Friday, March 30, 2012

Rome, Open City

Towards the end of World War II as Rome is declared an "Open City", and the occupying German forces hunt down members of the Italian resistance, a priest becomes involved with several party members and winds up paying dearly for his selflessness. Filmed during the actual occupation of Rome by the Nazis, from a script cowritten by filmmaking great Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini's "Rome, Open City" tells a socially conscious and ultimately harrowing story, beautifully acted by a cast of non-actors. This was one of the base works in what would come to be known as Italian Neorealism, a style of film that would influence generations of subsequent filmmakers and spark interest in international cinema.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

2012 CIFF: Under African Skies

So the nice weather has prevented me from seeing as many films as usual and travel plans will unfortunately make this my last film at this year's event, but once again, and it goes without saying, this year's Cleveland International Film Festival was a tremendous experience. I urge you to head down to Tower City, catch a flick or two, and take part in our wonderful festivities. Although I am sad to see my own participation end this year, it couldn't have ended with a better film, whose subject is someone I've now long admired.
In 1986, after becoming obsessed with a cassette tape of a South African performer, Paul Simon traveled to Johannesburg to play with local musicians and record the amalgamation of American pop and African music that would come to be known as his magnum opus Graceland. While the album was a tremendous success and helped heightened awareness of the evils of apartheid, many saw Simon's involvement as a breach of the U.N.'s cultural embargo with South Africa. Now, 25 years later, Simon travels to South Africa to discuss the events with Dali Tambo, a member of the African National Congress who staunchly opposed the collaboration. Meanwhile Paul Simon reorganizes old friends including Ray Phiri, Joseph Shabalala and the rest of the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo for a reunion celebration. "Under African Skies" is an incredible jubilation in Simon's groundbreaking album and the wondrous native music which led to its conception, and also an intriguing tale of the wicked modern segregationist system and how a great artist came to be involved with it and several of its victims. The film was made by documentary stalwart Joe Berlinger  who does an excellent job of meshing old footage and newly shot ones, which are given great immediacy through the closeup camerawork. In ignoring the inanities of politics and being true to his own talent and vision, Paul Simon was able to make known the great artists of a culture, bring awareness to a serious social problem, and leave a lasting and masterful mark on the music world.


A stunning trapeze artist takes up with a diminutive circus performer as soon as she finds out he has come into a tidy inheritance. Planning to take the dough and run away with the strongman, she doesn't count on the loyalty of her mark's vindictive compatriots. Tod Browning's "Freaks" is a tormenting and exploitative, yet strangely touching movie. Using real and often crudely deformed circus people, Browning tells his dark story in a coarse but highly engaging manner, leading up to the ultra shocking ending. Following the booming success of his "Dracula" and the insatiable audience desire for monster movies, Browning was in high demand. With "Freaks", he gave audience what they asked for, who responded in turn with revulsion and disdain towards the real life "monsters." As a result and like its subjects, "Freaks" was misunderstood for many years until its recent and proper heralding as a horror movie classic.

The Little Foxes

Three members of the crafty and unscrupulous Hubbard family intend to buy a cotton mill in the turn of the century south. With the two brothers having their shares secured, they now rely on their sister Regina to obtain the final $75,000 from her estranged husband. This leads them down a trail of lies, blackmail, theft, and deceit up until the harrowing, depraved climax. Screenwriter Lillian Hellman based her play of a morally corrupt Southern aristocratic family on personal experiences growing up with her own family. Directed by William Wyler, it is a biting and extremely dark portrait of greed and corruption. Although it drags slightly during earlier stretches of the film, the wrap-up is both distressing and grabbing. In a fine cast of veteran actors, Bette Davis stands atop them in an incredible and malevolent performance. "The Little Foxes" is a shockingly caustic tale and highly relevant in today's climate of corporate greed.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Hunger Games

In a dystopian future, in response to a catastrophic rebellion, the capital city hosts the title event drawing two names, a boy and girl, from each of their twelve, economically disparate districts to compete in a last person standing battle to the death. In the impoverished coal mining district, when her sister's name is drawn, skilled archer Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her place and is set on the unenviable course to participate in the deadly contest. "Hunger Games", an adaptation of the the highly successful Suzanne Collins novel and hopeful Harry Potter replacement, arrives in theaters (with great immediate success already) as a juvenile and simplistic film. The screenplay is unintelligent, underdeveloped and clearly geared towards teens. The impressive cast which includes Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks, and Stanley Tucci (and I'm chalking this up to poor material) creates characters who are not in the least bit interesting (I enjoyed Lenny Kravitz's character, but he was barely in the film). Jennifer Lawrence is strong in the lead, but likewise not given anywhere to go or much to work with. The central romance is pathetic and should have been excluded and we aren't introduced to any of the competitors. By the time we finally arrive at The Games following a tedious training sequence, we are given the shaky cam treatment yielding disorienting results. This may have been the point, but it still does not make the film engaging. I was also strongly opposed to the "Truman Show" effect employed, whereby game runners control the biosphere to speed things along. All this effect did was take away from the already established ground rules and offer a reminder of a similarly themed and infinitely better film. "Hunger Games" has generated great buzz and sold a lot of tickets thus far, so I was all the more disappointed to find out not just how poorly realized and simple it is, but also just how little it has to say about the state of our culture.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Manchurian Candidate

A hard and hated sergeant saves his troops in Korea and returns a Medal of Honor recipient being praised by his men as "the bravest, finest, most lovable man I ever met." Soon, a major he rescued has a recurring haunted dream and he soon pieces together the he and the rest of the unit were victims of brainwashing, with the Soviets pulling the strings, and all of it is entangled with the sergeant's mother and her senator husband's bid for the Vice Presidential nominations. "The Manchurian Candidate" is dark, taut, and tense exercise and one of the best psychological thrillers ever constructed. From a Richard Condon novel, John Frankenheimer directs with precision and casts a feeling of eerie dread around the entire production. The cast is uniformly excellent with Frank Sinatra giving one of his finest turns as the troubled major, Laurence Harvey pitch perfect and haunting as the major, and Angela Lansbury harrowing playing one of the great villainesses in movie history. "The Manchurian Candidate" is incredible filmmaking, that would have not only been shocking to a 1962 audience but also to today's.

2012 CIFF: Pelotero

Tonight I volunteered for a short shift at a less hectic but still bustling Monday evening at the film festival, which I concluded with a wonderful documentary on my other great passion, baseball. Ever since the San Francisco Giants won the National League pennant in 1962 with Juan Marichal, Manny Mota, and Felipe and Matty Alou, Dominican players have been exploited by a league where they now make up 1/5th of its players. Much in the style of "Hoop Dreams", filmmakers follow Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin, and Jonathan Paley follow two top prospects, both from the humblest means and poised for big bonuses as they approach the big signing day set by MLB, which is July, 2nd following their 16th birthdays. The story is intelligently written and told clearly by narrator John Leguizamo and like Steve James' great documentary, "Pelotero" (ballplayer) follows intriguing personalities and goes to incredible and shocking places which no one could have anticipated. In an era when interest in the great sport seems to fading, "Pelotero" shows the fierce and sometimes unscrupulous determination of a culture motivated by poverty, which is roundly taken advantage of.

Monday, March 26, 2012


At the turn of the century in the title territory, robust cowboy Curly (Gordon MacRae) tussles for the love of Laurey (Shirley Jones) with her cruel and lewd farmhand Jud (Rod Steiger), while a similar scenario plays out between Curly's friend Will (Gene Nelson) and a travelling salesman (James Whitmore), although the unscrupulous hockster is more than willing to, but unable to part with the licentious Ado Annnie (Gloria Grahame). "Oklahoma!" is a booming and delightfully infectious cinematic rendering of the Broadway success, replete with joyous, toe-tapping songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Fred Zinnemann's opening up of the stage material to the big screen is always exciting and his cast, escpecially MacRae and Grahame, is consistently excellent (it's a special treat to watch Steiger, whom I didn't realize was in the movie, sing in his sole musical number). "Oklahoma!" is a wonderful throwback to a golden age of movie musicals.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

2012 CIFF: Of Two Minds

So I got a late jump on this year's Cleveland International Film Festival, and only saw one film today, but once again found myself taken by the sheer energy from the mass amounts of people who made their way down to Tower City today to catch a flick. The film I caught today in a packed theater was called "Of Two Minds", and was a documentary following four people with bipolar disorder, which was then followed by an informative panel discussion involving the filmmakers, a local specialist with the disorder, and two members of local mental health communities. Here is my review:

In the most elemental description, bipolar can be defined as a brain disease characterized by cycles of heightened mania followed those of deep, stifling depression. Although millions of Americans are afflicted with manic depression, and it is more than likely that a loved one suffers from the illness, a major social stigma is still attached to the disease. "Of Two Minds" follows four people diagnosed with bipolar disorder over an extended period as we witness their struggles and progressions with the disease. Directed by Doug Blush and Lisa Klein, the film is an insightful look into the misunderstood affliction. While I enjoyed the first hand approach taken by the filmmakers, I think the film would have also benefited from more of a professional input delving deeper into causes, symptoms, and treatments for the disease. Still, "Of Two Minds" informally addresses an all too often misconstrued disorder and does so with intelligence and warmth.

Kill List

An ex-soldier turned hitman, reeling from a recently botched job, takes on a new assignment at the insistence of his partner. Hired by a mysterious businessman, the 3 charges promise a big payoff but instead lead the two men down a dark and deadly path. Ben Wheatley's "Kill List" is a vile, senseless, and witless movie lacking any sense of style and storytelling technique. I am not resistant to violence in the movies, but rather towards violence for violence sake, and watching this reprehensible rubbish made me physically sick. This is the kind of film where brain dead burnouts walk out of it exclaiming, "Whoa, my favorite part was when that dude got his head bashed in with a hammer!"

Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune

Although he never achieved the iconic status or widespread acclaim of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs was an anti-war folk singer who brought his tangible message to the people through his indelible lyrics. "There But for Fortune" follows Ochs' career in the folk scene and peace movement, through a benefit he threw for Salvador Allende that brought attention to the Pinochet atrocities in Chile, up until the unfortunate, destructive latter years of his life which were marred by addiction and mental illness up until his eventual suicide. With interviews with friends and family, "There But for Fortune" tells the story of a powerful yet tragic voice who is sadly unknown among my generation.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Separation

An Iranian couple has reached a crossroads when they can't come to a compromise on whether they will leave the country or stay to take care of the man's sickly father. As the divorce proceedings begin and the couple decide with whom their daughter will live, the hiring of a new maid to tend to the infirmed father will lead to an even greater legal struggle and a great rift between the already beset couple. Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation", this year's Best Foreign Film winner at the Academy Awards, is a brilliantly written and constructed study in semantics where the arguments and differences between the characters go round and round, revealing new intriguing details as the story progresses. Peyman Moadi is excellent as the embattled, yet goodhearted husband who finds himself entangled in a web of legal difficulties. I also liked Sareh Bayal and Shahab Hosseini who play the devout maid and her ill tempered husband. "A Separation" is a moving story about a disintegrating family and a fine representation of a foreign culture, but above all, in an movie age of recycled storylines and unoriginal ideas, it is unique and ingeniously written film experience.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Sunset Limited

A devout Christian saves a disconsolate skeptic from hurling himself in front of the title train, and brings him home to his project apartment to have a philosophical discussion with the hopes of preventing a recurrence of the event. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones and written by Cormac McCarthy from his two man stage play, "The Sunset Limited" is an intelligent, intense, and deeply provocative film. Starring Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, both men capture the essence of their night and day characters, Jones being nuanced and inward and Jackson as fire breathing and outward, and although we start with two basic types, the story and its actors take us to dark and unforeseen places. Like the great minimal cast productions I'm familiar with such as "My Dinner with Andre" and "American Buffalo", "The Sunset Limited" is riveting thanks to its sharp and lucid dialogue and impeccable acting.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mildred Pierce

In depression era Los Angeles, housewife Mildred Pierce thinks of nothing but the happiness of her two daughters, sweetheart Ray and condescending Veda. So after leaving her kindhearted yet philandering husband, she is forced to a job waitressing, which brings her great embarrassment at first but leads to a personal business venture with her ex-husband's partner. After a booming success, her relationship with a mysterious heir and naivety about her cruel and selfish daughter will lead to her eventual downfall. "Mildred Pierce" is a sumptuous, intelligent, and sprawling adaptation of James M. Cain's hard boiled novel, filmed before in a 1945 version. Written and helmed by Todd Haynes, a director with a great knack for period detail ("Far from Heaven", "I'm Not There."), the serial is a precise realization of his source material. At its center, Kate Winslet ignores all standards set by Joan Crawford in her Oscar winning role and gives a (typically) remarkable performance, bringing humanity and believability to an often frustrating individual. In a supporting role, Guy Pearce is equally excellent likewise bringing complexity and believability to a sleazeball who should immediately set off warning signs in our hero's head, but with whom she is instead intensely attracted. Evan Rachel Wood is miscast and doesn't have the acting chops to play Veda, but her story goes to intriguing places, and the film's climax towards the end of the final chapter is nothing short of haunting. "Mildred Pierce" is a dark yet splendid account of blinded dedication, and a great example of book to film (miniseries) adaptation.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Postman Always Rings Twice

(minor spoilers)
A drifter walks into a roadside diner and inquires about a help wanted position. He is taken on the shrewd owner and taken greatly by his young and sultry wife. Soon, the two find each themselves in each others arms and quickly cook up a scheme to bump off the bumbling husband, not fully aware of the meaning of the title omen. "The Postman Always Rings Twice" is classic film noir from the hard boiled James M. Cain novel. John Garfield is excellent as the well meaning hitcher who has no intentions of getting entangled with the seductive femme fatale, played by a sexy and sultry Lana Turner. Much of the film's tension is released following the murder (although the latter courtroom scenes feature a great turn by Hume Cronyn as an unscrupulous defense attorney), "The Postman Always Rings Twice" is genre defining filmmaking.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

La Strada

When her sister dies, a poor seaside girl is forced into an apprenticeship with a travelling circus strongman to support her family. After enduring the brute's ill temper for a period, she finds a possible means of escape with a brazen acrobat, but her predicament, feelings for her boss, and an unforeseen tragedy prevent her from leaving. "La Strada" is an early masterwork from legendary Italian director Federico Fellini which he based on his early experiences in the circus. Giulietta Masina, Fellini's wife who would leave an equally indelible impression a few years later in "Nights of Cabiria", is excellent as the simplistic and sullen assistant. Anthony Quinn likewise is great as the vile strongman whose heart is not totally hardened. "La Strada" is a stark and affecting Neorealist work from a master, centered on two wonderful performances.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Death on the Nile

A socialite is murdered aboard a Nile cruise ship where seemingly every member of the passenger roster is a known enemy with personal motives, including her jilted sister. Fortunately, one of the traveler's is world renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot who now must sort through the colorful characters and use his masterful powers of deduction to determine the culprit. Following the success of Sidney Lumet's "Murder on the Orient Express", "Death on the Nile", another Agatha Christie murder mystery, was adapted for the screen. Although it contains virtually the same plot, it still provides the same high level of entertainment. This was the first film where Peter Ustinov played the famed detective whom he would revisit several times over, and his portrayal is delightfully awkward. In a truly all-star cast, we are given fun performances from Mia Farrow, George Kennedy, David Niven, Jack Warden, and especially Bettie Davis and Maggie Smith who play a spinster and her indignant servant, respectively. "Death on the Nile" features a silly and incredible story, but is thoroughly entertaining throughout.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Hotel Rwanda

In 1994 Rwanda, when members of the Hutu tribe begin a murderous rebellion against their Tutsi rulers, a hotel owner of the rebelling tribe is comfortable with turning a blind eye, until the uprising threatens his Tutsi wife and children. At first only wishing to aid his family, the manager has a sudden change of heart and begins to go broke sheltering numerous refugees from the horrific genocide that plagued the country and went largely ignored by the rest of the world. Terry George's "Hotel Rwanda" places a humanistic face on the Rwandan atrocities and is centered on a supremely effective and career best performance from Don Cheadle. Instead of portraying a superman, Cheadle plays a real man coming to terms with his situation and doing everything within his power to do good in the face of madness. "Hotel Rwanda" is an unnerving and well-realized portrait of a tragic instance.

State of the Union

As a hated tycoon newspaperman lays dying, he implores his daughter and successor (Angela Lansbury) to take revenge on the members of the Republican party who have slandered and betrayed him. To do this, she grooms an aircraft magnate (Spencer Tracy), with whom she's also having an affair, to take the nomination who agrees only to do so if his wife (Katharine Hepburn) will go on the campaign trail. Now, the already strained marriage begins to worsen as the candidate is forced to make compromise after compromise in his quest for the nomination. "State of the Union" is Frank Capra's excellent filmization of Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse's play and is much more hard bitten than the hokey elements which typified his early films. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are both wonderful, also playing slightly different roles, playing people becoming disillusioned by the political process. Angela Lansbury is also distinctive in a malevolent supporting role, as are Adolphe Menjou and Van Johnson. "State of the Union" is entertaining but also cynical and indicting, a rare and interesting hodgepodge for a political film.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


On the day of the Labor Day picnic, a strapping drifter appears in a small Kansas town, at first to seek work from his successful classmate. Soon, though he inflames the emotions of the town and steals the heart of his old pal's girl. "Picnic" is an overly soapy adaptation of a William Inge play by director Joshua Logan. Although stars William Holden, Kim Novak, Cliff Robertson, Rosalind Russell, and Arthur O'Connell are strong in fevered segments, I didn't care for the way they were directed overall and their performances often come through as forced and mannered. The title segment in the midsection of the film drags, but it wraps up nicely in a series of heated confrontations.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

1,000 years after a great fire following apocalyptic battle amidst the ruins of a dying earth, a warrior princess leads her people and tries to prevent two warring factions from colliding. "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" is the second film from beloved Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, and also a feature length film of a television serial he championed. While the film has a strong female protagonist and an important environment message, it is largely impenetrable and suffers greatly from overlength. Is it wrong to be resistant to the works of someone who is widely considered a master of his craft? Miyazaki's films are beautifully animated and are moralistic fables that differ greatly from the pap we are often served here, but as with "Nausicaa", I often find them to be rugged, indecipherable, and too hard to become engaged with.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

The Earth Liberation Front was an ecoterrorist sect that, throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, targeted deforesting companies and was declared by the FBI as the greatest domestic terrorist threat to the United States. "If a Tree Falls" tells the history of this group, while following one of its members while he awaited trial for his role in an arson attack against an Oregon lumber company. Marshall Curry's documentary is both an engrossing account of the radical organization as well as something that I didn't expect it to be: fair and balanced. Curry neither glorifies nor castigates his protagonist Daniel McGowan, but simply tells his story and that of the ELF with openness and style, an approach that is largely lost in the world of documentary filmmaking.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

These Amazing Shadows

In the late 1980s a huge injustice was done to historical films when billionaire tycoon Ted Turner began colorizing classic films to which he claimed ownership, including such wonders as "Casablanca" and "It's a Wonderful Life". In response, Congress passed the National Film Preservation Act of 1988 which created the National Film Registry and a board which would designate 25 films a year for preservation. What makes this endeavor so interesting is the loose definition of acceptable films which reads any that is "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" which allows films to be preserved as radically different as "Citizen Kane" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show". "These Amazing Shadows" takes us through the history of the NFR and the preservation process, while providing clips from the many different preserved movies from over the years. Like its qualification requirements, the film is all over the place but is a real treat for anyone who loves the movies.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Southern Yankee

A maladroit, idiotic Missourian hotel clerk desperately wants to be useful towards the Union cause and constantly nags the residing Northern soldiers in his place of work. When he accidentally unhands a notorious Southern spy whose identity is scarcely known, his wish finally comes true. Now, posing as the Rebel spy, the cowardly bellboy must go behind enemy lines to relay a crucial message to another infiltrator. "A Southern Yankee" is another riotous laugh-a-minute vehicle for Red Skelton, a hilarious comedian who sadly has gone forgotten by recent generations. Skelton's one liners are consistently funny and the gags I was pleased to discover, but not totally surprised due to their quality, were developed by the legendary Buster Keaton. "A Southern Yankee" is an entertaining, and even occasionally brilliant romp.

Lord of the Flies

A plane crash leaves several dozen British school children stranded on a tropical isle, who break up into two warring factions and quickly descend into savagery. Peter Brock's 1963 filmization of the modern classic novel was done entirely with author William Goldman's consent and is largely faithful to the book. Made with an extremely narrow budget and shot on location with non actors, the result is an authentic and ultimately chilling rendition. All of the children cast are effective, particularly James Aubrey as the principled Ralph, Tom Chapin as the brutish Jack, and especially Hugh Edwards as the weak but intelligent Piggy. "Lord of the Flies" is a wonderful model not only for low budget films but also for book adaptations.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Earl Tupper's line of plastic, sealable units not only revolutionized food storage but provided a source of revenue for women who hosted Tupperware parties. The long running American Experience documentary series on PBS is a remarkable series that showcases many facets of our culture, and there are times of course when I personally must take one of their entries and realize that it is not geared towards me. "Tupperware!" is one of these entries. I did not find the story of Tupperware to be at all interesting but again I am not the demographic this film is aiming at.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Anna Karenina

The wife of a cold and career driven Russian official is sent to mind the shaky marriage of her in-laws when she falls in love with a dashing military officer. As the affair becomes public, her jilted husband refuses her visitation of her son leading to the tragic end in Leo Tolstoy's often filmed tale. "Anna Karenina" is an excellent filmization of the Russian master's novel by underrated Hollywood director Clarence Brown. In the title role, Greta Garbo is luminous, basking in her beauty while providing a somber, nuanced performance. Frederic March is likewise excellent in a dialed down role as her lover, and Reginald Owen, as the scoundrel brother-in-law, and Basil Rathbone, as the callous husband are quite good as well.

Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley was an inexplicable woman of talent and tenacity. Born in a life of poverty and losing her father at a very young age, she was forced into abusive servitude to support her family. Soon, finding herself to be a natural with a rifle, she triumphed over her hardships and was on her way to becoming the top sharpshooter in the country and headliner of Buffalo Bill's world renowned Wild West Show. "Annie Oakley" is another excellent entry in the American Experience Western Series, telling the story of another figure of the west who's life story has reached epic proportions. Along with the wonderful elements that typify these profiles (archival footage, expert commentary), Oakley's story is brimming with wonderful, lesser known information about her remarkable and inspirational life.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


A detective suffering from the title condition, and recently retired from the force, is hired by an old college chum to shadow his wife, who seems to be experiencing some sort of spiritual possession. As he follows her through her journeys through San Francisco, he quickly falls in love with her, a love that will turn into obsession when a sudden tragedy strikes. Alfred Hitchock's "Vertigo" is a dark, complex, and hypnotic film and one of The Master's finest works. Shot with a brilliant use of color, plotted with carefully constructed pacing, and underscored by Bernard Hermann's ominous score, "Vertigo" works like a charm whether its your first time viewing or your tenth. Jimmy Stewart delivers one of his best and certainly his darkest performances and Kim Novak is effectively cold as the mysterious blonde he is hired to follow. "Vertigo" is a twisted and sumptuous journey and an intricate construction the likes of which have seldom been found in a Hollywood movie.

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp was a crude man with an unseemly start in the West, who gradually made his name as a lawman. Following the infamous shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona involving his brothers, Doc Holliday and the Clantons and the McLaurys and its fallout, Earp spent the rest of his days trying to clear his name as a vengeful brute, something which would not be done until after his death ironically by the very event which was  the impetus to his infamy. "Wyatt Earp" is another remarkable entry is PBS' American Experience Western Series. The mystified veneer of Earp created by countless films is stripped away and we are given an intriguing account of flawed western hero, abetted by wonderful archival footage, narration, and expert commentary.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


A Brooklyn teen begins to realize her identity as a lesbian, a fact that adds further distress to the already strained marriage between her cold, controlling mother and loving but naive father. "Pariah" is a thoughtful coming of age story from Dee Rees that is centered on a wonderfully nuanced performance from Adepero Oduye portraying a shy, intelligent young woman who is beginning to come out of shell. As her parents Kim Wayans borders on becoming a maniacal gay hating villain, but Charles Parnell succeeds in becoming more than just a type, and brings strength and empathy to his role. While watching "Pariah", I thought of "A Better Life", another recent release. Both tell urban stories, photographed with uncommon beauty for their settings, who's central protagonist is going against the grain simply to achieve the basic guarantees of the American dream.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Singin' in the Rain

As silent movie megastar Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and his onscreen costar Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), whom he secretly loathes, walk the red carpet for their latest premier, the rumbling of the talking pictures is just a shout away. Don and his best friend/piano player Cosmo (Donald O'Connor), who have a background as song and dance men, will be well suited to the new format, but screechy voiced Lina will probably not survive the transition. Now, after falling for a perky chorus girl with the voice of an angel (Debbie Reynolds), all Don has to do is figure out how to save his latest project with Lina, "The Dueling Cavalier". "Singin' in the Rain" is a sheer delight, and one of the all-time great musicals, if not movies of all time. Codirected by Stanley Donen with Gene Kelly, the film is a mash-up of a story by Adolph Green and Betty Comden and the songbook of classics works by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. The result is a free wheeling, toe tapping joy enhanced by the engaging performances of its casts. Gene Kelly shines both as an actor and in his song and dance acts, Debbie Reynolds is delightful as Kathy the chorus girl, Jean Hagen is hilarious as the heavy, and Donald O'Connor is excellent, particularly in the "Make 'Em Laugh" dance number where he performs a seemingly impossible set. "Singin' in the Rain" is a celebration of the movies done in jovial fashion that is a wonder every time it is revisited. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Artist

3/5/12 I must have been in a bad mood or had heightened expectations due to the hype surrounding it, but I caught "The Artist" again and found it to be a more enjoyable exercise (yes, it is still an exercise), highlighted by the delightful lead performances and the impressive direction of Michel Hazanavicius.

2/4/12 It's 1927 Hollywood and screen star George Valentin is at the height of his fame. Backstage at the premier of his latest silent hit, George celebrates with the producers, his bitchy wife/costar, and his beloved pet dog and also screen partner. However, the talkies are on their way which will spell career death for George. As his lifestyle takes a sharp decline, a young chorus girl whom he once showed kindness to begins her rise to fame and George must learn to swallow his pride when she attempts to return the favor. "The Artist" is this year's critical darling, having won audiences over at Cannes and now likely on the path to take the Oscars by storm. Made by director Michel Hazanavicius, and starring his wife Berenice Bejo and Jean Dujardin after their OSS 117 60s spy spoofs, the French team seems to be creating a niche at recreating past genre films. There are some wonderful sequences including an early tap scene between Bejo and Dujardin, a nightmare scene, and an operatic late revelation. Dujardin and Bejo are extremely charming in their roles and Americans actors such as John Goodman and James Cromwell play memorable parts also. Uggie the dog, who has made quite a name for himself lately in the talk circuit, is also quite a specimen. "The Artist" comes packaged with a lot of hype, which diminished the experience somewhat for me. I liked the film for what it was, a pleasant if not delightful exercise that honors and replicates past films, silent, talkie, black and white, and color alike ("Singin' in the Rain" and "A Star is Born" come to mind), but never really distinguishes itself as its own unique piece of work.

The Male Animal

On the night of the big game against rival Michigan, the board of trustees at Midwestern University get wind that a professor will read a controversial writing by condemned anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti at his next class. With the loss of his job hanging over his head and the return of his wife's ex-flame for the big game, the professor goes into crisis mode while trying to maintain his moral integrity and keep his personal life in order. "The Male Animal" is a delightful comedy directed by Elliot Nugent from his stage play which he cowrote with Columbus native and fellow Ohioan James Thurber, made all the more enjoyable for Buckeye State natives as it is clearly set at Ohio State University. Penned for the screen by "Casablanca" penning sibilings Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein along with Stephen Morehouse Avery, is at once a hilarious comedy of errors and a sharp indictment of bullying. Henry Fonda sparkles in the lead role as the enervated professor who must stand up for wife Olivia de Havilland against the boisterous Jack Carson and for his job against the browbeating Eugene Pallette, all of whom are excellent in their respective roles. "The Male Animal" is the best kind of entertainment, one which provide laughs while simultaneously being a pointed treatise on a topical issue.

Secrets of the Manor House

From Jean Renoir's "The Rules of the Game" to "Gosford Park" and countless murder mystery movies in between in addition to the glowing television successes such as "Upstairs, Downstairs", "Brideshead Revisited", and the recent "Downton Abbey" phenomenon, the British Manor House has been a source of fascination for many. "Secrets of the Manor House" is an hour long exploration of the Manor House class system that held for over 1,000 years until its unraveling following the First Great War. The program is (expectedly) staid but holds informative interest, especially in interviews with those who had still been involved, both upstairs and down, in the waning years of the system.

The Harder They Come

Ivan is an impoverished yet high spirited young man who leaves his country home for the big city of Kingston, Jamaica in hopes of success as a reggae musician. Instead he draws the ire of a fire breathing reverend with whom he finds employ, and is taken advantage of by a record company crime lord. Soon, driven to murder and on the run with his new single as the top drawing hit, Ivan has become an underground hero and the number one target of the police. Perry Henzell's blaxploitation film "The Harder They Come" is significant for exporting ska music to America and introducing the world to its star Jimmy Cliff. While the film is famous for its soundtrack, we are really only given the title track, which is played repeatedly during the movie, and two or three other songs, which are excellent nonetheless. As for the film itself, what starts off as a gritty story about an engaging underdog soon turns vile and nasty (as I assume that most of these films do) as our hero turns to an unrepentant and murderous life of crime. While Cliff's performance and songs elevate the film, its message is unsettling, as I'm sure is as intended.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


A ruffian miner becomes a dentist's apprentice, moves to San Francisco, and eventually takes over his practice. There he weds a girl betrothed to his best friend, and all goes sour when a lottery ticket purchased at the time of her initial courtship comes back a winner. "Greed" is director Erich von Stroheim's passion project, an over 10 hour work from the 1902 novel McTeague by Frank Norris. After the film was (understandably) cut to about a fifth of its run time, much to the heartbreak of von Stroheim, the extracted footage was mostly lost. Now, in a restored version, we have the original two and a half hour release supplemented by stills and title cards explaining the gaps and leaving the film at a 4 plus hour running length. While the new additions are largely unnecessary, "Greed" remains a powerful and harrowing treatise on avarice. It features powerful central performances from Gibson Gowland and Zasu Pitts who offer scary character transformations as rapacity almost immediately dominates there lives. The concluding Death Valley showdown is one of the most stark and alarming sequences of any ending ever film. "Greed" is a powerful, dark, and incomplete masterpiece.

Friday, March 2, 2012


German director Wim Wenders had been collaborating on a dance film with famed choreographer Pina Bausch when she passed away in 2009. In tribute, Wenders fashioned a 3D performance documentary of Bausch's finest work where her stunning and innovative choreography is shown both on the stage and in the streets of Wuppertal, where her dance troupe hails from. Pina's work is different and exciting, and Wenders' stellar direction adds a level of interest to the film, particularly the scenes high up in Wuppertal Schwebebahn Monorail. However, we are only witnessing the art and learn very little about the artist herself, accept of her accolades in the brief testimonials from her dancers before each set piece. The 3D does not enhance the film much either. "Pina" is a dazzling film that I wish would have told us a little more about its fascinating subject.

The Blue Dahlia

A bomber pilot returns home from war and, after having a few drinks with his service buddies, goes to meet his wife and finds her at a party in the arms of another man. After a heated and public argument, she turns up dead the next morning and the G.I., along with the sultry ex-wife of his dead wife's lover, must solve the mystery before the pursuing coppers close in. "The Blue Dahlia" is a well made noir from director George Marshall with a script by the hard boiled novelist Raymond Chandler. Alan Ladd is in top form as the hard nosed G.I. and Veronica Lake is as sexy as ever as the mysterious blonde whom he becomes entangled with. William Bendix and Doris Dowling are also strong in supporting roles as an edgy, brain damaged veteran and Ladd's malevolent wife. (spoilers) Only in the end does the film unravel with an unsatisfying revelation of an irrelevant culprit, maligning an otherwise excellent noir exercise.

A Beautiful Mind

John Nash was a brilliant and misanthropic mathematician from West Virginia who must have seemed mysterious to his Princeton classmates in the 1950s. Having largely avoided his peers while solving equations on the library windows, John eventually makes key breakthroughs in game theory that propels him to a successful career with the government and a supplemental teaching post where he meets his doting wife Alicia. However, when he is approached by a government agent seeking his help for code breaking, it becomes clear that John has lost his grips with reality and may have had a schizophrenic break. Viewing Ron Howard's biopic "A Beautiful Mind" today, it seems like one of the odder Best Picture recipients of recent times. Although he won the Oscar for his work, Howard's direction seems erratic and doesn't draw us in to its subject's brilliance (i.e. lets just light up several patterns of numbers on the screen so we can see his mind is at work). Also, the film offers a distressing "self-help" view of mental illness, and the film's twist and gimmick surrounding that is irritating, at least the second time through. Of course, "A Beautiful Mind" is redeemed by it wonderful cast with Russell Crowe as the moody Nash and Jennifer Connelly as his loving and supporting wife. Christopher Plummer and Josh Lucas also have nice turns as a psychiatrist and colleague of Nash's, respectively. Although it doesn't deserve its esteemed status, "A Beautiful Mind" is worth seeing on the merits of its acting.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Venezuelan Ilich Ramirez Sanchez was an idealist leftist who joined the Palestinian Liberation Front in 1974 and began an international campaign of terror lasting twenty years. Known as Carlos the Jackal, Sanchez perpetrated an airline bombing, the murder of three French custom officials, and the infamous OPEC takeover amongst other subversive acts before losing his standards and becoming a self-consumed tyrant before his imminent arrest. Olivier Assayas' "Carlos" is an ambitious look at the brazen and pompous terrorists life, told over the course of a three part, five plus hour miniseries. Edgar Ramirez is fierce in the lead role, often transforming himself during the many changes of Carlos' life. It was recommended to me that I watch the full miniseries, rather than the abbreviated movie, but after an exhilarating first part the film slows down to near snail's pace and becomes off putting during the hero's decline. Although it is a well made film about an enigmatic figure and featuring a strong lead performance, "Carlos" is probably best taken in the small dosage.