Laurel and Hardy head off to an Old West town to deliver a mining deed to the daughter of their recently deceased prospecting partner. Upon arrival at the local saloon, the two are swindled by the owner who passes his troubadour wife off as the recipient. Soon, Stan and Ollie get wise, and the manic antics and wild pratfalls ensue. "Way Out West" is a thoroughly delightful film from Laurel and Hardy which offers several different aspects to appreciate. The duo's chemistry is sublime and many of their gags come off splendidly such as when Ollie routinely falls into a river dropoff or when the two use a horse for leverage to lift themselves into a second story window. The film also contains several wonderful musical interludes, the best of which where Stan and Ollie sing and two-step to the sounds of a hee-haw band. "Way Out West" is a supreme example of an early talkie comedy as well as a fine film from the classic duo.
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Having once reached the pinnacle of Broadway success, producer Max Bialystock now funds his disastrous plays by giving little old ladies one last thrill before the cemetery. When Leo Bloom, a meek and nervous accountant, drops by to do his books, he hypothesizes that if one were to oversell a production, more money could be made off of a flop then a hit. From then on, the partnership of Bialystock and Bloom is forged and the duo sets out to stage the worst musical in the history of Broadway. Mel Brooks' debut film "The Producers" is a movie so hysterically funny that I was cracking up just reading over the plot synopsis. Brooks' wry and outlandish film is an unrelenting comic romp, from a script that won him the Original Screenplay Oscar. As the rotund and depraved Bialystock, Zero Mostel is an inimitable ball of comic energy and the equally incomparable Gene Wilder is just as wonderful as the manic and inconsolable Bloom. After the uproarious opening scenes between Mostel and Wilder, the subsequent ones showcase several hilarious performances as the duo assembles their colossal bomb: Kenneth Mars as the demented Hitler loyalist and playwright. Christopher Hewett as the cross dressing world's worst director who holds the opposite opinion of himself. Lee Meredith as the curvy Swedish secretary. Dick Shawn as the drugged out leading man. Brooks took his film to Broadway many years later and found smashing success, and having watched the movie where Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprised their stage roles, I found this to be the equivalent of someone remaking Citizen Kane. Not that Lane and Broderick weren't up to the task, and Brooks' script wasn't as fresh as always, but the hilarity of the original and the manic chemistry between Mostel and Wilder can never be replicated.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
The eccentric and existential Werner Herzog set out to make a documentary about Antarctica, but not one focusing exclusively on the wildlife or the terrain. Here, while still capturing much of the rugged landscape, Herzog seems more interested with the types of personalities that are drawn to the desolate wilderness thousands of miles from civilization. He meets various types of brilliant and unconventional scientists including a team studying an active volcano, a dive expedition capturing underwater footage, and a naturalist who has just that day discovered three new species of life. Herzog's philosophical narration always livens up his films but I think it is a mistake to focus so greatly on the individuals instead of nature. While at first stimulating, the subjects grow increasingly wearisome to the point where you can even sense Herzog himself growing tired of them. And still, there is some incredible footage here, including a training expedition and a despondent penguin, and although Herzog sought out to not do yet another nature documentary about the South Pole, I think that's where the strengths of his film lie.
Abraham Lincoln is the secular patron saint of America and perhaps and the most legendary and mystic of anyone in our history. Because of his stature, his legend has taken on all sorts of meanings and in all his grandeur, it is possible to lose sight of who he really is. In the documentary special "Looking for Lincoln", historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. spans the country exploring many different facets of Lincoln's life and legacy. Exploring Lincoln in the present, Gates attends an auction of his memorabilia, visits the foremost Abe collector, and visits a descendants of Confederate veterans gathering to gain a perspective of those who do not have a lofty opinion of the man. He also visits historical sites such as Gettysburg, the Lincoln Bedroom in White House, his summer cottage in D.C., Ford's Theater and across the street to his deathbed at Peterson's Boarding House. Joining him on his journey and offering insight are George W. Bush, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, and Bill Clinton. Gates' trek is a fascinating look into the life and legacy of our 16th President although it does very little to shed any new light on who he was.
A young girl in hospital garbs frantically runs through a southern forest to a decrepit old house which she promptly burns to the ground. She is then picked up by the local authorities and returned to the high risk psychiatric ward where she has to deal with the unfriendly staff and patients as well as ominous ghostly visions which continually haunt her. Now with the help of a caring yet suspicious doctor, she tries to figure out the dark secret behind her institutionalization. Watching a film as inept as "The Ward", one finds it hard to believe it was directed by "master of terror" John Carpenter who has directed such revered horror outings as "Halloween" and "The Thing". This film generates no concern for its heroine, which is vital to a film like this, and employs a plot device which came as unexpected, not out of cleverness, but because it had been done before so inanely that I did not think anyone would be stupid enough to employ. it again. Hence, it comes off atrociously and this film becomes not only a miss for Carpenter but a putrid waste of 90 minutes.
For over 40 years, at a remarkable pace of about a film a year, Woody Allen has been bringing his comedic, and dramatic sensibilities to the movie world fashioning such diverse classics as "Annie Hall", "Manhattan", "Hannah and Her Sisters", "Match Point", and "Midnight in Paris". For this extensive documentary, the reclusive neurotic gives a rare interview as he traces his life and career from his childhood in Brooklyn where he takes us to his old schoolyard and the movie houses he frequented in his youth. From there we are given a glimpse of the nightclubs where he got his start as a stand-up comedian as well as the appearances network talk shows hosted by Steve Allen and Dick Cavett. From there, Woody takes us through the ups and downs and successes and scandals of his impressive film career. Enhanced by stock footage and interviews with his business partners including his sister Letty Aronson, Jack Rollins, and Charles H. Joffe as well as collaborators such as Diane Keaton, John Cusack, Scarlett Johansson, and Naomi Watts, we are given a wonderful exhibition and celebration of a true American treasure.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
An successor in a royal Hawaiian lineage and trustee to a mass and beautiful landscape is about to broker a major deal when his wife is critically injured in a boating accident. Now responsible for his two troubled daughters, he tries to make peace with this personal tragedy while navigating the astonishing landscape of the Aloha State. "The Descendants" is the latest offering from Alexander Payne, one of our most brilliant auteurs ("Election", "About Schmidt", "Sideways"), who again captures an impeccably realized story about a man on the verge of emotional collapse. In one of his most nuanced and finely tuned performances, George Clooney plays a man undergoing a well of emotions during the course of an often brutal journey of personal discovery. In support, Shailene Woodley is excellent as his eldest daughter, whose growth throughout the film is equally remarkable. Robert Forster is perfectly realized as well in a small but powerful role as Clooney's father-in-law. One of the elements that makes Payne's films so effective and touching is that we never quite know where the story is going to take us, and while he takes us to unexpected and vivid places, the characters we journey with and meet along the way seem so vibrant and true.
Monday, November 21, 2011
A young orphan navigates the innards of a 1930s Parisian train depot where he winds the clocks for his wayward drunk uncle. While marveling at the many passersby, Hugo attempts to fix an automated robot his deceased father discovered in the basement of a museum. Soon, joined by the adopted niece of the stations toy shop owner, and chased by the terminals vicious station master, the automaton will lead him on a fantastic adventure of discovery. Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" is an incredible flight of fancy and wonderful dalliance in historical fiction. Working for the first time in 3D, Scorsese's film truly inhabits the dimension and impeccably sees its abilities. Asa Butterfield and Chloe Morentz, reuniting following "Let Me In" really find the right notes here and wonderfully capture the essence of the film's young heroes. The adult roles are filled by some wonderful character actors, including Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Ray Winstone, and Jude Law, who add color and flavor to every scene in which they appear. I recently viewed "Cinema Paradiso" and thought it didn't quite achieve its goal it tried so hard to attain. Here, Scorsese, screenwriter John Logan, and his cast and crew have fashioned a wonderful tribute to the movies and furthermore have created a film that will stir an interest in classic films for the younger generations.
In a small village in occupied Holland in 1945, a young adolescent boy is fuming with the way his father, the town's mayor, is catering to the encroaching Nazis and is drawn to his freedom fighting uncle who has recently returned. One day, the young lad is drawn into the fight for resistance when he winds providing aid for an injured British paratrooper hiding in the woods. Unsure of who to trust at home, the boy takes increasingly risky actions to save his new friend and follow his conscience. "Winter in Wartime" is a semi-autobiographical film based on Jan Terlouw's novel. Director Martin Koolhoven's film looks impeccable, set in the always aesthetically pleasing snow, and churns along at a brisk, exciting pace. I found problems with the screenplay in moments when it tries to achieve high dramatic effect. These moments, meant as powerful, come off as hackneyed and over-dramatic. Also, as a portrait of occupied Holland and Nazi collaboration, I do not find it entirely convincing. "Winter in Wartime" is a well-made film that functions well as a coming of age story and as an action film, but is not quite as successful when it strives for more.
Oscar Jaffe is a Broadway producer with a penchant for the dramatic and egotism so steeped that his name appears on the billboard for his new play no less than five times. When the director wants to can the hayseed he has personally chosen to star in his production, Jaffe takes the reins and transforms her into a huge success. After a string of hits though his jealousy gets the best of him and she leaves for Hollywood, leaving him with a string of bad luck though. Fortuitously, the two end up together on a New York bound train from Chicago and the maniacal director will do anything in his power to get her back. "Twentieth Century" is one of the earliest screwball comedies and one of the best. Versatile director Howard Hawks' film, written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur from their stage play, is a madcap romp, replete with many belly laughs, thanks to the performances of John Barrymore and Carol Lombard. In a performance that surely inspired Mel Brooks' Max Bialystock in "The Producers", Barrymore gives a wickedly funny performance as the delusional and self-aggrandizing Jaffe. Lombard is just as adept as well, and their onscreen chemistry is marvelous. Hawks' was a maverick director who crossed genres as well as any other colleague. In his early career, his screwball comedies including this, "Bringing Up Baby", and "His Girl Friday" set the standard for madcap movies and remain some of the most riotous ever filmed.
Sunday, November 20, 2011
For half a century, Charles Schulz Peanuts comics strips were cherished by millions for their humorous simplicity and sage wisdom. Born in Minnesota to Norwegian immigrants, he was deeply affected by the loss of his mother when he entered the military. Studying drawing at an art institute, Schulz's early Peanuts concoctions, with Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, and the lot based on himself and figures in his own life, were not thought to be inspired nor successful. Soon, his creation would take off and become an international success, though Schulz would always seem to maintain his humble, stoic persona. "Good Ol' Charles Schulz" is a loving and simple portrait of the great cartoonist and philosopher, with interviews from friends, family, and colleagues as well as some great stock footage of Schulz himself, and slides from the classic strip.
In October of 1991, off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts a hurricane from the south, a low pressure system from the east, and a Canadian low pressure system converged in what would come to be known as the storm of the century. As the epic storm began to form, a down on its luck fishing crew was headed back to Gloucester with its largest haul in a long while. As rescue crews struggle to rescue them, communications break down, and loved ones anxiously await news of their safe arrival, the crew members proudly and unknowingly press ahead into the heart of the beast. "The Perfect Storm" is an old fashioned tearjerker supplanted in a rousing seafaring adventure. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen again shows a penchant intense ship films following his landmark German export "Das Boot". While the special effects are remarkably stirring, the same cannot be said for the uninspired, cliched script and its poorly developed characters. George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg do the best with what their given, and supporters John C. Reilly, John Hawkes, and William Fitchner are colorful. Diane Lane, however, gives an annoyingly grating performance as Wahlberg's squeeze awaiting news on land. Also, a story involving the plight of a rescue unit carries no weight and takes away from the heart of the story. (spoiler) I also took umbrage with how the members of the crew were portrayed as heroes, when their actions were made out of stubbornness and stupidity and their demises could surely have been avoided. "The Perfect Storm" works as an adventure film due to Petersen's handling of the action and the impressive special effects, but a movie like this requires well defined characters and earned sentimentality, and this one just doesn't have it.
Saturday, November 19, 2011
Steve Jobs was a business man and a technological innovator whose resume seems beyond comprehension: co-creator of the personal computer. Co-founder of Apple. Co-founder of Pixar. iPod and iPad developer. When Jobs died early last month, PBS rushed to compile this documentary, and the hasty effort shows. With interviews from collaborator Steve Wozniak and inventor Ross Perot, among others, we are cursorily taken through Jobs life in a presentation that looks like it was put together by a high school student on one of his Apple products. The other curious notion is how, in spite of his unprecedented achievements, how bland and lacking in interest Steve Jobs life was. Confirmed by multiple associates, Jobs appeared to be a self-interested, backstabber and judging from the stock footage shown in this documentary, he didn't seem to be a very likable person. His deification that has gone on in the weeks since his death remains a mystery to me, and this documentary does not provide any indication why he should be held in such high regard.
Fran Lebowitz in a New York author and literary critic, whose acerbic writings have garnered a mass following since she first scribed an article for Andy Warhol's publication Interview magazine. During an interview with director Martin Scorsese and co-producer Graydon Carter at her table at the Waverly Inn, Lebowitz takes us through her life while offering her takes on and gripes with American culture. We are also shown stock footage of past interviews with the celebrated writers as well as an onstage Q&A with her friend and fellow celebrated author Toni Morrison. Lebowitz is a wonder to listen to, in what Scorsese describes as music in his promotion of the film, and it is know wonder why the great director would want to document her, as her intelligent and humorous ramblings are strikingly similar to his own. "Public Speaking" is a fascinating documentary, mainly because Fran Lebowitz speaks in a way that is virtually extinct today, that being smart, funny, and without regard to the accepted convention.
entered World War II, many of the young enlistees had not even heard of the paratroopers, a relatively new Army unit with an extraordinarily high causality rate. "Band of Brothers" follows the brave members of Easy Company, who volunteered for the paratrooper regiment in the 101st Airborne. From their drop into United States Normandy, through the horrific of the Bulge, to the capture of Hitler's Eagles Nest, "BOB" follows the men who fought, were wounded, and died in service from their country. Adapted from the book by Stephen Ambrose in a 10-part miniseries produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, is the story as told by the men themselves, who also appear in each section in extremely poignant interviews. The film is impeccably shot, in a similar format to Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" and the men's individual stories are harrowing and moving as well. In a sea of impressive performances, a few stand out: Damian Lewis as Maj. Winters, a born leader and true soldier who seems to have a somber, existential quality about him. Ron Livingston as the cynical, alcoholic Capt. Nixon. Donnie Wahlberg as the stoic Lt. Lipton who shares the same leadership qualities as Maj. Winters. "Band of Brothers" is one of the most vivid historical recreations I've seen, and with the present day footage of the heroic company men, it is also one of the most affecting. Battle
Here is a brief synopsis of each of the ten episodes:
In a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet transplanted to Manhattan, the Jets and the Sharks, two rival street gangs battle for a piece of small but hallowed turf. As Riff, the leader of the Euro bred Jets calls in his best friend/ex-gang member Tony to broker a war council with the Puerto Rican Sharks, Tony falls in love with the rival gang members sister Maria, and the two act out the brief and tragic love affair. Only a scarce few movies can capture that special place in your heart, ones which you adored as a child, and for which the admiration only grows with each successive revisit. "West Side Story", which turns 50 this year, is the film which I have admired the longest and my fondest for it grew once more watching it recently in its theatrical reissue. Like the greatest films, "WSS" works on many different levels: it opens with the street gangs, the Jets comprised of 50s greaser types and the Sharks made up of Hispanic stereotypes. While I don't think these units are to be taken as literal gangs, their interactions amongst each other are of great enjoyment. Then there is the universally acclaimed Jerome Robbins cinematography, with its gracefully wild and synchronized movement. The Leonard Bernstein songs, with lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, are as memorable as any musicals. The romance between Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer is touching as well (though some claim it lacks allure). The supporting performances are wonderful as well including Russ Tamblyn as Riff and the Academy Award winning work of George Chakiris as the fiery Bernarnrdo and Rita Moreno as his equally conflagrant girlfriend Anita. The direction of Robert Wise, who shared the credit with Robbins, is superb as is the Ernest Lehman script based on Arthur Laurents's stage play. "West Side Story" is a glorious cinematic achievement that is waiting to be discovered by a new generation of film goers.
Bill T. Jones is a choreographer who has been staging performances for over thirty years. Working against traditional dance, Jones' work is defined by its wild contortions and nonstandard interpretations. In 2007, Jones was commissioned to stage a dance piece with his company about the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. For two years, Jones is captured on in this documentary, directing and constantly retooling his production while typically going against conventions and asking the difficult question of was Lincoln a good man. Jones is an enigmatic figure, dominant, controlling, intelligent and self-doubting. "A Good Man" is fascinating the way it gives us a glimpse into his mind and creative process, as is the reaction of his colleagues and students to his demanding temperament. I found this "American Masters" entry to be an engaging look at the staging process, but found it lost steam once it reached the end of rehearsal for the performance. When the constantly changing work is finally ready, we are not shown any of the finished product, and the film abruptly ends, leaving many of Jones' numerous questions left unanswered.
Friday, November 18, 2011
11/18/11 I revisited this film, and again want to comment on its inspirational effect its had on subsequent films, most notably Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive", whose lead character is clearly derived from Alain Delon's existential hitmen. I also once more appreciated the drab palette employed by Melville and the precise mechanics of the plot.
7/10/10 He is smoking in his bed, arises, and puts on his hat. We think he is a cop. It is clear that he has seen more than a few American gangster pictures and as he moves about his day from stealing a car to carrying out a professional hit, it also becomes clear that more than a few directors have seen this film. Le Samourai is a 1967 film from director Jean-Pierre Melville and it is a near perfect thriller with Alain Delon starring as a meticulous hit man who outsmarts the police and outguns the mob, but with both after him, who knows? This is a smartly constructed film, where all scenes eventually make sense. Also a sense of dread is consistently felt throughout the film. It clearly has influenced numerous filmmakers since its release and when watching it you can tell it was made with care by someone with smarts and style.
A mild-mannered publisher is going through a midlife crisis: A merger is leaving him forced out of his job and a smarmy junior executive is betraying him both at work and at home. However, a recent attack by an animal he hit during a business trip to New England is leaving him feeling more assertive and manly than ever, and is attracting the advances of the sexy daughter of his boss who has picked up on his scent. Mike Nichols' "Wolf" is a darkly funny and intelligent film that transplants the werewolf tale to modern corporate America. Having just prior played The Devil and The Joker, Jack Nicholson can play a wolfman in his sleep, as he does so deliciously here. Fine players surround the great Lothario, including Michelle Pfeiffer as the troubled and seductive boss's daughter, James Spader as the snaky yuppie, Christopher Plummer as Pfeiffer's father, and Richard Jenkins as a bumbling detective. I found this to be a sly and entertaining picture until the final denouement, from which Jack is almost completely absent (having totally morphed into a lyacanthrope). At this point the movie has deconstructed into a standard horror/action picture, but the first 3/4s of this picture are really worth a look with Nichols and Nicholson working at the top of their game.
A sullen film director receives word that the projectionist in the small Sicilian town from which he hails has died. While arranging to return for the first time in thirty years, the man recalls his childhood in the post-WWII villa and the deep bond he held with the deceased. Giuseppe Tornatore's semi-autobiographical "Cinema Paradiso" is about the fondness with which most of us regard are childhoods, even in times of turbulence, as well as the nostalgic power of the movies. The film is incredibly well staged and Philippe Noiret gives an indelible performance as the cynical yet warmhearted projectionist. However, the film is hampered by its incessant sentimentality and mawkish, stereotypical manifestations of its characters, including Salvatore Cascio who plays the director as a young boy. Also, in the second half, the key relationship between the boy and the projectionist is shifted to the boy's relationship with a beautiful Neapolitan, which doesn't hold nearly as much resonance. I think there is a masterpiece buried under the saccharin layers of this film (many find it to be one as is). As it stands, it is still an entertaining reminiscence, and the end of the film is particularly moving as well.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Inspired by Johnny Cash's performance at San Quentin, and determined after being placed in solitary confinement at that same institution, Merle Haggard began his country music career employing a powerfully simple style with populist lyrics that has resonated with a mass audience ever since. "Learning to Live with Myself" is an intimate portrait of the taciturn and genuine artist. Featuring friends, family, and colleagues who take us through his life and career, it is intercut with a recent performance following a cancer operation. Also joining the fray and offering words of tribute include Kris Kristofferson, Keith Richards, John Fogerty, and Robert Duvall. Haggard's music has a poetic simplicity and a sincere sense of egalitarian Americanism that seems to be lacking in today's popular culture. Watching Merle in this documentary, you get a sense of an artist veritably concerned with his craft, and not caught up with the glitz and flash which has polluted much of modern music.
A London real estate agent travels to Transylvania for a midnight rendezvous with the mysterious Count Dracula. As townspeople give warnings and make way, the agent succumbs to the Count's spell and the two travel to London feast on the blood of the living, while discredited Professor Van Helsing seeks to stop his reign of terror. With the subsequently released "Frankenstein", Tod Browning's "Dracula" asserted Universal Pictures position as the monster movie studio and cemented Bela Lugosi's legend into film history. Based on the Bram Stoker novel, a subsequent stage play, and greatly influenced by F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu", "Dracula" is an atmospheric, slightly stodgy, but incredibly entertaining film. Lugosi's performance as the learned, proper, and creepy Count Dracula ranks as one of the most devilishly enjoyable in film history and Dwight Frye is a hoot as Renfield, the crazed and possessed real estate agent. Edward Van Sloan is great as well as Van Helsing the vampire hunter, and his showdowns with Lugosi are among the highlights of the film. Along with "Frankenstein", "Dracula" is the fundamental film in monster movie history, immensely inspirational, and a treat to watch even to this day.
12/5/11 I rewatched this film accompanied with the Philip Glass score, which he composed for the film in 1998. The film has often drawn calls for a musical score, and while some complained that it tarnished the original, I find it to be a welcomed and nicely realized accompaniment.
12/5/11 I rewatched this film accompanied with the Philip Glass score, which he composed for the film in 1998. The film has often drawn calls for a musical score, and while some complained that it tarnished the original, I find it to be a welcomed and nicely realized accompaniment.
Mad scientist Dr. Frankenstein and his deranged assistant Fritz comb the German countryside for gravesites in search of fresh cadavers for his science experiments. When he is unable to find an acceptable brain specimen, he breaks into a medical school and unknowingly steals the brain of brutish criminal. As his fiance, best friend, and elder colleague rush to his laboratory to stop him, they are too late as Dr. Frankenstein has already brought to life his crudely assembled and barbarous monster. Universal Pictures' "Frankenstein" is the ultimate monster movie of the 1930s and a vivid adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic novel. James Whale's direction, staging, and use of sets creates indelible imagery and terrifying scenarios, while Boris Karloff's monster is scary, strangely sympathetic, and a lot more grotesque than most may recall (I liked how he was billed as "?" in the opening credits). "Frankenstein" is a horror classic that has inspired countless films, most of which have failed to recapture its craftsmanship, effect, and sheer terror.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Following her presentation, a British student places a lengthy love letter replete with quotes, doodles, and annotations on the windshield of her American classmate's car. Immediately, the two are in love, so much so that she decides to overstay her student visa rather than waiting a few months and then renewing it. Now, having to deal with the huge gap that separates them and the frustrations that go with the U.S. Immigration Department, the two strive to make their relationship work. Drake Doremus's "Like Crazy" was a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival and contains many of the irritating qualities of the films that populate that junket. Doremus uses relentless closeups and a sleek surface to gloss over his underdeveloped characters. We never get to know who the characters played by Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones (who is smarmy, entitled, and really annoying here) are, and instead are just shown a cutesy relationship where the two cuddle, text, talk on the phone, and given each other maudlin gifts. Much of the movie doesn't make sense either, such as why Jones overstayed her visa or (spoiler) the introduction of alternate mates for the two (Jennifer Lawrence, Charlie Bewley) who are given no thought by the filmmakers and actually seem to be better partners for the stars! I actually did like the glowing look and feel of this film as well as the closeups which strain to bring a sense of urgency to characters who don't deserve any.
As celebrations ring out in France as victory in Europe is declared, Algerians marching for their independence are beaten, imprisoned, and slain on the streets of Setif. Three brothers of disparate paths, a soldier, a firebrand politico, and neutral financier find themselves taking up the cause of the FLN, leading the armed Algerian resistance against the oppressive French. "Outside the Law" is writer/director Rachid Bouchareb's following to 2006's "Days of Glory" (unseen by myself), which also told the story of a fight against French Oppression. Here, Bouchareb tells an intriguing story with sure-footed direction and a good pace, especially for a longer film. However, his characters never succeed in being any more than types, and as a result we can never really identify with their cause or their brutal, terrorist actions. Also crucial scenes of high drama are hackneyed and superficial. "Days of Glory" is an engaging look at historical events populated with wooden fictional characters that don't do the story justice.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
On the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, a proud and elderly lion protects its pride from invading lions across a nearby river, while a wounded old lioness tries to secure a place for her cub. Meanwhile, a mother cheetah is raising her little cubs, protecting them from the dangers that surround them while teaching them to fend for themselves. Following "Earth" and "Oceans", "African Cats" is the third film in the Disney Natures series drawn from the acclaimed documentary television program "Planet Earth". Like its predecessors, it gorgeously captures its subjects, here the ebullient colors and magnificent creatures of the Savanna Desert. However, although the film is rousing for awhile, it seems to lose focus and goes on too long. The narration is also terribly simplistic, gearing itself towards the youngest children, although narrator Samuel L. Jackson does his best to keep things interesting. And yet, despite its problems "African Cats" is always beautiful to behold as it captures some of the world's most incredible creatures in action.
Saturday, November 12, 2011
In 1900 during the Philippine-American War, a small Filipino village is occupied by a U.S. garrison that maintains dominance over the area hoping to root out any insurrectionists. The town's tax collector has the dubious honor of being appointed leader of his people and now must contend with the vicious Colonel and his people, while being placed against his brother and son who have joined the revolutionaries. John Sayles ("Lone Star", "Matewan") is one of the unsung writer/directors of the American cinema, creating intelligent dioramas that cross many people and cultures. Here is historical fictitious portrait of life in an occupied village, we are introduced to and get a great sense of whom all the players are, as is the case in all of Sayles' films. For example, we meet the town mayor, known as Amigo (wonderfully portrayed by Joel Torre), and learn of his disdain for the intruders but his fear for his people, including the rebels. We meet the cracker soldiers, led by Chris Cooper and Garret Dillahunt in fine turns, and feel like we know them all individually. Finally, we meet the rebels camping out in the hills and come to learn of their motivations and struggles. With "Amigo", John Sayles has lent his touch to create an all inclusive, ultimately tragic tale of miscommunication.
Friday, November 11, 2011
On his secluded estate, mysterious plastic surgeon toils away on his new invention, a durable type of skin that can withstand heat and penetration. His test subject is a beautiful and seemingly willing prisoner whom he has locked away in his mansion and monitored by closed circuit camera. When his half brother disrupts his dubious practices, he becomes close with the subject as we are taken down the decadent road that led to their current arrangement. "The Skin I Live In" is director Pedro Almodovar at his most gawdy, providing a bizarre and soapy story with high drama and plush colors. Antonio Banderas, reuniting with the director, delivers a fantastic and obsessive performance as the ethics-free doctor. Elena Anaya is also fine as Banderas's test patient, and the mysteries surrounding her situation are truly a kick to the gut when revealed. There are several plot points and implications that are left unresolved here, but this is still a sinuously gorgeous piece of entertainment.
A trembling young woman phones her estranged sister to pick her up from a rural location, and goes to live with her and her husband. While attempting to adjust and exhibiting increasingly bizarre behavior, she reflects on the abusive cult from which she fled and its controlling, domineering leader. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" represents two breakthroughs and incredible introduction to the film world. The first is Elizabeth Olsen, who distances herself from her famous twin sisters and turns in an incredible and dark performance as the troubled Martha. The second is writer/director Sean Durkin, who with his debut film, crafts a hypnotic, visually stunning movie that weaves between two separate narratives. As we go back and forth between Martha's time at her sister's summer home and the time at the commune, the technique becomes seamless and leads to great payoff later in the film. Great character actor John Hawkes is also menacing as the manipulative cult leader. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a unique and sure-handed centered on an intense and brooding lead performance.
Cargo delivery men Bud and Lou receive a long distance call from Lawrence Talbot but before he can tell the nitwits not to open the two recently delivered crates, the full moon rises and he is transformed into a werewolf. The duo deliver the crates to the house of horrors, open them, and unleash Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. Now with the aid of a beautiful doctor who has captured Lou's heart, Dracula aims to place his "pliable" brain into the monster. "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" is a film with a funny premise that should have been funnier than it is. Many of the gags are uninspired and Costello's constant quipping and mugging grow tiresome. What makes this film worthwhile is the monsters, with Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney reprising their famed roles.
William Shakespeare's Henry V has always been a rallying cry for the British people, often staged during times of war. So it is no surprise that Winston Churchill summoned Laurence Olivier from his stint in the navy to helm a production of the play. Filmed over a short period of time in beautiful Technicolor, Oliver directed, wrote, and starred in a rousing version of the play that aired in England at the same time of the invasion of Normandy, the same lands of which King Henry conquers in the play. The film begins as a performance at the Globe Theater in 1600 and the action onstage shifts to the fields of northern France in 1415 where the courageous Henry leads his men to victory in The Battle of Agincourt during the One Hundred Years' War. Like all of Shakespeare's work, it takes a minute to get a hold on the dialogue, but after a bit, this becomes a rhythmic and rousing affair. Olivier is commanding in the lead as he passionately recites scores of beautiful and energizing prose. Up until this point, Shakespeare was thought of as too stodgy for the big screen. With "Henry V", Olivier set the bar for the future films adapted from The Bard's work.
In Naples, Italy the Camorra organized crime system controls nearly every aspect of life. In the midst of a turf war, "Gomorrah" follows five different storylines which display the far reaching depravity of the powerful organization: two young "Scarface" emulating stickup artists, an even younger boy drawn into the life, a toxic waste dumping politico, a gun shy bag man, and a tailor moonlighting with a rival designer. Matteo Garrone's film, based on an expose by Roberto Saviano, is a stark, neorealist account, told without music, that effectively and shockingly reveals the nature of organized crime. Even in a great, unromantic film such as "Goodfellas", we can still be taken by the glamorous elements of the story or the flash of the direction. Scene through an unadulterated lens, "Gomorrah" offers a sickening view of corruption.
Thursday, November 10, 2011
A malevolent and rotund gold obsessed Dutchman has hatched a treacherous scheme to infiltrate Fort Knox and contaminate the U.S.'s gold reserve, thus increasing the net worth of his own gold supply. Now 007 must battle Oddjob, a short statured hat throwing Mongolian and Pussy Galore, a sensuous and wicked pilot. "Goldfinger" is a wonderful blend of camp, sex, and thrills and so far the pinnacle of the Bond series. The amount of gadgetry, treachery, and provocativeness is enough to pack two films and many of the hallmarks of the series are present here. Sean Connery is still a lot of fun also, and seems to be comfortable in the role. I also really admired the zany end to this film, especially the 2nd ending aboard the president's private jet. "Goldfinger" is a prime recipe for to successfully blend all the elements of a Bond film.
After committing a petty crime, young chums Rocky and Jerry make their escape when Jerry stumbles on the train tracks and is saved by Rocky who is in turn arrested as Jerry makes it out. The two's lives take divergent paths, Rocky becoming a career criminal and Jerry a priest. Years later when the two reunite, Jerry (Pat O'Brien) becomes discouraged by how the slum kids have taken a liking to Rocky (James Cagney) and goes on a crusade to exposed organized crime in the area, much the chagrin of the shyster lawyer (Humphrey Bogart) who wishes to take the righteous priest down. Michael Curtiz's "Angels with Dirty Faces" has one of the most hackneyed and antiquated set-ups known to the movies, yet it is still raucously entertaining and possibly the finest of the Warner Brothers gangster pictures. James Cagney is delightful and charismatic as ever and has some wonderful scenes in which he mentors O'Brien's Dead End Kids including one where he officiates a basketball games and resorts to tactics as dirty as the ones used as his players. Bogart is effective as well in a thankless role as the heavy, but I was really impressed by O'Brien's work in the typically boring work as the straight man. O'Brien brings weight to the role and is a large reason the film succeeds. "Angels with Dirty Faces" rises above its framework and even above its genre, and its final conclusion is greatly realized and extremely satisfying.
A wounded insurance agent races through a red light in the early hours of the mourning and rushes into his agency where he dictates the events of the last few weeks of his life and how he became embroiled in his current predicament. Beginning with a trip to renew a man's auto policy, the agent becomes enamored with an icy blond and entangled in a murderous insurance scheme, with his keen and dogged boss always on the scent. Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" may be the finest example of film noir to ever grace the big screen, and with a script from a novel by James M. Cain ("The Postman Always Rings Twice", "Mildred Pierce") and contributed to by fellow hard boiled author Raymond Chandler ("The Big Sleep", "Farewell, My Lovely") and given Wilder's crackling writing style, it should be of no surprise. The dialogue that populates the film is terse, witty, and cold and is given greater weight through Fred MacMurray's deadpan delivery as Walter Neff (with two f's as in Philadelphia). He is matched by the beautiful Babraba Stanwyck as the heartless and calculating Phyllis Dietrichson. Edward G. Robinson is wonderful as well as MacMurray's boss, in the role that ushered him from leading man to supporting player. In addition to the great dialogue and crisp black and white direction, one of the great things about the film is how well the crime is spelled out and how plausible every character's involvement and motivation is. "Double Indemnity" is a success on several different levels and another triumph on the incomparable Wilder's list of successes.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
SPECTRE's number 1, the malevolent Blofeld with the help of his number 3, a former KGB dominatrix, and number 5, a world class chess champion, has developed a plan to lure 007 with a beautiful Russian spy carrying a secret decoder device under the guise of defection. Seeing this as a obvious trap, Bond travels to Istanbul to rendezvous with the stunning agent and do battle with the evil organization's muscleman (a young Robert Shaw) aboard the Orient Express. "From Russia with Love" is largely regarded as the best of the Bond series, and while it is a fun and exciting film, it is still an exercise in silliness. Unlike its predecessor "Dr. No" which started off strong and ended in absurdity, "FRWL" starts off turgidly and concludes wonderfully highlighted by the fight to the death on the train. Perhaps I got into this Bond project with the wrong impression of the series and too high of expectations. Still "FRWL" is an entertaining if a bit too campy cinematic excursion.
In a foxhole on the western front, three doughboys meet and go there divergent paths back home in the big city. Eddie (James Cagney) has a rough go of finding work and stumbles into the bootlegging business. Straightlaced Lloyd (Jeffrey Lynn) starts a law practice and heartless George (Humphrey Bogart) falls back in as a sailor and climbs his way to the top of the rumrunning rackets. Raoul Walsh's "The Roaring Twenties", from a story by Mark Hellinger, is one of the more affectionate gangster pictures that Warner Brothers put out during the era. Cagney is magnetic in a more affable role than his earlier "The Public Enemy" and Humphrey Bogart is in fine form as the ruthless bootlegger who briefly teams up with Cagney. I also liked the work of Gladys George as speakeasy matron Panama Smith as well as Frank McHugh as Cagney's cabbie pal from back home. "The Roaring Twenties", though still condemning of the gangster lifestyle, is lighter and one of the more enjoyable genre pictures of the time.
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
A fiery and talented network news producer out of D.C. becomes attracted to the handsome new anchor who is the embodiment everything she detests about nightly news, much to the chagrin of her friend and reporter who secretly carries a flame for her. James L. Brooks' "Broadcast News" endearingly cynical portrait the watering down and cheapening of our on air news programs. Much like "Network" with less venom, it is prophetic in the way it sees the trajectory of our television journalism (watching the news stories presented in this film, I couldn't believe how literate they were!) Brooks' wonderful script is anchored (no pun intended, hahaha) by three magnificent performances from three distinguished types. Holly Hunter stands at the center of the film in an incredibly realized depiction as the wound-up producer (I'd hate to call her adorable and take anything away from the performance but she is). William Hurt is equally great as the charismatic, self-admitted dope, and Albert Brooks is just fantastic as a brilliant but photogenically challenged reporter. Jack Nicholson also makes a welcome and hysterical cameo as the national news anchor. In a film full of many great ones I wanted to mention two which stand out: One is where Hurt is called to read the news on whim and we see the inner workings of the studio as Hunter delivers his lines via earpiece, some of which come through Brooks over the phone. The other is a speech delivered by Brooks to Hunter where he tries to stall her from meeting Hurt deriding him as the devil while declaring his undying love for her. I don't know if I've ever seen a film that manages to be so enchanting and loving, while so succinctly conveying its cynical message.
Oliver is a pensive, self-conscious teenager who has a crush on the like-minded Jordana, whom he begins to court. Meanwhile, his stiff parents are going through a rough patch of their marriage and Oliver is determined to prevent his mother from reconnecting with her ex-flame, the weirdo, mullet-headed motivational speaker who has just moved in next door. "Submarine" is the directorial debut of British writer/director Richard Ayoade and is a replenishing splash in the face to run-of-the-mill teenage romantic movie outputs. Cut as compulsively as a Michael Bay film (yes this is a compliment) in the vein of "Amelie", Ayoade tells an exceedingly funny and offbeat story, with characters who are just as off-kilter. Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige are great as the teenagers, and Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor as the parents. Paddy Considine is particularly funny as the weirdo neighbor. While I was watching this film, my (standard issue) 16-year-old cousin and his (standard issue) 16-year-old friend stopped by about 20 minutes into the film and, to my surprise, I found both of them engaged by the film until the end. "Submarine" captures that element of youth that has been so greatly submerged in many films about young people.
In 1960, journalist Paul Kemp takes a job at the San Juan Star, a failing paper under a miserly editor run out of a dilapidated building. Soaking up booze and living with two of his colleagues in an equally neglected apartment, Kemp begins to freelance for a shady businessman looking to develop the island, and sets his sights on his fetching fiance. Bruce Robinson's adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's first novel is simultaneously a wild meandering romp through Puerto Rico as well as a condemnation of 1960s jet set culture. Johnny Depp, again playing a Thompson cipher, brings the proper amount of beguile and shock to the part and creates really a fun character. Amber Heard is dazzling and quite good as Aaron Eckhart's fiance, who is also in good form as the macho sleazeball. Richard Jenkins, Michael Rispoli, and Giovanni Ribisi are also wonderful in comic roles as newspaperman. I immensely despised the aimless and headache inducing wanderings of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", Depp's other Thompson film. Yet here, I feel Robinson (who hasn't directed a film in 19 years) finds the right rhythms as well as the correct blends of romp and cynicism to do Thompson's work justice.
A young street tough and his mate gradually work their way up from petty crime to calculated murder during the era of Prohibition. Going to work for an Irish mobster, and dallying in money, booze, and women, Tom Powers rises to his inevitable fall, fooling his poor dear mother and shaming his straightlaced brother. William A. Wellman's "The Public Enemy" is one of the early Warner Brothers gangster pictures and was the movie that made James Cagney known to the public. Cagney bristles with energy and ferocity here and brings immense likability to a truly detestable character (this is the one where he shoves the grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face). The story is gritty and highly influential as well (the opening of "Goodfellas" came to mind a lot while watching this). "The Public Enemy" is an exciting picture of a nasty individual and an attestation to the talents of a true screen legend.
In a dystopian future, the aging process stops at 25 years at which point people are given only 1 year to live, with time being the currency. An poor man saves a despondent man worth eons who transfers all of his time to him and jumps off a bridge. Now, faced with the murder charge, the newly enriched hero determines to kindnap a tycoon's daughter and redistribute the wealth, thus throwing off the unfairly tilted balance. Andrew Niccol ("The Truman Show", "Gattaca") is a writer/director who likes to use gimmickry in telling stories. Here he uses his time is money apparatus as a parable to the current economic crisis told in a "Logan's Run"/The Prince and The Pauper/"Bonnie and Clyde" sci-fi mashup, and the result is a badly written overlong preachfest. Justin Timberlake is barely tolerable in the lead (though he's not given any help from the script) and Amanda Seyfried sleepwalks her way through the picture. Supporting players Cillian Murphy and "Mad Men's" Vincent Kartheiser do their best to help the film. For a popcorn movie I guess this kind of works, but as social commentary its absolutely insufferable.
random thought: the word "time" was used so often here, after awhile I felt like I was watching "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and counting how many time's the word "who" was said
For the many who attempt to escape the tyranny of WWII Europe, the last stop of their arduous journey is the Moroccan town of Casablanca where scores of refugees wait and wait for safe passage to Lisbon and then the new world. There many spend their time at Rick's, a cafe run by a hard bitten American expatriate who sticks his neck out for no one, until a freedom fighter and his wife, Rick's ex-flame walk into his gin joint and makes him realize that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans. Of all the great films that consistently top purportless lists ("Citizen Kane", "The Godfather", etc.), "Casablanca" is the most cherished and the finest of the American films because of its mass appeal traversing multiple genres, its durability over the years (and through attempts to contaminate it i.e. colorize), and for its downright effectiveness and profundity. Director Michael Curtiz, from a quintessential script by Howard Koch and brothers Philip and Julius Epstein, has fashioned a film as memorable and quotable as any that is just as grabbing the fifteenth time you've watched it as it does the first. Humphrey Bogart is at his cynical best and Ingrid Bergman is transcendentally beautiful and affecting. The supporting cast headed by Claude Rains as the happily corruptible French police captain is the finest ever assembled as well, rounded out by the shifty Peter Lorre, the rotund Sydney Greenstreet, and the inimitable Dooley Wilson as Sam the piano player. "Casablanca" is a wonderment of the cinema and every revisit is a renewal of a beautiful friendship.
Sunday, November 6, 2011
After dismissing a top SCLC member before heading out to meet Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and blackmail him into securing a wiretap for the organization, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover begins to dictate his memoirs. Beginning as a fervent young federal agent who made his name during the Red Scare of 1919 and the Palmer Raids, Hoover's durable career would be one of intimidation and rule bending, but also one which strengthened and organized our national policing abilities making the country safer. He also held dark and unaccepted secrets that would have been as damaging as any of the information contained in his private files. "J. Edgar" is a continuation of the rich and powerful filmmaking that Clint Eastwood has made standard in his work. In an unlikely collaboration with Oscar winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black ("Milk"), the two arrive at a middle ground resulting in an extremely compelling film which handles the homosexual elements with restraint and nuance, while presenting a contemptible yet sympathetic view of one of the most controversial figures in 20th Century American history. Leonardo Dicaprio again delivers a riveting historical portrayal as a disappears in the role of Hoover through over half a century of his life. Armie Hammer, who had his breakthrough role(s) as the Winklevoss twins in last year's "The Social Network", is incredible here, especially in the aged scenes, as Clyde Tolson, the fashionable and shy companion of Hoover. I did feel the movie mishandled its female characters, first with the role of Hoover's mother played by Judi Dench. Dench is over the top and obvious as the domineering matriarch and the scenes feel life out of "The Aviator", another Leo biopic. The other female role is that of Hoover's secretary (Naomi Watts, excellent despite), whom he gave full trust and access to his private files. The relationship is never fully developed and we get very little time of Dicaprio and Watts interacting on screen. The rest of the movie including the scenes between Leo and Hammer, and the historical ones come off remarkably and are the result of great craftsmanship and wonderful acting. Even at 137 minutes, I thought the film felt short and would have liked to see a more encompassing picture (1935-1962 are omitted). Still this is engrossing picture of a contentious man and another wonder from the now 81 year old Eastwood.
Thursday, November 3, 2011
A young hotshot ex-football player (Keanu Reeves) transfers to the L.A. bank robbery division of the FBI and is assigned to an eccentric veteran (Gary Busey) who has a wild theory that the most elusive crew is comprised of surfers who don the mask of former ex-presidents. Buying into the theory, the agent attempts to infiltrate the gang by way of a surfer chick (Lori Petty) which leads him to the centered, zen-like king of the board (Patrick Swayze) who takes him on a dangerous ride. "Point Break" is a fun and silly movie until about the 45 minute mark when the film rapidly digresses into utter ridiculousness. Kathryn Bigelow's movie is surprisingly well shot, but after awhile I wondered if the movie was to be taken seriously or taken for a farce as inane plot turns and horrendous acting become to much to bear. Honestly, I liked Swayze and supporters Busey, Petty, and John C. McGinley, but Reeves' movies consistently leave me asking myself if a better film would have resulted if he were not in them and the absolute absurdity of almost all of the plot turns here left me feeling more then a little bummed out.
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
A compliant Norwegian thug is released from prison after a 12 year stint for murder. With the help of his mobster boss, he begins to assimilate himself by working at a local garage, reconnecting with his now grown son, and renting out the basement of a lonely and brutish looking woman's apartment. As his life begins to show signs of improvement, his professional boss insists that he takes care of the rat who fingered him for the crime he went away for. "A Somewhat Gentle Man" is a bizarre and quirky film that has some humorous, well-observed moments, but for the most part overplays its hand. This export from Norway strives to be something of a Coenesque bumbling criminals flick, but it falls way short of the mark. The Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard gives a fine performance, and as I said there are some very fine moments (I liked the scenes between him and his landlady), but the film ultimately suffers from overcooking.
Filmed at Constitution Hall in early 2009, Robin Williams takes us through his usual manic performance with takes on current issues of the time including the Beijing Olympics, the bailouts, texting, the recently elected president, GPS navigation, porn, rehab, hands off driving, and the creation of the human anatomy. Like his other riotous television stand-up specials including "Live at the Met" and "Live on Broadway", Williams is a hyperactive ball of invention replete of wild body contortions, impersonations, and humorous musings. Some of the material is recycled from previous outings, but it is still some kind of wonder to see him get on a roll and command the typical uproarious reaction.
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
A brother and sister drive up a hilly Appalachian road to lay a wreath on their father's grave when they are approached by a seemingly inebriated man. As the two laugh it off, the man attacks the sister and then kills the brother as she flees to a local farmhouse. There she becomes petrified with fear and is barricaded in with several others. Throughout the course of the night, the members of the household listen to news reports and bicker amongst themselves as they try to figure out the best way to counter the mounting attack. Zombie master George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" set the standard for the genre and was a film he crafted on a shoestring budget with his friends and western Pennsylvania locals. The budget is clear by the look of the film, but what is so remarkable about the movie is its professional direction. Romero is so sure-handed behind the camera as well as being so adept at mounting terrifying sequences. The level of gore and violence, while not repulsive, is also shocking for its time. "Night of the Living Dead" is a chilling film that shows that the best horror films are made with intelligence and craft.
Having just arrived at their new home on a naval base in Key West, a young teen and his brother are taking the the latest Vincent Price double billing at the local theater. The trailer features the latest picture from scare maestro Lawrence Woolsey about a half man half ant being shown in the new format ATOMOVISION, and leaving the theater the two realize that Woolsey himself will be there promoting his film in two weeks! Now they along with rest of the town must get ready for the big event, all during the course of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Joe Dante's "Matinee" is a sweet, nostalgic, silly, and extremely fun throwback to monster movies and times of innocence passed. John Goodman is a lot of fun as the confident B movie man and Cathy Moriarty is just as good his his jaded leading lady/girlfriend. There are some half baked elements in the film that could have used more fleshing out, but when the film gets down to business in the premier of "Mant" (this movie within a movie is an absolute riot), the movie really soars in supremely funny and chaotic fashion.