Friday, September 30, 2011

Bears of the Last Frontier

For "Bears of the Last Frontier", a program for the PBS "Nature" series, naturalist and bear expert Chris Morgan embarks on a 3,000 mile journey to study the magnificent creatures. Beginning in a southern Alaskan coastal area densely populated with brown and black bears, Morgan then moves on to see bears foraging in Anchorage, and then further on to the northernmost point of the continent to observe polar bears. I found Morgan to be an engaging guide through Alaska bear country and his camera gathers some spectacular footage as well.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Brighton Rock

A British gangster is killed by a rival, better connected syndicate and Pinkie Brown, a ruthless upstart hood, is assigned along with his fellow goons to rough up the perpetrators. However, before Pinkie goes to far and bludgeons one to death under the boardwalk, the victim has his picture taken with an accomplice and an innocent young waitress. Now Pinkie aims to seduce the young girl not only to retrieve evidence, but to possibly silence her forever and carry out his own death wish. "Brighton Rock" is a flawed film that I found myself enjoying in spite of itself. The novel by hard boiled writer Graham Greene is not given a good treatment by writer/director Rowan Joffe, and many developments seem rushed and lacking credibility. The feel of the movie is right though, and Joffe's dark palette helps give the film an ominous neo-noir quality. The actor's are incredibly good as well. Up and comer Sam Riley is menacing as the heartless hood and Andrea Riseborough is scary in her naivety as the young waitress who falls madly and blindly in love with Riley. Old pro Helen Mirren is so good here as the restaurant owner who fights to save the young girl, and John Hurt is good as well in a lesser role as a local bar owner and love interest for Mirren. Despite not being able to buy many character choices and developments, I found myself enjoying this film, especially towards the end which wraps up like a bow, nice and twisted.

Catching Hell

Steve Bartman deflecting a foul ball from the reach of Moises Alou in the 2003 NLCS 
In 2003, it appeared that the Chicago Cubs would be able to lift the curse that had plagued their team from 1908. The had a stellar pitching staff, potent bats, and were up 3-2 in the NLCS at home against the Florida Marlins. Then while winning 3-0 with one out in top of the 8th, a foul ball was hit toward the left field wall which looked playable for outfielder Moises Alou, until it was swatted away by fan Steve Bartman amidst a sea of fans also attempting to catch the ball. The Cubs proceeded to implode, lose the game and the following one, ending the Cubs World Series dreams and making Bartman a scapegoat and the target of death threats. In "Catching Hell", director Alex Gibney studiously dissects this incident, as well as the Bill Buckner error in game 6 of the 1986 World Series, and questions why such foibles among a series of others get pinpointed and used as a target by fans and the media. Through interviews with Bill Buckner and fans and security personnel at the Bartman game along with members of Chicago and Boston media, we get a greater sense of how these incidents went down and how the mythology behind them was perpetuated. Gibney ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room", Taxi to the Dark Side") is one of the few documentarians who understands how to make his material palatable to viewers and his presentation here is absolutely fascinating. Though it is an extension of and not an actual part of "ESPN's 30 for 30" series, "Catching Hell" is the most accomplished of the group and the first that I would deem warranted for a theatrical release.
Bill Buckner (rear right) chases the ball he booted in the 1986 World Series

Fright Night

A young teen begins to suspect that his recently moved in next door neighbor is a vampire, much to the disbelief of his aloof mother, oddball best friend, and virginal girlfriend. When the neighbor becomes a formidable threat, the teen tries to enlist the help of a cowardly British host of a late night monster television program to put the foe down and save the lives of all those close to him. "Fright Night" is a moderately enjoyable 80s camp flick bolstered by the performances of two of its stars, Chris Sarandon as the hunky and menacing vampire and Roddy McDowall as the TV host, both of whom are humorously enjoyable in their roles. The film is not helped however by William Ragsdale in the lead playing the teen, whose performance is irritating borderlining on unwatchable. Additionally, the final showdown is clunky and unsatisfying, dominated by cheesy gross out effects, and terribly overlong. Still, "Fright Night" is somewhat fun campy fare and superior to the remake released earlier this year.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Zelig

In the fast moving Roaring 20s, one of its forgotten celebrities was Leonard Zelig, a human chameleon who would take on the appearance of anyone he was near near to. In this "documentary", we see Zelig's rise to fame and watch him fall in love with Dr. Eudora Fletcher, the determined psychiatrist who attempted to cure his condition. "Zelig" is a humorous and surprisingly touching concept film from Woody Allen. As a nod to "Citizen Kane" in what must have been an inspiration for "Forrest Gump", Allen employs the same 1920s fantasy used in "Midnight in Paris" as he inserts himself and Mia Farrow in grainy newsreel footage of the era. Gordon Willis's Oscar winning cinematography is beautiful and seamless, and its fascinating and sometimes very funny to see Allen interact with the likes of Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin, Bobby Jones, Pope Pius XI, and Hitler. Allen's scattershot humor indicative of his early films is also used to good effect here and it is also amusing hearing modern intellectuals such as Saul Bellows and Susan Sontag comment on Zelig's life. "Zelig" may be a funny concept stretched out to feature length, but it is still a fascinating and humorous experiment.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Killer Elite

When the mentor (Robert De Niro) of a British special ops agent (Jason Statham) is kidnapped by an oil sheik, the agent must spring into action and eliminate the three agents of a secret assassination agency who murdered the skeik's sons. After the first killing, the secret agent's mission becomes clear the leader of the secret squad (Clive Owen) and the two begin to play a cat and mouse as the truth behind the mission unravels. I think the studio's thinking with "Killer Elite" was throw three big stars at this thing and hopefully the audience won't notice they've got nothing to back them up. The leads are pretty good here (why won't De Niro stop committing himself to crap) but the filmmakers themselves don't even believe in the material. You can actually sense them getting bored with the down scenes as they itch for the next shoot 'em up action sequence, and during those sequences I was checking my watch.

Road to Nowhere

A young, cinephile director tells the story of his latest production to the film's writer. Filming a true crime story, the director hires a beautiful and mysterious actress to play the lead, who is a dead ringer for the character she is playing, and with whom he begins to become obsessed. As the shooting locations bring him from England, to Italy, to Tennesse, the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur and the director seems to get sucked into the steamy and treacherous plot of his film. "Road to Nowhere" is independent filmmaker Monte Hellman's first film in 22 years and is an alternately fascinating and frustrating film. Including elements that are not explained or do not make sense, and given extended shots to insignificant actions that add a surreal element, the movie is maddening to a Lynchian sort of way. Yet, the parts we can grasp or that seem to make sense are extraordinarily engaging. "Road to Nowhere" is a film that doesn't always make sense and doesn't even seem to want to. Regardless, even if the title is apt, I was taken for a ride anyway much in the same way as Hellman's "Two-Lane Blacktop".

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks

Howard Hawks is one of those directors whose resume is so hard to recall because it is so versatile. Consider these classics and their genres: "Bringing Up Baby" and "His Girl Friday" (screwball comedy), "Sergeant York" (war), "To Have and Have Not" (romance/adventure), "Red River" and "Rio Bravo" (western), and "The Big Sleep" (noir). In this documentary, as Sydney Pollack narrates, Time's Richard Schickel takes us through Hawks' incredible films as the great director himself is interviewed. Listening to him, Hawks really is a compelling, authoritative figure. A hard, tough man he also comes off as intelligent and modest, rejecting claims of greatness from adoring French auteurs and asserting that he only filmed what he thought worked. "The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks" is a fascinating and insightful look into a legendary director's career.

Rio Bravo

After shooting an unarmed man during a melee at the saloon, the brother of a wealthy rancher is taken into custody by the local sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne). Having only his drunk deputy (Dean Martin), a crippled old codger (Walter Brennan), and a talented young sharpshooter (Ricky Nelson) on his side, Chance must fend off the mounting threat set to spring the rancher's brother from the jail before the U.S. Marshals arrive to haul him away. With its leisurely pace, character development, and leisurely asides, Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo" plays more like a good play than it does a typical Western. The film contains a great performance from The Duke, who shows a really surprising and endearing softer side here (don't get me wrong, his character his still tougher n hell). His supporters are very fine as well. Dean Martin is excellent as the self-hating drunk and has many of the films best scenes. Walter Brennan is a hoot as the cantankerous trigger happy old coot who watches the jail. Angie Dickinson is extremely sultry and appealing as the card cheat who wins Wayne's heart. Hawks' approach to the material is really brave and what makes it work. The film is long, about 2 hours 20, but that gives his characters room to breathe, as we get to know them, and allows for wonderful scenes that you wouldn't think would work, such as well Dino and Nelson sing a duet in the jailhouse. "Rio Bravo" is a great film that offers a little bit of everything we love about the movies.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Lives of Others

In 1984 East Berlin the formidable secret police force, commonly referred to as the Stazi, kept surveillance on thousands of its citizens to root out political dissidence. One of these officers, a cold and determined veteran is assigned by a friend to keep tabs on a loyalist playwright who was at first thought to be above suspicion. However, as it appears his mission was created out of ulterior motives and he becomes more and more engrossed in the writer and his girlfriend's lives, he along with his target begin to gradually and surreptitiously change their allegiances. "The Lives of Others" is a thoroughly engrossing film from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck that won the 2007 foreign film Academy Award. The film provides a scary historical context of a policing state and focuses on this fascinating story of three idealists being steered away of their beliefs. The story is compellingly told in a minimalist directorial fashion that generates extreme tension and compulsive watchability. There are great performances from Ulrich Muhe as the surveillance officer, Sebastian Koch as the writer, Martina Gedeck as his ingenue girlfriend, Ulrich Tukur as Muhe's colleague, and Thomas Thieme as the despicable minister. "The Lives of Others" is an excellent film with a great plot, excellent character development, and tense scenes that doesn't overplay its hand.

50/50

A likable 27 year old living a normal ordered life receives a cancer diagnosis and begins to deal with an overbearing mother, a cold girlfriend, a kind but greenhorned grief counselor, and his caring yet opportunistic best friend. Directed by Jonathan Levine from a screenplay by Will Reiser which is said to be based on personal experience, "50/50" seems to be awfully standard issue, offering a buddy film which cranks up the emotions when the gravity of the disease worsens. And yet, the routine story is elevate by a gifted cast led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a another fine performance playing a young man whose life is so ordered he won't even drive or jaywalk out of safety concerns until he has this proverbial wrench thrown into life. Gordon-Levitt brings credibility to the role as he plays a seriously distressed man damnly trying to conceal his terror. Seth Rogen is funny and endearing, something he hasn't been in awhile and Bryce Dallas Howard is good as the self-centered girlfriend who doesn't no how to respond to the disease. I liked scenes involving JGL's interaction with older cancer patients played by Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer, and the best scenes in the film involve the great Anjelica Huston as his mother, and Anna Kendrick as the sweet therapist. "50/50" is enjoyable, but I expected more out of it (the cinematography is not particularly inspired). Still, the cast is wonderful and gives weight to the lackluster material.

Looking for Richard

Richard III is the most performed of all of Shakespeare's works and yet it is a very complex and challenging work that many are unfamiliar with. In "Looking for Richard", Al Pacino examines the play as well as attitudes towards The Bard in America. At the same time, Pacino tries to stage a production of Richard III and while we are shown scenes from the play, we are given a dissection of the scene from Pacino himself, his actors, and various experts on the works of William Shakespeare. Pacino's directorial debut is a fascinating pseudo-documentary that is replete with so many thoughts, insights, and philosophical analyses. Pacino is captivating as he takes us through the play and helps us understand the tale of a deformed, heartless, and power hungry man, as are the many famous faces who also offer acumen such as John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Alec Baldwin, and Kevin Spacey. I don't mean this as a criticism, because I loved how the film was presented as a juxtaposition, but I would have liked to see the film version of the play as a whole, as Pacino is very captivating indeed as Richard III. "Looking for Richard" is not only an informative film but it is also an example of how to make an intriguing documentary, an art that is lost on many documentarians working today.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Billy Joel: Live at Shea Stadium

Shea Stadium was opened in 1964 in the Queens borough of New York City and was the home of the New York Mets, and for a time the New York Jets. The structure has seen two World Series wins, and also acted as a concert venue hosting the likes of The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles among others. In 2009 it was set for demolition, and in 2008 a two night concert featuring Billy Joel was slated to close down Shea. Having personally had the pleasure of seeing Joel live in concert, he puts on an immensely entertaining show. With "Live at Shea Stadium" he puts on a lively performance while playing hits such as "Only the Good Die Young" and "You May Be Right" while playing lesser known album tracks such as "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" and "Everybody Loves You Now". Joined on stage by special guests Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, and Paul McCartney, "Billy Joel: Live at Shea Stadium" is an appropriate sendoff by a master performer.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Chuck Barris was known as the creator of inconsequential game shows such as "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game", as well as the host of "The Gong Show". In his 1984 titular autobiography, he purported to also be a trained assassin for the CIA, eliminating many of his targets while chaperoning the winning couples of "The Dating Game" while they vacationed in exotic East Berlin. "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" is the wildly outrageous and imaginative directorial debut from George Clooney, in a script that could only have been adapted for the screen by Charlie Kaufman. The underappreciated Sam Rockwell is incredible as Barris, blending moments of humor with scenes of sadness and capturing all of the emotions in between. Drew Barrymore surprisingly has a good role here as Barris' flaky soul mate, and Clooney is in fine form as an operative who recruits Barris. Kaufman's script is engagingly vulgar and bizarre and Clooney handles the direction with such style and panache as both men tap dance the fine line between reality and farce and pull it off swimmingly.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Way

A choleric California eye doctor receives a call from an inspector from the south of France informing him that his son has been killed in an accident in the Pyrenees on the first day of a spiritual trek to the Spanish coast. Flying over to retrieve the body, he decides to have his son cremated and complete the 800 kilometer journey for him. Along his path, he meets three wounded souls who gradually gain his friendship as they help each other on their arduous physical and emotional journey. "The Way" was written and directed by Emilio Estevez, and strives to be old fashioned and inspirational filmmaking of the highest order ("The Wizard of Oz" is cited as inspiration). In the lead role and working under his son, Martin Sheen delivers a powerful internalized performance, the likes of which typify his best work, and Estevez shows a steady directorial hand, nicely capturing the the European locales along the impressive trail. However, the film is overly sentimentalized and the characterizations of the other cast members come off as trite and smarmy. I'm a sucker for road movies, and there's some really nice footage and a fine performance by Sheen, but in the end this is just schmaltz. For a better film about a long and arduous foot journey released earlier this year, I would recommend Peter Weir's "The Way Back".

My Dog Tulip

A lonely British man well into his 50s recalls his 16 year relationship with a dog he affectionately refers to as the Alsatian bitch. Rescuing the animal at 18 months from an abusive and confining home, the man describes his trials raising the loving but rambunctious dog in stark and humorous detail. As he grows more and more fond of the creature, he determines to make it as happy as possible by finding it a mate, another effort which causes him more and more consternation. "My Dog Tulip" is a touching and delightfully offbeat animated film based on the book by J.R. Ackerley. Made by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, the film is the first to be hand drawn by paperless computer equipment, and the end result is a lovely design comparable to the work of Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville, The Illusionist). Ackerley's words have such poetry to them and they are spoken with such grace by Christopher Plummer who supplies his voice. Lynn Redgrave does nice voicework as well in what would be her last role as his demanding sister. "My Dog Tulip" is a touching film that shows both the range and power of animation.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Husbands

Feeling their mortality after burying their pal, three middle aged man go on a bender that begins in their hometown New York and ends across the ocean in London as they drink, mourn, exercise, philander, and reevaluate their lives. "Husbands" was John Cassavetes followup to his acclaimed "Faces" and it is, like his other films, a plot thin reflective film that deals with human interactions and emotions. Its stars, Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, and Cassavetes himself are incredibly strong in their roles and their characters are fleshed out particularly well. However, powerful moments get stretched out and lost in repetitively long sequences. Still, Cassavetes was a director who never followed a rubric, and I appreciate his films because they give you an opportunity to think and reflect. By not rushing and employing a traditional plot and focusing on character, they take on a richer quality. Still, I will not say they are easy going and especially here with "Husbands", again with the incredibly long sequences, it can be hard to sit still.

Witness

A recently widowed Amish woman travels with her young son to visit her sister in Baltimore. During a layover in Philadelphia, the boy wanders around in amazement of the foreign surroundings and enters the men's room where he witnesses a murder. A dedicated homicide detective detains the boy and their mother, and it quickly becomes clear the crime was part of a police cover-up and the detective, the woman, and her son must lam it at her home in Amish country. Peter Weir's "Witness" weaves its two stories on an incredibly beautiful palette, showing the gritty side of the Philadelphia scenes and painting the scenes in the countryside with plush elegant colors. Harrison Ford is remarkable here and gets to show his range first as the tough action hero we are familiar with and later and predominantly as a light romantic lead (while still maintaining his toughness). Kelly McGillis is pretty good here as the Amish woman who grows to love Ford but can never leave her community, and I really liked the work of Lukas Haas as the young boy. I'm really hesitant to criticize the film, because its honestly one of the best looking I've seen, but I felt the murder story loses some of its urgency during the scenes on the farm, which are still very fine in and of themselves. So we have a great looking film, and very fine Harrison Ford performance, a fish out of water movie, a treatise on the Amish, and a story of a love that could never be, but we also have a crime picture that acts as an antidote to the countless mind numbing pictures in the genre.

Nights of Cabiria

A proud and fiery prostitute goes from heartache to heartache, as she travels through seedy parts of the Rome. From the opening scene where a john robs her and pushes her in a river, to an embarrassing display at a magic show, to a desperate plea to the Virgin Mother at a religious ceremony, to sad encounters with a movie star and a seemingly genuine man, Cabiria always seems to keep her spirit and maintain her dignity. "Nights of Cabiria" is the beautiful and bittersweet film from Federico Fellini. Giulietta Masina delivers of one the most accomplished performances in the history of film presenting a impassioned, hot-blooded laugh inspiring character and flawlessly transforming into a sorrowful, dejected presence at the onset of agony. Masina's performance along with the wonderful story and Fellini's wonderful black and white direction make "Nights of Cabiria" a wonderfully sad and essential film.

The Scarecrow

Buster Keaton plays a farmhand living with a coworker in one small room filled with multipurpose contraptions. Both men are vying for the farmer's daughter, and after being chased by an overzealous dog and having his mistaken marriage proposal accepted, he now tries to flee and marry the girl while fleeing from his rival and the farmer while pretending to be a scarecrow. "The Scarecrow" is one of Keaton's early and most fun short films containing several riotous and intricate sequences such as the kitchen sequence where every item doubles for another, the scene where a dog chases Buster around the edges of an unfinished brick house, and the scene where the farmer fights the rival and Buster keeps it going while pretending to be a scarecrow. "The Scarecrow" is another example of Buster Keaton's comedic genius.

The Wild Child

In a French forest in 1798 hunters are dispatched to kill a wild animal which turns out to be a young boy raised in the wilderness who has no means of manner or verbal communication. Sent to the Institute of the Deaf and Dumb, a doctor takes the boy to his home, feeling the clinic's methods will not aid the boy. With the help of his maid, the doctor begins the painstaking stance of not only teaching the boy manners and how to talk, but also of instituting a moral sense within him. "The Wild Child" is an astonishing tale by director Francois Truffaut which is essentially an affecting story of love and determination. Truffaut himself plays the doctor, Jean-Pierre Cargol plays the wild boy, and Francoise Seigner plays the maid and all are terrific at playing determined individuals dealing with their extremely frustrating tasks at hand. The film is shot in beautifully delicate black and white and I admired Truffaut's bravery in showing the realities and the pains of a situation like this. I could see how there could be an urge to turn this into a padded success story full of triumphs, but the triumphs here are small and Truffaut wisely focuses on the determination, doubts, and affections of all three members of the group. "The Wild Child" is a fascinating film that is incredibly affecting without cutting corners.

Go West

The aptly named Friendless sells his grocery store in Indiana for $1.60 (and has to spend the money to buy supplies in the same store!) and hops a train to New York City where he gets lost in the shuffle. Inspired by the title call of Horace Greeley, he finds a miniature hand gun in a lost purse and heads to New Mexico where he tries his hand at ranching and falls in love with the big brown eyed cow! "Go West" is one of the most touching films Buster Keaton made and still contains all the wonderful physical gags that make his films so memorable. There are many funny scenes involving Buster's attempts to acclimate to cowboy life and his friendship with the cow is actually quite affecting (I adored the scene where Buster uses the cow's milk for shaving cream, and shaves the brand into his hide so can forgo the branding process). The ending is classic as well as the herd of cattle parade through downtown L.A. and Buster comes up with the ideal costume to lead them to their destination. "Go West" along with the rest of the Keaton's films, are the kinds of art that you embrace and whose spirit you wish could be replicated in today's movies.

The Paleface

A group of evil oil barons have cheated a peaceful Indian tribe of their land and have told them to vacate the premises. In response, the chief instructs his tribe to shoot the next white man to come through the gate, and who do you think comes next, while its Buster Keaton with his butterfly catcher. After chasing him around a bit, the tribe members burn him at the stake which he survives thanks to his flame retardant suit. Amazed by his survival, they induct him into his tribe as together they make a bid to take back their land. "The Paleface" is classic laugh out loud Keaton containing a string of inspired hilarious silent gags. This short film could be construed as insensitive by some, but it was made in a different time and is all in good humor. Here Buster demonstrates his gifts for physical comedy and why he is one of the foremost clowns of the cinema.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The jury returns with a verdict and the foreman regretfully informs the court that they were unable to find Professor Moriarty guilty of murder, a second before Sherlock Holmes rushes in with the condemnatory evidence. Following his release, Moriarty embarks on a master plan to rob the Crown Jewels and throw Holmes and Watson off of the scent. "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" was the second in the series featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson and while it is not quite as fun as "The Hound of the Baskervilles", it is still highly enjoyable fare. Rathbone and Bruce project the same removed bemusement and George Zucco as Moriarty makes a thoughtful villain. Ida Lupino contributes nice work as well as a young woman caught up in Moriarty's trap. These early entries from the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle work best because they are played as lighter fare. They also act as a throwback to an older more innocent era of film, and also magnify what is wrong with the newer reboot by Guy Ritchie and what will most likely be wrong with the upcoming sequel.

Point Blank

A man is chased out of a building in Paris by two armed assailants into a tunnel where he is struck by a motorbike. At the hospital, an attempt is made on the man's life but he is saved in the nick of time by a male nurse. Afterwards while celebrating his heroism with his pregnant wife, he is attacked while she is kidnapped. The kidnappers demand the man be taken out of the hospital or his wife will be killed and the nurse is thrown into a desperate situation with the patient where he things grow more complex by the minute and he must think fast if he wants to clear his name and get his wife back safely. "Point Blank" is an idiotic French thriller whose idea of creating tension is by cranking up the thumping soundtrack so that we think we are watching a pulse pounding film. They also like to thrown in ridiculous shock moments that no audience member with a functioning brain would find plausible, in order to perpetuate their rouse that we are watching an actual film. Gilles Lellouche lacks credibility entirely in his mawkish performance as the nurse, Gerard Lanvin is a caricature as the villain (I actually liked Roschdy Zem as the deadly patient), and the rest of the cast sounds ridiculous uttering tough talking dialogue. By using Hitchcock's wrong man scenario to pathetic avail, the filmmakers of "Point Blank" have succeeded only in providing by the guise of a thriller. Sadly, I think some people in my audience fell for it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Red Shoes

While attending the ballet which was composed by his professor, a young composer notices his own work being used and writes an angry letter to the company's impresario. Trying to retrieve the letter the next morning, the impressed impresario offers him a job while at the same time extending an opportunity to an ambitious young dancer. As the troupe travels from London first to Paris and then to Monte Carlo, the lead dancer becomes engaged, and the furious impresario names the plucky new dancer as the lead in his adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Red Shoes, which the young composer will write the score to. Soon, these three intense personalities become interlocked, and the young dancer must chose between her love of the composer and her passion for dance. Like most of the work, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's "The Red Shoes" is an almost impossibly beautiful Technicolor composition. Featuring an astounding extending performance of the title play that transcends the stage, fantasy and reality blend in a work of pure imagination. All comes together in an incredible tragic sequence in the end. Moira Shearer is absolutely riveting as the young dancer and Anton Walbrook is just as fine as the demanding leader of the dance company. The movie is also highly influential and Darren Aronofsky owes more then a little bit to it for the success of his "Black Swan". "The Red Shoes" is a beautiful film that is a high demonstration for the expressiveness of film.

Glengarry Glen Ross

A group of real estate salesman are called in for a meeting on a Tuesday night and a sales motivator (Alec Baldwin) lays it on the line: There will be a sales contest, 1st place wins a Cadillac, 2nd a set of steak knives, and 3rd you're fired. As the salesman scramble to sell, we see the hotshot seller (Al Pacino) tries to close with an ineffectual businessman (Jonathan Pryce), two incensed employees (Ed Harris and Alan Arkin) contemplate a robbery scheme, and an old loser (Jack Lemmon) tries to bribe the office manager (Kevin Spacey) for the leads.  Directed by James Foley, "Glengarry Glen Ross" is a film crackling with vulgar, desperate dialogue. Adapted by David Mamet by his own play, the movie is vintage Mamet, stripped to its bare bones and containing no bullshit. We are guided by the poetry and the ferocity of Mamet's words, brought to life by the stellar cast. Baldwin's brutal, straight forward opening scene, which was written for the movie, sets the tone. Pacino and Harris are powerful in their roles and Lemmon is heartbreaking as the deluded and washed up salesman. Arkin and Spacey round up the cast nicely as well. David Mamet is one of my favorite screenwriters one because it is so blunt and engaging and two because of how well it draws an image in your head. "Glengarry Glen Ross" is quintessential Mamet and an acting showcase for some of our finest.

Trouble in Paradise

A con artist posing as a doctor fleeces a high society man in Venice and makes the acquaintance of another con artist posing as a countess trying to fleece him. Naturally they fall in love. Travelling to Paris, they stake out the purse owned by a perfume company heiress and when the purse goes missing, a reward is put up for it. Returning the stolen item collecting the reward, and insinuating themselves into her lives as both secretary and typist, a romantic triangle begins and the man must chose between the heiress and the thief. "Trouble in Paradise" is a delightful and sexy concoction from director Ernst Lubitsch and his screenwriter Samson Raphaelson. Known as a master of sophisticated comedy, Lubitsch is largely forgotten today. However when this film was released in 1932, it was what many considered to be the first talking romantic comedy, and from this film you can see the work of many great successors including Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and Woody Allen. Working it a pre-code Hollywood, the film is crackling with one-liners and sexual innuendos, as well as innovative filmmaking techniques such as keeping the camera on a clock as we here what happens in the course of an evening. Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins (the con artist), and Kay Francis (the heiress) play their roles with such chemistry and assurance. "Trouble in Paradise" is one of those rare classic films that manages to be both highly influential as well as wildly entertaining.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Passage to India

An adventurous young woman (Judy Davis) travelling with her mother-in-law to be (Peggy Ashcroft), arrives in post WWI India to be with her magistrate fiance (Nigel Havers) and explore the country. Among the people they encounter include a British educator (James Fox), a Brahmin teacher (Alec Guiness), and a genteel Indian doctor (Victor Banerjee) with whom the women become friendly. The doctor invites them to a picnic at the bizarre Marabar Caves, and their excursion turns unfortunate and sparks and national incident with brings out the worst in both the British and Indian people in colonial society. David Lean's adaptation of E.M. Forster's 1924 novel was the last he ever made, and is as beautiful and sumptuous as any of his great epics. Lean and cinematographer Ernest Day capture the beauties of India in spectacular fashion. Judy Davis is marvelous in a complex lead role and Peggy Ashcroft supplies fine support in an Academy Award winning role (she is the oldest recipient in the Supporting Actress category). James Fox is very good as a conflicted Englishmen, Alec Guiness is amusing in an aloof role, and Victor Banerjee is exceptionally good as a man who entirely changes allegiances between the beginning and end of the film. "A Passage of India" is a movie that lives outside of its time and feels like a Technicolor wonder of the 50s. It is an appropriate swan song for Lean's matchless career.

Straw Dogs

A Hollywood screenwriter working on a screenplay on the Battle of Stalingrad (a nice metaphor) relocates with his beautiful wife to her hometown in the Deep South where they incur the wrath of the locals, including her ex-boyfriend whom they have contracted to put a roof on their barn. As tensions increase and boundaries are crossed, the screenwriter is forced to take extreme steps he wouldn't ordinarily take to prove his manhood and protect his wife and home. "Straw Dogs" was a 1971 film by Sam Peckinpah that offered a controversial and somewhat ambiguous take on courage, violence, and the definition of rape. This unnecessary remake by Rod Lurie is a little more clear where the lines are drawn and therefore makes the film less interesting. James Marsden and Kate Bosworth, reuniting from "Superman Returns", bring likability, but no complexity to their roles, which is what made the characters originally played by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George so enticing. Alexander Skarsgard has effective scenes as well, but his charater is all over the place. James Woods also has a good supporting role as a ferocious ex-football coach. Aside from the clearer stance, a few minor changes, and an even bloodier finale (its still effective but how could it not be!), this is a pretty direct remake. I've never understood why people want to do point by point remakes of classic films that have already stated their case on the subject fairly well.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Elephant Man

A surgeon in Victorian London wanders through a freak show at a carnival and stumbles across The Elephant Man, a grotesquely deformed man. Seeing the benefits the man could bring to his career, he begins to lease him from his cruel "partner" for research purposes. As the surgeon begins to fathom the horrendous life the man must have lived, and sees a perceptive and sensitive side to him, he begins to secure a room for him at the hospital and give him some sense of dignity. "The Elephant Man" is David Lynch's sad and noble film on the life of John Merrick. Shot in starkly beautiful black and white, Lynch's second feature has only a few of the asides that we have come to expect from his films, and is a well made and engaging biopic. Anthony Hopkins delivers a fine performance as the decent surgeon and John Hurt's performance as Merrick is both sad and endearing, as he dons extensive makeup and speaks in low guttural sounds. John Gielgud and Anne Bancroft, whose husband Mel Brooks produced, are splendid as well in supporting roles. "The Elephant Man" makes us question our own prejudices by the way we initially react to its protagonist. The film is an example of David Lynch's talents as a director, the wonderful work of cinematographer Freddie Francis, and the great performances of his cast.

Arthur

Arthur is a perpetually drunk, happy go lucky heir to a a fortune of millions who spends his nights carousing and picking up prostitutes with the hope of securing a meaningful relationship. Cared for by his loving and acerbic butler Hobson, Arthur is given an ultimatum to marry a socialite he doesn't love or be cut off from his inheritance. He subsequently meets a flighty shoplifting commoner whom he falls for and now must chose between love and money. Steve Gordon's "Arthur" is a delightful and often uproarious film featuring a magnetic performance from Dudley Moore. John Gielgud is quite astounding as well in an Academy Award winning performance as the butler, in a role that is both surprisingly humorous and extremely well acted. The film was unnecessarily remade in a not altogether unfunny film, and I was a little upset I'd seen that version first as it copies the original beat for beat. Anyways, Moore's performance is so rapid fire and charming, and Gielgud so great in support, that "Arthur" is a wonderfully delightful excursion.

You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story

In 1923 Harry, Jack, Sam, and Albert Warner, Jewish immigrant brothers from an impoverished background, founded one of the most daring and successful studios in Hollywood which made some of the most memorable films over the following 85 plus years. Time magazine's Richard Schickel takes us on a journey through the studios history through clips of their films and interviews of many involved with the studio. Narrated by Clint Eastwood, we listen to the likes of James Cagney describing his experiences as we see clips of "The Public Enemy" and "White Heat" up until current day when we see George Clooney and discussing his involvement in many of the Warner's films. We even get to hear Clint take us through many of his hits at the studio. Schickel has carved out a niche with these types of studio documentaries. In addition to this fabulous documentary, I've also seen his retrospectives on Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese and no one really pieces together clips as well as Schickel. "You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story" is an exciting journey through the history of the Warner's remarkable movies.
Here is an outline of each of the five episodes:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Beetlejuice

A young couple movie into an idyllic country house and are killed in a freak accident. In death, they find themselves confined to the home even as a family of insufferable yuppies movie in. Unable to scare them off they employ the services of a crude, perverted bio-exorcist in order to clear the house for themselves. "Beetlejuice" is one of the early films of Tim Burton and is a prime example of the director getting carried away from himself. We get some really good work from Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis as the couple, Winona Ryder as the gothic daughter of the yuppie family, and Catherine O'Hara, Jeffrey Jones, and Glenn Shadix are  a hoot as the portentous yuppies. However when we get to the death scenes, we get the cartoonish oddities that have dominated Burton's work and Michael Keaton's work in the title role as a manic obscene Bugs Bunny like character is simply off putting and not as fun as most would lead on. I really liked the scenes amongst the living (particularly a possessed rendition of Harry Belafonte's Day-O) and I think there would have been a good film here in the hands of a more restrained director.

The Grifters

A con artist working the east coast horse races for a big time bookmaker is sent on a job to L.A. While out there, she visits her scam artist son who is operating on a smaller scale and is taken aback to learn that he is dating a woman quite like herself. As both woman vie to play the son against each other, all involved are lead down a sinister and deadly path. "The Grifters" is a dark and twisty and slightly laconic modern noir from director Stephen Frears. Written by Donald E. Westlake from a novel by Jim Thompson, whose credits include early Kubrick films "Paths of Glory" and the noir classic "The Killing", "The Grifters" is sharply written and cold as a stone. Angelica Huston, wearing a Marilyn Monroe wig, is outstanding as the con woman mother whose depravity knows no bounds when it comes to getting what she wants and Annette Bening is just as fine as her son's like minded girlfriend. I've always found John Cusack to be uninteresting, and the same stands here, but both Huston and Bening carry him along nicely. Pat Hingle and J.T. Walsh have really juicy supporting roles as well. I really enjoyed the twists and turns "The Grifters", and Frears and company really gets the heart down of the genre in that it has none.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Working Girl

Tess is a ditsy but ambitious and free thinking woman who starts a new job as an assistant for a high profiled female partner. While on vacation, the boss breaks her leg skiing and Tess realizes that she had stolen her idea that she had rejected days earlier. With the boss incapacitated a few thousand miles away, Tess begins to present herself as a powered player for the firm, and push the deal through with an attractive executive she begins to fall for."Working Girl" is a bright and funny film by Mike Nichols and a wonderful showcase for Melanie Griffith, who is delightful in the lead role. The movie serves as both a send up of the yuppie lifestyle of the time as well as a picture postcard of New York City, and manages to entertain as well. The film also features several fine supporting roles: Harrison Ford is fun in what is probably his first comedic as well as romantic role. Sigourney Weaver is in top form as the iniquitous yuppie boss and Joan Cusack has a good part as Griffith's big haired friend. Alec Baldwin has some very funny scenes as well as Griffith's scummy boyfriend and Kevin Spacey is hilarious in a small role early on. The film sags slightly in the middle, is rife with wild 80s styles, and you can see the big twist coming but nonetheless this is still an intelligent, funny, and well acted movie that wraps up especially well in the end.

Touch of Evil

A hoodlum shows a stick of dynamite to the camera and then places it in the trunk of a car and we follow it in an incredible tracking shot as a tycoon and his mistress get it in, cross the Mexican border to America, and are blown to bits. An investigation ensues led by rotund, corrupt, and highly reputable Captain Quinlan given a hand by Mexican police officer Vargas who is on his honeymoon with his young bride. As the investigation takes its course, Vargas realizes that Quinlan is planting evidence and the odious captain wants the impinging foreigner out of his hair. "Touch of Evil" is the brilliant and impeccably composed work of Orson Welles who wrote, directed, and starred in this border tale of police malfeasance. Starring as Captain Quinlan, Welles dives head on into the despicable and remorseless character, crafting a frightening presence. Charlton Heston, though oddly cast as a Mexican, is nonetheless powerful as the righteous lawman. Janet Leigh is fine as well as his bride and pawn in Welles's sick game. The shadows and angles of the camera are remarkable here and, along with the devilish turns, have the capacity to take your breath away. "Touch of Evil" is an uncommonly good film and one that engages you in a way that few films do.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood

"Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood" is a documentary from Turner Classic Movies that takes us through the history of motion pictures from their dawn in the late 19th Century up until the end of the 1960s, with the focus being on the group of people, largely poor immigrant Jewish males, who saw an industry in the movies and surged forward with all of their might. Wonderfully narrated by Christopher Plummer, this is an extraordinarily crafted and endlessly fascinating documentary. With the older footage presented in the Ken Burns manner, the film deals with the many twists and turns the industry made, and features interviews from movie experts as well as direct descendants of the moguls themselves. Clocking in at seven hours, my only complaint is that I wish it could have been longer, as much material was unfortunately but understandably left on the cutting room floor. Here is a synopsis of each episode:
Peepshow Pioneers (1889-1907)
The origins of the movies are discussed which include picture flip books, projection shows, and the famous bet where photographer Eadweard Muybridge proved with a series of cameras that a horse does indeed have all four feet in the air at one time when he runs. We also see how Thomas Edison tinkered with the idea of the movies and made it in to an industry. We learn of the brilliance of early filmmakers like Georges Méliès, Edwin S. Porter, and D.W. Griffith and the rise of early stars such as Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. We also hear the stories of Mayer, the Warners, Laemmele, Goldwyn, Zanuck, and Fox, mostly Jewish immigrants who started the studio system and eventually moved the industry west to Hollywood.
The Birth of Hollywood (1907-1920)
As the movie industry continues to explode and moguls set up shop in Los Angeles, we see the incredible success and controversy surrounding D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation", the rise of cowboy stars such as William S. Hart, Brono Billy and Tom Mix, and the great success of Max Sennett, his Keystone Studio, and his discovery of the young, impoverished, and ambitious Charles Chaplin. We also see the rise of stars like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, producers such as Thomas Ince and Adolph Zucker, and the important roles women played not only in front of the camera but behind it as well. As the country marched into World War I, the movie industry was there to support and film it and by the end of the decade, the United States had asserted itself as the top filmmaking nation in the world.
The Dream Merchants (1920-1928)
As the movie industry has asserted itself in America, it now begins to deal with power struggles, scandals, and calls for censorship. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith form United Artists, Joe Kennedy develops RKO, and titan studio MGM comes into formation. Stars such as Rudolph Valentino, Lon Chaney, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and  Clara Bow come into focus and moviemakers Hal Roach, Erich von Stroheim, and Cecil B. DeMille strive to bring their visions to the screen. The Academy is formed to thwart unionizing and the first Award ceremony is held in 1927 as the talkies begin to be ushered in and the industry becomes revolutionized forever.
Brother, Can You Spare a Dream (1929-1941) 
The Stock Market Crash, The Great Depression, and the audience demand for talking pictures revolutionizes the film industry in the 1930s as old stars like Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and the silent clowns fade out and a new line of stars such as Clark Gable, Bette Davis, The Marx Brothers, Judy Garland, and Shirley Temple take their place. Hollywood makes makes movie stars out of radio personalities like Bing Crosby, Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire become kings of the musical, and atypical stars like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson begin to rise. A demand for writers is created and Herman J. Mankiewicz and Ben Hecht heed the call and power players such as The Selznicks, The Cohns, and Howard Hughes have their day. Walt Disney promotes feature length animation, "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone with the Wind" take audiences by storm, and the moguls have differing responses to the growing threat across the Atlantic.
Warriors and Peacemakers (1941-1950)
While Europe is at war, much of Hollywood is fearful of speaking out in fear of losing the foreign market aside from Charlie Chaplin who releases "The Great Dictator". When America finally enters the war, the film industry goes into full swing as they campaign for the troops, make propaganda films, and sell war bonds. Male stars like James Stewart and Clark Gable enlist, directors like John Ford and John Huston make war documentaries, Bob Hope and Betty Grable entertain the troops, and female stars like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck greet soldiers on their way over at The Hollywood Canteen. Daryl Zanuck releases Ford's social conscious "The Grapes of Wrath" and Preston Sturges makes funny films laughing at war. John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Gregory Peck and Cary Grant are the preeminent film stars, Orson Welles makes "Citizen Kane", and "Casablanca" becomes an unanticipated success. After the war, new tastes develop and film noir as well as social conscious films emerge. A lawsuit by Olivia de Havilland and the work of agents like Charles Feldman and Lew Wasserman lead to more rights for stars and labor strife leads to the HUAC hearings and the Hollywood Blacklist. By the end of the 40s, The Paramount Decree will strip the moguls of their theaters and the television will become a viable threat to the industry.
The Attack of the Small Screens (1950-1960)
As television and the mobility of the 1950s draws audiences away from the movies, Hollywood embarks on a bigger is better campaign with the promotion of drive-ins, 3D, cinerama, technicolor, cinemascope, and stereophonic sound. TV stars like Lucille Ball, Sid Caesar, and Jackie Gleason reach extreme heights of popularity and Hollywood begins to lure television stars and writers and eventually enter the medium by leasing films, producing TV movies, as well as TV shows, particularly with Walt Disney. Star Power begins to combine with emotional intensity as we see stars like James Dean, Marlon Brando, Liz Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Sidney Poitier, and Burt Lancaster while Marilyn Monroe sizzles up the screen. Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder make their marks as directors and Cold War fears lead Charlie Chaplin to become outspoken and exiled. United Artists and the agents at MCA begins to rise and RKO dies largely due to the eccentricities of owner Howard Hughes. We see the deaths of Louis B. Mayer, William Fox, Jesse Laskey, Harry Cohan, and Harry Warner, the resignation of Daryk Zanuck, and the overall decline of the studio system which was being supplemented by independent filmmakers such as Roger Corman.
Fade Out, Fade In (1960-1969)
As the 1960s begin with a mogul's son taking the Oath of Office and the Hollywood blacklist is dissolved, the films of the decade see a great change being influenced by the postwar film revolution in Europe and specifically the films from Italian Neorealism, the French New Wave, and specifically the films of Bergman, Kurosawa, Truffaut, Godard, Antonioni, and Fellini. Kubrick made "Dr. Strangelove" spoofing the cold war madness as well as "2001" and "Bonnie and Clyde" revolutionized American pictures. "Cleopatra" bankrupts Fox, Psycho is a hit, and Marilyn Monroe dies. Mike Nichols makes "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "The Graduate" and counterculture movies such as "Easy Rider" and "Midnight Cowboy" change the game as well. International films blow up such as "Lawrence of Arabia" and the Bond films, and the studios begin to develop sequels. As the decade closes and the studios become conglomerates and titans like Walt Disney and David O. Selznik die, a new generation of filmmakers await in the wings and in the crowds to take the reins and perpetuate are faith in the movies.

Higher Ground

"Higher Ground" is the directorial debut of Vera Farmiga as she stars in the story of one woman's lifelong struggle with her faith as she strains to raise her family on a Christian fundamentalist commune. Working from a novel by Carolyn Briggs, Farmiga's directorial hand is strong and kind here as the film is not judgmental of the people it portrays and strictly observes her protagonists feelings and emotions as she grasps with both her own faith and the strange notion of it her church holds. Many of the scenes in "Higher Ground" are powerful, such as the bus crash into a pond where the members of her husband's band try to salvage their equipment before the drowning baby or when a church wedding counselor relates the story of an adulterous politician to Farmiga and follows it up by saying she will burn in hell. Several other scenes feel out of place and counter to the main objective of the film, such as Farmiga's daydreams, and still Vera Farmiga puts forth an excellent performance here, fully conveying her inner turmoils even in situations where she is dare allowed to speak them.. The rest of the cast is uniformly fine and I really liked John Hawkes, who is oddly cast as her father. "Higher Ground" is a twofold triumph for Vera Farmiga on both the acting and directing front, and is pretty remarkable for how nonjudgmental it is for a film about religious fundamentalism.

Fawlty Towers

Basil Fawlty is quite possibly the rudest hotel manager in all of Britain, if not the entire world. As he insults his guests, mocks his wife, caters to the upper class, manhandles the incompetent Spanish bellboy, impinges on the maid, and always manages to screw everything up. "Fawlty Towers" is the irreverent and hilarious work of John Cleese, Monty Python member, who both starred and cowrote the show with his then wife and costar Connie Booth. Cleese's performance is hilariously manic and physical and I was often taken aback by the outrageousness of the 12 episode of the series as Basil tries to make a Waldorf Salad without a cook, not offend his guests on German Night, and successfully dispose of a corpse taking up space in an occupied room. "Fawlty Towers" is an extremely funny series that must have set the bar for television comedy of its time.

Four Weddings and a Funeral

During the course of the titular engagements, a bumbling yet charming young Brit who has always avoided commitments falls in love with an American and stumbles to declare his feelings as she becomes betrothed to another. "Four Weddings and a Funeral" was an unanticipated success in 1994 as well as the film that launched Hugh Grant to stardom, and watching it its not hard to believe as the film is thoroughly entertaining and Grant is entirely engaging and funny. After a raucous first half of the film, it does settle down though and become of more routine romantic comedy and doesn't really introduce its characters well so that when we do get to the dreaded burial, its hard to go along with the weepy eulogy because we only have a faint idea how these people know each other (I'm still not quite sure who the waif is living with Grant)! And still, "Four Weddings and a Funeral" is a highly enjoyable film and from it you can see a stew of mostly less worthy romcoms that were concocted from its ingredients.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Ulee's Gold

Ulee is a powerfully quiet beekeeper and widower raising his two grandchildren in northern Florida receives an urgent call from his estranged son who is serving out a term for armed robbery. Reluctantly, Ulee goes to visit and his son sends him on a mission to Orlando to retrieve his strung out wife who has fallen into the hands of two of his ex-cohorts. When Ulee arrives to pick her up, the two men have something more they want and now he must contend with all of these difficulties right in the heart of the harvest. "Ulee's Gold" is not only an absorbing film from writer/director Victor Nunez, it is also a courageous one as he elects to tell a fleshed out, paced story which to most studios means box office death. I liked the way the story takes its time and draws out a powerful performance out of Peter Fonda, who seems to be channeling the same types of methods his father used. Perhaps the story is too ruminant and contains too many bee metaphors, but the power of Fonda's performance and the lush photography and leisurely pace make "Ulee's Gold" a winner.

Drive

A part-time mechanic, part-time movie stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver becomes involved with a married mother whose husband is in prison. Upon his release, the driver offers to act as the wheelman in a robbery needed to pay off a prison protection debt. However, the job goes terribly wrong and the driver finds himself as well as the girl and her son the targets of a ruthless crime syndicate. The opening scenes remind us of "Diva" and "To Live and Die in L.A.", two 80s films with famous chase sequences, and thus we have a film with a distinct 80s feel containing two brilliantly executed chase sequences. "Drive" is a brutal neonoir from director Nicolas Winding Refn that features an icy cool performance from Ryan Gosling as he navigates the twisty terrain of the plot. Carey Mulligan is effective as the vulnerable love interest and we get really fine work from Bryan Cranston as Gosling's mechanic mentor and Ron Perlman as an uncouth and ruthless gangster. The scene stealer here though is Albert Brooks as Perlman's equally malevolent partner whom both Gosling and Cranston are into for a lot. I felt the triangle between Gosling, Mulligan, and Oscar Isaac who plays the ex-con husband didn't ring true, but that is besides the point as it is only the springboard for the sinister plot. "Drive" is a brilliantly directed film where you can never anticipate its sudden bursts of violence or what menacing lies around the next bend.

Contagion

We open with a woman coughing at an airport bar and the camera makes us keenly aware of germs being spread as we see closeups of money being handled and a bowl of peanuts on the bar. This will be the onset of a viral epidemic that spreads at an astounding rate and kills its victims within a matter of days. After the woman and her son whom she passes it along to perish, we follow her immune husband and daughter and on a broader scale we follow several doctors working for the Center of Disease Control as they try to contain the disease, trace its roots, vaccinate against it, and control the widespread mayhem that ensues as they epidemic spreads. "Contagion" is an extremely focused and terrifying film from Steven Soderbergh working from a germaphobic script by Scott Z. Burns. Soderbergh again works with a large budget and A-list cast, which is where I feel he does his best work, and his handling of this material, which could have been dastardly, is executed tensely and brilliantly. The cast includes Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow (in some really disturbing scenes), Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle (excellent), and John Hawkes, all contributing nicely. I've read reviews stating that Law's blogger character who profits off the epidemic detracts from the plot, but I thought it fit in nicely, as did Cotillard's Hong Kong subplot, with the screenplays attempts to show the many different angles a catastrophe like this can bring. "Contagion" is an extremely intricate and unnerving film that is sure to yield high returns for the people at Purell.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Yankee Doodle Dandy

"Yankee Doodle Dandy" is a biopic covering the life of patriotic song and dance man George M. Cohan. After his latest play "I'd Rather Be Right" where he portrays FDR, the president himself summons him to the Oval Office where Cohan takes him through his life starting as a brazen lad performing the circuit with his mother, father, and sister to his partnership with producer and friend Sam Harris to his Broadway triumphs and his marriage with his lovely wife Mary. From the instant James Cagney appears on screen, he grabs the viewer and never lets go. Playing against type, Cagney is a revelation in a Academy Award winning performance as he taps and sings his way with gusto through Cohan's life. Directed by Michael Curtiz, an auteur who doesn't get enough credit when you think about his resume ("Casablanca", "The Adventures of Robin Hood"), the film is a wonderful blend of lavish stage productions, including great songs such as "Over There", "Harrigan", and the title tune, as well as personal segments from Cohan's life. Walter Huston, as his father, Joan Leslie as his wife Mary, and Richard Whorf as Sam provide fine support as well. Cagney was an actor of incredible presence who captured the screen unlike any other performer. "Yankee Doodle Dandy" is a wonderful tribute to both his skills as a performer and the life of George M. Cohan.

13 Assassins

After the feudal period in Japan and during a time of peace, a brutally sadistic and powerful lord threatens the prosperity. To prevent his ascension, a group of samurai unite on a suicide mission to take on the lord's mighty army as the transport him to an impenetrable location. "13 Assassins" is a spectacular film from respected director Takashi Miike and the first film of his I've seen. After a quiet buildup where we witness the atrocities of the reprehensible lord and the roundup of the assassins, an extended and incredible action scene takes place which will consume the second half of the film, commenced by an extraordinary segment where  three flaming bulls charge the massive army. It is quite an extraordinary and ambitious sequence and is handled exceedingly well with fluid editing and wonderful cinematography. "13 Assassins" is an exhilarating work and the kind of film that makes you want to seek out the other films by the director.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Harold and Maude

Harold is a death obsessed 20 year who likes to stage fake suicides and attend funerals. Maude is a free spirited eccentric on the verge of 80 who enjoys nude modelling and engaging in minor crimes. Naturally the two meet and fall in love. Harold and Maude is a movie founded on an incredibly creepy premise that is handled extraordinarily well by writer Colin Higgins who employs both humor and subtlety. Directed by Hal Ashby, one of the great and highly unappreciated directors of the 1970s, he stages and frames the film exceedingly well. Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon are fine in the leads and a delightful soundtrack provided by Cat Stevens guides the way in this surprisingly pleasant film.

The Devil's Double

As the first Iraq war approaches, an Iraqi soldier is summoned by Uday Hussein, Saddam's son, to his palace and is requested to be his body double. When he refuses, Uday has him beaten and threatens his family, at which point he accepts and has his looks slightly surgically altered. Given everything at Uday's disposal, the double now must deal with his boss's hedonistic lifestyle and psychotic outburst, with his and his family's lives constantly at risk. With Dominic Cooper in "The Devil's Double", we have the case of one of the great dual performances, right up there with Peter Sellers in "Dr. Strangelove" and Nicolas Cage in "Adaptation." Cooper plays too wildly different characters here and pulls it off brilliantly. It is just a shame that the rest of the production wasn't up to task. Lee Tamahori's direction is lazy, uninspired, and glitzy. The film is ugly and hard to watch, but is buoyed throughout by Cooper's magnetic performance.

Faces

After a night of carousing with a friend (Fred Draper) and a call girl (Gena Rowlands), a successful business man (John Marley) returns home to his wife (Lynn Carlin), with whom he seems to get along with. After dinner and some fooling around, he quickly becomes enraged and abruptly asks for a divorce, leaving the house to return to the prostitute. His wife then goes out with her friends and finds herself home alone with a swinging, mindless younger man (Seymour Cassel). "Faces" is an intentionally rough looking and uncomfortable film directed by John Cassavetes, a director whose style strikes me as more European than any American director I can think of (there's even a reference to Bergman here). Shot in grainy black and white and comprised largely of closeups, "Faces" abandons any traditional film narrative resulting in a very realistic portrait. Things are presented on screen and not explained, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions. The acting in the film is of the highest order as well. John Marley, who played Jack Woltz in "The Godfather", is very strong and believable as the successful and unsatisfied young man and Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes' wife and film regular, is wonderful as well. Lynn Carlin submits fine work as Marley's vulnerable wife and Seymour Cassel has a very powerful scene we don't expect when his dopey character is introduced. John Cassavetes was a visionary director who was uncompromising with his work. Here, as with much of his work, the result is brimming with authenticity.