Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Beautiful Boy

A married couple begins pondering separation now that their only son has begun college and is out of the house. One evening they receive an ordinary call from him, and the next he kills 17 of his classmates and then himself. Assailed by the media, and receiving uncomfortable condolences from family and friends, the couple wrestle with guilt, anger, and regret while slowly realizing that together is the only way to cope with this unimaginable situation. "Beautiful Boy" is an amateurish rendering, both of the issue it encompasses and as filmmaking in general. Shot in shakycam, there is nothing done to elevate this film above a made at home movie. The films subject is handled in a contrived manner, and leaves good actors Michael Sheen and Maria Bello out in the cold and looking ridiculous performing overwrought scenes. For a recent film about parents dealing with incomprehensible guilt, you could hardly do better than David Schwimmer's "Trust" (I've also heard the upcoming and similarly themed "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is excellent). "Beautiful Boy" does not add anything to its incendiary topic.

Brooklyn Bridge

When an elderly Long Island resident was asked by a local paper what her response was to the hoopla surrounding the moon landing, she said it was interesting, but nothing compare to the day they opened The Brooklyn Bridge. The construction of the bridge was a massive undertaking, the largest of its kind up to that point. Connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn and breaking ground in 1867 and taking 16 years to complete, the work the product of innovator John Roebling and carried out by his son Washington. Following the arduous construction, the bridge has become a symbol of progress and beauty, inspiring the many who have beheld it. "Brooklyn Bridge" is the first film from Ken Burns, and contains all of the trademarks and prowess used in his subsequent masterpieces, all of which have captured part of the American experience. Telling his story in two parts, Burns presents the conception and construction of the wonder in the first segment, and leaves the second open to commentators giving their reflections on it (these include Arthur Miller, Lewis Mumford, and David McCullough who also narrates). With his first film and already in complete command of his medium, Ken Burns tells the story of a simple yet wondrous feat of American engineering.

Monday, December 26, 2011

War Horse

12/26/11 I saw this again, and once more found it to be a rousing, sentimental and thoroughly entertaining old-fashioned picture. Certain critics panning the film for being 'overly sentimental' and 'boring' must also reserve the same sentiments towards "Gone with the Wind", "Ben-Hur", "Lawrence of Arabia" because "War Horse" is made in the same vein as those classics and plays nearly as well.

11/2/11 A drunken English farmer foolishly buys a thoroughbred at auction, an animal which will not help him plow his rocky fields. The farmer's son quickly forms a bond with the horse, and gently breaks it in. As the First Great War approaches, the father sells the horse to the army and we follow the extraordinary creature on his journey through war torn Europe, as the young soon to be enlisted son yearns for the day that he can reunite with his beloved pet. "War Horse" is epic filmmaking from director Steven Spielberg who crosses several different genres in his creation of this grandiose film, from a book by Michael Morpurgo. The opening passage features panoramic shots of the countryside and the story resembles "The Black Stallion" and other earlier Mickey Rooney horse films. Then as the horse is sold, we are taken on a "Winchester '73" type of journey, as we are given rousing, sweeping battle scenes as well as quiet, domesticated vignettes. The cast is very fine as well, as great character actors populate the cast. Jeremy Irvine is sincere as the young boy, and Peter Mullan and the great Emily Watson are fine as his parents. Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis, Eddie Marsan, and Niels Arestrup deliver fine work as well in supporting roles. I was really taken by this ambitious and touching film, even though I felt that not all scenes worked out completely, some needing trimming while others needing fleshing out. Regardless, this is old fashioned, large scale filmmaking and a needed reminder of why we love going to the movies.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas Carol

"A Christmas Carol" is the best known of Charles Dickens' novels and perhaps the most filmed story in the cinema (that may be incorrect). In this early MGM production of the revered tale, Reginald Owens takes the reins as the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge who as we all know will be haunted by his deceased business partner Jacob Marley, visited by ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, and make a total 180 redirection of his life. What separates this film in making it special, in addition to the wonderful Owen performance, is its comfortability with the material and opposition to extremes (which, to say, are not always unwelcome). Director Edwin L. Marin's rendition of the timeless story is neither too sentimental, nor harsh, nor too scary and tells Scrooge's story of ultimate redemption in a simple, straight forward fashion. The supporting cast is wonderful as well, and I was particularly drawn to Barry MacKay's work as Scrooge's magnanimous nephew Fred as well as Gene Lockhart's turn as the noble Bob Cratchit. Some elements of the story are changed as well which add interest, including the casting of Ann Rutherford as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and some lighter scenes with MacKay interacting with some neighborhood kids. "A Christmas Carol" is a timeless story, that always seems to garner affection. This version is no exception.

A Christmas Tale

When Abel and Junon's eldest child became sick with bone cancer, neither themselves, their daughter Elizabeth, nor their recently arrived son Henri could save their sickly child. After the arrival of another son Ivan, the Vuillard seemed to carry the weight of this terrible tragedy. As an adult, Elizabeth is inexplicably unhappy married to a wayward husband and mother to a mentally ill son. After paying ne'er-do-well Henri's debts and saving him from a prison sentence, she insists that they never speak again. After five years of estrangement, the news that Junon has contracted the same cancer that killed their son brings the family together when Henri is found to be compatible. Now the troubled family are forced to face years of guilt and resentment in the face of this new hardship. "A Christmas Tale" is a wonderful film from French director Arnaud Desplechin, a film that follows no ordinary routes in a story that just begs for a standard treatment. I could just imagine the American version, replete with flatulent jokes, unearned sentiment, and a rushed artless feel. Instead, Desplechin constructs a beautiful cinematic film, filled with a variety of music and film techniques, that makes no easy compromises with its well developed characters. The great Catherine Deneuve gives a sublime performance as the matricarch of the family and Mathieu Amalric is equally wonderful as the shiftless Henri. I imagine most shudder when they hear the term 'holiday family comedy'. "A Christmas Tale" is the perfect antidote to those tired and routine yuletide offerings.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Stephen King's Bag of Bones

“Compared to the dullest human being walking on the earth, the most brilliantly drawn character, in any novel, is nothing more than a bag of bones.”
-Thomas Hardy

Mike Noonan is a second rate author of thrillers who, while signing copies of his latest release, loses his wife when she is hit by a car. Learning that she was hiding her pregnancy from him, Mike retreats to their country home and, while experiencing greif and stifling writer's block, becomes involved with a troubled young single mother, and tries to unravel his wife's secret and the dark curse that seems to haunt the town. "Bag of Bones" is a made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King's novel, and considering the baggage that comes along with this format and production cost, is a pretty entertaining excursion. Although his film adaptations may often often be glaring turkeys, King is always a top storyteller and here the story is enough to carry the film through its detractions, which includes poor acting. Although the supporting players are not up to snuff, Pierce Brosnan is quite good in the lead role, delivering a grounded performance while avoiding the usual trappings of overacting. "Bag of Bones" is not a great movie, but it moves briskly, tells a pretty good story, and offers a few chills. What more could you ask for from such a production?

Howl's Moving Castle

An insecure young milliner is placed under a spell and transformed into an elderly old lady. Taking refuge in a vain young wizard's bizarre mobile castle and mingling with its strange inhabitants in the midst of brutal war, the girl finds her raison d'etre and a love for the equally struggling wizard. "Howl's Moving Castle" is another cherished entry from hallowed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, and is an imaginative and wildly inventive film. While the movie's artistry has no bounds, it lacks a certain cohesion and, as a result, moves in fits and starts. Animation is always praised as a genre of unlimited invention, but I still want something in a film like this that follows some sort of logical basis. With "Howl's Moving Castle" my head started hurting trying to make odds and ends of what I was seeing, which actually resembles some sort of "Wizard of Oz mashup" and I was unable to fully appreciate the majesty of Miyazaki's creation (the castle looks phenomenal). Maybe I'm too Americanized and not adjusted to Japanese film. I watched the original version in subtitles, then sampled the dubbed American version which seemed more contiguous. "Howl's Moving Castle" is beloved by many and I think, with a little restraint and realism, would be the masterpiece it is widely considered.


A mysterious, nomadic woman (Juliette Binoche) and her young daughter settle into a small, cloistered French village dominated by the local Church and open a confectionery at the outset of the Lenten season, much to the perturb of the rigid town mayor (Alfred Molina). Offering desert oriented remedies to the townspeople and gradually becoming involved in their lives, the town becomes further disrupted by the arrival of river gypsies led by an equally mysterious Irish captain (Johnny Depp), who garners the affection of the young woman and gives the mayor an opportunity to impose his strict morality. "Chocolat" is the kind of offbeat and well directed sentimental fare that we've come to expect from Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom and features a nice performance from the grossly under appreciated Binoche. Supporting players are fine as well including Molina, Judi Dench, and Hallstrom's wife Lena Olin (although its strange to watch her scenes with Binoche after watching the more intimate ones they share in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"). Despite these good elements, the problem of the film lies with its heavy-handedness and its hammering away at underscored points. Like the chocolates confections Binoche serves in her shop, "Chocolat" is a rich, warm film that is somehow lacking in substance.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Of all the great Christmastime television specials, including "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas", "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" is the most endearing, most likely do to its supreme collaborators. The story of the green mountain dwelling miser and canine friend Max who seek to steal Christmas from the Whos of Whoville, only to have his heart changed do to their unflappable resolve comes to the screen from the beloved Dr. Seuss books by way of likewise admired Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones. With monster movie legend Boris Karloff both narrating and voicing the Grinch and baritone Thurl Ravenscroft crooning the wickedly sublime "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch", all the ingredients are in place for a delightfully offbeat Christmas recipe.


Real estate agent Hutter is sent on a lucrative opportunity to the Carpathian mountains to sell some local property to the mysterious Count Orlok. Despite protests from the local villagers, Hutter presses on insisting on meeting Orlok's midnight carriage to take him to his castle. Soon, however, he will discover the true nature of his host, as the count makes his way back to the agent's home to claim his betrothed, and feed off of and kill anything in his path. Although it was an unauthorized and altered rendition of Bram Stoker's classic novel, F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" remains the definitive and most influential Dracula movie.  Max Schrek's performance, which has taken on mythical proportions, remains one of the most eerie, as Murnau opted for a grotesque rather than debonair look. For the time in which it was shot, "Nosferatu" is also an excellent looking film, that flows surprisingly well for an early silent film. I wouldn't call this film scary (although Schreck's first appearance and the closing seduction sequence are pretty chilling), but are any of the Dracula movies really that terrifying. The Bram Stoker adaptations are more about style, and with this initial offering Muranau set the tone for everything that followed and crafted a monstrous creature that none could match.

The Pacific

Through the eyes of three Marines, a long-term soldier, a cynical reporter, and a late enlistee we are given a window into the horrors of the the Pacific theater. From the jungle nightmare of Guadalcanal to the forgotten battle of Peleliu to the bloody excursions on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, "The Pacific" is a recreation of the brave and hazardous journey many young men took to protect the world from fascism. As a followup to the inimitable "Band of Brothers", "The Pacific" is somewhat of a letdown surprisingly, despite the lofty bar that has been set. Again produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, and comprised of most of the filmmakers who developed the earlier series, "The Pacific" is a technical wonder and merits a recommendation on its look and battle sequences alone. However, and it pains me to say this, the three men chosen to represent the campaign, John Basilone, Bob Leckie, and Eugene Sledge, are not depicted as interesting as perhaps they deserve and are not played by actors who can do their characters justice. Also none one of the characters contain that existential, ethereal nature which made "BOB" so compelling, which is definitely strived for here. Despite misplaced focus and poor characterization, "The Pacific" is worth a look, if only for its technical marvels and to understand the debt we owe that generation.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Vietnam in HD

The veterans of the Vietnam War have long gone unappreciated, both due to the fact that they were sent to fight an unnecessary conflict and as that conflict drew on, they were singled out as the problem by herds of cowardly protesters, the first time American soldiers had been lambasted by their own in history. "Vietnam in HD" is the war's perspective from those who fought it. Compiled from soldier's footage sought in a massive search, and replete with interviewees who fought the battle in all different forms (and even one who turned against the war), this feels like a thorough and often harrowing account. Narrated by Michael C. Hall (an excellent narrator), "Vietnam in HD" is a high point for their series program. Perhaps because it is composed entirely of original footage, the recreations that mar most of their other documentaries are not present. The Vietnam era (and the preceding Kennedy Assassination and subsequent Watergate scandal) were not good times for this country, and the veterans of that war often received the brunt of our dissatisfaction."Vietnam in HD" is at least a minor chance for some of those men to set the record straight, and let us catch a glimpse of their heroic service to our country.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an insolvent real estate broker and his employee brother (Ethan Hawke) is doing much better. To relieve their financial woes, they decide to knockoff their parent's suburban jewelry store in an in-and-out kind of deal. But, of course, the job goes horribly awry and Andy's sexy wife (Marissa Tomei) and her revelations that she is sleeping with Hank, along with their father's (Albert Finney) tenacious pursuit of the culprits leads everything spiraling towards a bleak and tragic climax. "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" was the final film of legendary director Sidney Lumet ("12 Angry Men", "Network", "Dog Day Afternoon") and is a fitting sendoff for a filmmaker who specialized in gritty urban fare. Aside from the cheap, stark look of the film itself (which is probably intentional), this is a brilliantly acted and ingeniously constructed film. Having seen it once before, I was amazed how well Kelly Masterson's time jumping screenplay conceals a central secret for so long. The grim script is also carried out to perfection by a top cast led by an intense performance from P.S. Hoffman. Ethan Hawke, who is capable of good work, turns in one of his better performances here, as does Marissa Tomei as an aging siren fearing she is losing her looks. The great and often overlooked Albert Finney is in fine form in a wrought, operatic role.  "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a shattering and beyond bleak film that is a testament to its prodigious director.

The Adventures of Tintin

A boy genius reporter and his trusty dog Snowy are browsing at the market in London and come across a model ship which they purchase at a bargain, or so it seems. Soon shady people come crawling out of the woodwork to unhand the boy of his ship and eventually it is stolen, but not without leaving behind the secret messages which the marauders are ultimately seeking. Now, Tintin and Snowy, with a drunken ship captain in tow, embark on a grand adventure on the high seas and deserts, unraveling the secret of the unicorn. "The Adventures of Tintin" is based on the beloved European children's author Hergé, adapted by acclaimed penners Steven Moffat ("Dr. Who", "Sherlock"), Joe Cornish ("Attack the Block"), and Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead", "Hot Fuzz"), and brought to the screen by special effects giants director Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson. Made in a Robert Zemeckis style of motion capture animation, and shot in reserved 3D, "Tintin" is a wonderful and comical action romp, replete with fine motion capture performances from Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and the inimitable Andy Serkis. Alongside his "War Horse" which is also scheduled for a Christmas release, Spielberg has crafted two endearing family films, this one in the same vein as "Raiders of the Lost Ark", the kind of film which he does best.

Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides

Jeff Bridges came from a show business family, with his father Lloyd and brother beau finding success in the movies, but he never really showed any interest early on. Admittedly lazy, and inclined more so to other artistic areas such as music and painting, Jeff somehow has made his name in pictures as one of the most likable and identifiable of all Hollywood stars. In this retrospective, family members, coworkers including Cybil Shepard, Peter Bogdanovich, Taylor Hackford, and Robin Williams, and The Dude himself look back on his remarkable career beginning with his iconic supporting work in "The Last Picture Show", the career reviving "Starman", and his quintessential performances in "The Big Lebowski", "Crazy Heart", and "True Grit". "The Dude Abides" is what you would expect from a documentary on Jeff Bridges: laid back and amiable. I thought it could have been a little more focused and some of the interviewees aren't as compelling as others (I didn't really care what his nephew thought of his career). Still, this is a warm portrait of one of the most magnetic and seemingly down to earth performers working today. 

Hollywood Chinese

"Hollywood Chinese" is a twofold exploration by Alfred Dong of Chinese Americans roles in Hollywood films and how they are portrayed. The first segment focuses on the early years of film, where roles were hard to come by for Chinese, and where people of Asian descent were always depicted in stereotypical roles and even the most successful Chinese roles such as in "Charlie Chan" or "The Good Earth" were given to white actors. We also see the work of such extraordinary people who were able to succeed in spite of bias, including James Wong Howe, the legendary two-time Oscar winning cinematographer. The second segment of the documentary focuses on current Chinese filmmakers and performers such as Ang Lee, Nancy Kwan (pictured above), Wayne Wang, BD Wong, and Joan Chen recollecting on the movies that influenced them in addition to their body of work. "Hollywood Chinese" is an enlightening film, made with a rare kind of thoughtfulness and understanding, that shows a group of people who have been limited by the industry who have still left an impressive mark on the movies.

Doctor Zhivago

A Russian officer (Alec Guinness) overseeing a works project pulls one of the laborers into his office whom he believes to be his late brother's daughter. He then proceeds to tell of the love affair between the poet/doctor (Omar Sharif) and the girl's mother (Julie Christie), all against the backdrop of the Bolshevik Revolution. "Doctor Zhivago" is David Lean's expansive and beautiful adaptation of Boris Pasternak's novel. Adapted by Robert Bolt, the story is told in the kind of epic fashion that only Lean was capable of. In the leads, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie are quite wonderful as two people unwillingly swept up by the revolution. Sharif displays a quiet stoicism here that is really appealing and Christie is quite wonderful as a woman enduring the hardships first of poverty, then of tyranny. The supporting players are quite good as well including Guinness who is marvelous as usual, and Rod Steiger and Tom Courtenay who play two very different kind of brutes who are both involved with Christie's Laura. "Doctor Zhivago" is an engrossing epic from the legendary Lean, who by narrowing his scope to a handful of players, tells a touching and sumptuous story of the Russian Revolution.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Freshman

Harold is eager to attend Tate University, thinking it will be like everything he's seen in the movies. As soon as he arrives, he believes the naive lad believes himself to be the big man on campus, although he is really just the laughing stock of the entire college. Still, Harold goes about trying to please his classmates and gain popularity by a fledgling attempt to make the football team. As he soon discovers the truth about his status, the love of the sweet boarding house girl gives him resolve and the courage he needs to shine on the gridiron during the big game. "The Freshman" is one of silent comic Harold Lloyd's most endearing and beloved films. While I did not find it as entertaining as "Safety Last!", it still has many humorous bits, such as when Lloyd replaces a tackling dummy at practice or when his tailor accompanies him to the homecoming dance in case his shoddily stitched suit should come unseamed. "The Freshman" is a somewhat silly exercise but nonetheless it is still an amiable and comical film.

Safety Last!

A country boy leaves for the big city, leaving his sweetheart behind and promising to send for her as soon as he makes it big. While finding a job as a clerk in a department store, he begins to lavish her with extravagant gifts among claims that he is now the department manager. While going hungry and working himself to the bone to keep up his ruse, things get even more complicated when his love decides to come out herself and shows up at the office to greet him! "Safety Last!" is the essential film from Harold Lloyd, the top silent era screen star following Chaplin and Keaton. Legendary producer Hal Roach's film is quite brilliant in the way in plays out, and in the number of sticky scenarios in which it places its bespectacled star from which he must extricate himself from. All roads in the film lead up to, again quite ingeniously, to Lloyd's famed scaling of the department store building with his acrobatic act as he dangles from the clock that rests atop it. It is a monumental scene in a congenial, funny, and well-realized film. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Nationalists are responsible for a string of bombings pushing Germany and France to the brink of war coinciding with the apparent suicide of the Prince of Austria, but Sherlock Holmes knows this is no coincidence but rather the master plan of his counterpart, the malevolent Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). Now with Dr. Watson, who is supposed to be enjoying his stag party before his wedding, and the help of a gypsy woman (Noomi Rapace) seeking her missing brother, Holmes journeys down a dangerous path to stop Moriarty's sinister plan that will, if completed, have major consequences on the world's trajectory. Nothing really changes between Guy Ritchie's first Holmes installment and this one. The Sherlock Holmes books and movies are supposed to be cerebral works, not slam-bang actioneers, therefore making Ritchie ("Lock, Stock", "Snatch) the last director you would want manning these pictures. The nonstop action and inane slow motion forsight scenes take away any of the fun of the books or the old Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies (I've also heard the new BBC series is excellent as well). Robert Downey Jr. is to manic, and wrong for the role in the same way Ritchie is to the movie. Jude Law is closer to the mark as the dogged Watson. Noomi Rapace is underused (I wasn't too sure what her characters purpose was at all for that matter) and on a positive note, Jared Harris, an actor who I've come to admire lately, does make quite an effective Moriarty. Going back to my initial complaint about these films, if we have to, in this day and age, live with a kinetic Sherlock Holmes adaptation, couldn't they at least make it entertaining. I found myself bored stiff through large stretches of this film wishing it could have been minimized to Holmes smoking his pipe, playing the violin, and reasoning out the crime with Watson at 221B Baker Street.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bill Cunningham New York

For years, Bill Cunningham's fashion columns "On the Street" and "Evening Hours" have become staples of the New York Times. Traversing both high society balls and the streets of the city on his trusty bicycle, the 80-something year old has become one of the most beloved photographers in the industry. "Bill Cunningham New York" is a loving portrait, told by many who all admire the man and his work and seem to know so very little about him. What the film uncovers about the magnetic and almost monastic man, especially in his poignant response to two concluding questions about his lifestyle and religious beliefs posed by director Richard Press, is what makes this film so special. I could see how someone could be steered away from a documentary about a fashion photographer (as I was initially), but it would be wrong and shallow for any film/documentary lover to deny themselves this wonderful portrait of such an endearing and interesting person.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Roll Tide/War Eagle

Separated by 160 miles and comprised of fans who share many similarities, the rivalry between the University of Alabama and Auburn University is one of the most bitter rivalries in all of sports (though Buckeye and Wolverine fans would have a bone to pick with that) and has greatly intensified over the past few seasons. Alabama was usually the stronger team, and even won the national championship as recently as 2009. Then last year, amidst a personal inquiry, a few ugly fan incidents, and a hurricane that devastated the state, quarterback Cam Newton led Auburn to a national championship, further elevated the storied rivalry. "Roll Tide/War Eagle" is a rushed, lazy, and uncinematic celebration of fandom whose production seemed inevitable following the remarkable recent events. Instead of a well thought out documentary, we get a bunch of famed athlete alums from both schools shouting taunts and praises for their respective schools. Director Martin Khodabakhshian has managed to take an interesting story which he clearly holds dear and turn it into an uninteresting snore, even at a running time of less than an hour.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Young Frankenstein

Still living down the horrific reputation of his grandfather, Dr. Frankenstein (It's Frahnkensteen!) lectures at the medical college, until he inherits the family castle. Upon moving in with his tititlating assistant (Teri Garr) and hunchbacked and bug-eyed assistant Igor (Marty Feldman), the good doctor denies interest in his grandfather's work, until being lured in by the sinister Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman) and thus continuing the cycle of madness. "Young Frankenstein" is not only one of Mel Brooks' funniest films, but it is also an excellent cinematic achievement, that stands alongside any modern usage of black and white, not to mention visually with any of the James Whale "Frankenstein' classics of the 1930s (Brooks must have thoroughly studied those films, and even used some of the same equipment used in the laboratory scenes). Cowritten with star Gene Wilder, the film contains many memorable and riotous sequences including Feldman replacing his head with a specimen for a goof, the monster's (Peter Boyle) visit to a hermit (Gene Hackman) to the woods, and a rendition of 'Puttin' on the Ritz' sung by master and creator. Gene Wilder brings his incomparable energy and comic sensibilities to the title role, and he is surrounded by an impeccable cast, also at the top of their comic form. It could be argued that Brooks peaked with this film, the end of an unprecedented run of some of the cinema's most hilarious offerings (The Producers , Blazing Saddles). Though he would have a few minor successes following, "Young Frankenstein" represents Brooks at the top of his game as both a comic and a filmmaker.

A Christmas Story

Shot on a shoestring budget in Cleveland, Ohio and various Ontario, Canada locations, Bob Clark's unanticipated "A Christmas Story" has become a staple of the holiday season. From the short stories featured in Jean Shepherd's In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, the film tells the story of young Ralphie and his misadventures in 1940s Hohman, Indiana as he wishes nothing more than to receive a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas. With Shepherd himself providing irreplaceable narration, the film provides us with a jumble of unforgettable vignettes such as Ralphie decoding a secret radio program message, his exuberant father receiving an erotic monstrosity as a sweepstakes prize, and an infamous dare resulting in the fire department being called in to remove his best friend's tongue from an icy flag pole. The film is perfectly cast with little known actors proving warm and memorable performances. Melinda Dillon is a delight playing the angelic mother and Darren McGavin does his best Jack Lemmon as his father. Peter Billingsley is ideally cast as the wide eyed Ralphie and Ian Petrella steals the show as his younger brother Randy. "A Christmas Story" is not only a great film because of how acutely funny it is, but also because of how it captures the nostalgic childhood scenarios. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Into the Abyss

Michael Perry, 8 days before his execution
It opens with a death row chaplain at a Texas state cemetery which is the final resting place for unwanted executed inmates who have numbers instead of names gracing their grave markers. The parson relates a story of how he almost ran over a couple of squirrels with his golf cart and broke down and cried because he could not extend the same compassion to the men he accompanies to their death. Following this prologue, we then descend into the story of a 2001 triple homicide in Conroe, Texas and the two men who committed the senseless act: John Burkett, who is eligible for parole in 2041, and Michael Perry, who will be executed 8 days following the interview. "Into the Abyss" is a documentary from legendary director Werner Herzog who has combed the dark recesses of the earth, including Antarctica and the primitive caves of France, and now examines American crime and life through this dark and tragic microcosm. With his trademark philosophical sensibilities, Herzog interviews Perry and Burkett, their families, and victims' families and seeks not sensationalism but to elicit the humanity of all involved, or what is left if there ever was any, in some cases. "Into the Abyss" is a harrowing journey of wasted and regrettable lives and also the most moving picture of recent recollection.

Red State

After driving past protesters picketing the funeral of a recently deceased homosexual, a young man discusses the events with his other classmates in his high school civics. After class, its usual Friday night small town stuff, and the teen and two friends decide to rendezvous with a young woman looking for love they found on the internet. Upon arriving at the woman's trailer, the trio find themselves drug and held captive by the same fundamentalist group protesting the funerals. Intending on sacrificing them for their lascivious sins, the cult is soon disrupted by the ATF who takes their own sinister steps, this time not in God's name, but country. "Red State" is Kevin Smith's full throttle, Tarantinoesque diatribe of America, that functions more as an example of why a director should stick to what he knows. To elaborate, "Red State" is engaging movie when it sticks to dialogue and characters, something Smith excels out. When it attempts blistering satire and scenes of kinetic violence, he falls short and seems way out of league. As stated though, there are some things to admire here. In addition to the dialogue, John Goodman and Michael Parks deliver fine performances, as an ATF agent and the insidious cult leader, respectively. "Red State" is an interesting experiment that reinforces Kevin Smith's strengths and weaknesses.

Citizen Ruth

Ruth turns her latest trick and is tossed out in the cold, wrongly thinking she had a place to stay for the night. After bashing the john's headlights in, she heads to her brother's house (who is fathering one of her many children) to borrow, buys a can of paint, and proceeds to huff it in the alley on the side of of the store. She gets picked up for the umpteenth time and while in jail discovers she is pregnant once again. Behind close doors, the judge in the case offers leniency if she will terminate the pregnancy, and word of this gets out. Soon, Ruth will be the center of attention in the abortion debate, first on the side of the Pro-Lifers, then on the side of Choice. By drawing his heroine as an ignorant wench with no political thought whatsoever, Alexander Payne uses her as a device by which to lampoon the abortion issue on both sides, as well as bipartisan politics in general. "Citizen Ruth" was director Payne's and cowriter Jim Taylor's debut film, and it contains many of the elements that made their subsequent so warm, humanistic, realistic, and honest. This is a stinging satire that does its best to be objective, although I think they are drawn more towards one side than most reviewers would leave you to believe. The problem with the film however lies in Laura Dern's performance. Although she gives it a gutsy go, she is way to manic and loathsome for us to draw even the slightest sympathy for. "Citizen Ruth" is alternately funny and hard going, and is best viewed as a preview of the great work Payne and Taylor would compose down the line.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Room with a View

While vacationing in Florence with her significantly older cousin Charlotte (Maggie Smith), Lucy ((Helena Bonham Carter) notices their window view of the city isn't all that the travel bureau made it out to be. At dinner with the other tenants later that night, another tourist (Denholm Elliot) travelling with his son George (Julian Sands) hears the cousin's gripes and offers to provide them the use of one of his unused rooms containing a magnificent view. This acquaintance leads to a countryside dalliance between Lucy and George and, thanks to cousin Charlotte's big mouth, creates a rift between Lucy and her fiance Cecil (Daniel Day-Lewis) back home in England, even more-so when George and his father come to stay at Cecil's estate! "A Room with a View" is a delightful adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel by the preeminent filmmaking team of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Amongst the beautiful backdrops of both the Italian and British countrysides, as well as the flourishes of Florence, the Merchant/Ivory brings the light, funny, touching, and offbeat story to life, thanks also to a wonderful British cast. Helena Bonham Carter is charming in an early role and a much different one than the ones we've come to known her in. The great Maggie Smith plays against type as well, and goes to town playing a gossipy, needy woman. Denholm Elliot is fine in support as the down to earth Mr. Emmerson, as is Judi Dench as a hack novelist, and Daniel Day-Lewis is absolutely hysterical playing an emasculated snob. "A Room with a View" is a magnificent and picturesque literary adaptation.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


In a 1906 film house, pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. plays an accompaniment to a newsreel which shows President Teddy Roosevelt making a country train tour, Harry Houdini making a daring escape, and a young heir protesting his wife's image being used for a nude sculpture commissioned by architect. Later at a gathering, the heir shoots the architect in the back of the head, and from this point we see several intertwining stories leading up to Walker's own crusade for justice in the form of a standoff at a New York Museum. "Ragtime" is a beautiful and glorious intersection of American stories set in the early years of the twentieth century. Adapted from the novel by E.L. Doctorow, the film was criticized by some for the way it failed to juggle all of plot balls and its choice to narrow the focus. On the contrary, one of the things I quite admired was how the story introduced many different threads and then narrowed it down to a black man's search for justice. Milos Forman, one of the great directors, treatment of the material is great looking and feels right at home in the era in which it is set. The cast is phenomenal as well and the standouts include Howard E. Rollins Jr as Walker, Elizabeth McGovern as the heir's wife, Brad Dourif as another man driven by her to ire, James Olson as his reserved brother, and the legendary James Cagney, in his final role, as the gruff police commissioner Rhinelander Waldo. "Ragtime" is a wonderful cinematic assortment that particularly captures a transitional period of our history.

Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford)would do anything to see her two daughters (Ann Blyth, Jo Anne Marlowe) happy, so when she catches her philandering husband (Bruce Bennett) in the act, she sets out to prove herself as an independent woman. With her husband's business partner (Jack Carson), Mildred creates a successful chain of diners, but a seductive ne'er-do-well investor (Zachary Scott) and her bratty older daughter soon see to the unraveling of her success. Mildred Pierce is a stark and intriguing film noir from hard boiled novelist James M. Cain and stalwart director of the time Michael Curtiz, whose name seems to be forgotten today. Crawford won her only Oscar for her whirlwind and emotional performance. She is also given wonderful support from the cast, particularly Carson as her surprisingly lecherous backer and Scott as the layabout heir. My problem with the film came with the treatment of its characters, who exceed believability even considering cinematic suspension of disbelief. Both Mildred and Veda Pierce are two of the most ludicrously conceived characters in film history, and after awhile their absurd decisions border on the laughable. Still, "Mildred Pierce" offers much to admire including its chilly noir plot and a great performance from Crawford, despite the  unreasonable nature of her character.

10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America

Leon Czolgosz assassinates William McKinley
From a farmer's rebellion, to a bloody battle in Maryland, up on through the trial of a school teacher, change in America has often initiated unexpectedly and without foresight. In this program, ten different filmmakers offer their takes, of varying quality, on the days that forever altered the fabric of our being.


Chris Herren was the pride of Fall River, Massachusetts. The finest basketball player to ever come out of the small town, Chris went to play college ball and fulfill his dream of playing for the Boston Celtics. Just beneath the surface however, he was harboring his terrible secret that he was a drug addict, a problem that escalated throughout his career until he found himself having to be resuscitated in Dunkin' Donuts parking lot following a heroin overdose. In ESPN films "Unguarded", Herron tells his harrowing story of paradise lost and the rocky road to recovery. Listening to Herron's brutal honesty as he relays his horrors at group therapy, you can see the good that will result from his methods and personality. The film on the other hand needs a better treatment and while watching "Unguarded" I was strangely reminded of "An Inconvenient Truth" in that essentially all the ends up being is nothing more than a filmed lecture.

Henry's Crime

Henry (Keanu Reeves) is a reticent tollbooth worker who seems to have checked out mentally, to the point that he doesn't even realize he is the wheelman for a bank heist. While serving out his term, he meets an equally complacent fellow inmate (James Caan) who somehow instills a grain of hope within him. Upon release, Henry discovers a secret tunnel used by bootleggers during Prohibition that runs from the bank he supposedly knocked off to a neighboring theater. A flash of inspiration hits and after convincing his pal to take his parole seriously, the duo insinuate themselves into a production of Chekov's The Cherry Orchard and the live of its demanding star (Vera Farmiga). On paper, "Henry's Crime" reads like pure delight: a crackling crime caper with a clever twist. Throw in actors Caan, Farmiga, and the occasionally charming Reeves, and you've got yourself a knockout. Not so much. Director Malcolm Venville's approach to the material is all wrong, opting for a fanciful interpretation directing his actors to play way over-the-top except for Reeves who is imitating a zombie. Caan is hard to take in an overly Yiddish performance and Farmiga's performance is surprisingly hammy. I really wanted to like this film. I thought the developments with Chekov's play could have been outstanding, but not in the way the film presents them.

The Best of 2011

There has been an unfounded claim circling about for awhile now that goes something like "there's no good movies out there" or something to that effect. While there is certainly a large amount of rubbish being dumped in the theaters, it is these films that seem to find the biggest audiences, authenticating their validity and thus continuing the cycle while excellent films get overlooked. In the 2011 calender year I witnessed greatness not only in the low-budget indie films such as SubmarineTerri, Blue ValentineTake Shelter, and Restless but even in big studio blockbusters, specifically Rise of the Planet of the ApesX-Men: First Class, and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. In other genres, excellency could be found in animation (RangoMy Dog Tulip), documentary (TabloidCatching HellPearl Jam Twenty, Bill Cunningham New York), and foreign film (IncendiesOf Gods and Men13 Assassins). With sky high ticket and concession prices, along with studio publicity of big budget shlock, it can become easy to write off the movies. But for those who seek valuable entertainment, there is still much to admire at the cinema. Here are the best films of the year:

18. Another Earth
Mike Cahill's excellent film about regret and redemption focusing on a young woman entering the lives of a man whose family's lives she took in a car crash, coinciding with a discovery of a new nearby alternate planet.

17. War Horse/The Adventures of Tintin
There are two Steven Spielberg movies being released this holiday season, both visual wonders, and both reveling in old-fashioned movie making. "War Horse" tells the story of a boy, his horse, and their disparate journeys during WWI and "Tintin" tells of a boy, his dog, and their shared adventure unraveling a high seas mystery.

16. Carnage
Roman Polanski's adaptation of Yazmina Reza's play is an exceedingly funny and tightly wound exercise that features great performances from Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, and Christoph Waltz.

15. A Dangerous Method
David Cronenberg's film of the early days of psychoanalysis is a sumptuous picture and a wonderful showcase for stars Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, and Vincent Cassel.

Bennett Miller's film of the Oakland A's run with a no-budget team is a baseball fan's dream, an immersion into stats and the backrooms of the unevenly distributed sport. Brad Pitt hits just the right notes as GM Billy Beane and Jonah Hill has a nice dramatic turn as his assistant.

13. Warrior
Another sports flick, this one not finding an audience although I found it to be considerably rousing and a superior fighting film to last year's hit "The Fighter". Rising star Tom Hardy is fiercely compelling as is Joel Edgerton, and Nick Nolte delivers an Oscar winning turn as the two's alcoholic father.

John Le Carre's Cold War spy thriller is given a chilly and cerebral treatment by Tomas Alfredson, also providing Gary Oldman with a rare leading man role, which he delivers on remarkably.

11. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
David Fincher puts low anticipations to bed and quite possibly exceeds the original with another technically masterful rendering from an exciting screenplay and featuring a compelling lead performance form Rooney Mara

The great Werner Herzog released not one but two exceptional documentaries this year, both of which couldn't be further apart in topic, but are both treated with the same philosophical and thoughtful approach. "ITA" tells the sorrowful, regrettable story of two men, one on death row, for the commission of a senseless crime. "COFD" depicts the oldest caves in world found in Southern France. Both docs. go places you would never expect, told in ways that only Herzog could tell.

9. The Artist
Michel Hazanavicius' black and white silent gem is a stunning and minutely detailed recreation of a film from that era and features delightful performances from Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo.

No filmmaker paints on a more beautiful canvas than Terrence Malick, and with his latest offering he may have outdone himself both on look and ambition. Juxtaposing the early stages of the world with the story of a family in 1950s West Texas, Malick has created an elegiac film that is likely to cause feelings of nostalgia, or wonder for anyone paying attention. Brad Pitt is remarkable as is Hunter McCracken who plays his son.

This was one of the biggest surprises of the year, a film I almost neglected to watch, but signed on due to the presence of Paul Giamatti. This is a warm-hearted story of the meanest son-of-a-bitch who ever lived, north of the border at least. In a film spanning several decades, Giamatti wonderfully and quite humorously inhabits his character and Rosamund Pike is delightful as his long suffering ex-wife.

This was a delight for several reasons, maybe the most satisfying being that Woody Allen finally got the (modern) audience he deserved. The film is no less of an amazement, as Allen takes us on a whimsical romp through The City of Lights of the 1920s.

George Clooney is the most reliable actor in Hollywood and Alexander Payne may hold that accolade for American auteurs. Here Payne creates another human portrait and Clooney, along with great support from the young Shailene Woodley, carry this film to touching and unexpected places.

4. Shame
Steve McQueen's film about a sex addict's life being disrupted by a visit from his sister is a brave and brutal examination which features searing performances from Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.

I caught this early in the year, and its one that's stuck with me throughout. Cary Fukunaga, following up his likewise beautiful and haunting "Sin Nombre", creates a wonderment of a film from Charlotte Bronte's novel. Against an indelibly captured gloomy British countryside, Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender give passionate and affecting performances.

2. Drive
Drawing from innumerable action thriller, Nicolas Winding Refn has created "Drive", one of the most grabbing films that I can remember. Ryan Gosling is compelling as an existential stuntman/wheelman echoing Alain Delon in "Le Samourai" and Clint's The Man with No Name, and Albert Brooks has a phenomenal turn as a ruthless business investor.

1. Hugo
Martin Scorsese's film is at once an ode to the early days of movie making and an exercise in movie making at its finest. Employing the finest use of 3D to date, Scorsese takes us on a journey with unexpected delights around every corner. Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Morentz are ideal as the young stars, Ben Kingsley is wonderful in support, and Sacha Baron Cohen provides humorous comic relief. "Hugo" is a testament both to Scorsese's directorial prowess and the power and wonder of the movies.

note: There's still many well-received films on the horizon for this calender award year which won't reach the area before January.