Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Marinovich Project

Todd Marinovich was the thought to be unstoppable quarterback sensation. Dubbed Robo-QB for his unequaled skills, Marinovich was raised by his father as a machine, with constant workouts, strictly regimented diets, and never accepting the possibility of failure. With a media circus following him around, Todd found success at USC, although the new found freedom of college led to a spiral of drugs and alcohol. As a pro athlete with the L.A. Raiders, Marinovich lasted only two years and his case is often cited as a detraction for overbearing parents of athletes. "The Marinovich Project" is an engaging documentary that tells an interesting story and raises many (some alarming) questions. The film does go on for about a half hour too long, as the father and son's reconciliation at the conclusion is painfully dragged out. Aside from the closing missteps, this is an excellent examination of a parent's role in an athlete's development.

Storytelling Giant

"Storytelling Giant" is a compilation of Talking Heads music videos which are interspersed with a series of mock interviews with seemingly real people. Bandleader David Byrne's surrealist videos often come off as excellent while others, like many of the interviews are just playing strange. The music is great all around.

Finding Lucy

A study was once done that determined that more people had seen the face of Lucille Ball then any other face in the course of human history. The plucky red head who struggled for years finding her place in Hollywood, got in on the ground floor of television, and with her fiery Cuban bandleader husband Desi Arnez, crafted one of the most endearing and beloved personalities and TV shows ever. "Finding Lucy" isn't so much a retrospective of Ball's life, something the "American Masters" series does so incredibly well, rather than an "I Love Lucy" clip show. While giving us few fleeting insights to and moments of her life, this program is mostly concerned with her monumental television show than it is in being a personal portrait. The narration is also terribly written and spoken and considerably damages this documentary also.

Jammin' the Blues

"Jammin' the Blues" is an Academy Award nominated short from 1945 which was admitted this year to the National Film Registry. It is a moody, free flowing, and innovative showcase of some of the great (and sadly) mostly forgotten Jazz legends including Lester Young, Harry Edson, and Red Callender. 

The House I Live In

"The House I Live In" is a famous public announcement from 1945 by director Mervyn LeRoy which was awarded a special Academy Award for its subject of tolerance. While taking a break from a recording session, Frank Sinatra runs across some neighborhood kids bullying a Jewish boy (whose ethnicity is never explicitly stated) and gives the ruffians a lecture and a song on religious equality. The short is surprisingly effective, well written and not as cloying as you'd expect. Sinatra is magnetic as well.

The Notorious Bettie Page

Bettie Page was the toast of her small Tennessee, a stunning and spunky beauty who caught everyone's eye and  also had earned a full ride to a local community college. Throughout those early years, she also suffered lurid physical and sexual abuse from the likes of her husband, admirers, and even her father. So to escape the horrors, she headed to New York to pursue an acting career where she was discovered laying out at a beach by a local photographer. Soon, she would become a national pinup queen while naively becoming involved with some bondage photography which would lead to a Senate investigation and earn her the title The Notorious Bettie Page. "The Notorious Bettie Page" is a well made biopic from writer/director Mary Herron. Deciding to shoot in black and white, with occasional color photography, the film has a clear, crisp look that nicely captures the era. As Page, Gretchen Mol wonderfully embodies the sex icon. The cast is also rounded out nicely and features fine work from David Strathairn as a straitlaced Senator, Lili Taylor and Chris Bauer and a pair of sibling pornographers, and Jared Harris as a quirky photographer.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

2012 Oscars: Predictions, Thoughts, and Gripes

Another Oscar nomination morning has come and gone and once again had its share of pleasant surprises and outrageous snubs. Here's a rundown of the major categories, who should have made it, who shouldn't have, and who's going to take home the big prize in a month.
Best Picture
Due to undeserving films snagging nominations when the Academy expanded their top prize to ten nominees, this year the nominees must have received 5% of first place votes, leaving us with nine contenders for Best Picture. Aside from a nomination for the largely panned "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", there were no great surprises and it was nice to see "The Tree of Life" and "Midnight in Paris" get the recognition they deserved. While "Hugo" more brilliantly captured the early movie making era, people were enamored with "The Artist" and it should win this year's top prize, although "The Help" and "The Descendants" have outside chances as well.
Will Win: "The Artist"
Should Win: "Hugo"
Best Director
The Academy did a wonderful job with the directing category nominating outsiders Terence Malick and Woody Allen alongside Martin Scorsese and Alexander Payne, all of whom did an excellent job with their films. Unfortunately, the least deserving nominee will walk away with the director's statue.
Will Win: Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"
Should Win: Martin Scorsese, "Hugo"
Best Actor
In the best actor category, the Academy made two of the most outrageous snubs while also granting a long overdue nomination to a long passed over performer. Gary Oldman's nod for "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" puts an end to an absurd streak of being overlooked. Michael Fassbender's snub however for his brutal portrayal of a sex addict in "Shame", the best performance of the year in my mind, is evidence of The Academy's prudish image conscious nature and the same reason that cost Oldman nods for several of his past searing performances. It is also criminal that Michael Shannon was not recognized for "Take Shelter" and I'm not sure why Demian Bichir was nominated for "A Better Life", a film that I and many others have not seen. A solution to this problem would be to instead nominate Brad Pitt in the supporting category for his excellent work in "The Tree of Life" instead of putting him in for "Moneyball", although he was good in that as well. Anyways, I think George Clooney's career best performance in "The Descendants" will edge out Jean Dujardin in "The Artist".
Will Win: George Clooney, "The Descendants"
Should Win: Michael Fassbender, "Shame"
Of Those Who Can Win: George Clooney: "The Descendants"
Best Actress
More surprises here with Rooney Mara getting a deserving but unexpected nod for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". I haven't seen it yet, but with its egregious and aggressive ad campaign, I'm a little disappointed with Glen Close's nomination for Albert Nobbs, when such great performances from the likes of Juliette Binoche ("Certified Copy"), Kirsten Dunst ("Melancholia"), Vera Farmiga ("Higher Ground"), Elizabeth Olsen ("Martha Marcy Mae Marlene"), Charlize Theron ("Young Adult"), and Mia Wasikowska ("Jane Eyre" and "Restless") were left in the wind. I have no idea where the chips will fall here. There's strong support for Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, and Michelle Williams and although Davis was the only one of the trio not to win a Golden Globe I think the Academy will honor her.
Will Win: Viola Davis, "The Help"
Should Win: Rooney Mara, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"
Best Supporting Actor
Following the Fassbender snub, the second greatest outrage comes with Albert Brooks being refused a nomination for "Drive" in a ferocious turn as a ruthless L.A. businessman in one of the year's best performance. Jonah Hill was affable in "Moneyball" but nowhere near Brooks' league as far as acting is concerned. I also would have liked to see a nod for Armie Hammer for his fine work in J. Edgar. That being said, I was ecstatic when I heard Kenneth Branagh and Nick Nolte's names being read as well as 82-year-old stalwarts Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow, all of whom contributed excellently.
Will Win: Christopher Plummer, "Beginners"
Should Win: Albert Brooks, "Drive"
Of Those Who Can Win: Nick Nolte, "Warrior"
Best Supporting Actress
I'm not sure where I stand on the Melissa McCarthy nomination. I hate to harp on the Fassbender thing, but how can the Academy honor a performance that celebrates defecation and vomiting among other things but ignore another due to its adult sexual subject matter, which I believe they did? Back to the point, McCarthy did contribute fine work, but the fact that she stole the slot from Shailene Woodley and her excellent work in "The Descendants" doesn't quite sit right either. Also, Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet were equally great in "Carnage", as was Carey Mulligan in "Shame", all of whom should have received recognition, especially in such a weak field of nominees. Again I haven't seen "Albert Nobbs" and can't judge Janet McTeer's performance. I didn't think Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer were any great shakes in "The Help", although I'm glad Chastain got recognized for her remarkable year. Berenice Bejo was pretty charming in "The Artist" and I think she'll squeeze past Spencer and take home the Oscar.
Will Win: Berenice Bejo, "The Artist"
Should Win: Shailene Woodley, "The Descendants"
Of Those Who Can: Berenice Bejo, "The Artist"

Monday, January 23, 2012

Ikiru

An elderly bureaucrat who has given up on life long ago receives a terminal stomach cancer diagnosis. Despairing his wasted life, lack of friends, and his relationship with his estranged son, the man opts to spend every penny in a night of drunken revelry. Coming to his senses, he takes consolation in the company of a younger coworker who, in turn, inspires him to take up a small yet courageous act of public goodwill. "Ikiru" is a film of truth and great beauty from legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. A change of pace from his equally insightful Samurai pictures, "Ikiru" is a frank and existential look at one's man life, told artistically and atypically. Takashi Shimura is excellent and incredibly effective as the protagonist, and as his character's life begins to find purpose in the building of a playground against all the nonsensical and bureaucratic red tape, it culminates in one of the most beautifully realized endings in the history of the cinema. "Ikiru" is a sad, moving, and ultimately life affirming rumination on the banality of bureaucracy and the catharsis of charity.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities

Revolution is in the air in France as the poor starve in the streets and despicable aristocrats such as the Marquis St. Evremonde (Basil Rathbone) live lives of decadent opulence. When his nephew, the earnest Charles Darnay (Donald Woods) emigrates to London and marries the daughter of a doctor persecuted by the aristocracy, Evremonde sees that he is outed a traitor.  At his trial, he is defended by Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman), a wastrel living an empty life. Now, feeling an affection for his new group of cohorts and especially for Darnay's wife Lucie (Elizabeth Allen), Carton sees an opportunity to make a humanistic sacrifice when the Revolution spirals out of control and encumbers all involved. "A Tale of Two Cities" is a glorious adaptation of one of Charles Dickens most beloved novels. Produced by David O. Selznick at MGM, wonderfully captures the best of times and worst of times of the classic novel. As Sydney Carton, Ronald Colman gives a wonderfully brooding and completely affecting performance. He is given strong support from a slew of familiar players which includes Basil Rathbone, Reginald Owen, and especially Edna May Oliver who is a hoot as Lucie's wisecracking servant and Blanche Yurka as the insanely vengeful Madame De Farge. The production values are all top notch and are particularly spectacular in scenes involving the storming of the Bastille, the peasant's kangaroo court, and the mob lined guillotine sequence. "A Tale of Two Cities" is a remarkable achievement in that it brings a classic work to the screen in both literate and rousing fashion.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

You Can't Take It with You

Business tycoon Mr. Kirby (Edward Arnold) is just within reach of cornering the market and buying out his top competitor. With the imminent acquisition, now he wishes to buy all the neighboring houses in order to expand his empire. Now, the only thing standing in his way is Mr. Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), an eccentric old man who abhors consumerism and has no wish to sell his quaint little house which is inhabited by an assortment of oddballs. As Mr. Kirby sends his cronies to finagle the old coot out of his house, matters grow more complicated when it comes to light that his son and heir apparent (James Stewart) plans on marrying the old coot's granddaughter (Jean Arthur)! "You Can't Take It with You" must be the film where they added corn to Frank Capra's last name in order to describe hokey fare of some of his film. This sometimes amusing but often cloying Depression era feel good film earned Capra his second directing Oscar while also taking the top prize. Arnold and Barrymore (playing the anti-Mr. Potter) are excellent in their roles as the weathered and different minded patriarchs as are Stewart and Arthur who are delightful as the bemused lovebirds. My greatest problem with this film was with the carefree members of the Vanderhof household, whose tacky behavior is often hard to stomach. Capra, and his longtime screenwriter Robert Riskin, had a reputation for finding meaning in the hokeyness of his films. In "You Can't Take It with You" Capra loses sight of greatness and lets the corn take over.

The Lost Patrol

During the Mesopotamian campaign during World War I, a desert regiment's commanding officer has been shot. Having not relayed or recorded his recent orders, the troop knows not where they are to rendezvous. So now led by a brave sergeant, the troop decides to rest at an abandon fort where they await reinforcements and battle the menacing and relentless Arabs who strike in the blinding desert night. "The Lost Patrol" is a high concept and highly entertaining suspense film from legendary director John Ford. Based on Philip MacDonald's book Patrol, Ford's film employs an "And Then There Were None" which is carried out with much suspense to great effect. Ford stalwart Victor McLaglen provides a commanding performance as does much of the supporting cast, most notably being Boris Karloff as a religious zealot who quickly loses his mind. "The Lost Patrol" is an early success for John Ford who would continually revisit similar themes of courage and cowardice in his many subsequent masterpieces.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky and Cristina are two friends who share similar interests and beliefs except when it comes to matters of the heart. So, while summering in Barcelona at Vicky's aunts home, their responses to a sexy local artist's brazen offer of an immediate dalliance on a small island wildly differ, the engaged Vicky becoming grossly offended and Cristina urgently accepting. While Christina fling turns into something slightly more serious with the magnetic Spaniard, things start to become complicated when Vicky grows discontented with her betrothed and the artist's estranged, beautiful, and unstable enters the picture. "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is further evidence of Woody Allen's seemingly endless talents, a hot and sultry romance set against the beautiful backdrop of its varying Spanish locations. It features scene stealing work from Javier Bardem and especially Oscar winning Penelope Cruz who upstage lead actresses Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson who do not sound natural reading Allen's intellectual dialogue. Christopher Evan Welch's overly informative and amateurish narration is also a detraction. Still, "VCB" offers many of the sly affectations we expect from Woody and, surprisingly, some of the other goodies we don't.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Irma la Douce

In the red light district of Paris where policemen turn a blind eye to the rampant abasement, Irma la Douce (the Sweet) is the most formidable of the street's many prostitute. All carries on swimmingly until the arrival of Inspector Nestor Patau, the honest beat cop who has just been promoted from his post at a playground. When he halls all the working girls to jail, confronts their johns and pimps, and insults his superior officer, Nestor soon finds himself jobless looking for affection in the same neighborhood, which he does in Irma's arms. Quickly establishing himself as a top pimp with Irma as his lover and only client, Nestor becomes insanely jealous and devises a preposterous scheme where he can buy all of her time by masquerading as a British aristocrat! From a play by Alexandre Breffort with his longtime screenwriting collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, "Irma la Douce" is a rioutous farce by legendary writer/director Billy Wilder. Working with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, reteaming after the inimitable "The Apartment", Wilder manages to create another sweet and funny film with several memorable and inventive scenes. MacLaine is at her ditsy best and Lemmon has a field day hamming it up as the cockeyed Lord X. Lou Jacobi also has an amusing role as a bartender who has seemingly played every role in the European underworld. "Irma la Douce" is a hilarious if not slightly overlong film that doesn't quite match up to the best of Wilder's work, mainly because he set the bar so high.

North to Alaska

Best chums Sam and George (John Wayne and Stewart Granger) have just struck in big in Alaska. While George and his brother Billy (Fabian) return north to their gold claim, Sam heads to Seattle to fetch George's fiance. Upon arrival however, he finds that she has taken up with another man, so being the noble friend that he is, he returns with a beautiful burlesque queen (Capucine) instead. Now Sam must not only fight off the scheming con man (Ernie Kovacs) making a claim on his land, but also come to terms with his feelings for the girl he intended for his best friend. "North to Alaska" is cheesy yet moderately enjoyable fare from The Duke and director Henry Hathaway, who would reteam several times, refining their light comedy/tough action style over the next ten years, most notably in "True Grit" and "The Sons of Katie Elder". Although this film too often resorts to slapstick and pratfalls, it is made in a very amiable fashion and never ceases to be watchable.

Crossfire

A civilian is murdered in his apartment in Washington D.C. and the suspect list has been narrowed down to three G.I.'s on leave. When a surly private (Robert Mitchum) is called in by the police inspector (Robert Young) to assist in the investigation, it soon becomes clear that hatred was the motive with all fingers pointing to the wily officer (Robert Ryan) who has done everything imaginable to extricate himself from the situation. "Crossfire" is a dark and intelligent treatise on racism while also succeeding as a whodunit and a brilliantly shot film noir. Edward Dmytryk, directing from a novel by "In Cold Blood" filmmaker Richard Brooks, wonderfully utilizes shadows and angular shots to tell his story, which seems relevant and cutting edge even by today's standards. The trio of Roberts who star in the film all fill their roles nicely, with Mitchum in a tough, brooding performance, Young as the pragmatic inspector, and Ryan a particular standout as the cunning and virulent racist. Gloria Grahame also has a memorable bit as a call girl who provides an alibi for one of the suspected soldiers. "Crossfire" is a brave film that was ahead of its time which also manages to be an artistic triumph as well.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I Confess

A church maintenance man dressed in priest's garbs murders a local attorney when he is interrupted during a burglary. Returning to the parish to replace the cloak he happens up the local cleric and decides to confess his crime. Soon, after it is revealed that the deceased was blackmailing the priest and his former lover and a motive is apparent, he becomes the prime suspect in a crime for which he cannot reveal the true culprit due to the sanctity of the confessional. "I Confess" is one of the lesser Alfred Hitchcock efforts although it does contain some finely directed and intense scenes while making great use of Quebec City and its Old World locations. What hurts the film has mostly to do with the strange performance of the usually stellar Montgomery Clift, who opts to make his character into a weak and overly vulnerable character. These acting choices are in too great of a contrast to his character's supposedly resolute nature and hurt the credibility of the part. "I Confess" does not stand with The Master's best work but is still a finely tuned exercise in tension.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Motorcycle Diaries

In 1952, a young medical student Ernesto Guevara leaves his Argentinian hometown with his best friend Alberto Granado to embark on a 8,000 mile journey through South America. As they engage in misadventures along the beautiful landscape of Argentina, Chile, and Peru while interacting with the inhabitants  they encounter, Ernesto will adopt the nickname of "Che" and realize his life's calling. Based on revolutionary Che Guevara personal travel journal, Walter Salles' "The Motorcycle Diaries is an engaging road picture that is most notable for its absolutely jaw dropping cinematography of its South American landscapes. The friendship between Guevara and Granada is in turns funny and touching as well, and Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo De la Serna deliver nice performances as the two compadres. The film does misstep though in the poor development of Che's own self-realization. His turn from an introverted medical student to fiery radical comes too quickly and lacks believability. Still, where the film fails as an individual biopic, it makes up for in its spectacular scenery.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Inside Man

A wily bank robber has concocted the perfect heist and always seems to be one step ahead of the NYPD. With a scandalized detective trying to get a handle on the situation, a tangential development foments involving a power broker and the seemingly magnanimous owner of the bank. Spike Lee's "Inside Man" is a flavorful tribute to his hometown that contains many references to great and gritty New York films. The film is energetic and engaging and moves at a brisk pace even though it does tend towards overlength. Clive Owen is excellent as the clever criminal but I found Denzel Washington's character to be obnoxious and totally useless to the plot's resolve, even though the filmmakers wish you to believe otherwise. Also, it seems unwise to cast Jodie Foster as the power broker who brings little to the part and Christopher Plummer, though effective, is playing his stock character as the head of the bank. "Inside Man" succeeds as a bank heist/cop flick on the most basic level but never does anything to soar to the levels of the films it emulates such as "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Serpico".

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Monsters

Six years ago alien life was discovered in our galaxy and a probe was launched to collect samples. Upon reentry, the spacecraft crashed over Mexico forcing a quarantine over half the country to contain the alien life force. Presently, the daughter of a newspaper magnate is stranded in Central America who in turn sends one of his photographers stationed nearby to retrieve her. In a journey back home that will inevitably result in a passage through the infected zone, the two come to terms with their own disheveled lives and growing feelings for each other. "Monsters" is an ultra-low budget film from writer/director Gareth Edwards that makes excellent usage of its budget as well as the genre. Edwards understands that the less we see of a monster the greater the tension and in scenarios reminiscent of "Jurassic Park" the employment of the minimalist approach greatly increases the trepidation factor which also leaves the final tell all the more rewarding. I did though feel that he underplayed his hand at times, cutting to scenes of subsequent safety during high terror point. The acting is of a low quality, although I did like how the romance angle was handled. Nowadays, monster movie makers miscalculate their work and misuse their slimy stars. It is a relief to see a director who understands the less is more precept.

Tom Jones

In the mid 18-century British countryside, Squire Allworthy returns home from London to find a newborn baby in his bed. After dismissing the his barber and maid Jennie Jones, the suspected parents, Allworthy decides to name the boy Tom and raise him as his own. As a man, the robust Tom's appetite for food, drink, and especially women will lead him through a series of misadventures as he tries to gain enough respectability to marry Sophie, another squire's daughter and the only woman he has ever loved. "Tom Jones" is a lively and inventive film adaptation of Henry Fielding's 1749 novel. From a finely tuned script from John Osbourne, Tony Richardson directs with flair and imagination while employing several different styles which include fast motion, silent film, and a grandiose sequence following a hunting party. In the lead role, Albert Finney is fantastically magnetic bringing great likability to his flawed character. Susannah York is excellent as well as his beloved Sophie as are Hugh Griffith, Diane Cilento, and George Devine in supporting roles. "Tom Jones" is an inventive literary adaptation as well as a liberated film which is true to its hero's spirit.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Thunderball

S.P.E.C.T.R.E. has hatched its latest mission under the leadership of criminal mastermind Emile Largo: hijack NATO nuclear warheads and launch devices while holding a major British/U.S. city ransom for a large sum. Now Agent 007 is dispatched to Nassau to rendezvous with the sexy sister of a murdered NATO pilot and do reconnaissance work into Largo's suspected illicit affairs. "Thunderball" is a mumbled, silly, but not entirely without enjoyment Bond installment. It features forgettable villains as well as sexy but equally unmemorable Bond girls, yet Sean Connery remains his usual, affable self. The story is uninspired and poorly constructed which particularly rings true in the underwater denouement sequences which is confusing and anticlimactic. "Thunderball" marks the first film where the formula begins to wear thin.

Nostalgia for the Light

In the arid Atacama Desert in Chile astronomers examine the skies through hulking telescopes, trying to unravel the burning mysteries of life while nearby families of the victims of the Pinochet regime search for the remains of their loved ones in a tireless and mostly fruitless search. In "Nostalgia for the Light", filmmaker Patricio Guzman mashes these two disparate topics together while making vague generalizations to tie them together in a dull, lazily constructed, convoluted, and borderline insulting documentary. By comparing the women's search to a scientists search for truth ("the calcium in the bones of the victims is the same as the calcium in the stars"), Guzman is trivializing these injustices. The film also centers much on astronomy, but does not feel compelled to explain much to us and is instead contented with providing shots from the telescope with broad and often nonsensical explanations from the selected astronomers. This was a critical darling amongst the few who reviewed it and there is a problem in film criticism that I think should be addressed. With the onslaught of sameness they must endure, critics often mistakenly equate uniqueness with greatness while ignoring what makes a film fundamentally good. This also tangentially applies to the slew of documentarians who approach their craft with the enthusiasm and presentation of a public service announcement or educational films. Documentaries are film and must be presented as such and the great documentarians (Ken Burns, Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, the Maysles) know that a camera, interviewees, charts & statistics (n/a here), and photographs alone do not constitute a good film. A little cohesion and clarity wouldn't hurt either.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

After springing Ethan (Tom Cruise) from a Moscow prison, the team breaks into the Kremlin to do some reconnaissance work, when a bomb is detonated and the entire historical context is reduced to rubble. Now, with IMF cutting their support and being forced to go rogue, while also being hunted by the Soviet police, the squad (Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg) must find the person responsible for the bombing, and stop him before he unleashes his follow-up act of global destruction. The "Mission Impossible" series was one that started in mediocrity, sunk a little below that in its sequel, and with the third film and now this one, has risen to a level of excellence. "M:I - Ghost Protocol" is the best film of the series, and can be largely credited to its director Brad Bird, the Pixar veteran ("The Iron Giant", "The Incredibles", "Ratatouille"), who debuts here with his first live action feature. Bird brings his acumen a series of stunning, nonstop action sequences, and in several of them inspires and genuine sense of awe. This was that rare action film where I was not so much concerned with plot or character development, and was on the edge of my seat waiting for the next stunning action set piece (the scaling of the Burj Khalifa and a final parking garage sequence are particularly incredible). The cast is really fine as well. Cruise shows off his star power nicely, and the addition of Renner to the cast is a definite asset. Pegg brings some good comic relief and Patton is amazing as an action star. "M:I - Ghost Protocol" is a shot in the arm compared to what passes for Hollywood action offerings.

Warrior

An angry and bitter young man (Tom Hardy) returns to the home of his alcoholic father (Nick Nolte) so he can train him to fight in a mixed martial arts tournament and nothing more. His older brother (Joel Edgerton), whom he also harbors resentment towards, is a struggling school teacher facing foreclosure and also eyes the substantive cash prize of the MMA tourney. "Warrior" is a sports movie that is rife with cliches, that is handled in such an extraordinarily powerful manner that we gladly embrace them. It's a film that transcends its genre and should appeal to everyone because it finds strength in its human story. Tom Hardy, who's star is quickly on the rise, brings a quiet ferocity to the role and Joel Edgerton is quite good as well bringing believability to his family man/scrappy underdog fighter. Then there is Nick Nolte, an actor many write off for his off screen antics, who reminds us all what a powerful presence he is. His repentant and tough as nails drunk is surely to earn him a supporting actor nod. With "Warrior", director Gavin O'Connor has taken the kind of film that holds a high mass appeal and injected with a dynamism along with a touch of humanity resulting in a work that plays like gangbusters.

Midnight in Paris

            Since 1969, Woody Allen has been making films at the rate of about one per year. While the writer/director/actor has gone through ups and downs in work, there is always something to appreciate in his movies. His latest offering is Midnight in Paris, which opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival to acclaim, and is a whimsical delight of a movie which reminds us what an Allen film is all about.
            Midnight in Paris takes the standard Allen format of a comedy featuring a pessimistic neurotic and adds other elements he has employed in past films such as the fantasy elements of The Purple Rose of Cairo and the love letter to a city as in Manhattan, substituting Paris for New York. The movie stars Owen Wilson in the Woody Allen role as a self-described hack screenwriter who has dreams of being a respected novelist. He is currently on vacation in The City of Lights with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) whose Republican parents are with them and in the city on business.
For the pessimist we expect from Wilson’s character, he is surprisingly engaged by Paris, eagerly taking in the sights and even talking of relocating there. We get a window into his person when we hear him talk of how he longs for the Paris of the 1920s and also of how the lead character in his novel runs a nostalgia shop. While out one night on the town, Wilson decides to depart from his wife and her boorish intellectual friends and wander the streets alone. He takes a seat on a set of stairs and as soon as the clock strikes twelve, an old fashioned car pulls in front of him with revelers beckoning him to get in.
He takes there ride and is taken to a bar that seems to be just like the swinging 20s joint he’s dreamed of. There he finds Cole Porter playing the piano, makes acquaintances with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who in turn introduces him to Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker. After awhile he is returned to his present day, but continues to revisit this magical place night after night. As his relationship with his fiancée continues to become more argumentative and he takes up with a beautiful mistress of Pablo Picasso, he must now decide which reality he wants to live in.
Midnight in Paris is a wonderful film which can be appreciated by anyone but it is a special treat for Allen fans. The film is whimsical and funny, and Allen does a great job creating scenarios with what I’m assuming are his heroes from the 1920s (I loved how Owen Wilson gives Luis Bunuel the plot idea for The Exterminating Angel and Bunuel doesn’t get it).  Wilson proves to be a great stand-in for Allen, capturing the neuroses while still maintaining a sense of wonder with Paris and the new world he has discovered. Much like the feeling Wilson’s character gets when transported back to the Paris of the 20s is the same feeling I get when sitting in the theater and that jazz music begins to play over the white and black opening credits of a Woody Allen picture. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Wages of Fear

In an unnamed South American country, a medley of outcasts await employment from the Southern Oil Company which afford them the money for a return ticket home. After an accident injures several union workers, four of the men (Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Folco Lulli, Peter van Eyck) are commissioned two drive two trucks stocked with nitroglycerin across a 300 mile stretch of rugged terrain, with a $2,000 check awaiting whoever survives the perilous journey. "The Wages of Fear" is a tension filled, nail biting film from Henri-Georges Clouzot who had been dubbed France's Hitchchock. After introducing its characters in a thorough manner rare to most action films, Clouzot begins the terrifying trek hardly letting the viewer a minute to the catch his breath. The actors are all fine, particularly Montand and Vanel whose characters reveal much about themselves in the throes of their treacherous situation. In addition to his nerve wracking treatment, Clouzot's handling of the story and its resolution can also be appreciated as well. "The Wages of Terror" is a phenomenal psychological thriller made by a master who knew how to milk every ounce of terror out of his deadly scenarios.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Journalist Mikael Blomkvist is in the process of losing his life savings after being lured into libeling a ruthless tycoon. With his reputation in shambles, he takes on a missing persons case, trying to find the niece of a missing industry giant who has been missing for 40 years. Moving to his Swedish island estate, where the only suspects are residents of the island at the time, Blomkvist enlists the talents of a brilliant but damaged investigator (Rooney Mara) to assist in finding the truth behind the mysterious disappearance. Since their initial release, Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy books have garnered worldwide acclaimed, as have the subsequent Swedish films. Despite the initial success of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", the film has been adapted into an American rendering, assumedly because the studios figure the subtitle shy movie going Americans hasn't seen Niels Arden Oplev's original and see a good means to capitalize. Despite this, the new offering ends up being so much more than that. David Fincher, one of the best American filmmakers going right now and at least the great technical wizard in the industry, puts his mark on the series and creates a gritty, and visual sublime near masterpiece. Although Noomi Rapace will always be The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara makes a noble bid for the title and turns in a compelling performance. Daniel Craigis surprising and effective playing the sissified Bloomkvist, and veteran actors Christopher Plummer and Stellan Skarsgard turn in Oscar worthy performances (a scene with Craig and Skarsgard near the end of the film is one of the best I've seen all year). Although I'm hesitant to say so, the more I think about it the more I prefer this version to the original. As I read through reviews of the film, it seems as though critics are grasping for straws in looking for criticisms of this film, in order to subjugate it to the original. The only real criticism I've found or determined is that Fincher's version comes to closely on the heels of the excellent original, and as hard as it is to believe, tops it.

Seems Like Old Times

A writer greets two bank robbers at the door of his hillside cottage who involve him as the gunman in their latest pilfering. A fugitive from justice, the man turns to the place he can, his magnanimous ex-wife/attorney which only complicates the fact that her now D.A. husband is being considered for Attorney General. Neil Simon's "Seems Like Old Times" is a stupid and unfunny farce, the kind of film that finds its plot so hilarious that it feels the need to continually remind us of it. Chevy Chase's employs his smarmy panning to no effect and the delightful Goldie Hawn is giving nothing to work with in a lamebrain screenplay. The only ray of light is Charles Grodin who creates a likable stiff in Hawn's district attorney husband. 

The Music Room

A feudal lord sits on the rooftop of his deteriorating mansion which lies in the desolate deserts of 1920s Bengal. In the most subtlest of flashbacks, we see how the unflinching noblemen squandered his fortune and family for the sake of pride in the form of extravagant recitals in his prized title room. Indian director Satyajit Ray became the first of his countrymen to find international success and following the first two films in his "Apu Trilogy", he fashioned this wonderfully perceptive film which is largely considered his masterpiece. It stars Chhabi Biswas, the great Indian star of stage and screen, who delivers a wonderfully nuance performance as the proud and cultured lord. Ray offers many subtle criticisms to the feudal system, while also criticizing modernism in his depiction of Biswas's rival nouveau riche neighbor. "The Music Room" is a thoughtful, sad, and well-realized piece of filmmaking.

The Great Train Robbery

Edwin S. Porter's "The Great Train Robbery" is a 12 minute simple tale of the title thievery and the pursual of the gang by a mob. Despite its modesty, it may have been more influential on the development of cinema than any other film. Porter's storytelling devices, cutting, and use of close-up laid the groundwork for all subsequent films up to this day, while he simultaneously introducing the Western genre. Watching the seemingly simple film, the quality and look of the film is quite remarkable, as is the final scene (pictured above), which Martin Scorsese would utilize in two of his masterpieces, "Goodfellas" and "Hugo". With "The Great Train Robbery", you can see the framework for modern movies as we know them.

Limelight

In 1914 London, a drunken and forgotten comedian stumbles his way into his apartment when he begins to smell gas emanating from one of the flats. Breaking the door down, he rescues a suicidal dancer and afterwards begins to nurse her back to health. Raising her spirits and devoting himself to her, the clown begins a revival in order to raise money for her revue, but fails miserably leading to a role reversal with the dancer championing his spirits. All results in a grand finale with the two artists performing in a grand production. "Limelight" is Charlie Chaplin's tribute to his life's work. While overindulgent and overly sentimental, the film is deeply moving and stylistically superior. Hearing Chaplin speak, which he had done before on film, is a great surprise as his voice is elegant, well-spoken, and not at all a letdown compared to his silent tramp. His performance is wonderful as well, incorporating many of his silent gags into the spoken role. Clare Bloom is really fine as well, even though her character is overly mawkish. While the best parts, in my opinion, occur in the smaller moments in Chaplin's flat with Bloom, the culmination song and dance routine between Charlie and fellow silent great Buster Keaton is the highlight of the movie. "Limelight" is a deservedly indulgent self-tribute by and to the greatest clown of the cinema.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Color of Money

25 years following his banishment from big time pool, "Fast Eddie" Felson has found success as a liquor salesman, while staking small time sharks on the side. One day he sees a kid who has what it takes, a shadow of his former self, and convinces him and his girlfriend to go on a cross country tour of pool halls, learning the tricks of the trade, with all roads leading to a championship tournament in Atlantic City. Following the 1961 classic "The Hustler", Martin Scorsese directed "The Color of Money", the film that won Paul Newman his long overdue Academy Award. Newman's performance doesn't miss a beat and is as natural as any in his career while Tom Cruise shines in an under appreciated performance. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio delivers fine work as Cruise's insatiate girlfriend. I liked how Scorsese worked from Walter Tevis' similarly delayed sequel to his original novel, and his direction is refined and unrelenting, almost to the point of overdirection. I also found the latter parts of the movie (the tournament) to be less compelling than the set-up, but "The Color of Money" is a worthy sequel made with reverence to an undeniable classic.

Pride and Prejudice

Social climber Mrs. Bennet is eager to marry off her five daughters so when the handsome and high standing Mr. Bingley arrives in town, she sees the perfect opportunity to set-up her eldest daughter Jane. Her headstrong daughter Elizabeth though is taken by Bingley's likewise attractive but boorish friend Mr. Darcy although she refuses to be courted in the usual manner and seeks social revenge for an initial slight. This 1940 adaptation of Jane Austen's seminal comedy of manners is a delightful and gorgeous treatment. As Elizabeth, Greer Garson is simply magnetic as an intelligent woman caught up in a shallow society and as her counterpart, Laurence Olivier turns in a wonderful performance as the similarly out of place Darcy. The supporting roles are filled nicely as well, particularly Edmund Gwenn and Mary Boland as the heads of the Bennet family. "Pride and Prejudice" is an often revisited Austen novel and here in its first telling, it is truly an excellent rendition.

Advise & Consent

The Secretary of State has just died and the President (Franchot Tone) wishes to have his replacement appointment Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) swiftly confirmed by the Senate. This is not to be as the confirmation hearing becomes a battleground as senior and junior senators from both sides (Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, Don Murray, George Grizzard) and the Vice President (Lew Ayres) get caught up in the nasty business of politics. "Advise & Consent" is an adaptation of Allan Drury's Pulitzer Prize winning political novel which was directed Otto Preminger. The film is rigorous and measured and watching it I was reminded of his classic "Anatomy of a Murder". Where that was a dissection of a murder trial here we have a sharp analysis of a confirmation process, which shows us the inns and outs of the Senate floor and the backroom dealings. The cast is excellent with Laughton in a flashy role and Fonda strong, but surprising taking on a secondary role. Among the supporters, Tone and Ayres are fine as the President and Veep, and Murray turns in fine work as a moral Senator forced to face the skeltons in his closet (this homosexual subplot seems brazen for its time). "Advise & Consent" measured pace may turn away some viewers, but I found it to be an engrossing depiction of the political process.