Monday, December 20, 2010

Black Swan

As a wrestler in high school, I never understood the mentality of the athletes who would wrestle in the 103 lb. weight class: starving themselves to maintain weight while going through a grueling practice. They must have done it for the roar of the crowd or the thrill of victory (though I'm still not sure it was worth the sacrifice). Black Swan is a film about a ballerina that understands this mentality and captures ballet brutally on the screen. It focuses on a dancer named Nina (Natalie Portman) gearing up for the lead in Swan Lake. As she morphs into the part of the role for which she is not fully qualified, the lines between fantasy and reality begin to blur as she faces a rivalry from a newly arrived dancer (Mila Kunis) and pressure from her instructor (Vincent Cassel). Black Swan is another hit from dark director Darren Aronofsky, and understands that dark side of sports that so many competitors are drawn to.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Man on the Moon

Milos Forman is considered the director of misfits, having directed films about such misunderstood souls such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, and The People vs. Larry Flynt. With Man on the Moon he may have directed his greatest misfit to date, with his portrait of the interminable and ingenious Andy Kaufman, with Jim Carrey towering at the center. The film does not seem to be a standard issued biopic but one that Kaufman himself may have approved. We follow his adult career from Saturday Night Live to Taxi to Pro Wrestling and later into his battle with cancer. All the while we find ourselves either laughing or scratching our head at his antics.

Friday, December 3, 2010

127 Hours

January 2011 Review 127 Hours tells the true to life tale of Aron Ralston’s horrific 2003 mountain climbing excursion in Robber’s Roost, Utah. Without telling a soul, Ralston grabs a few supplies and heads out on his trek. The opening of the film is mostly silent, as we see Aron navigate the dangerous terrain of the Utah desert. Soon, fate takes its part and a small avalanche ensues, releasing a boulder that lands on Aron’s right arm, hopelessly trapping him at the base of a canyon. It is from this position that most of the film is seen.
            127 Hours, base on a book by Ralston called Between a Rock and a Hard Place, must have seemed liked a tough sell to the studios due to the limited spacing of the narrative. However, it is a success due to the screenwriting, directing, and acting, all involved firing on all cylinders to deliver a successful film. James Franco shows his range as Ralston while delivering his comic sensibilities as well. He generates feelings in us for a character that could have been made out to be selfish or unlikable. The performance is on an Academy Award level.
The screenwriters, realizing how limited they are, do an interesting thing by visualizing Ralston’s thoughts, fears, fantasies, etc. while he is trapped. This helps increase audience sympathy and further bring us into his plight. Other techniques are used as well that help broaden the film and make its limited range negligible.
Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) seems like the natural choice to direct Aron’s story (he also co-wrote). After a career dabbling in fantasy, action, survival, and horror, his resume corresponds to the material. What we get (along with some agonizingly intense moments) is a well made actioneer where the protagonist is immobilized for most of the film and where most of the action takes place in our minds.

Original Review Danny Boyle seems to be the natural choice to direct Aron Ralston's story, after dabbling in fantasy, survival, and horror tales, and Ralston's story containing all of those elements. 127 Hours begins with Ralston (played with believability by James Franco) fool-heartedly preparing for a weekend canyoning excursion. While out he does some biking, meets some girls, then becomes stuck more or less between a rock and a hard place-the title of Ralson's book (a boulder traps his hand and he becomes unable to extract it). Much of the film will take place from this point on, and it is here where Boyle's talents come into play (Franco's are not wasted either) making the film exciting and even brutally intense at moments. The outcome of this story is known by many who follow news events, but the way audience members were shrieking and cringing during a key sequence is a testament to the fillmmaker's abilities.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Waiting for 'Superman'

Waiting for 'Superman' is the latest from Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) and tells about the state of our public schools. The documentary is presented through visual stats and interviews with school administrators. Also, to add a human element, we meet five affable young students who are in danger of being sent to a school with a poor graduation rate and must be entered into a lottery to attend a more successful charter school.

When writing reviews, I try to avoid words like 'boring' or 'tedious' but I couldn't help but notice the number of times I checked my watch during this movie. Granted the material is worth examining, that doesn't necessarily make it cinematic (I felt the same way about An Inconvenient Truth), and I feel this material would be better suited to a PBS prime time special. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


The title of this film refers to an outpost in the most dangerous sector of Afghanistan and is named after PFC Juan Restrepo, who opens the film with a gung-ho attitude about his 2007 deployment and is soon and sadly a fallen comrade in arms.  Restrepo is a fascinating first-person account of soldiers in the Korangal Valley and is told with one-on-one interviews with the soldiers as well as with a camera that is seemingly on the front lines. The result is a depiction of war which has been rarely captured before on film.

The beauty of the region is also evident, and given the contrast to the constant fighting in the area, it makes the film all the more engaging. The soldiers we get to know appear as intelligent and tireless in what may be a futile endeavor. The film captures minute details such as the daily cleaning of gear interspersed with harsh moments where the soldiers face deadly threats.  The War on Terror has been going on for 10 plus years and it would be hard to find someone who did not have an opinion on the conflict. While noting that films about the war have not done well with American audiences, watching Restrepo can only enhance and enlighten our perspective.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Jackass 3D

 “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema.”
Francois Truffaut is undoubtedly turning as I type this, but I think it applies. I'm not uploading a picture. I've seen enough vomit for one night.

Sidenote: This film should be a call to reexamine our ratings system. The fact that most theaters will show this film and not X-rated/NC-17 films like Bad Lieutenant and Last Tango In Paris says a lot, and the fact that people took their kids to see this "R rated" fare says even more.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Catfish is a "documentary" that I'm more than tempted to examine, but it works better the less you know about it going in. So I'm just going to leave it at that.

Let Me In

I was kind of shocked at the level of gore in Let Me In. It's not excessive as far as horror movies go, it just seems shocking to see in a movie about vampires, which I always associate with Bela Lugosi or Max Schrek (I admit I'm not familiar with Dracula films starring Christopher Lee or Klaus Kinski or even the Twilight films for that matter). Those classic films specialized in atmosphere and unseen terror. Let Me In generates the atmosphere, but when it turns gory I think it missteps. It is based on a very recent and revered Swedish film called "Let the Right One In", and both films tell the story of a bullied young boy who forms a bond with a young vampire girl (the words vampire or the like are never stated). The remake recreates the mood and tension of the first film while adding plot elements, which may be unnecessary (the exceptional Richard Jenkins is miscast). The child actors are great in their roles and in the end we are left with a satisfying, moody film whose pros outweigh its cons.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The House of Steinbrenner

The House of Steinbrenner opens with the last year's Yankee World Series victory and the documentary comes off at first as a Yankee love fest, likely to sicken most baseball fans. However, as the transition from the old Yankee Stadium to the new one and the change in management from George Steinbrenner to his children is explored, we get a sense of the history and current state of the undeniably great organization. George, who died earlier this year, appears in stock interviews and I was impressed by his honesty about himself and how he seemed to be a grounded person. Interviews with his son Hal, whom he passed the torch to and has received criticism, reveals a less fiery yet still disciplined nature. Through interviews with fans, players, and media we get a sense of what the team means to a city, and how important baseball is to all of us.

Jack Goes Boating

Philip Seymour Hoffman is an actor who opens himself up on screen, leaving all of his good and bad qualities for the audience to bear. With his first film as a director his approach is somewhat similar as he takes a stage play and opens it up as much as he can, something that is often hard to do with the material. Here we have the story of two relationships, one just blossoming and the other withering, and we observe how all involve act towards their respective partners. Jack (Hoffman) and Clyde (John Ortiz) are limo drivers and best pals. Clyde is confidant and has been in a long term relationship with Lucy. He wants to see his socially awkward friend happy and decides to hook him up with Connie (Amy Ryan),  one of Lucy's coworkers. After hitting it off on the first date, Jack wants things to be perfect for their next encounter so he begins taking cooking lessons. He also takes swimming lessons, so he can take Connie on a romantic boat ride when the weather improves. These sweet happenings are counteracted with Clyde and Lucy's relationship, which has been disintegrating after several instances of infidelity. Not all the ongoings in this film seem believable, but the actors bring credibility to their roles. Hoffman succeeds at playing another misfit, this time with hair braids who retreats into himself and his reggae music. Amy Adams, who became clear to viewers as the crack addled racist mother in Gone Baby Gone and then endeared herself to viewers of TV's The Office, again strikes the right notes as Connie, a damaged soul herself. There is warmth and tenderness in their courtship. By the time the movie was finished, I thought the film had misstepped in a few places, but I was really rooting for the characters, even if I didn't always buy some of their dialogue and actions.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Jaws is recognized as many things: A study in tension, the movie that created the summer blockbuster, and the film that put Steven Spielberg on the map. Watching it at a 35th anniversary screening, I had forgotten how well realized the characters are, how humorous it was in places, and what a meticulously constructed and well made film it is. There is so much more going on in the film then just a small island vacation town dealing with a shark threatening their summer business. One of the things that caught my attention was the use of closeup and how great the actors were cast in the film: Roy Scheider as the weary yet assured Chief Brody.Richard Dreyfuss as the young and intelligent marine biologist who takes offense at the local's insults. And of course Robert Shaw as the hard boiled Irishman who takes the bounty on the Great White. Although the scenes involving the shark are masterful, the best scene comes during a moment in the cabin of The Orca, just after the three men bond and drunkenly sing, "Show Me The Way To Go Home." A tattoo inquiry leads Quint to recount his ordeal on the Indianapolis during World War II. His tale is able to generate as much terror as any of the scenes involving the shark, and is an example of how this is great moviemaking, not just a great suspense blockbuster.                    

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Harry Brown

We go into revenge thrillers knowing what to expect, with audience manipulation being among the expectations. Therefore, if we treat them as an acting showcase for the star, the payoff can be great, and Michael Caine proves that a great actor can elevate most any material, no matter how grotesquely violent it may be. Caine plays the title character, an ex-servicemen with a dying wife, and after the gang murder of his best mate, he has nothing to left to lose and begins to take out the junkie drug dealing slime who infest his apartment complex. In addition to these clichés, add to the list the lone cop who suspects a pensioner vigilante, her partner who doesn’t buy it but eventually comes around, and an entire police force who misreads the situation entirely. What is not standard however is Caine’s (usual) magnetic and restrained performance where he makes us believe, like Clint did in Gran Torino, that a geriatric could take out a band of thugs and bring peace to a turbulent neighborhood.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cemetery Junction

One doesn't expect an affecting drama and a well shot film from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, but that is what we have with their latest offering, along with their expected humorous touches. Cemetery Junction is a coming of age story of three young men in 1973 Reading, England. While spending their days drinking, chasing birds, and goofing off one receives an opportunity to rise above his working class roots and date the girl of his dreams, although she is the boss's daughter and engaged to one of his coworkers. This isn't new territory, but great actors like Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson guide the way, with Gervais thrown in for comic relief, and the trio of friends played by likable enough actors.

Nowhere Boy

Nowhere Boy is a horrible film that takes all of the elements that made John Lennon's early life compelling and fouls them up or omits them entirely. Set during his fifteenth year in 1955, we see young John bum around Liverpool, argue with his guardian aunt, and spend time with his mentally unbalanced mother. We never see scenes of him doing any writing whatsoever and the movie implies he learned guitar from his mother in a matter of days. The actors range from uninspired to godawful and all that results is soapy melodrama and an uninteresting film about a young man who grew up to be one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

23 years after the first film, the Wall Street sequel picks up in 2008 on the precipice of the global financial collapse A free man for seven years, Gordon Gekko is now an outsider to the world he once ruled and now does tours promoting his new book "Is Greed Good?" At one of these seminars, he meets a young broker who is dating his estranged daughter. The two form a partnership with the goal of crushing a ruthless hedge fund billionaire who has wronged both of them and reuniting Gekko's daughter with him. Shia LaBeouf is out of his league with heavyweight actors who carry him throughout the picture: Michael Douglas maintains his slick ruthlessness and Josh Brolin is fine in a role similar to Douglas's in the first film. Carey Mulligan and Susan Sarandan are fine as well as LaBeouf girlfriend and mom. Also, Frank Langella and Eli Wallach are excellent in smaller roles. Money Never Sleeps makes some biting statements about the current economy and has some nice visuals as well as unnecessary visual effects. The ending is also pat and does not do the characters justice, although the ride is worthwhile

Monday, September 20, 2010

I'm Still Here

Amidst all the hoopla surrounding I’m still here and the speculation surrounding its authenticity, what few are mentioning is how well the film is made. Joaquin Phoenix’s bizarre behavior is documented following his retirement from acting and foray into the acting world and following brother-in-law and director Casey Affleck’s announcement that the movie was indeed a hoax, I was asking myself while watching this how anyone could think it was real. The film has writing credits to begin with and is clearly the work of a group of friends goofing around. Still, what is remarkable is how Phoenix maintained this persona for such an extended period, how deep the hoax goes, and how downright hilarious and entertaining the final product is. I think the film works as a lampoon of celebrity entitlement and behavior and I think the Phoenix performance, if it is indeed one, is brilliant. Many disagree of its worth as a performance or mockery, and even if it isn’t one of those things, it is fascinating and one of the funniest films of the year.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Bridges of Madison County

The title refers to the cover story of a 1965 issue of National Geographic, and when two grown siblings find that their recently deceased mother’s will stipulates that she wishes to be thrown off of one of these bridges, they are more than perplexed. Why would she not want to be buried in the spot reserved for her next to her loving husband? We learn the answer to that question as a four day love affair between the woman and a visiting photographer is revealed through flashback. This could have been a soapy mess, but thanks to the fine direction of Clint Eastwood, it proves to be a thoughtful rumination and honest portrait of a true love that was never meant to be. Playing an Italian immigrant, whose dreams did not involve growing up on an Iowan farm, but whose life somehow ended up that way, Meryl Streep is luminous and Clint shows vulnerability while retaining his tough guy persona as the photographer. The movie is a little long yet nonetheless intelligent, effective, and affecting.


Sometimes it takes only one film to open the doors to the creation of innumerous subsequent films and watching Breathless, it is clear that many modern movies were made because of it. Made at the beginning of the French New Wave, it was written by Francois Truffaut and directed by Jean-Luc Godard and implemented a style that had not been used, or not widely used in mainstream cinema. Filmed with jump cuts (two different consecutive shots of the same focal point) and implementing a free form style light on plot and heavy on rambling dialogue, I was reminded of many following films with a similar style. It stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as a petty car thief who models himself on Humphrey Bogart. After killing a cop, he hides out in Paris while waiting for travel funds to come through. During this time, he romanticizes an American woman (Jean Seberg) while the two hold rambling and wide ranging discussions in their hotel rooms. Though I thought the film was maybe too loose and could have used a little more plot, it is undeniably influential and a movie that liberated the movies.

Friday, September 17, 2010


The 30 for 30 series finally lets the girls play, and in what was admittedly the entry I had anticipated the least, it turns out to be one of the better ones in the series. Old friends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova get together to reminisce on their intense rivalry in which the two squared off an incredible amount of times in women’s tennis singles, forming one of the greatest and seldom mentioned rivalries in professional sports. The heart of the story lies in the friendship the two had formed over the years and the two come across as genuine people and not entitled and selfish athletes. Although it seems long even for its hour duration and we are ready for it to end by the time the Natalie Merchant song has played by for the third time, it still tells a fine story of an intense rivalry and a tender friendship.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Animal Kingdom

           The film opens with a television game show being regarded by a seventeen year old boy as he sits next to his slumped over mother. As the paramedics arrive, he calmly informs them that she has overdosed on heroin. He then continues watching the TV while the men unsuccessfully try to revive his mother. This casual attitude gives us an idea of the people who will populate the film.
            Soon the boy is taken in by his Grandma, a short and spunky woman not dissimilar to Ma Barker as she houses her three criminal sons and their associate. Although she died a junkie, these were the people that the boy’s mother had sheltered from him for his entire life. Now he has been introduced to their gang, or pack if you will. Soon he will be entangled in their criminal web and immersed in more danger than anyone could have imagined.
           Several abrubt killings will take place and the teen, played with believability by fresh faced James Frecheville, will stand at the center of the film, caught between loyalty to his criminal family and responsibility to the law. Guy Pearce convincingly plays the detective who heads the case and offers a way out to the young man. 
Animal Kingdom is an Australian export and the debut film from David Michod. It is based on famous events that occurred in Melbourne in 1988, which the film wisely decides to not tell us. It is a gritty film containing despicable characters and their reprehensible acts. I thought the film was intriguing, but lacked characterization and proper pacing. I also did not buy into certain plot developments and character decisions that take place towards the end of the film. 
Still, many scenes come off with force and it is engaging throughout its duration. Also, one scene involving a character’s realization and a subsequent chase is handled with perfection, in a manner which generates chills. Despite its flaws, Animal Kingdom is an honest depiction of the criminal lifestyle and worth seeking out. It is a good film for a first time director, and the kind of film that makes you want to see what else the director will do.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


David Lynch is a talented director who makes challenging films, and has a fervent following, as would be indicated by the number of people who follow him on Twitter. He is also an arrogant filmmaker, who makes baffling movies seemingly for himself. Just because a film is original and offbeat does not always mean it is worthwhile. Eraserhead was his premier film. Shot in black and white, it is a technically sound film—even ahead of its time. However, like his subsequent work, it meanders along and is loaded with pretense and supposedly symbolic imagery as we follow a man in a desolate town as he cares for his severely deformed baby amidst a series of extremely odd circumstances. It is undeniably influential and has inspired a generation of independent filmmakers, even if Lynch’s high reputation as a director is undeserved.

The Town

In a career of ups and downs, Ben Affleck has experienced his greatest successes in films set in Boston, the city where he hails from. Going into The Town I was expecting to be disappointed as it could have gone wrong in so many ways or been a clone of other like flicks. I walked out of the theater thinking it to be one of the best films of the year. Starring and directing from a script he adapted, Affleck has crafted a film about a group of bank robbers that gets so many things right: from the exciting heist sequences to the authentic characters to greatly capturing the city, The Town is no less than a marvel. Affleck shines in the lead role with Jeremy Renner, as his boyhood friend and hotheaded accomplice, shining in a supporting role. Renner brings a sadness to his psychotic character as he plays a man who knows he is trapped in a life of crime and poverty, and sees violence as his only option. Chris Cooper also has a brief yet powerful role as Affleck’s father, also a bank robber who delivers a hard hitting speech to his son during a visit. Also worth mentioning, maybe most importantly, is the success of the romance in the story. Movies of this nature always have a romantic subplot, which you often wish had been left on the cutting room floor. Here, in a situation that could have been contrived and false, we are given a romance between Affleck and Rebecca Miller which is handled with tenderness and comes off a genuine. The Town is an achievement and a reason to forgive Affleck for some his past cinematic transgressions.

The Expendables

There isn’t really much to say about this one: a bunch of shit get blown up and a bunch of dudes get head tossed, knifed, and shot up—pretty much what you’d expect. I was just wondering why such a great action cast would settle for the same old same old. Why not try something new?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Bad and the Beautiful

The Bad and the Beautiful tells the story of a heartless producer, and although not quite in the same league as the other 1950s Hollywood scandal and corruption classic Sunset Boulevard, it is a powerful condemnation on its own. The story of powerful producer Jonathon Shields (Kirk Douglas in a commanding performance) begins when three of his former colleagues are called in by producer Walter Pidgeon to work on Shield’s latest project. All three hold the utmost contempt for him and the bulk of the film will consist of three segments, where each will tell the story as to why they refuse to work with the once great filmmaker. Barry Sullivan plays an aspiring director who teamed up with Shields and broke into the industry only to be stabbed in the back. Lana Turner plays the alcoholic bit player who is given a big break by Shields, only to be misled. Dick Powell plays a writer whom Shields lures to Hollywood , who will soon face a tragedy involving his star struck wife (Gloria Grahame in an Oscar winning performance). The Bad and The Beautiful drags at parts, but each segment is punctuated with segments of scenes and intense acting. The way the story is told is unique and engaging though, and provides a fine prism through which to view a corrupt Golden Age of Hollywood.

Friday, September 10, 2010

One Night in Vegas

One Night in Vegas features some affable people recounting their personal experiences with Mike Tyson and Tupac, but this documentary has no place in the 30 for 30 series as it hardly has anything at all to do with sports. Opening with a truly terrible poetry recitation and unnecessarily made into a cartoon resembling a graphic novel, ONIV supposedly tells the story of the friendship between Tyson and Tupac, as well as the Tyson/Seldon Fight attended by Tupac on the same night he was gunned down. However, there is little mention of the fight, and almost no mention of the two’s friendship. Instead we get reminitions on both men’s lives and details of their times in prison, all of which adds up to very little.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Little Big Men

For most men, many of our found memories include involvement with childhood athletics, particularly the thrill of the sport and the purity of the game. The 30 for 30 entry Little Big Men, is about the grown team members of the 1980 Little League World Champion Team from Kirkland, Washington reminiscing on their glory days and the exploitation and loss of innocence that followed their great underdog victory. In the decade prior to that victory, Taiwan had dominated the Little League World Series, winning every season except for a loss one year to Japan, and an American victory another year when foreign participation wasn’t allowed. When Kirkland surprised everyone in their region and journey to South Williamsport, Pennsylvania for the grand tournament, no one expected much. Yet, they prevailed and the heart of the story details what followed. One of the lesser known subjects in this series, it proves to be one of the elite entries as the positive and negative aspects of Little League Sports are recounted with genuine emotion by a group of men who experienced the extreme of both.


Some people wallow in poverty, misery, and alcoholism. Henry Chianski thrives in them. Fighting shallow bartendeners for drinks in the local dives and jotting down an occasional inspired thought in his cramped, squalid apartment, Henry is curiously amused and seemingly content with his situation and condition. He only expresses discontent when he is taken to the nice side of town and tempted with opulence ("no one who could ever write worth a damn ever 'wrote in peace'"). Barfly tells the story of a couple days in Henry's life, and stars Mickey Rourke who takes a risk and plays him as a hunchbracked Brandolike goon who stomps around and overdelivers his lines. The result is a likable character that I found amusing. Faye Dunaway also delivers a fine performance as a boozy woman that takes him in. Written by Charles Bukowski (Chianski is his alter-ego, also played by Matt Dillion in Factotum), the dialogue is brilliant at points and although the film rambles, it is entirely likable throughout.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Angel Heart

Angel Heart starts out as a 1950s noirish detective story on the tough streets of the Bronx and quickly turns into a gothic nightmare, enwashed in blood and satanic rituals in the swamps of Louisiana. Starring Mickey Rourke as a burnt out P.I. given a mysterious job from a mysterious client (Robert De Niro in a small, juicy role), Rourke soon finds himself way over his head in the search for a missing person who owes a debt to De Niro. Directed and written for the screen by Alan Parker, the film functions as an example of success for style over substance. The final twist can be figured out through many clues throughout the picture, but the success of the film lies in the performances, the cinematography, and the sheer brashness of the visuals.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The American

Jack (or maybe its Edward) is an assassin who lives life as reclusively as possible. Most people know very little about him and what he tells them about himself is usually lies. The woman he's currently with in a rural Swedish town clearly doesn't know who he is. After having to relocate to an Italian villa, he tells a local priest that he isn't good with machines, we soon learn that that is far from the truth. Later he visits a brothel and tells one of the girls that he is there to get pleasure, not give it, but we already know that that's a lie as well. George Clooney kicks off the fall season with a film that contains familiar elements that will probably be entirely unexpected to most viewers. The American is an exquisitely shot and languidly placed film where we experience entirely what the protagonist experiences. We see what he sees, get in his head, and soon his own paranoia soon becomes ours. Not everything is explained clearly because maybe he doesn't understand their repercussions as well. Clooney shows restraint, yet unexpectedly generates powerful emotions in key scenes. He is our premier film star, and continues to chose the very best projects. The American is a captivating film and by the time he starts running up that winding staircase we have confirmed that we are watching one of the best films of the year.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Day the Earth Stood Still

The Day the Earth Stood Still is the prototypical science fiction of the 1950s, containing all the elements, good and bad, that populated the genre during that decade. It starts with the landing of a spacecraft in Washington, D.C. which captivates the whole world. As a spaceman and a robot emerge, a misunderstanding leads to the former’s hospitalization and his subsequent escape from custody as he tries to put together a meeting with the world’s leaders to deliver his message he traveled so long to convey. Made as a warning during the early Cold War years, the film is nicely handled by directing great Robert Wise. Corny elements involving aliens blend with tense images to make a great film-going experience. It also contains the most famous alien phrase/safe word: Klaatu barada nikto.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

All That Jazz

To begin with, All that Jazz, the biographical film of Bob Fosse, is a frantic mess. This is appropriate however, since Fosse’s own life, especially during the time the film purportedly portrayed, was a frantic mess. Directed by the great choreographer and director himself, and starring Roy Scheider in an against type casting choice, the film follows Joe Gideon, a Fosse pseudonym, as he directs a Broadway play and edits an overbudgeted film about a stand up comic. He tries to deal with his girlfriend, ex-wife, and daughter, while bearing his soul to an angel in white (Jessica Lange) and consuming as many uppers as possible as he inevitably heads down a path leading towards death. Interspersed with musical numbers and frenetic cutting, All That Jazz is self-indulgent and pretentious, yet curiously engaging. The film probably details the period in his life when he was directing Chicago on Broadway while producing the Dustin Hoffman film Lenny. Though Fosse is not in the same league with other directing greats who have made similar biographical films (Fellini, Woody Allen), All That Jazz serves as a curious and interesting entry.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is refreshing in that it is the story of an educator who does not act as an inspiration for her students, but may in fact be harming them. Starring Maggie Smith in her Academy Award winning role, she plays Jean Brodie a teacher at a British girl’s school in the 1930s. In addition to the usual reading, writing, and arithmetic, Miss Brodie teaches her students about the great fascist leaders Franco and Mussolini while detailing her personal life to her young students. As she catches the eye of one faculty member and longs for the affections of another, her class will be mislead, two particular students in truly disturbing ways. Though I’ve not read much about it, this must have been a daring film for its time, and is made all the more interesting by Smith’s fully realized portrayal of a complex character.

City Island

Most often, you can see a really bad movie coming from a mile away and avoid it without your wallet or your precious spare time taking a hit. Occasionally though however a truly awful film, will surreptitiously slither its way onto your screen and attack when you are least suspecting. City Island is a film like that, a film that got fair reviews, that blindsided me by just how truly terrible it really was. It stars Andy Garcia, sporting a horrible NY accent, and the plot is not even worth rehashing. It is a film based on pretensions, unfunny gags, unlikable characters, and outrageous coincidences no one would buy, made all the worst by the fact you can tell the filmmakers and cast think they are making a clever movie.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Jordan Rides the Bus

Jordan Rides the Bus tells a fascinating story and is made by a great sports film director, but perhaps takes the wrong approach in telling it. After Michael Jordan lead the Bulls to another championship in 1993, his father was murdered along a seemingly peaceful North Carolina highway. This lead to Jordan’s early retirement from basketball, and his entry into baseball—a move that generated much attention, both positive and negative. The film takes the approach that it was his right and that he was even courageous and self-sacrificing in making such a move, but I think that the film would have worked much better from an objective standpoint. Still it is a great story, and Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Cobb, White Men Can’t Jump) knows how to piece together a sports film.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Get Low

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen such a beautifully shot film, with strong performances from actors I admire, with such a nauseating, contrived plot that would feel right at home on television. Get Low stars Robert Duvall as a hermit, Bill Murray as an undertaker, Lucas Black as his assistant, and Sissy Spacek as Duvall’s old flame. All four, including the young Black who is a bright spot in the disconcerting young Hollywood talent pool, fill roles they fit comfortably in and always fill those shoes admirably. As far as Duvall, one of our great, underrated, and most consistent of all actors, is the only person imaginable who can make the final revelatory speech moving, even as we acknowledge that he is spewing a bunch of tripe. The ***½ review is admittedly an overrate, but also a prime example of how great acting can save such a shitty ill conceived plot.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Baader Meinhof Complex

Though not directly explained in the film, I think the Baader Meinhoff Complex refers to the different takes of RAF gang members Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhoff, as well as the notion that the children of the German World War II Generation had to rebel against the actions and politics of their parents, but couldn’t resist the use of extremism is their cause. It tells the story of the left wing Red Army Faction in Germany in the 1970s from the viewpoints of the gang’s leaders (lovers Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, and journalist Meinhof) as well as a police head (played by the great Bruno Ganz) who tries to understand the gang motives. The RAF isn’t The Barrow Gang or The Whole In The Wall Gang, and are portrayed as pathetic terrorists who generate no sympathy from the audience. The film is an intriguing, if overlong and overstuffed film about a group that captivated and terrorized Germany in the 1970s, which is also a subject that many, at least in this country, are unfamiliar with today.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid is an underdog story that we identify with even more so because the underdog is not a hopeless cause who makes a 180. Instead he is like many of us—yes beset upon and depressed but at the same kind capable and engaging. The story begins with a cross-country move from New Jersey to LA where the young teenage boy begrudgingly accompanies his mother who has just got a new job. Putting his best foot forward, he makes a new friend then meets a girl, only to incur the wrath of her ex, a bleach blond Karate master. Soon he is the recipient of beatings until he finds out a secret about the maintenance man in his apartment which eventually leads him down a path of friendship, self-defense, and self-respect. The Karate Kid is utterly enjoyable and Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita so natural in their respective roles. It is no surprise that the film was helmed by John D. Avildsen, the same person who helmed Rocky, a similar story with a similar lead character we can identify with. Although we may be familiar with how this journey goes, we are taken in by every second of the ride.
*** 1/2

Monday, August 23, 2010

Tell No One

Tell No One is a French film, adapted from an American novel, and succeeds as a thriller, mystery, and chase film. Jam packed with plot and characters, with a likable enough lead character, Tell No One will have you forgiving its plot holes and contrivances. Its story involves a pediatrician who lost his wife eight years earlier. Although her murder was pinned on a serial killer, the circumstances surrounding her death were murky, and the police have always suspected the good doctor of foul play. Now, two bodies have turned up near his summer home (also where his wife was killed) and he is again a suspect. Also he has received a mysterious email that has implications that his wife may still be alive and well. The film is handled slickly and the visuals are exciting. Though developments and plot twists may leave you scratching your head, this is still a thriller that delivers.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Is it possible for a highly original film to wear out its welcome? Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a unique film that does just that through multiple endings and overlength, although there are many creative moments interspersed throughout. From a comic book, the film is directed by Edgar Wright, helmer of the beloved British Simon Pegg comedies. Inhabiting a reality that resembles a video game, Scott (Michael Cera) has found the girl of his dreams (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Now he must get out of his relationship with a high schooler, try to win battle of the bands, and earn his new crush's affection by defeating her 7 Evil Ex's who are trying to control her and destroy him. Although the filmmakers know they have an original and take things too far, I believe this film will be beloved by many in the same way that (500) Days of Summer was last year.

This Is Spinal Tap

I would describe This is Spinal Tap as more amusing than hilarious, but it still should be recognized as an influential forerunner of the mockumentary, a genre that has been mastered by many of the participants in this film. Here director Rob Reiner, as director Marty DiBergi chronicles Spinal Tap, the world’s loudest band, and their latest tour. The film functions as a rock concert film parody, as the bumbling members of the band are interviewed interspersed with (fake) concert footage and other hijinks. Michael McKeon as David St. Hubbins, Christopher Guest as Nigel Tufnel, and Harry Shearer as Derek Smalls are ideal in their roles as members of the band. The film contains such classic moments as the cause of death for the band’s numerous drummers, the story behind McKeon’s name, and the amp that goes to 11. Despite some slow patches, the film earns its iconic and cult status.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Letter to Three Wives

Joseph L. Mankiewicz was a director who was concerned with the bigger picture. His films often functioned as social commentary on top of entertainment, and his A Letter to Three Wives, which he won Oscars for adapting and directing, is a prime example of his style. Featuring a highly original plot, it introduces to three women and a female narrator. The trio are friends from different social strata-Upper class, Middle to Upper, and Poverty Level and each are semi obsessed with the narrator, whom they claim to be a friend as well. As the three women board a yacht for a getaway, they receive a letter from the narrator who informs them that she has run off with one of their husbands. Each woman then has a flashback which gives them reason to believe that their spouse may be the man in question. The flashbacks also serve as social commentary as each serves as a criticism of the upper class. Kirk Douglas and Paul Douglas (no relation) stand out as two of the spouses. I did find the film intriguing but maybe a little dated and hard to get into at points. Still it is an interesting entry from an important director from the golden days of Hollywood.

The Killers

The Killers, based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, opens fantastically with a diner/hostage scenario followed by the murder of the main character. It is followed by a contrived insurance investigation coupled with an effective flashback plot narrative in which we learn what led to the opening events. The film is often mentioned as an epitome of film noir, and that it is, as it contains all the elements that make up the genre such as the dark shadows, troubled hero, femme fatale, etc. It also represents the breakthrough performance of Ava Gardner and the debut of Burt Lancaster, reportedly the studio’s last choice, but an unavoidable one. By that I mean it seems that Lancaster was destined for the movies with his screen presence, physical stature, and dramatic demeanor. It is also worth mentioning that John Huston anonymously contributed to the screen play, and was probably responsible for its hard boiled elements. The Killers represents a classic, though flawed, entry into the original American film genre.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Killer

Of the films John Woo made before leaving for Hollywood, people usually mention Hard Boiled and The Killer. After recently viewing Hard Boiled and being disappointed, I approached The Killer with skepticism. However, it turned out to be superior to the other Hong Kong based cop/criminal film and actually a worthwhile movie experience. The Killer also stars Chow Yun-Fat as a contract killer, living by a code and trying to get out of the profession, who has just blinded a singer he admires during his latest hit. In order to pay for her corrective surgery, he takes out one last hit but circumstances lead to him being chased by The Triads, a dangerous Chinese gang, and a persistent, young cop who has recently lost his partner in the line of duty. The Killer is over-the-top as all of Woo’s films are but the action scenes are handled with great style here. The cinematography is also fine, containing some fine scenic shots and not just resorting to the sleazy metropolitan shots that Hard Boiled employed. The character development was handled nicely, and although the final shootout goes on longer than it should, The Killer proves to be a worthy cinematic experience.

North Face

After watching my second mountain climbing flick in six months, I’m beginning to think that the big screen is no place for flicks about mountain climbing. With Touching the Void, I thought that film was unable to capture the thrill of the climb (I also thought it failed to convey elements of its intriguing survival tale). Now, with North Face, a German expert about a 1936 expedition, it seems as though the filmmakers may agree with me, as they have thrown in more conventional story elements such as a romance and a villain and a politicized plot, all to no avail. It tells the story of two German infantrymen who are expert climbers in their spare time. When the girlfriend/aspiring photo journalist of one of the men informs them that the German government wants someone to climb the unclimbed and extremely dangerous North Face of the Eiger Mountains to instill German pride in the days before the Berlin Olympics, the men seize the challenge (although one is reluctant). They meet up at the mountain with another team and ascend the harrowing mountain, while the girlfriend and her pugnacious boss report from the mountainous resort. The characters are cliché and underdeveloped and there is too much subplot thrown in. Although the film contains beautiful cinematography and this true story does not turn out as one would expect (or maybe it does), the other elements of the film do not come together, and we find ourselves having a hard time caring about the men that took part in this perilous mission. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I Never Sang for My Father

We’ve all had relationships with people like the father figure in the film: that stubborn old fool, stuck in his ways, who is unwilling to give into anything. The type who doesn’t understand the times, has a particular way of doing everything, and knows what is best for everyone. Most of us have felt like the man’s son-harboring feelings of anger, disdain, and resentment towards the old man while simultaneously feeling responsible to him with the hope that he will someday reciprocate our love. I Never Sang for My Father is a film that understands this family dynamic and the result is a profoundly moving and humanistic film with two wonderful star performances. Gene (Gene Hackman) is a recently widowed professor, just entering his forties, who sees what may be his last opportunity in his life to start anew. He has taken up with a divorced doctor in California and wishes to move out there to remarry. When he makes his weekly visit to his parents, he tells his mother who agrees it to be the right move, but when it comes to notifying his father (Melvyn Douglas) he balks-the old man has already made it clear that such a move would be disastrous (he just didn’t add that the move would be disastrous for himself). Soon, the mother passes on and his moving plans begin to seem like a pipe dream. His father will now need him more than forever and will not give in to any sort of compromise. This situation will now lead to a decision that Gene has been avoiding for his entire life-a decision to leave his father in order to pursue his own life. Released in 1970 with Gilbert Cates directing from an Academy Award nominated script by Robert Anderson who adapted his own play, I Never Sang for My Father is a triumph on several levels. The performances are top notch, but this is really the story of father and son. Gene Hackman, who was 40 years old when the film came out though relatively new to pictures, is perfect at conveying all the emotions his character goes through. Melvyn Douglas, who was at the end of a prolific career, generates the same feelings in us that the Hackman character feels, as we are reminded of that old codger in our own lives. When the two are together alone on the screen (which is often) the rapport is strong and we feel like we are watching a real father-son drama play out in front of us. The directing of the film is also worth mentioning. Stylistic choices were made, and such techniques as narration, montage, close-up are used which brings greater attention to the film. The dialogue, though heightened, seems natural and real. The result is a realistic view of an ultimately sad relationship that most of us can say we relate to. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Bad News Bears

At first glance, The Bad News Bears may seem like a routine sports film but after viewing it is clear that it is more than that. On top of being an intelligent if crude film, it also makes a statement on competitiveness in little league sports. Walter Matthau plays the beer swilling ex-minor leaguer hired to coach the Bears--the worst team in the most competitive California pee-wee league. After initial disastrous results, Coach Buttermaker brings in a few ringers and employs bush league tactics with his players and finds himself in the championship game, only to have his conscience eat at him. Matthau is in fine form in one of his most popular roles, and there are many laughs to be had in addition to much more if you look beyond the surface.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

June 17, 1994

Some events are so huge that we automatically record and remember our locations when we hear about them through the media. I remember where I was when I heard the news of 9/11, the Oklahoma City Bombings, the falling of the Berlin Wall, and yes during the OJ Simpson Bronco chase down an LA freeway on Friday, July 17th, 1994 (I was at a Tribe game gathered around a television monitor, ignoring the then stellar Indians). I knew that I was witnessing a great media event, but I did not realize that it had been the capper to a red letter day in sports history. July 17th, 1994 by Brett Morgen replays the sporting events of that day, while cutting back to that infamous chase. When not revisting the crime scene in Brentwood or watching the Bronco chase, we are shown New Yorkers mobbing the streets in celebration of the Rangers’ Stanley Cup victory while they await game five of the NBA Finals where Patrick Ewing made his last title bid with Knicks (Costas is preoccupied with chase). Also we are shown the last U.S. Open bid of Arnold Palmer which was also sadly overshadowed by the chase. So far, this is the only 30 for 30 episode to not feature talking head commentary and it features mostly archival footage of that day. The filler is older footage of Simpson’s playing days, Arnold Palmer as a young man, and the Rangers failed bids for the Stanley Cup. The result is an extremely satisfying documentary, which captures our feelings of the time.

The Eclipse

The Eclipse is an effective ghost story, one that probably would not take with today’s horror crowd due to its lack of blood and guts in addition to its languid pace. Set in a small coastal Irish town, Michael (Ciaran Hinds) is a recently widowed father of two children and volunteers at the local literary festival. Having been experiencing visions of his dead wife and his near dead father-in-law, he meets Lena (Iben Hjejle), author of the supernatural, and begins to ask for her input. Soon they are attracted to one another. Into the mix comes Nicholas (Aidan Quinn), a successful and smug American author who has had a past fling with Lena and is married. He wants to rekindle their relationship while she knows it was a mistake. This triangle will lead down inevitable roads while the supernatural begins to take a hold of Michael’s life. The Eclipse isn’t afraid of taking its time to develop characters and relish in its lush Irish surroundings. Although I found the ghost story effective, I thought that the film was paced too slow for all the elements to blend together entirely. Still, we are left with an effective ghost story and nice tale of a love triangle in small Irish town.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Pulp Fiction

Birth of a Nation. Citizen Kane. Star Wars.
To that list of films that revolutionized the movies I would also add Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino's masterwork from 1994. As the first three films were not so much unique as influential, they changed how movies were made. Pulp Fiction brought independent films to the forefront and inspired countless retreads with its witty, existential, and massive dialogue combined with harsh violence and the tweeking of the plot structure. Aside from what it did for the movies, it is a great movie within itself and one that is just plain fun to watch and contains probably the best performances from John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames, and Bruce Willis. The brilliance of the plotting is in making it episodic, so the film actually feels like three short films and therefore the length doesn't become off-putting. Though I haven't seen it in awhile, I was surprised how much of the dialogue and plotting I remembered, and then I thought that it must be because of how carefully constructed the film is by Tarantino. Every shot, every set, every word, and every actor's mannerism is carefully thought through and presented and the result is a film that did no less than shake the world.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Two Escobars

The Two Escobars follows the stories of Colombian soccer player Andres Escobar and Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, no relation. In the late 80s and early 90s Colombia was among the most violent places to live and a country that contained one of the most exiting soccer teams around. These facts were partially the result of men like Pablo Escobar, whose drug trades created violence in the streets and who also needed ways to launder their funds. An easy way to do this was through purchasing a soccer team and claim the excess funds in player trades. This also allowed soccer teams to keep their best players and acquire new ones, allowing their teams to flourish. Andres Escobar was a star on one of these teams, a man unlike the other men. He served as a role model and did not like what he saw in his country. Both Andres and Pablo, although the latter was a notorious criminal and created many problems, wanted to see changes in Colombia, strived to make a difference, and both met tragic ends--which devastated the country and made them move towards change. The Two Escobars, Jeff and Michael Zimbalist's entry into the 30 for 30 series is intriguing, if not a bit overlong. I did wonder if it wasn't a stretch to draw comparisons between the two Escobars, and I do not necessarily agree with the way the film makes Pablo Escobar into a national hero.