaped convict on the Florida marshes, becomes the playmate of cold Estella at the behest of of the jilted Ms. Dinsmoor (Havisham), and travels to New York City where he puts on an art show courtesy of a mysterious benefactor and foolishly pursues his childhood sweetheart. "Great Expectations" is well directed by the fine auteur Alfonso Cuarón. Ethan Hawke who I have always found to be an erratic actor does nothing here to change my mind, sometimes hitting the right notes as the naive and innocent Finn and other times hitting notes that are so out of left field you wonder just how he came up with them. His character's narration of the film is unnecessary and does not add to the story. Gwyneth Paltrow does a nice job as Estella and is extraordinarily sexy and the great Anne Bancroft does a good job as Ms. Dinsmoor in a role that is written in all the wrong ways. Robert De Niro and Chris Cooper offer fine supporting roles as well. I wanted to emphasize Cuarón's excellent and beautiful direction, but when you adapt a familiar and beloved work such as this and mesh it with modern music, language, and locations, the result is jarring. Besides all that, there just seems like there is something missing from the picture and in the context in which it is presented, Dicken's timeless story simply does not work here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Cameraman

A man who sells tinted photographs on a New York City street corner comes across a young woman during a ticker tape and is immediately smitten. After learning she works as a secretary for MGM's newsreel department, he trades his camera for a moving one and begins shooting footage in an attempt to woo her. The Cameraman was the first studio film for the great silent clown Buster Keaton who worked independently up until this point. It is considered his last great film before studio interference, and probably foremost the talkies, stifled his career. It is not his finest work, but it is still a delightful film containing much of the great Stoneface's grace and wit. I really liked particular segments involving Keaton's attempts to open a piggy bank, his difficulties during a date on a packed double decker bus, and his exploits involving a dead monkey he is forced into buying that miraculously comes back to life. A friend recently said that Keaton was superior to Chaplin, and it is a popular sentiment among more than a few critics, but I feel that without taking anything away from Charlie, both men deserve to sit on the same pedestal as two of the foremost comics, not only of the silent era, but of the history of the cinema.

Fright Night

After his friend Adam doesn't show up to school for a few days, Charlie is roped into investigating his disappearance by Ed, his other nerdy friend. Adam's vanishing seems to be another in a string of them, and Ed has developed a theory that Charlie's neighbor Jerry, who has sharp fangs and blacked out windows, is a vampire preying on people in the neighborhood. Due to the fact that they live in transient Las Vegas where many work at night, Charlie doesn't give it much thought, until Jerry's behavior grows more and more suspicious. Now Charlie must do all he can to protect his beautiful girlfriend and mother, even if it means enlisting the aid of a vampire expert who has his own show on the strip. "Fright Night" is a remake of a 1985 film of the same name, unseen by me, and blends the vampire movie with the "Rear Window" setup. It is a movie that deals itself very nice cards, including nice atmosphere and special effects, and then misplays its hand. By not following through on Hitchcock's proven rubric, the movie reveals the nature of the neighbor too soon and regresses into a series of showdowns that become increasingly uninteresting and lame. Anton Yelchin turns in a fairly solid lead performance as Charlie, and Colin Farrell and David Tennant are a lot of fun  as the vampire neighbor and the cockney vampire expert, but they are not given any help by supporters Toni Collette (mom), Imogen Poots (girlfriend), and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (nerd) who all come off as incredibly annoying. There is a good movie here (I'm curious how the original plays) but it is bungled by its filmmakers who favor gore and action over tension and suspense.

Stand by Me

A writer recounts a Labor Day weekend when he was twelve years old in the small town of Castle Rock, Oregon when he sought out with three of his close pals  in search of the dead body of a missing boy one of them overheard their brother talking about. Their journey becomes a pivotal point in all of their lives as the four ruminate about life and enjoy what may be their last summer of childhood. Rob Reiner's "Stand by Me" is based on the Stephen King novella The Body and is a coming of age story that plays as a series of vignettes and conjures up feelings of childhood nostalgia. The events in the movie did not specifically remind me of my own childhood, but the general longing for those years that the film creates is remarkable. Reiner's direction is wonderful as he follows the boys down that wooded railroad path and fully engages all of his child actors. With the exception of Corey Feldman, who is irritating as one of the four, and John Cusack, who has always bothered me, as the protagonist's recently deceased brother seen in flashback, the cast is extraordinary. I really liked the work of Kiefer Sutherland as the sinister yet well spoken teenage punk and Jerry O'Connell as the hapless fat kid in the group, but who towers over all is River Phoenix who plays an underestimated poor kid and reaches depths that are not usually associated with child actors. The film also has a wonderful soundtrack comprised of 1950s jukebox hits. I had some problems with the movie. Richard Dreyfuss' reflective narration is distracting and unnecessary and when the film seeks to be more existential in nature it just comes off as haughty. Still, the movie wonderfully captures the essence of childhood and brings us back to a time when are main concerns were comic books, spitballs, and baseball.

Foul Play

A shy librarian becomes involved in a wildly bizarre assassination plot and romantically involved with the unpolished detective assigned to the case. "Foul Play" is a slight and funny film featuring a really nice performance from the extremely beautiful and immensely likable Goldie Hawn, as well as an amusing turn from Chevy Chase. The movie is comprised of many Hitchcockian references including the blonde leading lady, some windy San Francisco locations, a McGuffin, the Bernard Herrmannish score, a finale at an opera house, some dizzying camera work, and two detectives surnamed Scott and Ferguson, but the movie is an homage rather than a ripoff and has a lot of fun in the process. In addition to the likable leads I liked the work of Burgess Meredith as a black belt septuagenarian, Brian Dennehy as Chase's disbelieving partner, and especially Dudley Moore playing a swinger who keeps crossing paths with Hawn. Many of the action sequences in the latter part of the film are drawn out and take some of the fun out of the film, but all and all this was an amiable farce made all the entertaining by its affable players.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

A barber returns home to Victorian London 15 years after being sent up the river on a bogus charge by a malevolent judge who also stole his wife and daughter. Hellbent on revenge, he opens a tonsorial parlor above a meat pie shop, and forms a sinister partnership with the eerie woman who owns it. "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is an adaptation by John Logan of the dark Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical and often told story. It was directed by Tim Burton, a auteur who often brings his sensibilities to material that he shouldn't adapt, and always goes over the top with his stylings, often to his detriment. Here however Burton has found material perfectly suited to him, and he brings it to the screen in all its gothic beauty with surprising restraint. In the lead role, Johnny Depp is another one I've also had some qualms with, often being to bland and bringing to little to his roles. Again I was surprised and Depp is superb here in an Oscar nominated performance, doing his own singing along with the rest of the cast and perfectly conveying Todd's many dark and difficult emotions while also supplying believability to the character. We also get great supporting work from Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Sacha Baron Cohen in a brief and very funny role. I also liked how one story line was not followed up in the likelihood to avoid a happy ending. Due to its dark and gruesome nature as well as its wonderful musical numbers, "Sweeney Todd" is likely to appeal to a great number of people, and with Burton and Depp working at the top of their game with Sondheim's music, they are not likely to be disappointed.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Poltergeist

In a cookie cutter suburban California development, a seemingly normal family is sleeping when a little girl is drawn out of her bed to the television, which she remains glued to until her parents put her back to sleep. The next night she is summoned in the same way and gives the famous announcement: "They're here". After this point it is clear the house is haunted, but the specters appear playful as they rearrange chairs in the kitchen and slide items across the linoleum. However, their disposition rapidly changes and young Carol Ann is sucked into another dimension. A local psychologist is summoned but she soon realizes the task is too much for her to take on. As the mystery of the haunting is revealed, an exorcist is called in to hopefully retrieve the young girl before she is gone forever. "Poltergeist" was produced by Steven Spielberg from one of his stories and is set in the same kind of suburb as E.T. (which was released around the same time), this time revealing a more sinister side. Directed by Tobe Hooper, who was known for far more gory horror films such as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", this is a nice use of cheesy special effects and shock moments, which are achieved mostly through misdirection. I respond much more to a film like this than I do to say "The Evil Dead" which is more concerned with schlock and crappy fx whereas here we have well thought out characters and nice scare moments. As the parents, JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson give the movie weight during times when the effects border on the laughable and cartoonish. I was surprised how influential the movie is as well, now seeing how many have used elements from this film, particularly the recent "Insidious" which is a direct ripoff. "Poltergeist" achieves the fundamental goal of a horror movie by providing scares and does something more through good filmmaking and by providing well flesh out characters.

The Music Box

Laurel and Hardy decide to start a transport business and their first job is to move a piano up an extremely high flight of stairs. That's really all the plot detail need to be known, and although the movie is as simple as that, the concept is milked by the duo for all its worth resulting in consistently uproarious results. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made a wonderful duo and couldn't have been more different, Stan thin and proper from England and Ollie rotund and slobbish from Georgia. Perhaps it was these differences that helped to make them so funny here. I loved how sometimes you could see the pratfalls coming a mile away and other times they surprised you, both with the same hilarious results. I also love the work of Billy Gilbert as Professor Theodore von Schwarzenhoffen whom the duo come to annoy. Of all the so called comedies I've seen so far this year combined, they do not even begin to approach the belly laughs of this wonderful and hilarious 30 minute film.

Whistling in the Dark

A cult leader who fleeces his members out of their money upon their deaths is set to inherit 1 million dollars from a recently deceased member when he finds out her only surviving relative is all that stands in the way. Desperate for a way to collect the money, he decides to kidnap The Fox, a radio personality whose crime program involves ingenious crime plots and their eventual unraveling. The leader tells The Fox to devise the perfect murder to bump off the heir, and that he'll be released after the deed is carried out. When he refuses, his girlfriend and the sponsor's daughter are kidnapped as well putting him in a position where he must concoct the murder, prevent it from being carried out, and escape with girls before they are inevitably murdered. "Whistling in the Dark" was the first starring role for Red Skelton and its the first movie that I have seen him in as well. I found his style of comedy to be extremely funny and his wisecracking style and brand of physical comedy can be seen in generations of comics down the line from Mel Brooks to Woody Allen to Steve Martin to Jim Carrey. The movie itself is kind of brilliant as well and the climax (spoilers) where Skelton and the girls try to warn the intended victim who's on an airplane by way of their radio program, which they pretend is an act, is pretty incredible and highly entertaining. Casablanca's Conrad Veidt also makes a very sinister and very amusing villain. "Whistling in the Dark" achieves something extremely difficult in taking a silly, zany plot and crafting an entertaining and very funny film.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Tourist

In Paris, Interpol agents intensely monitor a beautiful and mysterious woman romantically linked to a banker who stole hundreds of millions of pounds from gangster and owes a lump sum in back taxes to the British government. She receives a letter from a courier telling her to get on the train to Venice and throw off her pursuers by choosing a random man of similar build and present him as the thief. On the train she picks an American tourist, a recently widowed math teacher from Wisconsin. As the two develop feelings for each other, while warding off the imminent danger from the agent and the gangster's henchman, the couple reveal that there is more to both of them than there may have at first seemed. "The Tourist" is the second film from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, following the Oscar winning foreign film "The Lives of Other". That was a surefooted film that was executed wonderfully. Here we have a movie that doesn't know what it wants to be. Written by von Donnersmarck and two fellow Oscar winners, Julian Fellowes and Christopher McQuarrie, the film strives to achieve something in the Hitchcock "To Catch a Thief" vein, and fails at attempting to be several different films, i.e. spy thriller, romantic comedy, romantic drama, spy comedy, etc. The romance is never believable, the comedy is not quite funny, the spy story is not very urgent, and Johnny Depp is his usual boring self (which is what he's supposed to be but still). Angelina Jolie is luminous and the Venice locations are breathtaking, but how hard is it to make the two appear beautiful on film. "The Tourist" isn't a bad film per say, just a forgettable one that does too little in an effort to do too much and then relies on its stars and locations to bail it out.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Oldboy

After being arrested for being drunk and disorderly, a Seoul businessman is kidnapped and imprisoned in a hotel room. While held captive, he is framed for his wife's murder, his daughter is sent to live with foster parents, and he vows retribution on his captor as he begins to study his television and turn himself into a killing machine. After 15 years of imprisonment, he meets a young girl who helps him find the man responsible. When he finally reaches him, he tells the man he has only five days to unravel the mystery of his imprisonment before the young girl, and everyone else he's ever loved will be murdered. "Oldboy" is a stylish, violent, energetic, devastating, and very Asian film from director Chan-wook Park. Min-sik Choi does an excellent job in the brutal role of Oh Dae-su and Hye-jeong Kang is just as fine in the equally harsh part of Mi-do. The film is largely off-putting, and at first is disjointed and hard to follow. However, when the plot threads begin to come together, the film really takes off, and there are many wonderfully realized scenes (I particularly liked when Dae-su was retracing his steps both in his memory and in the present during a revelatory scene). With the Hollywood machine, we become so accustomed to seeing the same product churned out week after week so that when something highly original comes to our attention, it can be jarring and startling. "Oldboy" is a unique film that shocks with its audacity and originality, and is highly entertaining once we regain are senses and start to keep pace.

The Lavender Hill Mob

A self described unimportant clerk, who escorts gold from the refinery to the bank for a living, dreams of ripping off his employers, but can never figure out how to smuggle the gold out of the England. Then one day inspiration strikes when a souvenir peddler moves into his flat: after ripping off the gold, they will melt it into molds of miniature Eiffel Towers to be shipped across to France. After baiting two hardened criminals to help them pull off the heist, the plan is now in motion. Now all they have in their way is a group of grade school girls on vacation in Paris. "The Lavender Hill Mob" is a hysterical and inventive product of the British Ealing film studio and features a very nice performance from Alec Guiness as the timid bank clerk. Directed by Charles Chrichton, who helmed "A Fish Called Wanda" some 36 years later, from an Oscar winning screenplay by T.E.B. Clarke, the film has many nice segments, particularly a winding descent down the Eiffel Tower staircase and an ingenious escape by Guinness and his partner in a cop car where they throw off their pursuers by way of radio. Just recently, I was saying how fellow Ealing alum Peter Sellers was so chameleonlike but it must be said that Alec Guiness never got tied down to the same role twice. Take his best known work: Herbert Pocket, Fagin, Henry Holland (here), Professor Marcus, Colonel Nicholson, Prince Feisal, Hitler, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Not one of those roles is even remotely similar. In an age when we are used to seeing stars play the same roles, it is a pleasure to be treated by Sir Alec to something different in each of his films and in a time when crime thrillers are usually routine and often humorless, it is a blast to see one that is so unique and hilarious.

Rio Grande

Lieutenant Colonel York commands a post in the southwest following the Civil War and learns that his son whom he has not seen in 15 years has been expelled from West Point for not making grades. Later that day he finds him to be a new enlistment in his unit, with his mother in tow trying to buy him out of enlistment. Refusing to sign the release papers, York begins to mend old wounds, treating his son as any other soldier and romancing his estranged wife. Soon though, the Apache tribe becomes a threat and the young man is called to the task to prove himself to his mother, his father, and his army. Following "Fort Apache" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon". "Rio Grande" is the final film in John Ford and John Wayne's Cavalry Trilogy. It is a beautiful film, reverting to black and white after the technicolor "Ribbon", and wonderfully captures Ford's beloved Monument Valley as well as the delicate human features not often seen in Westerns. Wayne is great and reprises his role from Apache, playing the gentler and more reserved character than we're used to. Maureen O'Hara is equally fine as his wife and Ford regular Victor McLaglen is back again amusingly playing his drunken Irish hulk. The movie also has some memorable music played by the group Sons of the Pioneers. The ending of the film, where the division must rescue a group of children kidnapped by Indians, is cliched and unsatisfying. Still, "Rio Grande" is an atypical Western and fine conclusion to a stellar trilogy by two of the cinema's greats.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Seven Chances

Jimmie is having trouble telling his sweetheart that he loves her and the brokerage firm he works at is in dire straits. Then one day an attorney informs him that he has inherited seven million dollars on the condition that he marries before 7pm on the day of his 27th birthday which happens to be today. Now Jimmie is in a race with time to marry his girl or any other suitable woman so he can collect his inheritance. "Seven Chances" is one of Buster Keaton's finest works, starting as an amusing comedy of misunderstanding and culminating in one of the finest chase scenes committed to film. After Keaton gets denied by his girlfriend and is unable to secure a bride, his business partner places an ad in the evening paper telling the whole town the stakes. Now, as Keaton gets word that his girl will marry him, he must make his way back to her as he dodges trains, cranes, rivers, cars, boulders, bees, and hundreds of would be brides. It is truly a remarkable and innovative sequence and serves to confirm his status not only as a great physical comedian but also as one of the movie's foremost comics.

The Killing Fields

In 1973 as the war in Vietnam spilled over into Cambodia, New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg began to cover the events with Dith Pran, a Cambodian translator with whom he formed a deep bond. When Saigon fell in '75 and Pran's family was evacuated, Schanberg convinced him to let the opportunity for escape pass and further cover the war. As the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government and committed atrocities worse than anyone had conceived, Schanberg was unable to extradite his friend, and Pran became a victim to the horrific barbarity that ensued. "The Killing Fields" is the searing directorial debut of Rolland Joffé based on an article by Schanberg. It is a well made film shot in muted colors that perhaps best capture the depicted detestable events. The first half of the film lacks urgency and seems to plod along with individual scenes being stretched on for more than they're worth. Sam Waterston's earnestness gets to be a little too much as well, and John Lennon's Imagine played during the end is a little hard to stomach. However, the second half of the movie with Pran in the camps is absolutely riveting and Dr. Haing S. Ngor, also a Cambodian who escaped Khmer Rouge savagery, is great in a brutal, Oscar winning role. John Malkovich also shines in one of his first film roles as a photographer. "The Killing Fields" is a long yet engrossing movie that tells such a terrible story that sadly seems to have faded in the memories of many people.

The Change-Up

The "Change-Up" is the Hollywood's latest R-rated mindless raunchfest and applies the "Freaky Friday" body switch formula to two best friends, one a workaholic family man the other a pot smoking unemployed bachelor. It stars Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds, two good looking actors lacking any semblance of talent, engaging in sophomoric behavior. Also on hand are the beautiful Olivia Wilde, who helps pass the time, and the great Alan Arkin, who I have absolutely no idea why he was in this trash except to collect a paycheck. A few weeks back, I saw The Hangover II and thought I had seen the bottom of the barrel. "The Change-Up" is only slightly higher on the heap and I can't decide whether it's that the studios think we want to see this filth or that people actually like watching people eat shit.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Help

In 1963 a plucky young woman returns home from college in New York City to her home in Jackson, Mississippi to write a column for the local paper and finds that her beloved maid has been let go by her sickly mother. When visiting with old friends, she discovers that one of them, a nasty busybody, has drafted an initiative that would require all households with colored help to have separate restrooms for them. Both incidents inspire her to write a book about the trials and tribulations of Mississippi maids, a work that could have an inflammatory backlash. Writing anonymously through a New York publisher, she writes the stories of two strong willed and very different maids, and soon more begin to share their stories. "The Maid" is a good intentioned film that is well shot and nicely captures Jackson in the early 60s. Emma Stone is delightful the lead role and Viola Davis brings quiet power to a role that should capture her an Academy Award nomination. Bryce Dallas Howard, Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, and Mary Steenburgen are great in supporting roles and there is a really sweet subplot involving Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer. While there are several fine elements to the movie, the film lacks a certain dramatic flare and scenes that should have more potency just seem to fizzle. There is also a mawkish phoniness to the picture, and what should have been a more compelling story somehow just isn't.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

30 Minutes or Less

A layabout unemployed loser (Danny McBride) is in line to inherit his father's millions and wants to speed things up. In order to hire a hitman (Michael Pena), he needs $100,000 so, along with his friend, a moronic explosives expert (Nick Swardson), he kidnaps a pizza delivery driver (Jesse Eisenberg), straps a bomb to his chest, and gives him nine hours to rob a bank before it detonates. The driver, an intelligent slacker, enlists the help of his best friend (Aziz Ansari) whom he's just had a falling out with, and the two try to figure out just how to get out of the explosive predicament they're in. "30 Minutes or Less" reunites "Zombieland" director Ruben Fleischer with Eisenberg and should have been more fun. After some initial laughs the movie turns into frenetic action picture and it seems to lose its sense of humor. I've always found Eisenberg to be an interesting actor ever since I noticed him in the underappreciated masterpiece "The Squid and the Whale", and he does his best here with a bare script. The rest of the cast is humorous as well, but as for McBride, a few years ago with the release of "Pineapple Express" and his HBO series "Eastbound and Down", I thought he was the funniest thing going. Now, although still amusing, it appears he is just a one trick pony and we've got all we're really gonna get out of him. "30 Minutes or Less" really is a disappointment and kind of a vacuous movie but I did want to say something to its credit. In a summer of abysmal R rated comedies, this is the only one that doesn't wallow in toilet humor and in a time where Judd Apatow's inane movies occasionally flirt with the 150 minute mark, an 83 minute detour such as this can be a welcome relief. I guess its good for a few laughs as well.

Terri


Terri is an overweight 15 year old who lives with his demented uncle in the woods near the marsh. Routinely picked on by kids at school, he wears pajamas to class because they’re comfortable, and is constantly tardy, lately due to his growing fascination with killing field mice and offering them up as a meal to a hawk. His behavior causes concern for his principal, so Terri is thrown into a group of school misfits who must meet with him on a weekly basis for counseling. Although apathetic at first, Terri forms a friendship with his principal, and a more unlikely friendship develops when he comes to the aid of a beautiful but troubled classmate.
            “Terri” is an offbeat independent comedy that serves as both a tale of a loner as well as a slice of life film. Directed by Azazel Jacobs and written with Patrick DeWitt, the movie is warm and unconventional, containing sharply drawn characters who seem like authentic people. I was surprised by much care and detail had been given to not just the main characters but also to background players who would usually go unremembered in most movies.
            The performances are wonderful as well. As Terri, Jacob Wysocki is a real find and must portray a wide range of emotions that his laconic character goes through. It is a difficult performance and he does a great job of pulling it off. I just hope there are more roles to come because he is not exactly a Hollywood type.
            John C. Reilly turns in excellent, award caliber work as well. I think people often forget what a gifted actor he really is due to the silly nature of some of the roles he takes. Here, the chummy principal is a somewhat goofy concoction, but there is so much depth to the role that I have a hard time picturing anyone else portraying it just as fine.
            I did have one problem with the movie: an extended scene where Terri, a friend, and the girl he has a crush on pop pills and get drunk in his uncle’s basement went on too long and ran counter to the tone the film had set up until that point. I also did not buy some of the character’s choices in that scene. Still this is a warmhearted and sharply observed film, and in an industry where movie characters come straight off of the assembly line, here is a movie whose characters have been handled with care.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Berlin Express

In Paris just following the end of World War II, as a German doctor discusses his Berlin peace plan at a conference, some kids in a park near the Eiffel Tower take home a pigeon that has been shot down. Inside the shell extracted from the pigeon, they find a message in German which is reported to authorities. We learn that the message refers to a Nazi attack on an express train from Paris to Berlin where the target is the German doctor. When the bomb goes off and the doctor is killed, the only witnesses are his sultry European secretary, an American, a Brit, a Frenchmen, and a Russian, all of whom are untrusting of each other. Now the group is thrust into political intrigue which becomes even more dangerous when it is realized that the man killed was really a decoy and the doctor's life is in even more imminent danger. "Berlin Express" was one of the first movies filmed in postwar Europe and contains stark and remarkable footage of the dilapidated, bombed out cities of Frankfurt and Berlin. Director Jacques Tourneur keeps a steady hand on the camera and the movie itself is harsh containing several violently brutal scenes. There is a major flaw with the movie which is its narration that plays largely throughout the film. I think the idea was to give the film a more realist feel but the result was to make a lot of the movie play like a "News of the World" reel. Also Robert Ryan isn't very effective at all as a leading man. "Berlin Express" is a well made political thriller and with a few changes in the script, it could have been a great one.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The World of Henry Orient

Two 14 year old girls, both new to an all girls school in New York City, form a friendship and begin to engage in adventurous mischievous behavior throughout the city. One day in Central Park, they happen up hack concert pianist Henry Orient with a woman in the park and they seemingly keep happening on him in ways that are very inconvenient to him. One of the girls develops a crush on him, and the two begin to follow him and keep a diary which raises concerns for one of the girl's often absent and controlling mother. "The World of Henry Orient" is a cute little comedy from director George Roy Hill from a book by Nora Johnson and a screenplay by Johnson and Nunnally Johnson. Chameleonlike actor Peter Sellers does a wonderful job and is exceedingly funny as the womanizing musician, but the real stars of the film are Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker and I was delighted at how well the film handled the two young actresses and how well the two handled themselves onscreen. Phyllis Thaxter and Bibi Osterwald contribute nicely as the considerate mother and friend of Spaeth's character, and Angela Lansbury and Tom Bosley are great as Walker's parents, Lansbury playing her usual icy bitch role and Bosley a warm father coming to terms with his marriage and neglect for his daughter. "The World of Henry Orient" is a good natured and funny film which tells a good story with young protagonists, a feat that isn't always easily accomplished.

Errol Morris' First Person

Documentarian Errol Morris burst onto the scene in 1978 with "Gates of Heaven" and crafted a hypnotic and engaging documentary the likes of which had never been seen before. Since then, he has crafted the same kind of mesmerizing films, documenting intelligent oddballs. Through the use of his Interrotron, a device he invented which allows his subject to keep eye contact with both himself and the camera simultaneously. This device has resulted in films that are immediate and grabbing than most any other documentaries ever filmed. In 2000, he made a TV series lasting for two seasons and 17 episodes, with guests ranging from a man with an obsessive quest to see a giant squid to a man who lives his live entirely in front of the camera. Each episode is interesting in its own way as Morris stares down each person and uncovers the reasons for their peculiarities. Here is a short synopsis of each episode:
Season 1 (2000)
Mr. Debt The inaugural episode showcases a New York debt attorney who seems like he has made it his cause to take on and destroy the credit card company while trying to get consumers back on their feet. He explains how the credit system in America works and how people are systematically forced to stay in debt. He also explains how his business works and how he is able to fight the creditors, while dodging questions from Morris that some may consider him a huckster.
Eyeball to Eyeball A zoologist discusses his lifelong passion/obsession with coming face to face with a Giant Squid, something which is seemingly impossible to do. In the process of describing this hopeless quest, we hear about his career, his contact with a washed up dead Giant Squid, the nature of the beast, and his many futile attempts to make contact with the creature
Stairway to Heaven Autistic Temple Grandin, whose life story was recently told in an HBO television movie, tells how she gradually realized how to use her condition to her benefit and how her style of thinking allowed her to design a humane slaughterhouse, whose model is now used in 1/3 of all beef production in the United States. This is a fascinating segment, as Grandin takes us into her mind, explains how it works, and tells why she chose to use particular design ideas on her intricate slaughterhouses.
The Killer Inside Me In high school, Sondra London dated a charming man who ended up being a serial killer. Years later she met up with Gerard John Schaefer and decided to help him tell his story in book form. After a falling out with him, she moved on to Danny Rolling, another serial killer whom she likewise wrote a book with and had a relationship. This fascinatingly strange episode tries to get into London's mind and determine what drawsher to serial killers.
 I Dismember Mama Saul Kent discusses his fear of death at how he became involved in cryonics during one of its early stages when it was simply known as freezing people. While discussing how the process works and how we will have the technology to bring frozen people back to life, he tells the story of how his mother died and wished to be frozen. Because her body was so worn down, he severed her head and then froze and hid it when he became the subject of a murder investigation and media frenzy.
The Stalker When Post Office supervisor Bill Kinsley was forced to fire carrier Thomas McIlvane for threatening a superior, Kinsley became the target of McIlvane’s threats. After taking means to protect himself, his family, and his work, the law told him there was nothing they could do. Then, one day McIlvane showed up at the post office with a sawed off shotgun and killed several of his former coworkers before shooting himself. Kinsley tells the story of the nightmarish experience while stating how his life was ruined due to scapegoating.
The Parrot One night a man broke into a Sonoma, California woman's house and suffocated her, leaving her parrot as the only witness. People involved with the case offer their takes on the guilt of two suspects and a pet store owner recounts how the bird's cries, which were declared inadmissible by the judge, implicate the man who was sent free and clear of the name of the man serving life for the murder.
Smile in a Jar Gretchen Worden, the director of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, takes us on a virtual tour of the facility which houses human anomalies ranging from giants to dwarves to Siamese twins to horns and even includes famous people's body parts.
In the Kingdom of the Unabomber Psychologist Gary Greenberg desperately wanted to jump start his career and get published, and saw the best way of doing this was by striking up a correspondence with Ted Kaczynski. Greenberg tells about his writings to the Unabomber and how he became extremely close to landing the coveted first interview.
The Little Gray Man A CIA agent and master of disguise discusses the tricks of his trade, while discussing his early forays in infiltration, a well as missions in Laos and Moscow.
You're Soaking In It A woman's stepson killed himself and she was left to clean up the mess. Grief stricken, she was also inspired to start her own crime scene cleaning business, which she discusses here.
Season 2 (2001)
Mr. Personality  Forensic psychologist Michael Stone discusses his system for ranking evil and talks about his fascination with serial killers and mass murderers.
The Only Truth A high profile defense attorney whose clients include gangster rappers and the mafia discusses his career, his various defense strategies, and the time he was indicted for a felony.
Harvesting Me As a child Josh Harris felt lost in his big family and spent hours in front of the television. As an adult, he decided to install cameras and microphones in his apartment so his every waking moment could be recorded, an internet venture that made him millions. Harris discusses what makes him live his life in public and the several downfalls that come with the highly intrusive territory.
One in a Million Trillion Highly intelligent and nerdy Rick Rosner explains why he chose to redo his senior year of high school over and over again. He also discusses his appearance on the first episode of the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" as well as his appearance on another show where he was eliminated on what he believed to be a poorly worded question.
Leaving the Earth In 1989 on a flight from Denver to Chicago, pilot and pilot trainer Denny Fitch was a passenger when there was an explosion on the plane and all hydraulic power was lost, an accident that had no precedent and almost guaranteed death. Fitch describes what happened as he assisted in the cockpit, the mechanics of the plane, and how he and three other pilots were able to save a majority of people on the plane.
The Smartest Man in the World Chris Langan has worked as a construction worker and now works as a bouncer. He also has one of the highest recorded IQs in the world. Here Chris tells of his oversized head while he divulges his theories on the universe and master plans for the human race.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Love and Death: The Story of Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were criminals who were wildly in love and captured the hearts of Depression era America due to their poor background and blazen flaunting of disregard for the law. After going on a crime spree that included robbery, kidnapping, prison escape, and murder, the two eventually met an inevitable and violent death. This documentary tells the story of their poor upbringings, courtship and highly publicized crime spree through interviews with biographers, historians, and even relatives of the duo. The film makes great use of archive footage, photographs, and recreations from their era. I was surprised how violent and ruthless both Bonnie and Clyde were, compared to the more romanticized depiction in the classic Arthur Penn movie. "Love and Death: The Story of Bonnie and Clyde" makes great use of available materials to tell the story of two tragic and madly in love bank robbers.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

In the Name of the Father

Gerry Conlon was a no account hoodlum who went about his time in strife torn Belfast stealing aluminum from buildings with his mates. Then one day, he was mistaken for an IRA sniper by the British military and was sent by his kindhearted father to live in London. There, while bumming around with some hippie types, he wound up near an IRA bombing in Guildford in 1974 and was fingered as the culprit along with three others who came to be known as the Guildford Four. After being tortured by the British police and forced to sign a confession, he was tried and convicted along several other members of his family including his father. While serving a life term in the penitentiary alongside his father, he formed a bond he never had with him as he began to understand his patient ways, while a dogged and sincere young British attorney tried her damnedest to clear the family's name. "In the Name of the Father" reunited the director and star of a "My Left Foot", and tells a similar story of triumph with an equally hard and unlikable protagonist. Here, Jim Sheridan directs from a script he wrote with Terry George from Conlon's book Proved Innocence. The film is an intense, brutal, and searing condemnation the British government's approaches to the terrorist acts that were crippling the country at the time. The intensity is turned up by Sheridan and never let down, particularly in the interrogation scenes and some riot scenes in prison continuing all the way up to the vindication scenes in court in the end. There are also some very touching scenes involving Gerry and his father finally understanding each other while in prison. The film is also a showcase for Daniel Day-Lewis who brings fierce intensity and ignorance in his portrayal of Gerry Conlon. Pete Postlethwaite is his equal in a beautiful perfomance as Gerry's father Giuseppe and Emma Thompson turns in fine work as the Conlon's attorney. "In the Name of the Father" is a shocking and powerful film about a bond between father and son, one man's growth from irresponsibility into maturity, and the errors that can be made in a court system reacting to terrible terrorist acts.

The Secret Friend

While many movies are padded with exorbitant special effects and unneeded dialogue, sometimes a filmmaker can say all that needs to be said with a 15 minute short. "The Secret Friend" is such a film as it tells its succinct and nicely realized story. Taking place in a New York City house filled with black and white family pictures, a recently widowed elderly woman spends her time alone watering her plants. After a visit from a concerned neighbor, she begins to receive phone calls from a caller who does not say a thing. At first irrate with the calls, she begins to embrace them, speaking into the dead air. As the calls continue, the woman finds her life being rejuvenated as she begins to revisit favorite books and hobbies. Written and competently directed by Flavio Alves from a short story by João Silvério Trevisan, "The Secret Friend" is a strange story with fine touches of humor and sentiment. Viola Harris does nice work as well in the lead role. Finding success on the festival circuit, including winning the Best Fiction Short Prize at our Cleveland International Film Festival, "The Secret Friend" is an amiable film and a fine way to spend 15 minutes.

The Trip

Steve Coogan is sent on an all expenses paid vacation to cover the finest restaurants in northern England for The Observer. After his girlfriend decides to take a trip to America, he asks his friend Rob Brydon to tag along. As they navigate the windy country back roads, eat fancy foods, and one up each other as they exchange many celebrity impression, the discrepancies between the two men begin to show, Coogan divorced and unsatisfied with his younger girlfriend and career and Brydon content with his wife and child and modest career. The Trip is edited down from a six part TV series and directed by Michael Winterbottom, who also directed the two actors in "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story". Coogan and Brydon play themselves more or less in a highly improvised film and their rapport is clear. The movie is also a wonderful travelogue, containing picturesque shots of the British moors as well as many fine scenes of food preparation. The film does tend to wear thin after awhile, and the banter between Coogan and Brydon grows redundant. The also don't think it achieves the more serious goals it sets out to do, such as documenting Coogan's loneliness. I found this movie to be pleasant enough, but when a film, especially one of a comedic such as this, is upstaged by the scenery and the food on display, there is something fundamentally wrong with the material.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Merchant of Venice

In 1596 Venice, Jews are treated with intolerance and resigned to ghettos where they are locked in at night and forced to wear red hats if they leave during the day. This intolerance is magnified through the story of Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), a romantic spendthrift who needs to raise money to he can present himself as a suitable suitor to the beautiful and playful Portia (Lynn Collins). In order to dear this he seeks the help of his dear friend Antonio (Jeremy Irons) a successful man who has all his funds tied up in his shipping business. In order to procure the money, they go to the ghetto and seek the services of Shylock (Al Pacino), a money lender whom Antonio has treated with harsh abuse to do his high interest rates. Now, Shylock demands that instead of interest, if Antonio defaults on the loan, he must pay him with a pound of his own flesh, a debt he insists on collecting. "The Merchant of Venice" is William Shakespeare's most controversial and least filmed plays. Here the film feels stagy and there is not much to Michael Radford's directial approach. However, Shakespeare's story is is so rich and cunning and his dialogue is so beautiful and eloquent that it almost comes off as music. The acting by Pacino and especially Irons is spectacular, and the emotions they convey are both deep and resonating. There is a reason that the works of William Shakespeare are so often adapted for the screen. His lyrical style cannot be found anywhere else and watching "The Merchant of Venice" I was taken aback by the beautiful wordings to go along with the wonderful performances.

The Thing

A Husky runs into an American outpost in remote Antarctica, being chased by Norwegians in a helicopter attempting to shoot it. At the chopper lands, one man accidentally drops a grenade, blowing up himself and the craft while another pursues the dog. After he wounds one of the Americans, he is shot dead and two of the Americans, a pilot and the doctor decide to check out the Norwegian's camp after the suspicious happenings. There they find a the post in ruins along with burned bodies, a frozen man with his throat slit, and an open coffin like apparatchiks. When they return to base, they discover the real reason those men were trying to kill the dog, and a battle begins between not only the men and the deadly shape shifting creature but also amongst the men themselves. John Carpenter's The Thing is based on John W. Campbell Jr.'s novel Who Goes There? which inspired the 1951 film "The Thing from Another World" and it does something interesting with the gruesome monster movie by placing it in the isolated world of the Antarctic, resulting in intense situations and plotting. Kurt Russell is effective as the pilot who becomes the leader when the thing takes over the camp and I liked Wilfred Brimley as the doctor who discovers the true nature of the beast. I found the monster itself to be too grotesque to the point that it somewhat detracts from the story, then again the story is set up very well. The snowy locales provide some nice and foreboding visuals and I liked certain touches such as the ending (spoilers) of the film which ends not in a bloody massacre but in a cold and silent standoff. The movie also seems to have inspired subsequent filmmakers and I thought of James Cameron a lot during this movie, particularly "The Abyss" and "Terminator 2: Judgement Day". As a monster movie, The Thing achieves its primary objective of being eerie, scary, and entertaining and with some effective visuals and plotting it succeeds at being something more as well.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

James Taylor: One Man Band

For over forty years, James Taylor has been the quintessential singer songwriter, expressing songs that wonderfully capture longing and sorrow with his resonating and memorable voice and guitar chords. Of all my favorite artists, he is my favorite to see in concert, not only because he is a consummate performer, but also engages the audience with humor and stories in between songs. Starting out as a solo act, he played with bands for many years until recently to decided to put out One Man Band, a concert at The Colonial Theater in his hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts with only pianist Larry Goldings. Starting out with a folksy introduction over footage of the surrounding Berkshire Mountains, the program commences with performances of classic favorites such as "Carolina in My Mind", "Shower the People". and "Fire and Rain" played over personal slides interspersed with stories and anecdotes. One Man Band is a wonderful concert film showcasing one of finest musical talents.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

A scientist working for a genetic engineering company has been working on an Alzheimer's drug that repairs brain tissue and believes that he has now perfected it. However, during a pitch to the board members, one of the apes goes ballistic and injures several as it tears its way across the lab before stifled. The rest of the injected monkeys are ordered to be put down, but the scientist decides offer refuge to a baby ape, who is the son of the injected chimp that went crazy. As time goes by the baby, or Caesar as he is named, shows signs of incredible intelligence leading the scientist decides to test the drug on his father, who has dementia. After showing positive results, he begins to regress and soon Caesar attacks a neighbor out of defense. Now reprimanded to a sanctuary, Caesar begins to conceive of a plan to unite the other chimps, break out of the facility, and begin the battle against the humans for planet earth. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a low expectations film that surprises and dazzles, and is a fine example of big budget fun that has been lacking in this summer's blockbusters. The use of CGI is incredibly fine and the film is excitingly directed by Rupert Wyatt. James Franco sleep walks through his role here, which he has been getting good at doing lately, but the real star of the film is Andy Serkis. Using the same motion capture CGI techniques that provided the facial expression of King Kong and Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, Caesar becomes a lifelike and sympathetic character. Even though it is a prequel to the series, the use of The Planet of the Apes in the title does not do this film justice, and is probably the reason for low expectations. The Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an exciting film that much like its star anthropoids can stand on its own two.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Brute Force

At Westgate Penitentiary, the inmates live a harsh existence made even harsher by Captain Munsey, the sadistic head of the guard staff who runs the prison under the cowardly warden. In cell R17 reside a group of men, led by Joe Collins, who all committed crimes motivated by love and share a brotherly bond. When Munsey drives one of them to commit suicide, they decide it is time to follow through with their often talked about escape plans. Brute Force is a hard boiled and brooding prison film made in the noir vein by Jules Dassin, who made some very fine noir and crime films both foreign and domestic. From a screenplay by Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood) from a novel by Robert Patterson, Brute Force is an unsympathetic look at prisoner control methods, prison operations, and a daring escape movie. In one of his early staring roles, Burt Lancaster commands the screen as he always does with that quiet yet powerful manner. Stellar supporting actor Hume Cronyn is excellent as Munsey, crafting an extremely contemptible villain. The film also contains a wonderful ending, featuring the chaotic prison break. Brute Force is a dark and wonderfully directed film that manages to offer a social commentary while being a rousing entertainment as well.

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

A middle aged suburbanite's wife tells him that she is having an affair and wants a divorce. Stupefied with the revelation, he spends his nights sulking in a local bar, telling his tale of woe to anyone who will listen. Tired of this routine and possibly out of pity, a suave younger man decides to teach him the ropes of womanizing, which only push things into a bigger tailspin. "Crazy, Stupid, Love." is an awkward movie that is poorly written and realized, often cringe inducing, and contains plot contrivances that make no sense are there strictly to sentimentalize the movie. Steve Carell is good at playing these sad sack roles, which he demonstrated in the far superior "Dan in Real Life", but there is hardly anything to work with here and his improvisations only go so far. The cast is filled with other great actors (Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Kevin Bacon, Marissa Tomei, Emma Stone), but the script doesn't do them justice at all. "Crazy, Sexy, Love." is a hard movie to watch, not only because of how embarrassing the writing is, but because of how good the people are trying to make sense of it.

Battleship Potemkin

In 1905 the crew members of the Russian battleship Potemkin were fed up with their maggot ridden meat rations and decided it was time to rise up against the officers of the ship. After overtaking their boat and pulling into Odessa, word of their rebellion spread and ignited the revolutionary spirit. Soon the Czar sent his troops to quell the uprising and many protesters and innocents alike were slaughtered. The revolution continued leading up to the Bolshevik uprising of 1917. Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin has often been referred to as the greatest film ever made, and it is certainly one of the most electrically charged. From its kinetically edited scenes, which seem impossible to have been made for its time (I mean how many cameras did he have at his disposal in 1926 Russia?), we can see the seeds for the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, and others. Filmed in beautiful black and white, its scenes of uprising are rousing and incredible. The Odessa staircase scene, where the baby carriage with baby in tow glides slowly down the stairs, is one of the most famous film sequences and rightly so. Battleship Potemkin is a superior film and during its editing process, Sergei Eisenstein must have surely invented some new techniques that would inspire generations of filmmakers to come.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

On Valentine's Day in the year 1900, girls from a boarding school go on an all day retreat to an area made of up of volcanic rock. After reciting poetry and laying about, four of the girls decide to climb the rock, seemingly drawn by an unspoken possession. One girl runs back, and the other three, along with a teacher whose disappearance is never explained, are never seen from again. The disappearances cause a media stir and have a devastating affect not only on the girl's college, its students, and cruel headmaster, but also on two young men who were present that unfortunate and mysterious day. Picnic at Hanging Rock was master Aussie director Peter Weir's first film to reach an international audience, and it is a lyrical and haunting film. Like fellow countryman and director Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout, it deals with teenagers dealing with their sexual longings while alone in the wilderness. Weir's film is successful because of its atmospheric tone and beautiful visuals, but also because it never provides answers, only suggestions as to what happened to the girls. Benefiting from the same strategy that aided Fargo, the movie presents itself as a true story, when it was really based on a book by Joan Lindsay which was only inspired by true events. Picnic at Hanging Rock is an eerie film made by a true director who knows that not all horror films must deal with blood, guts, and cheap scares.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Farewell

 In 1981, a French engineer living in Moscow begins a liaison with a disillusioned KGB agent who begins passing him secrets which can then be snuck out of Russia and passed along to French intelligence. Soon, it becomes clear that the secrets are in regards to American intelligence, specifically security locations and codes and the identity of Russian spies. The information is passed along to Reagan who has the agents subdued and uses the opportunity to pursue his Star Wars initiative, all of which as blowback on the engineer and rogue agent. Farewell, from the French director Christian Carion, is an intricately detailed spy thriller based on crucial real life events. Guillaume Canet and Emir Kusturica, as the engineer and the agent respectively, deliver fine performances and it is interesting to see Fred Ward play Ronald Reagan and William Dafoe as a high ranking CIA official. In a time when spy movies are associated with nonstop actioneers such as the Bourne or James Bond series, it is a pleasure to see a well made character driven film that takes its time and lets its story develop.

Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron

Sam Peckinpah was a man consumed with violence and rage. His professional and private life were consumed with turmoil, and where their weren't issues he made them. Constantly at war with the studios, he fought to bring his vision to the movies, a vision where the true nature of violence was shown on the screen. His temper and his abuse of his body ultimately got the best of him and his friends and family still remembered him warmly, despite his many demons. Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron is a documentary on the great and troubled director, which interviews friends, family, and collaborators, and tries to figure out what made him tick. We hear from such associates as James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Ali McGraw, L.Q. Jones, and Jason Robards, and gather what seems like an honest portrait of a brilliant and troubled man. The documentary is also fascinating in the way his filming methods discussed along with the readings from his personal journals. Sam Peckinpah's films such as The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, influenced countless violent films to follow made by directors who had not as much to say.

Straw Dogs

A pacifistic mathematician receives a research grant and leaves turmoil ridden America with his wife to live in the British countryside where she grew up. In their pastoral and seemingly peaceful village they receive increasingly alarming harassment from the locals which builds up into a situation where he must embrace the harsh violence he has so vehemently rejected. Straw Dogs is another take on the subject of violence by Sam Peckinpah, the director who was so consumed by it and determined to see its true nature presented on the screen. Dustin Hoffman delivers a stellar and totally identifiable performance as we watch his character's journey from cowardice to courageousness as he endures torment not only from the vicious townspeople but also from his tempestuous wife. The movie is thoroughly engaging and several segments grab hold of your attention like few films I seen. Some scenes do get out of hand, such as the extended rape scene, which shows Peckinpah's misogynistic side, and the final scene in which Hoffman defends his house, which although satisfying, is overly violent and counteracts the rest of the more subtle film. Straw Dogs is absorbing statement on violence containing a decisive performance from Dustin Hoffman which should speak to anyone who watches it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Doors

"We need a two and a half hour movie about The Doors? No we don't, I can sum it up for you in five seconds: I'm drunk, I'm nobody. I'm drunk, I'm famous. I'm drunk, I'm fuckin' dead!"
Denis Leary hit the nail on the head with the above quote about Oliver Stone's movie about Jim Morrison and The Doors. While Morrison was a talented poet and singer and The Doors had some hits and were a key band of the late 60s, Morrison was such an intensely unlikable figure and his life is not interesting enough to sustain a 140 minute movie. It begins with a childhood memory of Morrison regarding a dying Indian on the side of the road during a family road trip. Cut to Jim (Val Kilmer) in his early 20s where he wanders around Venice Beach and meets lifelong partner Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan). He attends UCLA film school where he makes nonlinear and dismissed films and meets future bandmate Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan). The two partner up with John Densmore (Kevin Dillon) and Robby Kreiger (Frank Whaley) and thus begins the rise of The Doors, which is actually just a gradual freefall as Jim engages in excessive drug use, sex, alcohol, witchcraft, indecent exposure, and an unhealthy fascination with death. Stone's film is extremely well made and vividly captures the aura of the 1960s. Kilmer, a Morrison lookalike to start, engulfs himself in the role and gives a mesmerizing performance, while MacLachlan and Ryan give fine performances as well as two of Morrison's long suffering partners. The film also makes great use of The Door's songs which play throughout. The problem with the film though starts with Morrison's polarizing effect and continues with Stone's attempt to drag the film out and stuff it with prolonged trippy sequences and unpleasantries. In the end, the film is kind of like Morrison himself, leaving us with some good, but ultimately bloated with excess.