Tuesday, May 31, 2011

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

In 1961 a young Jewish kid from Minnesota burst onto the Greenwich Village music scene with lyrics put to music unlike any ever heard before. In the documentary No Direction Home, legendary director Martin Scorsese, who previously filmed him before with his band The Band in The Last Waltz, takes us through Bob Dylan's explosive creative stage from this point up until 1966 when he went electric. We briefly go through his childhood and young adult years where we see the eclectic music that inspired him. We then go on to see how Dylan dropped out of college, ventured to New York and developed songwriting and musical skills seemingly out of nowhere (we wonder when he jokes about selling his soul to the devil similar to the Robert Johnson stories). We see how he met his hero Woody Guthrie in the hospital, and contemporaries such as Joan Baez, Allen Ginsburg, and Pete Seeger as well as Dylan himself take us through this extremely infuential musical period, during which we are shown concert clips of a tumultuous 1966 electric concert in England. Scorsese utilizes mass amounts of stills and footage, and the result is a wonderful portrait of a complex songwriting legend.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Sherlock, Jr.

A young projectionist sits in his booth reading a book detailing the craft of detective work, hoping to one day leave his current profession to become a private sleuth. After his shift, he buys some small gifts for his girlfriend. When he arrives at her house, he is soon framed by a rival suitor for stealing a necklace and is prohibited from seeing her again. Returning to his job dejected, he falls asleep during the feature and leaps onto the screen becoming the hero of the detective story in which his dream girl and his rival are players. Sherlock, Jr. showed the genius of the silent clown Buster Keaton where he jammed a narrative full of inspired comic gags into a 45 minute movie. His delightful gem of a movie inspired countless whimsical filmmakers, most clearly Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, and cemented Keaton's status as one of the most talented movie maker of the silent era, even if it is not fully realized today.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

In 1984 Wes Craven started his Freddy Krueger franchise with A Nightmare on Elm Street, which spawned countless sequels and knockoffs and influenced a generation of horror filmmakers, mostly for the worst. Like many of its subsequent films which it influenced, it takes an interesting premise and totally squanders it through tacky effects and overuse of gore as well as unbelievable and uninspired follow through. The story opens with a teenage girl awakening from a nightmare in which the severely burned and knife clawed Freddy was chasing her. She soon realizes that all her friends are dreaming of the same person and before she can do anything about it, she is brutally murdered in her sleep, seemingly by no one. As other friends begin to be killed, young Nancy begins to unravel the sinister mystery behind Freddy Krueger and fight to stop him before its too late. As mentioned, Craven had a a good idea here for his movie, but the execution is lacking and often makes no sense. The dream rules established in the film are often broken and Freddy comes and goes at will. The film does do a good job setting mood but it often resorts to cheap gore and scare tactics instead of earning its boo moments, while employing cringe inducing dialogue. It is also the debut film of Johnny Depp who delivers a bland performance which serves as a sign of things to come and makes you wonder what anyone saw in this young thespian. Despite its immense success, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a misfire that has been mistaken for being inspired.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Our Hospitality

Buster Keaton was one of the great comics of the silent era of the cinema. Known for his stoneface, his deadpan delivery, and his daring stunts done without doubles (in the climax of this film, he performed a daring waterfall rescue which seems impossible and almost cost him his life). He was beloved by millions, and many current film aficianados claim his skills to be superior to Chaplin's. Yet, somehow he is largely unseen by today's viewers. His Our Hospitality tells of a young man in the early 1800s being informed that he has an inheritance and must travel to his father's southern home to claim it. During the tumultous train ride he falls for a young woman. Upon arriving he has dinner at the girl's home only to realize that he is in the house of a rival family who has engaged in a blood feud with his own family for generations (the family's are the Canfields and McKays like the Hatfields and McCoys). The girl's brothers now intend to kill him, but not while he is a guest in the house, according to their father's insistance on being hospitable. This is a set up for many a gag in which Keaton tries to quietly remove himself from the premisis without garnering attention. Our Hospitality is a delightful silent film depending on superb setup and timing. Film lovers would find it in their interest to check out this or any other Buster Keaton film at their dispense.

Monday, May 23, 2011

True Grit

In 1969 John Wayne won his sole Acadamy Award for portraying Rooster Cogburn, a slovenly one-eyed U.S. Marshall in the enormously sucessful True Grit which spawned a sequel featuring Katharine Hepburn as well as a largely successful recent retread by The Coen Brothers. I don't wish to compare both films here except for saying that although Jeff Bridges portrayal was wonderful and probably more precise as to what a slovenly U.S. Marshall should be, the role belongs to The Duke who originally established it with his massive presence and charsima. The story revolves around Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) whose father is murdered in cold blood. She hires Cogburn, a man she believes possesses grit, to track the killer across dangerous country where they are in turn joined by La Boeuf (Glen Campbell), a Texas Ranger seeking a bounty on the same man. True Grit was directed by Henry Hathaway and seems to be an inclusive adaptation of the Charles Portis novel. It is filmed in glorious technicolor, while containing hokey elements associated with like films of the time. Stars Darby and Campbell are both weak as actors but effectual in their roles. It is also interesting to see Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper in early roles. What makes the film special is the rousing final 30 minutes of the picture and Wayne's unforgettable commanding performance.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Everything Must Go

Will Ferrell plays an alcoholic salesman who has recently relapsed on a business trip and been fired from his job as a result of it. When he returns to his house he finds his wife has changed the locks, cancelled his credit cards, and strewn all of his possessions across the lawn. Out of spite, Nick begins to lived on his lawn but soon faces arrest for doing so. In order to remain, he begins to have a yard sale, eventually hocking all of his possessions while he begins to get his life in order. Will Ferrell stars in a toned down, slightly more serious role here in a film based on a short story by Raymond Carver. The film itself is slight containing many elements we've seen before while occasionally missing opportunities for big laughs. Still, I found the film to be amusing and I loved watching what is actually a pretty great cast at work: Will Ferrell continues to demonstrate how well comics fit into dramatic roles. Rebecca Hall, a lovely young actress who has left an impression in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town, and Please Give, again is delightful as Ferrel's pregnant neighbor. Laura Dern, another fine actress, does nice work in a small part as his high school classmate. Even the young CJ Wallace, who happens to be the son of the late rapper The Notorious B.I.G. is affable a young boy who helps Ferrell with his sale. Everything Must Go is enjoyable entertainment and although Ferrell's role is not as dramatic as many claim, it is something.

Meek's Cutoff

We see the covered wagons pass across the screen in the dry, arid, and unforgiving terrain. It is 1845 and three families are travelling the Oregon Trail led by revered trail guide Stephen Meek. Deciding to take what he claims to be a known short cut, the group soon finds themselves lost and unable to find water. When they come across a Native American who may or may not be tracking them, they take him has their prisoner and struggle against the language barrier to have them lead them to water. This, on top of the current situation, creates even more tension between those who are divided on what should be done with their new captive. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, Meek's Cutoff is a paced and measured film that takes awhile to get the rhythm of. Filled with beautiful scenery captured by wonderful direction, the movie is wonderful to look at. The performances are quite good as well including Bruce Greenwood as the experienced but questionable guide, Will Patton as the good and resolute leader of the clan, and Michelle Williams, who starred in Reichardt's equally great Wendy and Lucy, is powerful as the strong young woman who stands up to Meek. Meek's Cutoff is a very fine film but I had a quibble with the format it was shot in. I'm not an expert in film formats, but here both ends of the film are lopped off and we are left with a square in the center of the screen that leaves much of the screen unused. The result is what may be the first time that I have ever recommended waiting to see a great film at home.

The Beaver

In a role possibly mirroring his recent well publicized struggles, Mel Gibson plays a once successful and once happy CEO of toy company who now wallows in depression and barely has enough energy to get out of bed. After his loving but fed up wife (Jodie Foster) throws him out of the house and he botches a less than inspired suicide attempt, he comes across a beaver puppet in a dumpster which he affixes to his hand and which begins to speak in a cockneyed British accent. He finds living through the puppet helps him deal with his depression and begins addressing everyone including his family and employees as The Beaver. The Beaver is proof both of Mel Gibson's talents as an actor and that attention should be focused more on an actor's work than on their personal life. Though Gibson's acting throughout the film is tremendous, the other elements of the film are less than stellar. Unremarkably directed by Jodie Foster, who is wonderful though in her acting role, The Beaver is a patronizing film as well as a trivial look at mental illness. The film is not particularly well written and what should have been a showcase for Gibson and Foster instead elects to share time with an unworthy subplot involving their disapproving son played by Anton Yelchin and his attempts to woo classmate Jennifer Lawrence. The Beaver is evidence of Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster's (who needs to convince no one) acting prowess in a film that really isn't worth their efforts.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Paul Simon Live at The Chicago Theater

Paul Simon is the quintessential songwriter of the 20th Century, having devised some of the most beautiful and memorable songs over the last six decades. For a long time, it has been a dream of mine to see him live in concert. When it was announced that he would tour this summer to promote his latest studio album "So Beautiful of So What" I knew I would be in attendance, and last night in Chicago my dream came true. To begin with, The Chicago Theater is a beautiful venue and a great place to see a show of this caliber. After an expected delay, when the band took the stage followed by Simon himself, it was the commencement of a night that exceeded expectations. Playing wonderful songs from his new albums along with standards such as "Kodachrome", "The Sound of Silence", and "Still Crazy After All These Years", he also played unexpected gems such as "The Obvious Child, Hearts and Bones, and The Only Living Boy in New York." The whole set was played wonderfully by the band, using a wide array of musical instruments spanning many different countries and culture's which is indicative of Simon's work. Paul Simon himself sang beautifully, making improvisations on his classic songs and realizing the limitations of his voice. As the night progressed, I was overtaken by the experience and was really in a state of reverie as I got to see a virtuoso perform.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


All modern sci-fi films, particularly Star Wars and Blade Runner, owe a debt of gratitude to Metropolis, Fritz Lang's silent classic from 1927. Rewatching the newly restored version with about 25 minutes of once thought to have been lost footage added, it is truly an expansive visionary masterpiece. The sets, which I believe are a combination of hand drawings and miniatures, are awesome in their scope and the scenes with the thousands of extras, such as the Tower of Babel and the worker's revolt scenes, are grand as well. It is strange watching the reconstructed version, which is still (and probably forever) incomplete because missing segments are filled in with intertite plot cards and new footage is so badly damaged that it is grainy at best. This only adds mystery to the film and enhances the viewing experience. All science fiction aficionados should make a stop here to see the origins of their beloved genre. This is also a must see for film lovers in general.

5/22/10 review Fritz Lang's 1927  Metropolis was both a prime example of German Expressionism and the father of the science fiction film, particularly the futuristic Sci-Fi films. It is Lang's vast and imagined skylines which are the true stars of his silent masterpiece. Seen now, they seem inconceivable at the time, along with a lot of the other sets in the movie. The story is strange indeed as it tells the story of the son of an industrial magnate who falls in love with some kind of supernatural woman of the workers, and then leads a worker's revolt. This had long been an incomplete film as the original had been destroyed and the film had to be reconstructed. Recently, a full but damaged print was found and 25 minutes were added to the movie, making clear a few of the subplots. I'm not sure this has helped the film as it makes it a tad overlong, but it can be sure that Metropolis remains an intricate, intriguing, and beautiful film.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Next Three Days

A couple is out for dinner after the wife has had an argument with her boss. The next day, the police are serving a warrant and arresting her for murdering her employer. Her husband, a professor at a community college in Pittsburgh, labors tirelessly for 3 years to see to her release all the while raising their young son by himself. When all options appear exhausted, he begins to labor tirelessly at devising a plan to break her out. Then, she learns that all her appeals are exhausted and will be moved to a penitentiary from the local holding facility. This forces him to put his plan action immediately. The Next Three Days is an intense thriller from writer/director Paul Haggis which could serve as a how to escape prison video. When the professor makes his decision, the film becomes extremely intense and engaging and the escape itself bumps things up a couple notches. Russell Crowe does fine work again, Elizabeth Banks is adequate as his wife, and I really liked Liam Neeson who only appears for about five minutes as a professional prison escapist.
sidenote: I hate to give Pittsburgh credit for anything, but with The Dark Knight Rises filming there, it looks like a really cool city to film and I look forward to that one with even greater anticipation.

Studio 42 with Bob Costas: Bob Feller

Bob Feller was a larger than life legend and extremely important to the city of Cleveland. When he died late last year I wanted to write something about him. Now I have come across this interview which I wasn't intending to review, but I found Bob the Bullet to be so magnetic I decided to do one any way. With his elephant like memory, The Heater from Van Meter recalled his playing days spanning the 30s, 40s, and 50s. As Rapid Robert tells of his dealings with the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, and Joe DiMaggio we get a sense not only of his talent, pitching no hitters, setting strike out records, and winning a World Series but we also get a sense of who he was as a person being the first ballplayer to enlist in World War II at the expense of his career (not able to gain 300 wins) and his life, although he said that this was the most important win of all. Bob Feller's interview with Bob Costas was a reminder of the consummate legend that the city of Cleveland and the baseball community lost.

Wings of Desire

Two angels sit atop of Berlin, where they take in the thoughts of the many walking below. They also walk among them, offering reassurance or maybe some kind of intangible presence. One of the angels expresses a desire to feel human emotions or even experience the basic human senses. When he meets a young trapeze artist, he decides to trade in eternity in order to spend the rest of his life with her. Wim Wenders ethereal film is a magnetic film experience, really unlike any other I've ever had. This isn't really a plot driven film, we just intake what the angels do, as we hear the ramblings of the the citizens of Berlin. In addition to meeting the angels and the circus girl, we also meet Peteir Falk playing himself as he is filming a Holocaust movie and discusses how he himself used to be an angel and can sense the presence around him. The film is gloriously shot as well, both in class black and white and beautiful color. The great German actor Bruno Ganz is wonderful as the angel Damiel who trades in his wings and walks the streets in a pimp suit with not a nickel in his pocket and a huge smile across his face. Wings of Desire is a true original that defies standard cinema and provides a truly unique film going experience.


When Amelie was released it was a huge success, especially for an art film, garnering critical and audience praise while being nominated for five Academy Awards and still beloved today on DVD. I know I will probably catch hell for saying this but, I kind of hate this movie. It tells the story of a painfully shy young woman who lost her mother young and has a remote father. She has trouble dating, works in a Paris cafe, and spends her days daydreaming. One day she drops the cap to her perfume bottle which rolls and his the tile at the base of the wall jarring it lose. Looking inside, she finds a tin box filled with the treasures of a young boy. She decides to take steps to return this box to its owner and after seeing the joy it brought the now grown man, she decides to try to make others happy, often through manipulation. I found this movie to be cloying in every sense. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, it contains an excess of whimsy, almost to the point that the film oozes of it. Most would argue that this is to the films credit and serves as charm but I would argue that it hurts a good looking film. Add to the fact that Audrey Tatou is irritating with her obnoxious little mannerisms in the title role and the love angle with Mathieu Kassovitz makes no sense, this is really a mediocre and maybe worse movie whose success is baffling.

The Great Train Robbery

The opening narration tells us everything we need to know: In 1855, there had never been a robbery of a moving train and the very first one was an extremely daring one at that. During the Crimean War the British government shipped mass amounts of gold bars to pay its soldiers fighting the war. They were placed in 500 plus pound safes guarded in a locked compartment of a train. To gain access to the safe, there are four locks, two of which are at the station and the other two are in the possession of two elderly bankers. Now that you have the set up, you can figure out how the rest of the film plays out. Maybe I shouldn't approach it like that because The Great Train Robbery is a fun old fashioned film. Written and directed by the prolific Michael Chrichton (Jurassic Park, E.R.), it is finely shot among the green British countryside and I really thought the heist scenes aboard the locomotive were filmed well. Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland star in fine light comic performances. The film gets off to a great start, begins to drag in the middle, and rebounds for a nice finale. The Great Train Robbery is light predictable fare that is still just downright fun.

The Exorcist

The Exorcist is a film that puts all modern horror films to shame. Having not seen the movie since grade school, I remembered it as being strictly about the exorcism itself, when actually the movie is about setting the tone and character development all leading up to the unforgettable finale. The story revolves around a female movie star filming in Washington, D.C. Her young daughter begins to exhibit strange behavior and the doctors write it off as hyper activity, prescribing Ritalin which may be a shot at the treatment of ADHD children. However, the girl's symptoms worsen and become even more bizarre even supernatural and after all avenues are exhausted, it seems that the virtually defunct route of exorcism is the only way to go. At the same time we also are introduced to the two priests who will eventually perform the ritual, an older devout missionary and a robust psychologist struggling with his own faith. Watching William Friedkin's masterpiece I was reminded of The Shining and even Jaws by how tension was built and we only get little glimpses of the ultimate terror that awaits at the end. In addition to the utterly engrossing narrative, we also have a wonderful array of actors at work: Ellen Burstyn brings believability to her role as the outraged and befuddled mother. Linda Blair does good work in a brutal role as the young girl. Max von Sydow and Jason Miller are pitch perfect as the priests and Lee J Cobb is great as well in a fun and maybe unnecessary role as a police detective. Watching the film I couldn't have been any more involved and I actually got chills during von Sydow's iconic entry (pictured above). If I am remembering correctly, I think this struck a chord with the Church, but I found it to be a profoundly Catholic film, showing the resolute nature of the clergy (how often are Catholic priests presented favorably, besides Bing Crosby?). The Exorcist is a horror film that doesn't resort to cheap boo! moments but rather earns scares by creating tension and mood.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct

The infamous French gangster Jacques Mesrine's life can be summarized in the first scene of the film, which acts as a window into the complicated, violent, and principled man: Mesrine is serving for in the armed forces in Algeria in 1959. While interrogating a suspect, the man's sister is brought in and he still remains uncooperative. Mesrine is instructed by his senior officer to shoot the sister, but he instead turns the gun on the man being questioned. From then on Mesrine returns home to Paris to live with his loving parents. After working a while at a respectable job, he is introduced into a flashy life of crime by his friend and soon takes it up entirely, working for a mob boss and pulling burglaries and robberies. Soon, he is forced to leave the country and is picked up and sentenced to prison in Canada, where he is forced to follow through on his word that "no prison can hold Jacques Mesrine." Mesrine: Killer Instinct is a rollicking gangster picture and an acting showcase for Vincent Cassel. Mesrine's exploits are simultaneously exciting and off putting and is made all the more perplexing due to the fact that Mesrine himself actually wrote this less then flattering account. In addition to Cassel's stellar work there is also a fine performance by the great French actor Gerard Depardieu. Killer Instinct is a fine entry to the gangster genre, a genre which seems to have been lacking lately and I look forward to the second half of this story.

Monday, May 9, 2011


This is your usual superhero fodder. In another realm lives a group of warriors who defend the good on earth in their time of need and are currently at peace with the rival ice people who inhabit a neighboring realm. In command in Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins) who is about to pass his torch to his massive sculpted son Thor (Chris Hemsworth), much to the disdain of his weaker younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). As Thor is about to be crowned, ice people break in, are thwarted and the passage of the crown is delayed. Thor and his warrior troops break into the ice realm, destroy some ice people, and disrupt the peace between the two peoples. As a result, Thor is cast out to Earth along with his hammer, which can only be moved by someone worthy of it. On Earth, Thor comes in contact with a young scientist (Natalie Portman) who tries to help him return home while he aids her with her research. Meanwhile, back home Loki is plotting against his father as well as to keep Thor banished, all leading to a major showdown between the two brothers. As a part of The Avengers team, Thor is not your typical superhero as I already mentioned, as it incorporates Norse mythology into a present day superhero story. This unusualness is what makes the film work as it is not another standard entry in the genre. When I learned Kenneth Branagh was slated to direct, I was a little surprised until I noticed the Shakespearean elements involving the father and two sons, which is undoubtedly what drew him to the story. With Hemsworth, we have surprisingly nice work including nice comic work in the fish out of water scenario when he enters earth. Natalie Portman is cute as ever and a good romantic lead even though the romance makes no sense. Anthony Hopkins and Stellan Skarsgaard provide typically strong support and I was really taken by Hiddleston's performance as Loki. The 3D is probably unnecessary, but is suitable to the scenes in the alternate realms, and is decidedly unsuited to the scenes in New Mexico where it actually hurts it. Thor is an entertaining atypical entry in The Avengers series which looks like it is shaping up to be a pretty spectacular film. Oh and don't forget to stay through the credits of this one as well.

The Lady from Shanghai

Orson Welles was an uncompromising creative genius with a distinct visual style and feel for the camera. He often clashed with the studio heads over how his films were cut and presented and this is the reason, I suspect, why his resume is so short yet filled with great works. The Lady from Shanghai was made following the massive success of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. It is not his strongest work, yet it is visually exciting and entertaining nonetheless. Welles stars as Michael O'Hara, a tough Irish sailor who right off the bat admits his naievty in falling for a wealthy woman (Rita Hayworth) whom he rescues from an attack in the park. Somehow he is serving as a deckhand on her famous defense attorney husband's yacht and soon after that he is intwined in a murder plot full of double and triple crosses. The film opens as intriguing noir and Welles' narration is wonderfully ominous. The next few scenes play out well as well and then the film somewhat loses focus and becomes plodding during scenes on a yacht and a tropic isle. Then things pick up steam when the murder plot is introuduced and the film wraps up is the highly memorable House of Mirrors finale. Despite its plodding midsection and a plot that no man with any semblance of a brain would find himself in, The Lady from Shanghai is a fine addition to Orson Welles' directorial canon.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Waste Land

Vik Muniz was born in the slums of Rio de Janeiro and was able to rise out of the squalor and establish himself as one of the foremost contemporary artists of our time. When looking for a new project, he learned of Jardim Gramacho in Rio, the largest garbage dump in the world. His initial idea was to paint the garbage pickers among the waste but as he worked with them their human stories began to emerge. In Waste Land, the Oscar nominated documentary Lucy Walker followed Muniz and the many pickers for three years as she documented their story. The result is an interesting story that isn't quite worth the treatment it gets. Throughout the film, many of the workers are interviewed and each tells a hard luck story. When all of them tell the same hard luck story, we have a problem of redundancy. I have now seen all of the documentaries nominated for last year's Oscar and this is the only one I'm not recommended. It's not a bad film but unlike the other four it does not understand that you cannot just have a good story to tell, but it is crucial to have a good way to tell it, not just filming it straight up. Vik Muniz is a gifted artist and some great things came out of his work at the Rio dump, but this film wasn't one of them.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog is an enigmatic and masterful filmmaker who often bemoans the state of film and how movies are devoid of unique and interesting images. So in 1994 when two adventurers discovered a cave in the south of France containing cave drawings dating back 30,000 years, the oldest known to man, it was only natural that Herzog would make a documentary about the markings. The cave was shut off almost immediately by the government so as to preserve the drawings and only limited access has been granted to scientists and scholars to access. Filming has never taken place until now. With strict restrictions, Herzog and his very very limited crew document these beautiful and mysterious drawings which seem almost impossible to fathom. Incredible details are also revealed, such as how the paintings were revisited thousands of years later and more work was added to them. Narrating again, Herzog's unique voice and strange musings add mystery to the film and his odd choice of filming in 3D is surprisingly perfect for the curvy and protruding interiors of the cave. Herzog interviews weird types who have worked with the cave, such as a circus performer turned archaeologist whose reason for being in this film I could not discern. These interviews detract from the film and the real star is the actual painting, which I believe Herzog knows when he shows them in two extended silent sequences. Also there is an outrageous ending involving crocodiles in a nearby biodome which is amusing. Again, Werner Herzog has found a mystifying topic which he has added to in bringing it to the big screen.

Casino Jack

The movie opens with superlobbyist Jack Abramoff dropping his daughter off at school and receiving a call from his partner that he is about to be arrested on federal charges stemming from fleecing Indian casinos of exorbitant amounts of money on lobbying fees. We then backtrack two years and we see the events leading up to Abramoff's arrest and conviction, as Jack bribes and influences congressmen (including House leader Tom DeLay), takes advantage of Indian tribes and lures them into his hands, and engages in a business venture with a mobbed up businessman and a casino boat owner. Casino Jack is the second film to come out last year regarding Abramoff's exploits (the other is Casino Jack and the United States of Money) and is not a successful retread of recent historical events. The movie seems obssessed with name dropping and doesn't seem to have faith in its story which it could have told better. Barry Pepper is well cast as Abramoff business partner and John Lovitz is a hoot as the mobbed up sleazy businessman, yet Kevin Spacey who begins the film with a powerful monologue that makes you think this will be a return to form for him, settles for a mediocre performance that serves as an excuse for Spacey to do Al Pacino and Ronald Regan impressions and push his leftist agenda. The ending with an imagined speech by Spacey during a Senate hearing comes off as false. Films covering recent history are difficult to make and the filmmakers behind Casino Jack prove it.

The Dirty Dozen

When reviewing war films, Roger Ebert often likes to quote Francois Truffaut as a segue into his critique by saying, "it's not possible to make an anti-war film because all war movies end up making war seem like fun." I've never really understood this quote because all the war movies that I consider great, such as The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, and Apocalypse Now depict war as harrowing and nothing even close to resembling fun. However, after watching The Dirty Dozen I think I understand what kinds of films Mr. Truffaut and Mr. Ebert were referring to. This film is a hight concept film and essentially just a rollicking good time. Lee Marvin stars in a fine performance as a tough as nails (what else?)  major with a spotty service record who is assigned to a top secret mission: take 12 soldiers from a U.S. army prison, all who have committed serious crimes, some who have death sentences, and break into a heavily guarded French chateau used by German officers as a respite spot, killing as many as possible. The men are all a ragtag group who aren't as bad as purported and eventually and expectedly start to work together and make a formidable force. For 1967, The Dirty Dozen is a pretty tough film that moves at a nice pace. The cast is a virtual who's who of tough guys including Marvin, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes (great as a psychopath in Academy Award nominated performance), George Kennedy, Donald Sutherland, and Ernest Borgnine. There is a plodding and unnecessary segment in the middle where the dozen plays war games against a rival officer's squad to show their worth that could have been left out, but the opening recruiting segment, the training sequence, and especially the daring raid at the end are spectacular. The Dirty Dozen is an exciting war film that provides evidence supporting Truffaut's assertion.

Roads to Memphis

In April 1968, two men from two different worlds with entirely different backgrounds and entirely different missions unfortunately and tragically crossed paths at a Memphis motel, forever changing America's landscape. Roads to Memphis tells the story of Martin Luther King and James Earl Ray in the months leading up to Ray's assassination of King. While King was touring the country fighting racial injustice, Ray was a stick up artist locked up in a Missouri Penitentiary. After making a daring escape, he began to here of King's deeds and started to think that he could make a name for himself by killing him. As it was easy to track his whereabouts back then, Ray began to stalk King across the country. When MLK took up the cause of striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee, the two's fates would forever be sealed. This latest installment is a painstakingly detailed and wonderfully recreated telling of these events. I thought it had the feel of a great crime program as we learn of James Earl Ray's actions leading up to and following the assassination. Martin Luther King's assassination was a tragic inflammatory event, and Roads to Memphis gives you a window into not only the mindsets of two radically different individuals but also of a country entirely.

West Side Story on Broadway at Playhouse Square

So I know that this is a film blog, but for as long as I can remember I have loved West Side Story. So towards the end of last year, when I heard it was coming to the Palace Theater I knew I had to be in attendance, and when I finally saw it performed it was such a wonderful experience that I wanted to at least share the experience in my blog. West Side Story is the work of Arthur Laurents (who wrote the script and passed away just this past week), Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Jerome Robbins (choreography) and transplants the story of Romeo and Juliet to late 1950s New York City where it is set among rival American and Puerto Rico street gangs. Many are probably familiar with the beloved 1960 motion picture but to see it on the stage is a unique experience entirely. Everything about it is wonderful, the music, the acting, the singing, but I think the real star has to be Robbins' dance sequences (the dance at the gym was probably my favorite). Then there are the musical numbers, the best being Tonight, Gee, Officer Krupke (surprisingly crude), and The Quintet (I was a little disappointed that The Sharks do not take part in the America number). I was also surprised how much Spanish is used in the performance. On top of all the great music and dancing, the tragic story still has the power to move you. Seeing West Side Story performed live was a rare treat. I don't get out to the theater often which I assume most of you don't either, but I urge you not to let your chance to see this wonder of a play pass you by.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Swing Time

"Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels."
-Faith Whittlesey

For the movie going public during the years of The Great Depression, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers must have been a breath of fresh air. Going to their movies, you would never know that hard times upon us. They're films were lighthearted fares bristling with charm and humor, great songs, and of course the dancing. When people argue over their greatest films, its usually a tossup between Top Hat and this film and Swing Time is a fine candidate. It opens with dancer and gambler John "Lucky" Garnett (Astaire) giving a knockout performance and skipping the curtain call to rush off to his wedding. Fearing his company will falter, Pop (Victor Moore) and the rest of the crew scheme to have Lucky miss his big date. When he finally arrives to the empty house for the ceremony, his soon to be father-in-law says that when he returns a success from New York with $25,000, he can have his daughters hand. Barely catching the train with Pop, he meets Penny (Rogers) who just so happens to be a dance instructor. The two don't exactly hit it off and he actually gets her and her coworker Mabel (Helen Broderick, a playmate for Pop) fired, but soon they find each other dancing the biggest nightclub and falling for each other, causing Lucky to reconsider his engagement. Swing Time was directed by George Stevens, considered and great director and known for more serious fare like Giant and A Place in the Sun. Maybe he gives the film the steady hand it needs although when you get down to it Swing Time is simply just a lot of fun. The music is catchy, Moore and Broderick are a hoot in the roles, and Rogers and Astaire are truly affable in the leads. What takes the cake though is the dancing, which seems to defy the laws of physics (I read that over 300 hours of dance practice went into making the film). Swing Time did not only act as an uplift to the struggling masses of the 30s. At least in my sake, it caused me to leave my worries at the door as I witnessed the magic of Fred and Ginger maneuvering about the dance floor.

A Letter to Elia

Elia Kazan was a brilliant filmmaker who brought a sense of realism to the movies and had a strong emphasis on acting, so much so that he was one of the cofounders of The Actor's Studio in New York. However he was a rigid sort and with each success he acheived, he found himself more perturbed and uneasy. Then during the HUAC hearings in the early 50s, he was pressured into testifying against leftist colleagues, something he did which led to him becoming a social pariah and also the best, most personal work of his career. A Letter to Elia isn't so much a biography of Kazan as much as it is what the title says it is: a letter, that of appreciation. The epistle is from Martin Scorsese, another master filmmaker who wrote, directed, and narrates this film. Scorsese takes us through his own life as a child, growing up in a rough part of New York, and finding his only refuge at his neighborhood church and theater where he discovered the films of Kazan. He noticed that the people in his film's looked like people he knew, not glamorized Hollywood types. He also said that Kazan's films stirred feelings in him he didn't know he had or didn't understand. Ultimately, he states how the films of Kazan made him want to make films of his own. Scorsese takes us through both his and Kazan's life while also dissecting On the Waterfront, East of Eden, and Wild River, three films that influenced him immensely. It is such a pleasure to watch such a knowledgeable, gifted master of film pay tribute to another and Scorsese does so wonderfully and graciously, a fine tribute from one great to another.

Reflections on Kazan
This was a short that played after the film, and is a tribute by those who knew the legendary director well. The reflections are surprisingly candid, providing insight on the demanding and brilliant man while offering takes on his work, personal life, and controversies. Interviewees include Acting Studio members (Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn, and Alec Baldwin), actors who worked with him (Robert De Niro (The Last Tycoon), Eli Wallach (Baby Doll), and Lois Smith (East of Eden)), an assistant director (Ulu Grosbard (Splendor in the Grass)), a journalist who had written on his life (Patricia Bosworth), and his wife (Frances Kazan).

Monday, May 2, 2011


On the first day of the Lebanon War in 1982, a group of Israeli soldiers manning a tank are stopped outside of a town when a commanding paratrooper enters and gives them their orders: enter the town which has already been bombed out by the Air Force, clear out any remaining soldiers, and meet at the rendez-vous point on the other side of town. The paratrooper closes by saying that it is a simple mission which it will obviously anything but. As the men plod into a living nightmare, it becomes clear that they are all young novices new to warfare and terrified at what lies ahead. Lebanon might as well be called Das Tank, and is virtually the same movie stylistically as Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot. Now, instead of being confined to cramped quarters of a German U-Boat we are inside the hot, dingy, suffocating quarters of a tank. These conditions are palpatable to the viewer and we also see only what the soldiers see, mostly the inside of the tank and the silent happenings outside seen through the periscope, which adds another level of terror. Lebanon is an intense film and I was interested to learn that its writer/director Samuel Maoz was once a young soldier operating a tank in the Lebanon War. He transfers his hellish experiences finely into film, and there is another very fine moment in the film where the soldiers are bonding and one of them relays a humorous story to the unit. My problem with the film is that it seems incomplete and even cut short. At 94 minutes, things wrap up way too quickly. They're is also a great sense of disorientation and confusion as to what is going on, which is probably intentional, and we do not get to know the characters well enough. They're is a better way to make this kind of film (disorienting the audience while orienting them with other elements of the story) and I am not sure why this film took so much of the visuals from Petersen's film and didn't borrow from it these other factors that made Das Boot great. Lebanon is an intense, tangible film that doesn't feel quite like a full length feature.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Welcome to the Rileys

Doug and Lois lost their teenage daughter in a car wreck and have slowly been drifting apart. She is a frail mess never leaving the house and he seeks comfort in another woman's arms. When he is sent to New Orleans on business, he sneaks away from a convention to a strip club where he meets a young dancer. The two strike up a friendship and somehow he finds himself moving into her dingy house and notifying his wife he won't be home anytime soon. As Doug starts a platonic relationship with the young girl and uses her to fill the void left by her daughter, they are soon joined be Lois as all three begin to play house and repair their lives. Essentially, Welcome to the Rileys is contrived hackneyed drivel that no one would buy. The dialogue is godawful and the only thing that the movie has going for it is the presence of James Gandolfini, who again demonstrates his acting prowess playing a restrained character. Melissa Leo does OK work, but her performance lacks fire and she is really playing a neurotic, something she was not born to do. Kristen Stewart is a good looking woman but doesn't have the acting chops to pull off this role and is pretty terrible when you get down to it. This film is from director Jake Scott and it didn't have a theatrical run and I sincerely doubt that it would have been made at all if his dad wasn't Ridley.