Monday, October 31, 2011

The Body Snatcher

Due to a shortage of cadavers, a consummate doctor is forced to resort to buying specimens from a grave robbing carriage driver in 1830s London, who continually blackmails and intimidates the doctor. When the need for dead bodies becomes more urgent and the cabbies deeds become more suspicious, he resorts to more sinister methods of providing his services. Based on a short story from Robert Louis Stevenson, director Robert Wise's "The Body Snatcher" is the product of RKO studio's famed horror producer Val Lewton, who also coscripted under his pseudonym Carlos Keith. It was the last film to feature a collaboration between Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and both men, Karloff playing the cabbie and Lugosi in a smaller supporting role as the doctor's assistant, give rousing, scene chewing performances. In addition to the fun work of both horror legends, Henry Daniell is good as well as the proper and determined doctor, and Wise creates an atmospheric film to back up his strong performers.

6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park

In 1997, Trey Parker and Matt Stone created the television series "South Park", the acclaimed series about four young boys in a small Colorado mountain town that has since set the bar for crudity and excellence in animated satire. The pilot episode, made with cardboard cut-outs, took months to finish with just a few frames taking hours to craft. Since the improvement of technology, the show has been drawn on computers and to maintain freshness, work on each episode begins only a week before it is to air. In this documentary, Parker and Stone take us through the making of an episode (15.1 HUMANCENTiPAD) and the arduous creative process, as well as the history of their professional partnership. The documentary serves to be self-promotional not only for the show, but also for the duo's distinguished Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon". Still, as a fan of the show, I found it intriguing to see how, under incredible duress, it all comes together.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pit and the Pendulum

An Englishman travels to the castle of Don Nicholas Medina, the son of a notorious Spanish Inquisitor, to investigate the mysterious death of his sister who was married to Medina. During his investigation, he encounters tale upon tale as to the happenings surrounding her death and the history of the castle, until the actual sinister truth is revealed. Roger Corman's adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's "Pit and the Pendulum" is a sumptuous, wonderfully set film featuring a humorously diabolical performance from Vincent Price as Don Nicholas. I liked the way the film unfolded with "yes, but did you know" and "why besides myself, you are the only person to know this" revelations, and the climax in the titular torture chamber is absolutely phenomenal. "Pit and the Pendulum" is a horror film that is funny, beautiful, and scary all at once.


When John Lennon moved to New York City with Yoko Ono in the early 1970s to escape the madness surrounding his super celebrity in London, he found some sort of serenity in the bustling metropolis. Soon this peace would be disrupted when the United States government sought his and Ono's deportation for his political actions citing an old British hash possession charge. Matters would worsen when the couple split and Lennon made a tumultuous extended visit to Southern California. Soon, he would regain his inner peace when he returned to Ono and the city and saw the birth of his son Sean, which he would retain until that sad December day in front of his home at The Dakota. "LennoNYC" is an interesting and intimate portrait of the deified, extremely talented, if not polarizing legend replete with with Ono's own personal stock footage and recording material. The film is largely fascinating as we hear John take us through his troubles and the creative process, as Ono, friends, and collaborators comment as well. I did find the film to lose steam after awhile and thought it was too bloated with redundant talking heads interviewees. Still, this is a rich portrait that is always invigorating when its subject is on screen.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


6/9/10 From what I understand about Michelangelo Antonioni and from the few films of his I have seen, he must have been one of the most maddening directors. In L'Avventura, he criticized the idle rich, and the film was anything but an adventure. Now here in Blow-Up, a film that comes packaged as a murder mystery, or rather a film that most who have not seen it understand it to be a murder mystery, it is really a criticism of the 1960s British mod lifestyle. Released in 1966, and what should have been considered very risque for its time, Blow-Up follows a cad London photographer who is tired of photographing beautiful women all day, and who basically takes what he wants from life. One nice day in the park, he is taking pictures and stumbles across a couple whom he begins to photograph. The woman sees him, becomes irate and demands the photographs. After much debate, he agrees to return the negatives, but, enthralled by what may be in them, gives her a different set of negatives. When he develops the photographs she wanted, he discovers that something sinister may have been going on in the park that day. Blow-up is wonderfully filmed, in marvelous technicolor (it has even been said that Antonioni had the grass in the park painted green to achieve the film's effect). There are also largely effective silent segments throughout the whole picture. Though this movie may not appeal to everyone, and I believe movies should be made not for the director but for a larger audience, Blow-Up should be seen by any film lover, if only to see a master technician at work.

I revisited this film again and while I still find it maddening, I think it is a hypnotic, incredible example of filmmaking. The scene where David Hemmings develops the negatives of his trip to the park is one of the most spellbinding in the cinema's history.
*** 1/2

Friday, October 28, 2011

Take Shelter

A construction worker with a family history of mental illness, living with his wife and hearing impaired daughter in rural Ohio begins having nightmarish apocalyptic visions. Fearing the vivid dreams as an omen, he begins to build a tornado shelter in his backyard against his wife's consent, the family budget, and the concerns of the community. Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter" can be seen as a stark, sobering take on "Field of Dreams", made in the same leisured, hypnotic vein of his first outing "Shotgun Stories", which also starred Michael Shannon. Shannon is the most interesting actor to emerge in recent years, and here he again brings his inwardly intense, powerfully brooding sensibilities to an intelligent character who is so paralyzed with the fear of what his visions might actually mean. Jessica Chastain, another performer on the rise having already starred in a succession of good films this year, delivers a fine performance as a loving wife who has reached her wit's end on how to deal with her troubled, uncompromising husband. Another actor I've come to admire recently is Shea Whigham, Shannon's "Boardwalk Empire" costar, who too is excellent here playing man not knowing how to react to his friend's strange behavior. I'm not sure there's a name for it, but over the past ten decade there have been some really fine filmmakers to emerge from the south, including Shannon, Nichols, Whigham, and the director David Gordon Green, all of whom have collaborated with each other in some form or another. Their films offer a leisured, intimate, and often powerful view of sleepy small town America, and here we have another excellent example of that breathless kind of filmmaking.

The Petrified Forest

3/26/10 1936's The Petrified Forest marked the film that launched Humphrey Bogart's career and had him typecast, but it actually stars Bette Davis and Leslie Howard with Bogie in support. However, from the second he appears on screen as escaped convict Duke Mantee, Bogart is the whole show. The film is based on a stage play that both Howard and Bogart starred in and you can tell. The film does feel staged and stodgy, with soapy dialogue to go along. The film takes place almost entirely in a gas station and Arizona. Gabrielle (Davis), the granddaughter of the owner works at the counter and dreams of a more exciting life. Along comes an intellectual, suicidal drifter (Howard) and the two immediately fall in love. As the two bat eyes, the other members of the gas station read the newspaper which talks about the escape of notorious gangster Duke Mantee, so you know he will show up at the gas station and take its members hostage. However when he shows he brings the only breath of life into this dated film.

10/28/11 I enjoyed this film a little more watching it for a second time but still found it stagy, stodgy, preachy, and silly. Still director Archie Mayo's black and white direction and crisp, Bogart is excellent as the heavy, and Charley Grapewin is very amusingly as the drunk gangster worshipping grandfather.

An Evening with Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the American humorist most famous for his longstanding work on the radio program "A Prairie Home Companion". Telling his branded bizarre, folksy homespun stories from his fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, Keillor offers an impossibly descriptive and a long thought dead brand of American humor. I had the pleasure of seeing his one man show last night at Severance Hall, where for nearly two hours without pause in his patented red shoes, Keillor spun his outrageous tales about his childhood and eccentric family, mixing in the occasional musical aside lamenting modern technology, and culminating in the unfortunate incident of the spreading of his beloved aunt's ashes at sea. Keillor's monologues create such warm and vivid imagery and his style of humor truly is an American treasure.

Carol Burnett: A Woman of Character

Carol Burnett was a television pioneer, entertaining millions with her rubbery face and comic sensibilities for an incredible 11 year run on her variety program. Beloved by friends, coworkers, and fans alike, she came from an impoverished, arduous upbringing  (Harvey Korman says, "her father was an alcoholic, her mother was an alcoholic, her maid was an alcoholic, her milkman was an alcoholic") and used theater and comedy as a form of therapy.  With interviews with show collaborators and friends including Tim Conway, the recently deceased Korman, along with Burnett herself, we get a touching glimpse into her life as well as a sample of her work which serves as nostalgia during this time of creative wreckage in television.

Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About

Jerome Robbins was the foremost American choreographer. A classically trained dancer, he fused prototypical ballet with modern dance and created some of the most memorable Broadway routines including "West Side Story", "Gypsy", and "Fiddler on the Roof". He also found success in the ballet, including a partnership with the world reknowned Russian choreographer George Balanchine at the New York City Opera. Born into an immigrant Jewish family with an eccentric mother and closed off father, he was much beloved by friends, but masked his insecurities, and was known as being extremely demanding in his work, often at the cost of friendships and collaborators. With interviews from friends, colleagues, and critics including Rita Moreno, Arthur Laurents, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Stephen Sondheim, "Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance" provides a loving portrait of a difficult and unyielding man, while displaying some of his ingenious and innovative work.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


A ruthless Italian immigrant gangster with a fixation on his sister wipes out his mobster boss, and goes to work for a higher up, eventually muscling him out of his racket, taking his girl in the process, and spreading him campaign of violence across the entire city. "Scarface" was a work born of three larger than life individuals, producer Howard Hughes, director Howard Hawks, and writer Ben Hecht, and the result is a stark, stylish, brutal, and even xenophobic early gangster film. Paul Muni gives a towering performance as the brutish and heartless Tony Camonte, making the character utterly despicable and leaving all likable traits at the door. Despite its relentless violence and perverse scenes involving Camonte and his sister (Ann Dvorak), there are some lighter scenes played to wondrous comic effect such as when Muni's secretary (Vince Barnett) fumbles with the telephone or when Muni returns to the theater after a hit to see how it ended. Having recently watched Ken Burns' "Prohibition" I was surprised how closely this film mirrored Al Capone's life, and I was also surprised how much of a rehash the overpraised 1983 Brian De Palma film is. Hawks' "Scarface" is a harsh film and a curious one in how it generates sympathy for a truly detestable character.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pearl Jam Twenty

In the late 1980s, the Seattle grunge movement had gained momentum and one of the celebrated bands on the local circuit was Mother Love Bone. Following the overdose death of their lead singer Andy Wood, bandmates Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard teamed with Mike McCready and a brooding, powerful vocalist named Eddie Vedder. Pearl Jam found almost instant success and alongside rival Kurt Cobain's Nirvana, propelled grunge to the national stage. Cameron Crowe's "Pearl Jam Twenty" takes us through the band's soaring highs and crushing lows over the last score. Once a music journalist himself, Crowe works from a wealth of compelling footage and is able to propel his film without gimmicks or narration. There are some wonderful moments as well, such as when the band tries to piece together the song "Daughter" or during the video shoot for "Jeremy". Darker episodes are also discussed such as the infamous battle with Ticketmaster and the unfortunate tragedy where nine fans were trampled to death during the band's 2000 tour in Denmark. In addition to the footage, we also hear personal stories from all band members as well as collaborator Chris Cornell, and the band's dark, high energy music plays throughout. "Pearl Jam Twenty" is a comprehensive film of an enduring band.


A man steps out of a sedan, walks into a Broadway theater and onto the stage where he delivers a monologue informing us that there has never been a script or sonnet written in William Shakespeare's hand. He then offers us a tale as to who may have truly authored The Bard's scripts. We are then taken back to Queen Elizabeth's England and in a story involving court intrigue, duplicity, and murder and learn how a disgraced Earl submitted plays to the poet Ben Johnson which were presented by the oafish and largely illiterate Shakespeare. "Anonymous" is a well surmised and mounted story (emphasis on story) from director Roland Emmerich who also helmed big budget blockbusters such as "Independence Day" and "2012" and is an odd choice to head this production. I found the film a bit too glossy, and his use of CGI in some fly over sequences to be distracting, but all and all Emmerich does a nice job of juggling John Orloff's name heavy, time crossing narrative. I wish the cast had been stronger. Rafe Spall is too much of a caricature as Shakespeare and Sebastian Armesto is abysmal as Johnson. However, Rhys Ifans is wonderful in a brooding performance as Edward, Earl of Oxford and Vanessa Redgrave is typically great as the Queen (she's now played both Elizabeth and her sister Mary). The movie is presented as authentic and I think people will take more of it as fact than they should, if any, but it is nonetheless an intriguing theory and a sumptuous film.

Margin Call

A Wall Street investment firm is cleaning house and when one of the axed, a research analyst, is stepping onto the elevator with his box of personal belongings, he hands a jump drive to a talented underling and tells him to be careful. Working late into the evening, the junior analyst puts the final pieces of his ex-boss's puzzle together and realizes that the firm's business model will imminently crash. He calls in his superiors, thus beginning an all night session of dealings among sharks deciding who will get tossed to the wolves and how they will fleece their customers to save their own bankrolls. "Margin Call" is the debut film from writer director J.C. Chandor and serves as a microcosm of the start of the 2008 financial crisis and the ruthless and selfish tactics taken by those involved. The film contains a marvelous cast playing characters devoid of humanity, or swiftly on their way to losing it. I really liked the work of Zachary Quinto playing the junior analyst who has a background in rocket science who works on Wall Street because the pay is better. Kevin Spacey is excellent as well, again playing a corporate type, but not the arrogant and calculated one we would expect. Paul Bettany and Stanley Tucci are fine as senior analysts who possibly regret their career choices and Jeremy Irons and especially Simon Baker are great as callous higher ups. I found "Margin Call" to be underwritten and too obvious, particularly in an absurd speech by Tucci where he lauds his previous profession or when Bettany exclaims, "Fuck normal people!" in another. Thinking on this film, "The Ides of March" came to mind, another knockout cast in a film dealing with a relevant topic and a lackluster script. I began to wonder, where should the line between a good film and not be drawn when this is the case? Here the cast sells it.

Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes

Since 1974 humorist Garrison Keillor has been producing his weekly radio program "A Prairie Home Companion" in which he weaves folksy stories of his fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon with bluegrass/country styled music. "The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes" is a documentary that is as irreverent and down-to-earth as the man and his radio program. As we listen to his wonderfully descriptive monologues, watch humorous old time radio skits, and listen to unpretentious, cozy music it brings us back to a simpler time of our youths and is evident as to why Keillor's program and style of humor has been so long standing.

Kind Hearts and Coronets

"Kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman blood."
-Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Lady Clara Vere de Vere"

While a duke awaits the noose on death row, he tells us his life's story beginning with his aristocratic mother leaving the life to elope with an Italian singer, whose courtship led to his birth. When his father died, his mother's family refused to take her back in and when she later perished, they even refused her dying wish to be buried in the family plot. Now, bent on revenge and set on attaining status to impress his girlfriend, the would be duke sets out to murder the eight members of the D'Ascoyne family that stand between him and his title. "Kind Hearts and Coronets" is an extremely droll black comedy from the Britain's Ealing Studio that is most memorable due to the fact of legendary actor Alec Guinness playing the role of all eight murder victims! Guinness brings his adept and polished comic sensibilities to the roles with wondrous results and Dennis Price seems to channel the same kind of dark and elegant charm in his portrayal of the duke. The Ealing Studio was known for their comedies, the best of which were made by Guinness, and "Kind Hearts and Coronets" may be the funniest and best realized of them all.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Real Rocky

When a nobody liquor salesman from Jersey named Chuck Wepner went 15 rounds with heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali, people whistled and cheered the following year as the sensation "Rocky" was released, Wepner's story surely inspiring writer/star Sylvester Stallone. Still, as Wepner's life began to spin into chaos and oblivion, and his exploits continued to mirror those of the character in Stallone's blockbuster franchise, Wepner never saw a dime until he decided to sue the actor for right to publicity infringement. "The Real Rocky" in an engrossing story told by Wepner himself with vivid detail, humor, and brutal honesty which is somewhat inhibited by Jeff Feuerzeig's gimmicky approach, a style that has plagued recent documentaries. Also, a roundtable of critics who covered Wepner's career as well as other "fly on the wall" moments seem staged. Still, Wepner's tale is fascinating and would have been a knockout in more capable hands.

Little Caesar

Little Caesar has just robbed a gas station with his cohort Joe and sits at a local diner, catching a glimpse of a headline featuring a big city crime boss. Desiring the same kind of notoriety, the two head east where Caesar gets in with a mobster's crew and ruthlessly works his way up the ladder, while Joe desperately tries to leave the life and pursue his dreams as a dancer. If you wanted to watch the quintessential Warner Brothers gangster picture, I would recommend Mervyn LeRoy's "Little Caesar", which possibly contains every cliched element associated with the studio's pictures. Edward G. Robinson, containing none of the Cagney's panache, delivers a brutal performance as the vain Rico, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the thankless straight role as Joe. The gangster speak and mannerisms in "Little Caesar" are laughable which only add to the movie's likability, abetted by the stark violence and the iconic performance of Edward G. Robinson.

The Cotton Club

A stick of dynamite is thrown at the feet of Dutch Schultz in a 1928 Harlem nightclub, and a dashing young horn player (Richard Gere) saves the gangster's life. Becoming his errand boy, he chauffeurs his beautiful flapper mistress (Diane Lane) and is introduced to the owner of The Cotton Club, the hoppin' whites only venue that houses Duke Ellington and where an up-and-coming hoofer (Gregory Hines) is romancing the star attraction (Lonette McKee) and slowly learning the ropes of the business. Francis Ford Coppola's "The Cotton Club" is a delightfully stylish homage to the Roaring 20s, juxtaposing a brutal gangster story with two rags to riches/romances and interspersing it all with old fashioned montages and wonderful jazz musical numbers and dance routines. The film also has a bemused, laid back attitude which I found appealing and probably appropriate for the material. There are also some fine supporting performances including Bob Hoskins as the owner of the club, Lawrence Fishburne as a Bumpy Johnson type Harlem gangster, and Nicolas Cage (Coppola's nephew) in an early, high wired early role as Gere's mad dog brother. "The Cotton Club" is a wildly entertaining film and curiously one that time has forgotten. I read that this production was marred with all sorts of problems (including a producer's contract murder on an investor!) and the thinking is that they overshadowed the film which failed to find an audience. Regardless, "The Cotton Club" is a great film that plays so many cards correctly that it should hold an appeal to most potential viewers.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Man in the White Suit

A learned chemist is currently starting his latest labor job at his 8th textile factories where he manipulates his way into the lab in order to work on his thought to be impossible invention: a dirt resistant and non-tearable fabric. Once he does gain his own laboratory, through a liaison with the boss' daughter, and finally makes his breakthrough, it creates an uproar in the industry among both capitalists and laborers who fear the new design will put them out of business. Alexander Mackendrick's "The Man in the White Suit" is not one of the strongest of the Ealing Studios comedies to feature Alec Guinness. It seems more concerned with addressing class issues than it does with providing laughs. Still, Guinness is on top of his game as usual and that along with an intriguing premise make this mostly worthwhile.

Dr. No

A British agent leaves a social club in Kingston, Jamaica and is murdered, his body towed away by three locals. Then, his secretary is offed at his home and the assailants leave with two files marked "Crab Key" and "Dr. No". Back in London, Agent 007 James Bond is dispatched to investigate the murders which ultimately leads him to an island fortress and an evil half German half Chinese tyrant bent on world domination. "Dr. No" marked the film introduction of Ian Fleming's most famous spy and considering where the series has went, it is surprising how light and enjoyable this first entry is. Sean Connery's first shot at the blackjack table offering his signature line must surely be one of the most indelible introductions in film history. He then proceeds to travel to Jamaica, easily warding off inferior enemies and bedding treacherous women, until he finally arrives at Dr. No's island, at which point the film has turned into pure farce (Ursula Andress's role is ludicrous, though not unwelcomed). Watching the film, I wondered why Mike Myers wanted to lampoon it, considering how easy of a target it is. Nonetheless, "Dr. No" set the model for all Bond elements to follow and Connery set the bar which still has not been matched.
note: "Goldfinger" came up on a list I have been working on so I decided to watch the series, which I surprisingly haven't seen a whole lot of.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Buck Brannaman was in a rope trick act with his older brother as a kid, and was abused so viciously by his father he had to be removed from his custody shortly after his mother died. However, instead of turning into a similar monster, Buck grew to be a compassionate horse wrangler, using stern but nonviolent techniques to "break" horses. Traveling around the country demonstrating his methods, he became a renowned horse whisperer and a key contributer to the Robert Redford film. Brannaman seems like the real article, sporting a cowboy hat and dishing out sage advice. As we travel with him around the country and learn about his past, mostly from friends, we become drawn into this sentimental, yet not overly cloying story. And, when it seems the film has grown redundant, there is a dark sequence involving a wild horse, something that comes as unexpected. "Buck" is a hard film to dislike (believe me I tried) and actually ends up being quite infectious and moving as well.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


The Volstead Act was one of the few amendments to the constitution that limited freedoms, and served to criminalize the 5th biggest industry in the United States. Made with the noblest intentions of preserving home life which had been torn apart by drunkenness, prohibition would serve to have the opposite effect by making drinking more enticing and increasing lawlessness and corruption in the process. Prohibition is a dissection of the period by America's foremost documentarian Ken Burns, along with collaborator Lynn Novick, beginning with female temperance movements of the mid 19 century, continuing with successful legislation following WWI, up until its eventual repeal in 1933. Those familiar with Burns films will know what to expect hear, but as the adage goes "if it ain't broke", and "Prohibition" is another engrossing and complete look at the period. Through great voice work from Paul Giamatti, Tom Hank, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Irons, and John Lithgow to wonderful, insightful commentary from historians Pete Hamill, Catherine Gilbert Murdoch, Daniel Okrent, and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens we gather a remarkable sense of this wild and almost unimaginable period in American history. I also liked the way the film focuses largely on individuals: the staunch "drys" such as Wayne Wheeler, Mabel Walker Willebrandt, and Carrie Nation. The men who capitalized on the demand for alcohol like Al Capone, George Remus, and Roy Olmstead. Finally, the "wets" such as Al Smith and Pauline Sabin who sought the repeal of the 19th Amendment. Ken Burn's "Prohibition" is an exacting culmination of a period of forced morality and celebrated lawlessness.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


In 1999 an underachieving colt and an overweight jockey fresh out of rehab teamed up for an unlikely partnership that approached Triple Crown glory and ultimately ended in tragedy. "Charismatic" is Steven Michaels' (sportscaster Al's son) documentary of the title horse and his rider Chris Antley, who working with legendary and reclusive trainer D. Wayne Lukas, were able to to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness before the horse collapsed at the Belmont, leading to Antley's self-despair and ultimate demise. It is an engrossing story, somewhat blandly told, though still engrossing nonetheless, as we hear interviews from Antley's colleagues, friends, loving wife as well as old footage of the jockey himself, who carries a sad, elegiac way about him, making his story all the more so engaging.

White Heat

Cody Jarrett and his gang have just robbed a locomotive, leaving four dead in their wake, and are now holed up in a cabin in the mountains, with one of their own suffering from very serious burns. Now while dealing with dissension in the ranks and the looming threat of the police, the psychotic mama's boy is devising a plan which will help him beat the rap for the current job, as well as looking towards the future for his next heist. Raoul Walsh's "White Heat" was one of the late Warner Brothers gangster pictures and featured James Cagney, one of their signature stars from that era. As Jarrett, Cagney delivers one of the fiercest, funniest, and most magnetic performances of his career, alternately offering laughs and shock to the crowd both with his wisecracks and fits of sudden rage and violence. Margaret Wycherly is similarly sinister as a Ma Barker type, doing whatever is necessary to aid her dear son. Regarding the film itself, I was surprised by how tedious it became during scenes Cagney wasn't in, most notably technical, procedural ones involving the police and the manhunt (I did enjoy passages where unfaithful Virginia Mayo and Steve Cochran stew while waiting for Cagney's return). Still, this is highly energetic and enjoyable work from Cagney, and the closing scene where he goes out quite literally in a blaze of glory, is one of the most iconic ever filmed.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Lady Eve

After an expedition up the Amazon, a snake expert and heir to an ale fortune boards a cruiser for New York and wards off the advances of several gawking women. Then on the way to his room, he is tripped by a beautiful young conwoman, who takes him back to her room where he falls madly in love with her. Planning to fleece him in a card game, the unexpected happens and she falls in love with him and limits the damage to be done by her father and his criminal partner. However, before the two can wed her identity is soon revealed to him, leaving her alone and dejected, and inspiring her to craft an audacious plan of revenge, not to take his money but to break his heart. "The Lady Eve" is a delightful and extremely sexy film from writer/director Preston Sturges. Barbara Stanwyck stars in a marvelously sultry role as the professional con artist who never foresaw herself falling in love and Henry Fonda uses his sincerity to wonderful comic effect playing the ultimate dope with an trusting nature. William Demarest has a particularly funny role as Fonda's suspecting bodyguard and Charles Coburn and Eugene Pallette are fine as well as Stanwyck and Fonda's fathers, respectively. Sturges' film is extremely sensual, particularly in two scenes that take place early on in Stanwyck's cabin, the first where Fonda is overtaken by her perfume, the second where she strokes an alarmed Fonda's hair after she has been scared by one of his snakes. "The Lady Eve" is a delightful screwball comedy thanks to Sturges' funny and unpredictable script, and two magnificent leading performances.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Neil Young: Don't Be Denied

Neil Young's music has always struck a deep chord with audiences and been highly influential for subsequent singer/songwriters. Here we are taken on a journey through his career from his early days in Winnipeg through stints with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Crazy Horse, and Devo, always following his own musical route no matter the cost to personal fame and professional relationships. Through interviews with collaborators including David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, James Taylor, and Nils Lofgren as well  as Young himself, we get a sense of the difficult and extremely talented man. During the course of the film, Young does come off as self-important, and when he claims that it has been "all about the music" and later shown on stage during his Living With War tour playing under a jumbotron displaying W. news clips, he just sounds downright phony. And still, he has made some great, piercing songs and had an incredible career along the way, which is nicely documented here.


A deranged loser's recovering junkie wife leaves his for a sleazeball drug dealer and, with visions from above in the form of a costumed television superhero who teaches teenagers about abstinence, he adopts the crime fighting persona of The Crimson Bolt. Violently attacking drug dealers, child molestors, vandals, and line jumpers alike with a wrench, a teams up with a star struck comic book store girl aka Boltie and the duo resolve to rescue his wife from the clutches of the well fortified drug dealer. Everyone seems to be fashioning themselves as a superhero these days and James Gunn's "Super" is an extremely twisted and perverse take, often yielding very funny results. Rainn Wilson is really wonderful here playing that kind of screwball moral crusader that he does so well. I also found Ellen Page to be adorable, giving an edge to her hipster persona in some really racy scenes. Kevin Bacon is really humorous as well as the dirt bag. The last third of this film turns extremely ugly and violent, losing a lot of its humor and appeal. Nonetheless, Wilson and Paige are so good here, the movie is really funny in parts, and the film is outrageous and sort of refreshing in its own way.


A law enforcement official climbs out of the trunk of car, breaks the fourth wall, and tells us that we are about to witness an homage to "no reason". For the following 80 minutes we watch a tire, realizing its power of telekinesis, rolling around the desert causing head explosions of everyone it comes across. Looking over the most detestable films I have ever seen, I have determined that I would rather sit through a marathon screening of "The Happening", Tony Scott's "Domino", "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", "Smokin' Aces", "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me", and "Ali G Indahouse" than be subjected to this putrid inanity again.

In a Better World

A young boy is grieving the loss of his mother and relocates from London to a pastoral Danish town. At his new school, she stands up for a bullied kid whose parents are going through a separation. As the two form a bond, they engage on a quest of retribution against an adult who had accosted one of their parents, a pacifist who works as a missionary in a violent African village. Susanne Bier's "In a Better World" is an excruciating exercise in sentiment and pretension and inexplicably won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film this past year. Shot vapidly in what should have been a more luminescent Dutch countryside, the film is a solemn and incredibly obvious treatise on courage, bullying, control, revenge, etc. The acting is matter-of-factly and amateurish and the scenes set in Africa do not work at all with the rest of the story. Bier clearly has good intentions here but her presentation is almost insulting. Maybe in a better world we won't have to endure such pompous drivel.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee was a man of fierce calculation and dogged determination, graduating at the top of his class at West Point and becoming a hero under Winfield Scott during the Mexican-American War. When whispers of secession turned into roars a gravely divided Lee, a brutal slave holding Virginian loyalist who had sworn an oath of loyalty to the union, resigned as an officer to command the Confederate Army. He would come to be known as the bloodiest General in American history and immortalized as a symbol for the lost dream of the south. Lee's entry into the "American Experience" catalog feels like a glossed over recollection of the American legend's life and could have used a more fleshed out treatment. Also voice actors, a crucial element to these films, seem miscast and not as commanding as someone with Lee's presence would demand. Nonetheless, this is still an extremely well written and captivating account of a man of both extreme ruthlessness and sorrow.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Baby Jane Hudson was the toast of Vaudeville, appearing before sold out crowds and even selling her own brand of lifelike dolls. Soon however, she became overshadowed by her sister Blanche who became an endearing star until a car crash confined her to a wheelchair and ended her career. Now, Blanche lives in an old Hollywood mansion once owned by Rudolph Valentino, under the career of delusional and insanely jealous Jane, who proceeds to torture her invalid sister while planning to make her big comeback. "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" is a perverse, shocking, and often very funny film from director Robert Aldrich. It is a send-up of ex-Hollywood starlets and made in a very similar vein to Billy Wilder's classic "Sunset Boulevard". "Baby Jane" marked a revival of the careers of its female stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (who were reputedly offscreen rivals as well) and they are both stunning in roles that could have easily been switched. Davis, wearing what seems to be pounds of makeup gives a cackling performance as what must be one of the most diabolical of any screen villain. Crawford brings gravity to the role of the put upon sister in a less showy but still exceptional role. Two other supporting players turn in fine performances as well, including Maidie Norman as a fretful maid and Victor Buono as a bumbling piano playing mama's boy who answers an ad placed by Davis. "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" succeeds extremely well on many levels: It is technically gorgeous, with its intricate setting shot in stark black and white. It is a terrifying horror story as well as a hard hitting and funny lampoon of stardom. Finally, it is a tremendous showcase for two of the best known stars of their time who showed they were still able to rip off the gloves and go for the jugular.

Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends

Over the past 60 years Tony Bennett has become synonymous with the Great American Songbook, beautifully crooning works from Gershwin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and Rodgers and Hammerstein to name a few. In the loving retrospective, Bennett's life and career is celebrated by some of his closest friends including Clint Eastwood, Harry Belafonte, Mel Brooks, and Martin Scorsese (there's some great footage of Marty and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker inserting "Rags to Riches" into "Goodfellas") in addition to his sons as well as interviews with the legend himself. With narration from Anthony Hopkins, the film is wonderfully assembled as we see rare performances and footage and watch songs from old film clips as Tony picks up where Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin leave off. There are also many wonderful extended performances of staples such as "(I Left My Heart) In San Francisco" and "Come Fly with Me". "Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends" is an affectionate portrait of an enduring entertainer.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Captain's Paradise

A British captain has found the secret to happiness. Commanding a cruise boat between Gibraltar and Morocco, he keeps a woman in both ports, one a sexy siren, the other a domesticated housewife, both of whom completely fulfill his needs. However, his well kept secret is threatened to be exposed and, even more to his dismay, each woman begins to develop the traits of her complement. "The Captain's Paradise" is an ingeniously clever film from Britain's Ealing Studios and contains another extraordinary performance from Alec Guinness, who was once referred to as the actor's actor's actor. Both women, Yvonne DeCarlo as the seductress and Celia Johnson as the homemaker, and they are given a chance to play both roles, they in turn give Guinness a chance to turn in two wildly different performances as well. Consider two great scenes: DeCarlo accidentally receives an apron intended for Johnson instead of a swimsuit, and absolutely loves it. In a fit of manic improvisation, Guinness speaks in Spanish of what becoming cook can do to your figure. Then in the adverse scene, Johnson opens the wrapped bikini, of course embracing it, much to Guinness's dismay. "The Captain's Paradise" is a pretty racy and raucously ingenious film which provides the perfect platform for Alec Guinness to display his considerable talents.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Dotted Line

After making documentaries on McDonalds and product placement, Morgan Spurlock now gives us "The Dotted Line", a look at sports agents. Following three agents, one trying to recruit college football players before the combine, another telling of his dealings with Michael Jordan, and a third disgraced ex-agent who blew the whistle on industry malfeasance. While attempting to show the darker side, "The Dotted Line" is Spurlock's baffling attempt to show the positives and usefulness of sports agents. In addition to the ridiculous stances he takes, Spurlock is a grandstanding amateurish filmmaker (here having the ex-agent drive onto a lot behind a collegiate practice field) who resorts to gimmicky and shoddy presentations of his material. I do though await his upcoming films in which he takes us through the history of Walmart and gives us an inside look at the unsung heroes of the banking world.

The Hurricane of '38

In September 1938, a French naturalist in the west Saharan desert notices monstrous winds heading towards the coast and two weeks later, the same storm was thought to his off of the coast of Florida. As residents readied for the storm, Florida was spared as the hurricane moved northward approaching seaside communities along New England. Forecasters could have foreseen the coming nor'easter but instead wrote it off, thinking it to make its way out to sea. So, without warning, many villages along the northeastern shores were completely decimated and many lives were lost. "The Hurricane of '38" an incredible story in a less than compelling fashion. Even with David McCullough and testimonies from survivors of the great storm, the documentary fails to be told in a cohesive manner which makes it lose interest as it bounces around from story to story.


In 1938 Walter Winchell printed his annual top 10 newsmakers of their year list which included FDR, Adolf Hitler, and a champion racehorse by the name of Seabiscuit. This documentary tells the story of the stubborn and unlikely horse who was seen to have greatness by a stoic trainer, sold to a wealthy west coast magnate, and ridden to glory by two jockeys, most notably in a one on one showdown with rival and thought to be superior stallion War Admiral. The American Experience's presentation of "Seabiscuit" is a wonderful documentary of what should be considered the greatest sports underdog in American history. The horse's story along with the heartrending story of Red Pollard, one of its jockeys, is told beautifully and with excellent narration by Scott Glenn as well as comment by Laura Hillenbrand, the author of the book upon which the 2003 Oscar nominated film was based. By the time the story reaches Seabiscuit's comeback for his final race, I was surprised to find my eyes welling up, and realized I had been watching one of the finest sports stories in our history.


"Pinocchio" is an early animated classic from Walt Disney which consists of two wildly different halves, the first comprising of scenes of delightful imagination and the second containing dark and terrifying passages. The well known story begins with the folksy Jiminy Cricket stumbling into the home of Geppetto, a kindly woodcarver who has just crafted a boy like marionette. That night, he makes a wish upon a star that the puppet Pinocchio will become a real boy. His wish is slightly granted by a blue fairy who says he must attain virtuous qualities to become human. So, with Jiminy in tow as his conscience, the naive Pinocchio sets out for a series of misadventures. "Pinocchio" is one of the true wonders, not only for animation, but for movie storytelling as well. The animation is incredibly intricate and beautiful, and the early scenes in Geppetto's hovel, where he dances in revelry with Pinocchio, Figaro the cat, and Cleo the fish as Jiminy dances with the cuckoo clock figurines, are an exercise in pure delight. The following scenes where Pinocchio is sold by the devious Honest John and Gideon to Stromboli and is forced to perform in his travelling show are comical and magical as well. Then as the coachman discusses his sinister Pleasure Island plan and laughs his sinister laugh, I was immediately taken back to scenes of childhood fright as thoughts of the donkey boys and Monstro the whale came rushing back to my brain. "Pinocchio" is a painstakingly beautiful film that is both dark and funny and far too daring for any studio to attempt to replicate for today's prudish audiences.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


In 1981, the British government is refusing to recognize the Irish Republican Army as a political organization and in response to this IRA inmates at the Maze prison in Belfast are staging a protest wherein they are refusing to wear prison clothes and bathe. As conditions worsen and the protests appears fruitless, prison leader Bobby Sands embarks on a hunger strike, heedless of his own life or the lives of his men. "Hunger" is the film debut of British artist Steve McQueen and it is a brutal exercise in pure simple, approaching each scene with a basic ferocity. The film stars the compelling young actor Michael Fassbender who has been so extraordinary in many recent films, and you can add one to the list as he portrays Sands as a stalwart and righteous soldier. The film is full of many unforgettable sequences including one where the British police are called in to quell the rioting inmates and begin to pound on their shields sounding some sort of war cry, or Sands' hunger strike which is shown in gruesome silent detail. Another remarkable sequence occurs near the film's midpoint where for approximately 15-20 minutes and with only 4-5 shots, a priest attempts to talk him out of his suicidal mission. "Hunger" is a film made by a man with confidence in his abilities, his lead actor, and his story. It is a remarkable piece of filmmaking.


Richard Raskin was born into an upper class family and found success in everything he attempted, becoming a doctor and a successful amateur tennis player. Deep down though, he held a desire to become a woman and created a firestorm of controversy he had a sex changed and attempted to enter the 1977 U.S. Women's Open as Renée Richards. "Renée" is a creepy portrait of a disturbed and conflicted individual, presented in an intriguing fashion. The documentary is not particularly well written but director Eric Drath does a nice job of assembling archival footage and interviews with greats from the tennis world, Richards friends and family, and Richards herself. The story is presented in a nonjudgmental fashion, allowing all viewpoints to be heard, including Richards son, who is struggling and still very upset with his father's life choices. Renée Richards comes off as distorted and self-absorbed, but her life makes for an intriguing story.


Enoch is a grieving teenager who has lost his parents in a car crash, been kicked out of school, and is currently playing board games with a Kamikaze ghost from WWII. Finding solace in attending funerals, he is busted by a minister and while being threatened, a beautiful young girl comes to his rescue and claims him as an acquaintance. The two begin a courtship and it is gradually revealed that the life loving girl, Annabel, is dying of terminal brain cancer. Gus Van Sant’s film, which was written by Jason Lew and surely inspired by Hal Ashby's "Harold and Maude", is a touching and beautifully realized work, which wonderfully incorporates its whimsical elements. Mia Wasikowska, delivers an indelible performance as the convivial young girl and Henry Hopper (Dennis's son) contributes nicely in a moody performance. I found myself being drawn into the lives of these characters and Van Sant does a terrific job setting his palate and maintaining his tone.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Boat

Having just finished building his new boat, the aptly named Damfino, Buster, his wife, and two boys trail the vessel to be launched at sea, dismantling their house and sinking their car in the process. While out on the open waters (after raising the sunken ship) a major storm hits causing Buster and his family to abandon ship and high tail in back to shore. "The Boat", an early Buster Keaton short, contains some fine sequences including a desperate SOS call to a confused radio operator and an incredible scene where Buster tries to maintain his balance on the rolling ship.

The Play House

Buster is a stagehand who doses off backstage, where he dreams he is every member present at a symphony including the band members, conductor, and the audience members. He awakens to engage in vaudevillian zaniness which includes impersonating a missing monkey and rescuing his sweetheart when her water submersion trick goes wrong. This early Buster Keaton short is whimsical and funny, again showing the wide range of the master's talents.

One Week

Buster and his new wife have received a plot of land and a ready-to-assemble house as a gift from his uncle. Little do they know that her jilted lover has changed the numbers on the boxes, resulting in the construction of one of the damnedest most backwards looking structures ever conceived. "One Week" was Buster Keaton's directorial debut and contained all the wit and physical gags that he would come to be known for throughout his career in the 1920s.


On an imagined stage, Michael Peterson performs his one man show in which he tells the story of how he desired to become famous, adopted the alter ego Charles Bronson, robbed a post office, received seven years in prison, serving 34, 30 of which were spent in solitary confinement. "Bronson" is director Nicolas Winding Refn's brutal biopic on the life of Britain's most notorious and violent prisoner. Shot as a dystopian nightmare comparable to "A Clockwork Orange", Refn's dark and stylish film is more off-putting and bizarre than it is entertaining. The film is anchored however by a twisted, intense, brooding, and psychotic comic performance from Tom Hardy who is a whirlwind of spit and fire from start to finish. Hardy's performance carries Refn's flawed film that is often striking and funny, but also sometimes gets lost in excess, rambling, and artistic pretense.

An Unmarried Woman

Erica has it all, a happy marriage to a sensitive husband, an intelligent daughter, a Manhattan flat, and a good job at a contemporary art gallery. Things are going so swimmingly in fact that she engages in her own rendition of Swan Lake in her skivvies while alone in her bedroom. Then after meeting her husband for lunch, he informs her on the sidewalk that he has fallen in love with another woman. Thoroughly dejected, Erica enters the single world and on the advice of her therapist, begins to date and gradually finds strength in her own independence. Paul Mazursky's "An Unmarried Woman", one of the pivotal woman's lib films of the 1970s, is a crowning achievement for the work of Jill Clayburgh, who is truly remarkable in the title role. Running the gamut in terms of emotions, Clayburgh perfectly projects joy, frustration, anger, bewilderment, and a slew of others as she begins her transition into single life. The performances of the men are excellent as well: Michael Murphy as her weak but loving husband, Cliff Gorman as the chauvinistic swinger whom she has a fling with, and Alan Bates as the ideal artist whom she falls in love with. Mazursky's film must have been refreshing for audiences in 1978, but it is due to Clayburgh's incredible and engaging command of the screen that makes this film work.

The Big Year

"The Big Year" refers to a bird watching contest where participants spend the entire calendar year trying to observe as many species of North American bird possible. Three men, each going through his own personal crisis, pursue their life's passion and enter the contest, traversing the continent and engaging in both friendships and rivalries with each other. "The Big Year" is an old fashioned race film that seems quite knowledgeable of its obscure topic. In addition to being treated to a warm and funny film, we also gain some ornithological knowledge as well. The film stars three endearing actors who all contribute nicely hear: Jack Black as a down on his luck computer programmer, Steve Martin as a recent retiree who fears he may have waited to long to pursue his dream, and Owen Wilson as the event record holder who will do anything to protect it, even if it cost him his marriage. The supporting cast is equally bright as well: I really liked Dianne Wiest and Brian Dennehy as Black's parents and Rashida Jones is her usual bristling self as his love interest. JoBeth Williams is strong as Martin's wife and Rosamund Pike is adorable as Wilson's. Anjelica Huston has humorous role as well as a cantankerous charter boat captain. After awhile the film starts to wear thin and grows slightly redundant, but with such a sunny film and an engaging cast, it is hard to complain.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Oliver Twist

A sickly pregnant woman runs through the rainy moors to the gates of a workhouse where she delivers her child the dies. Oliver Twist, the name given by the cruel, bulging orphanage overseer, begins a life of mistreatment as he is sent from the workhouse to work for a coffin maker whom he escapes from to make for the streets of London and to be taken in by a band of pickpockets. Following the success of "Great Expectations", David Lean decided to adapt another Dickens' classic, achieving the same dark and wondrous results. "Oliver Twist" is an impeccably directed, beautifully gloomy rendering of the story of the young waif. For me, my introduction to the story came with Carol Reed's wonderful musical "Oliver!", which is much lighter in tone. Lean's version is more dire than I even realized (ashamedly, I haven't read the book), and pretty shocking considering the time it was released. John Howard Davies is ideal as Oliver, bringing all the needed qualities of the beset upon orphan and the adult cast is incredible, led by the inimitable Alec Guinness in a twisted comic performance as gang leader Fagin which drew controversy for resembling Jewish stereotypes. Robert Newton is vicious as the contemptible Bill Sykes, Kay Walsh is incredible as his fiery and magnanimous girlfriend Nancy, and Henry Stephenson is great as the warmhearted Mr. Brownlow. David Lean was a master craftsman of the cinema, crafting gorgeous, incredibly realized masterpieces like this before leaving Britain for Hollywood to direct some of the grandest epics in history. Working big or small, he realized that storytelling was essential, and with "Oliver Twist" he again does literary great Charles Dickens justice.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Clean and Sober

A hotshot yuppie embezzles $95,000 from his employer and wakes up to find the girl he picked up dead from a cocaine overdose. Needing a place to hide out, he takes refuge in a detox clinic, where he doesn't even remotely begin to remotely face his own addictions. Soon with the help of a hard nosed counselor and an ardent AA sponsor, he takes the leap and begins the arduous trek towards recovery. "Clean and Sober" is essentially divided into three stages, Addiction, Rehab, and Recovery, and for the first to it is an unrelenting look at dependency. The third segment pulls back slightly, though still tenacious, and introduces a romance angle which isn't entirely successful. The film is centered on an extraordinary, unsung performance from Michael Keaton, who manages to be simultaneously repugnant and sympathetic, takes major risks, and pulls them off wonderfully. There are also two great supporting performances in the film from Morgan Freeman (was that guy ever young?) as the counselor and M. Emmet Walsh as the sponsor. Many films about addiction and recovery are soft served fairy tales where the addict returns to his supporting family and friends and patched up work environment. "Clean and Sober" is a harsh and realistic viewpoints not only of addiction but the road to recovery as well.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World

The whaling industry in America was a contradictory one: a rousing and courageous adventure on a contemplative sea with the goal of viciously slaughtering a passive beast. From 17th to 19th century America, the whaling industry out of New England bolstered the country's economy to the point that it was a major factor in breaking off from England, and helped to make The United States a formidable world power in the decades to follow. "Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World" is a reflective and elegiac history of the controversial enterprise intercut with the tragic story of the whaling ship The Essex which inspired young whaler Herman Melville to pen his magnum opus Moby Dick. Director Ric Burns does a wonderful job of presenting haunting images and music here and is given great support by a studied and well spoken groups of experts on the subject. Willem Dafoe's narration is quietly powerful and this entry into the "American Experience" series does a fantastic job of showing the many different facets of this incredible and brutal industry.