Wednesday, February 29, 2012

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

After foiling a treacherous Nazi plot midair in 1945, our story begins 10 years later as our hero, Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath aka OSS 117, is sent to Cairo to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of a fellow agent, who had been fronting as a the owner of a chicken farm. While on assignment, 117 manages to skirt danger at every turn, bed a few birds, and even nearly cause a holy war before wrapping things up tidily in typical spy movie fashion. Like his recent Oscar whirlwind "The Artist", Michel Hazanavicius's Bondlike spy spoof is an ornate and loving replication of a genre picture. Jean Dujardin, whose Conneryesque looks were often referred to during awards season, is excellent as the inept, insensitive, and charming lead, and Berenice Bejo, the director's wife and Artist costar, is stunning as the Bond girl. While the look of the film, particularly an underwater skeleton graveyard scene, is exquisite and the stars are engaging, the film is overlong and overly silly without garnering the laughs of an "Austin Powers."

The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn

Spencer Tracy embodied the qualities of an everyman and his folksy characteristics made him more immediate than a starry eyed idealist like Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. In a career spanning nearly 40 years and garnishing two Academy Awards, Tracy contributed a number of wide ranging and powerful performances in films such as "Captains Courageous", "Bad Day at Black Rock", "Inherit the Wind", and "Judgement at Nuremberg." In this loving retrospective of his work, kindred spirit and longtime collaborator Katharine Hepburn takes us through his remarkable career with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Angela Lansbury, Lee Marvin, and Sidney Poitier making appearances to pay tribute to the screen legend.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Pat and Mike

A female phys-ed instructor (Katharine Hepburn) and all around athlete sporadically enters a golf tournament which she seems surprisingly poised to win. Bribed by an unethical sports manager (Spencer Tracy) to lose, she refuses but loses anyway thanks to her flustered state due to the presence of her unnerving fiance (William Ching). Soon, she is signed by the manager and embarks on a whirlwind multisport national tour while quickly falling in love with him. "Pat and Mike" is another excellent entry from Tracy and Hepburn, which reunites them with director George Cukor and wedded writing team Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. Hepburn's spunk is quite infectious and plays very nicely to Tracy's hard nosed New York City type, especially in a riotous scene where she muscles some imposing thugs (one of whom is played by a young Charles Bronson) trying to collect a debt from her manager. "Pat and Mike" is a light but exceedingly entertaining picture that once more demonstrates the remarkable chemistry between its two stars and their longtime collaborators.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Adam's Rib

When a woman tries and fails at killing her cheating husband, it provides the perfect opportunity for a defense attorney to push her feminist agenda, until the case also lands on the desk of her district attorney husband. Now, tensions mount in their once happy home as the wife amps the case up to a circus-like atmosphere and is seemingly seduced by the dainty ex-flame who lives across the hall. "Adam's Rib" is an excellent Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn vehicle from iconic director George Cukor and the husband and wife writing team of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon. While Tracy and Hepburn are in top form, it is supporting players Judy Holliday as the flaky defendant and David Wayne as the obnoxious and effeminate neighbor who steal the show. "Adam's Rib" is a wholly entertaining battle of the sexes farce, peaking in a ludicrous carnival strongwoman courtroom scene, that features the beloved couple in one of their most cherished pairings.

Three Short Films from Errol Morris

I came across a short film from Errol Morris recently entitled "El Wingador" and was once again taken by the idiosyncratic documentarian that I decided to watch two of his other shorts I hadn't seen and create a posting about them. Morris, and the immediacy provided by his self created Interrotron camera, is one of the most hypnotic and engaging of filmmakers, having crafted such intriguing works such as "Gates of Heaven", "The Thin Blue Line", and "The Fog of War." With the three I've included here, "El Wingador", "The Umbrella", and "Survivors" we are given brief must immensely entertaining pieces on a food eating champion, a Kennedy assassination chronicler, and cancer survivors. As with all his films, Morris looks deep into the heart of his subjects and elicits deep, personal, and often profound responses. You can watch all three of these shorts at the following links or YouTube posts:

Survivors (2008)

2012 Oscar Results, Afterthoughts, and Contest Results

Tonight's Oscar telecast represented a return to form for the esteemed award show after last year's Hathaway/Franco debacle with Billy Crystal proving why he's a top emcee in a highly entertaining turn as host. In addition to Crystal's humorous opening skit and song-and-dance, the show also took some surprising chances which paid off nicely including a funny sketch by Christopher Guest and his gang and a breathtaking showcase by Cirque du Soleil. For a show which offered virtually no great surprises, the entire fare moved swiftly and was largely beguiling. Here are some notations of a few of my thoughts on the affair followed by my annual contest results which I unfortunately did not win again:

  • "Hugo" succeeded beyond expectations and took many of the "lesser" awards many expected "The Artist" to take, and it was nice to see Marty looked so pleased in the audience as his collaborators took home several golden statues.
  • While I thought "The Artist" was an excellent films, I felt its winners and their unfamiliarity with English hurt the show. Also Jean Dujardin's speech was disappointing which was also maybe the reason many voted for him in anticipation of. Also, for the record, it is not the first silent BP winner since 1929 because it contains brief talking, muffled speech, sound effects, and a soundtrack.
  • As has been the trend, in my opinion, the Supporting Actor/Actress proved to be the highlight of the speeches. I loved overwhelmed Octavia Spencer's sincerity and Christopher Plummer was eloquent and funny as he became the eldest acting recipient.
  • The Christopher Guest sketch was both unexpected and funny as the troupe imagined what a focus group screening the "Wizard of Oz" would have been like.
  • I was also pleasantly surprised with the stunning Cirque du Soleil number which was a nice substitute for the dull and pointless interpretive dance or nominated song acts.
  • Although she's nominated every year, it was nice to see Meryl Streep win for what is essentially a makeup award (she hasn't won since '82). She seemed surprised and her speech was humble and gracious.
  • I wish Woody would have showed up.
  • Many of the presenters were amusing as well: a perky Emma Stone and an annoyed Ben Stiller. Robert Downey Jr. documenting his presenting duties. Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, and their symbols.
  • All and all, I can't think of any real complaints and was immensely happy with the show overall.
This year's Oscar contest was won by a Mr. Michael Johnson, with yours truly finishing a little ahead of midstream with 50% of the vote. Here are the results, out of 24 categories:

18        Michael Johnson
17        Danny Porcaro
17        gordon
16        Brian Bedard
15        Paul Jarnagin
15        Eleanor Morse
12        Me
12        dae'quan da dabbla
11        Katie C
11        Tom Gooderson-A'Court
9          Chris K
9          Feowyn Mackinnon
9          Maureen Kaiser
8          Luba
7          Billy
7          Greg M
7          joe vaccaro
7          Tom K
7          Tommy Kaiser
6          Andrea Altman
5          Shiv Issar
3          Robin

    Sunday, February 26, 2012


    A bullied teen with a dying mother and an abusive father begins documenting his life with a camcorder when he, his cousin, and a friend discover a mysterious hole in the earth and attain supernatural kinetic powers. As the three begin to hone and enjoy their new found gifts, which includes the power of flight, the disaffected loner begins to give in to the darker side of his nature. "Chronicle" is an entertaining and unique take on the superhero genre, and is just the right film to give the tired genre a kick. I also found myself surprised to be enjoying so thoroughly what is essentially a high school movie and its three lead actors, Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan are all very engaging. My only complaint here is the distracting "Blair Witch"/"Cloverfield" found footage gimmick which is completely unnecessary and could have been easily worked around. In the film, one character asks the other if he thinks filming everything will create a barrier. I can answer that in the affirmative.

    Saturday, February 25, 2012

    Batman: Year One

    As Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham City to don his vigilante, crime fighting alter ego, police lieutenant Jim Gordon takes a job on the force and finds graft and corruption at every turn. Soon, both men become outcasts and targets of the police force in their struggle to uphold sanctity and virtue. "Batman: Year One" is the latest entry in the DC Universe Animated Series. While the dark animation services the story nicely, the film is vacuous and off-putting and the voice work leaves a little to be desired. Ben Mackenzie is unmemorable as Batman and is actually a supporting player to Bryan Cranston's Gordon, who is in all out, one-note Walter White mode as the righteous commissioner to be in an uninspired "Serpico" plot. Batman works best with darker treatments, but there is no need or point in it being this bleak. "Batman: Year One" has some merits in its animation but nothing more beyond that.

    note: The DVD includes the short "DC Showcase: Catwoman", which is a likewise uninteresting tale of the feisty feline outlaw taking on a diamond smuggler and crossing paths with Wayne.

    Friday, February 24, 2012


    An alien life form, sent to Earth with a message of peace, enters a woman's rural Wisconsin home, and takes on the likeness of her recently deceased husband. Now with aggressive agents in hot pursuit, he forces her to transport him to Arizona where he will meet his alien compadres who will return him home to his native land. "Starman" is recycled science fiction from director John Carpenter who opts for an amiable approach and skirts more intriguing methods in telling his story. Also, although Jeff Bridges' Oscar nominated and much praised performance is serviceable, his robotic alien character remains too odd and unable to generate the necessary emotions required of it. The great, overlooked performance is that of Karen Allen who does an excellent job of conveying the complex and confusing emotions a grieving woman in that outlandish position would be experiencing. I also enjoyed the over the top performance of Charles Martin Smith as a gung ho governmental contractor. "Starman" is enjoyable fodder that I wish had gone deeper both with its plot and its characters.

    Thursday, February 23, 2012

    Woman of the Year

    When a sports reporter hears that his internationally respected female colleague has denounced America's obsession with sports, especially in the trying times of war, he goes on the offensive attacking the journalist by praising the usefulness of sports in the time of crisis. As their feud continues, the editor of their newspaper brings the rivals in to make nice and, wouldn't you know it, the two immediately fall in love. Now the two must adjust to the other's wildly different schedules in the hopes of creating a loving marriage. "Woman of the Year" was the first teaming of off screen partners Spencer Tracey and Katharine Hepburn, and the result is a highly entertaining screwball comedy with the two stars in top form. Director George Stevens lends his master hand in several very humorous comedy situations including one where Kate adopts a Greek refugee without informing her husband and a concluding one where she attempts to make breakfast for the first time in her life as a form of amends. Although "Woman of the Year" is terribly funny, I wonder how it stood then and stands now for feminists. The film, like many of the other Tracey/Hepburn vehicles (although it is occasionally reversed), results in Hepburn getting too far up on her high horse and Tracey putting her back in her place. Despite these dated mores, "Woman of the Year" is an entertaining picture and a fine start to a cherished partnership.

    Wednesday, February 22, 2012

    A Better Life

    An illegal immigrant spends his days landscaping in the hopes of buying his own truck to start his own business and steer his son away from the local gangs that plague their L.A. neighborhood. After his dreams are realized and immediately crushed when his newly purchased truck is stolen, the gardener and his son transverse the city in search of it, while bonding in the process. Chris Weitz's "A Better Life" is an excellent look at both a father/son relationship as well as the current immigrant situation in our country. Weitz and screenwriter Eric Eason, from a story by Roger L. Simon, create a sympathetic portrait of a proud and good natured man, trying to do nothing more than provide the promise of the title to his son. In the lead role, Demian Bechir provides an excellent, fully fleshed performance and Jose Julian is quite good as well as his teenaged son. In addition to its excellent message and performances, "A Better Life" is a great looking film also and a reminder that not all urban films need to be gritty and bleak.

    Tuesday, February 21, 2012

    The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God

    In the 19th Century, the Shakers sought to create a Utopian religious community, devoid of sex and founded on hard work and devotion to God. Although their communities eventually dissolved due to lack of procreation and conversions, the members did seek what they sought to achieve, and their legacy in architecture and furniture design lives on to this very day. "The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God" seems like an odd choice for a sophomore film from master documentarian Ken Burns but as expected, he handles his subject with great reverence and craft and tells their story with superior skill. Made in 1984, Burns interviews the few remaining Shakers in a New England community, all telling of the hardships that came with territory but none regretting their decision. And although the story of the religious sect does wear slightly thin, even at an hour's running length, there are still many historical morsels to be found in this story.

    We Shall Remain

    "We Shall Remain" takes over 450 years of Native American history, from the notion that Indians were complacent peace lovers or vicious savages, and turns it on its head. In a five part series, the main focal points include the arrival of the Puritans and the uneasy pact between them and the natives, King Philip's War, Indian relocation and Tecumseh's resistance, the Trail of Tears, Geronimo's campaign of terror, and the occupation of Wounded Knee. "We Shall Remain" is an excellent historical retrospective. Made by Native American filmmakers and featuring interviews with many current tribe members, the series has an authentic feel and tells its often harrowing story excellently, for once successfully using historical recreations to enhance the feature. "We Shall Remain" uncovers a shameful often watered down and sometimes even glorified part of our history and handles it with dignity and a quite superior craft.

    Here's a synopsis of each of the five parts in the series:

    Monday, February 20, 2012

    The Grey

    A group of heedless oil riggers are flying home from the drill site when their plane crashes in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, and within killing range of a wolf's den. Now led by the depressive ex-con who had been charged with securing the site from wolves, the group must now keep moving in a desperate bid to survive the foreboding wilderness and the attacking, ravenous creatures. Joe Carnahan's "The Grey" is an appropriately harsh look at survival in the wilderness but I question the use of the same gritty filming techniques used in his urban films ("Narc", "Smokin' Aces) to capture the essence of this story. The film also contains a standard and uninspired script, with an apparition gimmick which distracts from the story. Once more, and oddly to my way of thinking, being employed as an action star, Liam Neeson is adequate as the lead survivalist but it is getting to a point where these roles are becoming standard and he is not providing the dimensional performance he is capable of. The film does contain several rousing sequences as well, including an improbable one where a member of the group jumps from a cliff to a thicket of trees and secures a line by which for the others to scale. "The Grey" does succeed in providing the necessary thrills one expects from this kind of movie, but provides very little in the way of anything else.

    Sunday, February 19, 2012

    The 2012 Oscar Nominated Shorts

    One of things I appreciate most each year about the Academy Awards are the Shorts Programs and the opportunity to see this seldom seen and very exciting medium. For the last several years, these nominated films have been made available to the general public and with the addition of the documentary category to my local area of Cleveland, we are now able to view all of the films up for an Oscar. This year I found the programming mostly excellent and an improvement over last year's lot, with the exception of the Animation program which again was disappointing. Except for the excellent "Wild Life" which I would have liked to have seen a full length treatment of, the shorts in this category represent style over substance containing fine animation but little in way of story. I thoroughly enjoyed the Live Action films with Terry George's "The Shore being a particular stand out and a perfect example of a short film. The Documentary category, with the exception of the earnest but scattershot "The Barber of Birmingham", offers a tremendous and harrowing selection with "Saving Face" and "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossoms" offering moving tales of people recovering from different kinds of horror. I often complain about the unworthiness of many documentary films, and this year's shorts nominees demonstrate wonderful uses of the medium. Here are each of the nominated films by category followed by a brief synopsis and my trivial star rating:

    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

    12/19/12 I watched this film again and while it does require patience and is not immediately accessible,  it is a beautiful and poetic film about longing, which contains exciting action pieces as well as wonderful character development. Ang Lee's direction is marvelous and stunning and the three leads, Yun-Fat Chow, Michelle Yeoh, and Ziyi Zhang are truly excellent in their roles. *** 1/2

    6/30/10 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an Academy Award winning film from a versatile director that contains beautiful scenery and wonderful choreography, and it is a movie that I can never seem to get into. It is basically the story of two women, one arranged to be married into nobility but who strives for a life of crime, and one who has settled for a warrior's life, lived by its code, and regrets not expressing her love to her warrior partner. As the former steals an all powerful sword from the latter a deadly battle ensues where both will have to make unforeseeable choices. Director Ang Lee, who seems at home in any genre, strives to make a classic martial arts movie while blending in Matrix like choreographed fight scenes. Although I said this is a hard film to get into, I am recommending it because its scenery is too beautiful and its weightless fight scenes are too awesome not too. ***

    Saturday, February 18, 2012

    Dinner at Eight

    A fading NYC tycoon and his socially conscious wife throw a posh dinner party with the hope of reviving the family shipping business. As the guest list is assembled, we learn the various backgrounds of each individual guest, all intertangled and carrying their own motives and baggage. "Dinner at Eight" is a glowing production from directing great George Cukor from a screenplay by Francis Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz drawn from the beloved stage play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. The film has a tendency to be stagy, but draws strength in characterization and from its excellent cast. In a cast that is uniformly excellent, the ones who stick out the greatest are Marie Dressler as an aging actress, Wallace Beery and Jean Harlow as a brutish titan of industry and his insolent wife, and brothers Lionel and John Barrymore as the host and a suicidal hack actor. "Dinner at Eight" is a excellent example of 1930s New York high society types, replete with a fine cast of characters.

    Friday, February 17, 2012

    Albert Nobbs

    In turn of the 20th century Dublin, a butler goes so unnoticed in a luxurious hotel that he is almost nonexistent. Soon it is revealed that the servant is actually a woman who has perpetuating this ruse for over 30 years, but now her secret is threatened to be exposed when it is discovered by a boarding painter. Instead, the painter also turns out to be a woman, inspiring the butler to fulfill her dream of opening to cigar shop and romancing the young and flighty maid! "Albert Nobbs" is an incredulous film from Rodrigo Garcia, a director who masters in soppy material. Not one moment of the film bears any semblance of authenticity and even worse the whole thing is played with a grave solemnity. Glen Close, who was unfortunately nominated for an Oscar after an egregious add campaign, doesn't succeed as a woman playing a man but rather as a woman playing an amorphous creature with no discernible features or characteristics. The likewise unfathomably nominated Janet McTeer also does not succeed as a woman playing a man but rather as a woman playing a screen gnashing lumbering man with breasts whom we are also supposed to take as genuine. Add this to the fact that we are supposed to believe that these two creatures met in 1900 Ireland and that no one around them even questioned them adds even more to the film's massing absurdity. "Albert Nobbs" isn't just a bad movie. It is also an insulting one and even more so in how its makers and stars have passed it off as good.

    A Dangerous Method

    In 1904 Switzerland, a beautiful medical student (Keira Knightley) who has just had a psychotic break is sent to be treated by Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Using methods developed by his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Jung makes great progress but finds himself drawn to the masochistic woman and begins an intense physical relationship with her. As Jung continues his tempestuous affair with his patient while laying the groundwork for psychotherapy with his hero, both relationships threaten to boil over and explode. "A Dangerous Method" is a sumptuous and incredibly well staged period piece from David Cronenberg, which is somewhat different from what we've come to expect from the cult Canadian director, altough there are still a few bizarre moments sprinkled here and there. Fassbender, who has emerged as a major film presence within the past year or so, gives an indelible, restrained performance as the famous Swiss psychiatrist. Knightley has a difficult task, and while her performance has been criticized by some, her contribution to the film is considerable in my opinion. Mortensen, reuniting with Cronenberg for the third time, gives a fantastic supporting turn as the father of psychiatry and Vincent Cassel also makes a brief but welcomed appearance as a polygamist doctor forced into Jung's help. "A Dangerous Mind" is a refined and stimulating film that offers a great showcase for its stars.

    Thursday, February 16, 2012

    Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

    Uncle Boonmee, suffering from kidney failure, retreats to his country home with his family members in the final preparations for death. During dinner at the outdoor picnic table, he is greeted by a vision of his dead wife who is there to ease his suffering, followed by the arrival of his son who has taken an animal form. These events cause Boonmee to go on a spiritual quest and examine the origins of his existence. "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" is the acclaimed and certainly atypical film from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul which won the Palme d'Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. "UBWCRHPL" is incredibly strange and unfolds at a deliberate snail's pace. At the same time, though, it is an incredibly beautiful and original work that is not at all trapped by convention. It is not to every taste (admittedly not to mine) but it is certainly worth the effort if you are in a patient and receptive mindset.

    Gunga Din

    In colonial India, a trio of British soldiers (Victor McLaglen, Cary Grant, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) constantly carouse and create headaches for their superior officers. When Fairbanks decides to leave the army when his term is up and marry his sweetheart, Grant and McLaglen scheme to keep him in service. Soon though, the men stumble upon the temple of a religious cult who seeks world ruin and are captured by the evil dogs. Now their only hope lies with the courageous native water boy Gunga Din who is barred from military service but makes the ultimate sacrifice for God and country. "Gun Din" is grand old entertainment from RKO studios, legendary director George Stevens, and the classic but scant poem by Rudyard Kipling. It is the finest form of entertainment in that it succeeds in more than one arena. For example, the first half of the picture features riotous gags and pratfalls with the stars mucking about and the second half features rousing actions sequences, those of which must have surely inspired the Indiana Jones films. "Gunga Din" is a classic feature that offers wide ranging entertainment surely to please those all across the spectrum.

    Wednesday, February 15, 2012

    The Leopard

    As the Italian Revolution reaches Sicily in the 1860s, the proud Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) weighs his options in deciding how to maintain his noble lifestyle while realizing that this new wave will most certainly add unwanted alterations. When his opportunistic nephew (Alan Delon) joins Gibraldi's army and then takes up with the daughter (Claudia Cardinale) of a newly rich mayor he despises, the prince realizes the benefit of the alliance and aids the courtship. "The Leopard" is a gorgeous, exuberant, celebratory yet sorrowful adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa by master director Luchino Visconti. Featuring a glowing international cast, Burt Lancaster towers over all in a wonderful, commanding performance. Although his dubbed Italian voice is jarring at first (I've read the English dubbed version is an abomination), Lancaster's range is so wide and passion so deeply felt so that in a career of hallmark performances, this is one of his finest. Also, not enough can be said of Visconti's directions, the visuals, and the costumes. The concluding ballroom scene, which runs near an hour in length, is one of the most opulent and impressive of its kind. "The Leopard" captures many of the elements and sentiments of a transitory era and presents them with grace, extravagance, and style.

    Tuesday, February 14, 2012

    How I Ended This Summer

    In a deserted and isolated station in the Russian arctic, two meteorologists, one a bearish ill tempered veteran, the other a flaky young intern, take samples of their radioactive surroundings. When the older man goes on a brief fishing excursion, the intern receives word through the wire that his partner's wife and son have been killed in an accident. Finding himself unable to relay the bad news, the young man soon finds himself not only the enemy of his colleague but also of the foreboding wilderness. "How I Ended This Summer" is a film with an excellent concept which opts for the slow draw approach, one which I usually admire, and isn't quite successful. In a two man show, stars Grigoriy Dobrygin and Sergey Puskepalis are ideally cast, respectively as the new age ipod sporting teenager and the grisled stereotypical Ruskie. The problems with the film lie in how drawn out everything is. The filmmakers wanted to achieve the conveyance of the tedium of life at a deserted meteorological station and unfortunately they succeeded. Still, there is much to enjoy here and the ultimate cat-and-mouse game between the stars is handled smartly and with tension.

    Billy the Kid

    When I think of Billy the Kid I conjure up an image of a murderous young punk, robbing at will and murdering at the drop of hat. The new American Experience documentary on the infamous outlaw paints an entirely different picture, a murderous thieving one yes, but also one of a lonely teen alone in the unwelcoming west who fights the evil tyrants of his day and, although becoming a scourge of the national media, becoming a hero of the local people and a legend after his time. "Billy the Kid" is an exceedingly good profile of the notorious outlaw, combining wonderful artifacts, scholars, and historians to tell William Bonney's surprisingly little known story.

    I Remember Mama

    A recently published author remembers with fondness her upbringing in early 20th century San Francisco, and especially her magnanimous mother and the assembly of her immigrant Swedish family. "I Remember Mama" is a loving family tale from master director George Stevens who recounts the era of his childhood with insight, warmness, directorial tact, and humor. From the Kathryn Forbes novel Mama's Bank Account, the film is a series of vignettes centered on the wonderful portrayal by Irene Dunne and a series of supporting performances, most notably from Oskar Homolka playing the bullying and boisterous Uncle Chris. Though certainly there are several excellent modern family films, the sheer mention of the genre is often met with eye rolling and shudders. A  picture like "I Remember Mama" is a reminder that family oriented movies can be earnest and funny, and if not exacting to our own childhoods, then at least capturing the essence of our own upbringing.

    Monday, February 13, 2012

    Eames: The Architect and the Painter

    Charles and Ray Eames were a husband and wife creative team that was best known for their furniture designs, particularly the Eames chair, but in truth their work and influence extended into many different realms. From photography to film to medical design, toys, and technology, The Eames Studio was a bastion of creativity and invention that flourished and extended its influence for a large part of the 20th century. "The Architect and the Painter" tells a fascinating and little known story (at least to me), but somewhat squanders it through poor narration by James Franco and interviews with colleagues who fawn over the great couple and add nothing to the film but length in the running time. Watching the film, I was shocked at my ignorance of the couple and their company and wish they had been given a better treatment.

    Sunday, February 12, 2012


    Betrayed and left to fend on her own, a black ops specialist ducks into a diner in upstate New York to meet with a fellow agent who has come to bring her home. After subduing him and fleeing with a civilian,  she tells her story of international intrigue and how she wound up in her current predicament. "Haywire" is the latest film from chameleonlike master director Stephen Soederbergh and marks the film debut of MMA star Gina Carano. While Carano is no great shakes as an actress, she succeeds remarkably as a kick ass action star heroiness, performing most of her own stunts in the process. The plot is pretty standard spy stuff but is elevated by Soederbergh's direction, Carano's viability, and the presence of an onslaught of stars (Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, etc.) which is often distracting  in other films but works quite well here. "Haywire"  is a slight yet not stupid action film that achieves its top goal of being entertaining.

    Saturday, February 11, 2012

    The Parallax View

    A Seattle journalist is denied access to the Space Needle where a conference with the Senator is taking place when the guest of honor is murdered. As the government committee declares the assassination to be the work of a lone gunman, the journalist's ex-girlfriend/colleague visits him in terror of being murdered as other witnesses to the crime are being mysteriously eradicated. When she turns up dead a few days later, the brazen reporter launches his own investigation which leads him to the abstruse Parallax corporation and, which goes without saying, way over is head. Two years before creating his political thriller classic "All the President's Men" and during the Watergate scandal that provided the basis for that film, director Alan J. Pakula crafted another outstanding, paranoid yet not as successful film based on another landmark event in U.S. history. Using the JFK assassination and the Warren Commission as a springboard, "The Parallax View" brings terrifying believability to ludicrous scenarios. Filmed much in the same manner as "ATPM", Pakula uses slow burn tension and minute detail to concoct an absorbing story. Warren Beatty is brash and cheeky and absolutely perfect for his role as the hero/patsy. I personally do not subscribe to conspiracy theories but Pakula's film does an excellent job of showing how the puzzle pieces can be arranged to form an entirely different picture.

    Friday, February 10, 2012

    Beverly Hills Cop

    After tearing up half of Detroit during an undeclared undercover drug bust and nearly getting thrown off the force, renegade cop Axel Foley finds his wayward best friend murdered right before his eyes. Tracing a connection to the hit to Beverly Hills, fish-out-of-water Foley launches his own investigation, much to the dismay of the straight laced members of the police department. Martin Brest's "Beverly Hills Cop" features Eddie Murphy at the top of star status in an immensely likable performance. The script is strictly standard and the veneer is cheap and unmemorable, but Murphy, along with other members of the cast including Judge Reinhold and John Ashton as BHPD detectives, Steven Berkoff and Jonathan Banks as the baddies, Lisa Eilbacher as Foley and the victim's mutual friend, and Bronson Pinchot in a particularly funny role, help elevate the material to an enjoyable campy level.

    Thursday, February 9, 2012

    Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II

    "Ivan the Terrible" was legendary Russian director's last great work, yet also the film that put an end to his unprecedented career. Originally slated as a three part project, Stalin sensed the political undertones in the second film from Eisenstein's depiction of the secret police, and had the film banned and the series cancelled (Part II was released in 1958). Parts I and II of Eisenstein's epic are highly stylized depictions of the brutal of the czar, with Ivan's war against the aristoratic Boyars, court intrigue, murder of Anastasia, and revenge against his betrayers drawn in long shadow and sharp artistic details (a color shift during a celebration in "II" is both jarring and exciting). The cast members are seen as caricatures and Nikolai Cheraksov's wide eyed lead performance is something to behold. Strangely for a historical epic, "Ivan the Terrible" is a triumph of style over substance and a worthy, if incomplete swan song for a great master.

    Wednesday, February 8, 2012


    Brandon is a successful New Yorker, who has a good job, owns a posh apartment, and is viable to women. He is also a sex addict whose compulsory habits dominate every aspect of his life and prevent him from sharing intimate relationships. When his sister, an outgoing and unstable counter, comes to stay with him, Brandon's life begins to spiral out of control as his addiction become more drastically manifested and his sister's cries for help go unanswered. "Shame" reunites director Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender from their whirlwind film "Hunger" and again features a brave and bravura lead performance. Fassbender manages to capture the pain and suffering of his "affliction" and bring sympathy to a largely despicable character. Carey Mulligan is excellent as well as his sister who provides a catalyst for his embarassment, anger, and past sufferings. With this his second feature, McQueen again directs with unabashed ferocity and the opening and closing segments are unquestionable cinematic achievements. My only complaint here is that it doesn't feel like an authentic portrait of an American lifestyle, but rather an outsider's take. Regardless, "Shame" is a piece of stellar filmmaking and courageous acting that is a punch to the teeth of tepid and prudish American studios.

    Forever Ealing

    "Forever Ealing" charts the history of the famous British studio, one which was considered more than a studio than a business. Founded in 1902, the studio found great success in its 1930s comedies and then under Michael Balcon, with its morale boosting war films of the 1940s. In a time when the country needed laughter more than anything, Ealing had its finest era producing many beloved comedies, many starring the great Alec Guinness, among which included "The Lavender Hill Mob"  and "The Ladykillers". Narrated by Daniel Day-Lewis, this retrospective provides a concise history of the studios and, not unlike its subject, is low-key and genial.

    Another Earth

    Having just been admitted to MIT, a brilliant young woman is on her way home from celebrating when an announcement plays over the radio that another planet has been discovered in our solar system. In that same minute, the woman drifts into the oncoming lane, killing a college professor's family while leaving him in a coma. After serving four years in prison, the woman reemerges into a life of misery and insinuates herself in the life of the bereaved professor. Now, a contest awarding relocation to the new planet offers her a chance at life anew. Mike Cahill's "Another Earth" is a well thought out and deeply felt quasi science fiction film. Brit Marling, who cowrote with Cahill, succeeds in evoking notions of sorrow, regret, and hope in her character and William Mapother, who I have regrettably not seen since the searing "In the Bedroom", is fine as well playing the grieving and angry professor. The film missteps in some regards. I would have omitted an entire unnecessary subplot involving one of Marling's coworkers. All and all though, this is an intriguing treatise on forgiveness and redemption.

    Tuesday, February 7, 2012

    Victor Victoria

    A starving singer in Paris (Julie Andrews) is taken in by a homosexual stage performer (Robert Preston) who saw her audition and believes she has what it takes to be a big star, if only she had a gimmick. Deciding to take the drag act a step further, Victoria will become Victor, a "man" impersonating a woman. Soon her act is the toast of the town, and Victoria will soon draw the curiosity of a Chicago gangster (James Garner) who can't understand the strong feelings he holds for the male performer on the stage! "Victor Victoria" is an outrageous movie that is given an improper treatment. Director Blake Edwards, husband of Julie Andrews, brings the same broad slapstick farcical elements he did to his "Pink Panther" movies and creates the wrong, often embarrassing and unfunny, tone needed for this picture. The main conceit, a woman playing a man playing a woman, is too difficult to believe and although Andrews is earnest in the part, the gimmick is just too distracting. I took pleasure in this film by admiring the supporting performances. Preston is excellent as Andrew's wisecracking homosexual partner and Garner is very strong as the gangster whose tough veneer is only a mask. Lesley Ann Warren and Alex Karras (Mongo from "Blazing Saddles") highlight the film as Garner's mistress and closeted bodyguard. "Victor Victoria" is actually a fun film. I just found myself shaking my head once too often at gags that didn't come off and pondering how much better it could have been.

    Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound

    Joan Baez was the voice of her generation, a brilliant and stunning beauty who sang like an angel yet breathed fire when it came to her socially conscious views. "How Sweet the Sound" is a portrait of her career as a singer and social activist, from the early years with her glowing success and relationship with Bob Dylan (who is in the film), to her staunch support of Civil Rights and antiwar movements, to later support of the people of Sarajevo, and continued prolific work as a singer/songwriter. This retrospective of Baez's career is a loving portrait of the artist, with her beatific songs providing a contrast to the more contentious parts of her life and personality. Baez herself appears in the film and is as radiant and outspoken as any time during the course of her life. "Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound" is a excellent examination of a beautiful, talented, and determined personality.

    Monday, February 6, 2012

    2012 Oscar Challenge

    If you submit a ballot picking the Oscar winners and have more correct picks than me, then you win a DVD of your choosing valued at $15.00 or less. Only one winner and no cost to enter. Submit you picks before 8:00PM EST on February 26, 2012.

    Follow this link to enter:

    Here are my picks for this year:
    Best Picture
    The Artist
    Best Actor
    Jean Dujardin
    Best Actress
    Viola Davis
    Best Supporting Actor
    Christopher Plummer
    Best Supporting Actress
    Octavia Spencer
    Best Director
    Michel Hazanavicius
    Best Original Screenplay
    Midnight in Paris
    Best Adapted Screenplay
    The Descendants
    Best Animated Film
    Best Foreign Film
    A Separation
    Best Cinematography
    The Tree of Life
    Best Editing
    The Artist
    Best Art Direction
    Midnight in Paris
    Best Costume Design
    Best Makeup
    Albert Nobbs
    Best Original Score
    The Artist
    Best Original Song
    The Muppets, "Man or Muppet"
    Best Sound Mixing
    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
    Best Sound Editing
    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
    Best Visual Effects
    Rise of the Planet of the Apes
    Best Documentary
    Best Documentary Short
    The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom
    Best Animated Short
    The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
    Best Live Action Short
    Tuba Atlantic

    Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

    Reeling from the death of his father who perished in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 and angry at his grieving distant mother, a nine-year-old boy begins a treasure hunt across the five boroughs of New York City, convinced that a recently found key among his father's belongings will unlock some sort of secret to his life. Director Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliot", "The Hours") and screenwriter Eric Roth's ("Forrest Gump", "Munich") adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel has been roundly attacked (even moreso since its Best Picture nod) for its "manipulative" 9/11 plot as well as its "one-note" handling of Asperger's syndrome. These criticisms are largely unfounded and unfairly thrust upon the film. First off, when did tragedies become off-limit subjects for movies? Films such as "Schindler's List", "Tora! Tora! Tora!", "The Killing Fields" among others are made without protest, and yet every filmmaker who presents a 9/11 subject is attacked as an opportunistic capitalist. Secondly, I found Thomas Horn's performance as the grieving, likely autistic young boy to be excellent and a realistic portrayal of someone in that particular situation. The strength of the rest of the film lies in its supporting players. While Tom Hanks is cloying as the father and Sandra Bullock is underused (though good) as the mother, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, and Jeffrey Wright all contribute excellent performances as strangers who help Horn along his journey. I did have problems with the film, ones that differed with the masses however. I would have liked to see more of the city. For a movie that is billed as a child's search throughout New York, the movie is singularly focused on the boy and not so much on the city and its residents. Again, Tom Hanks is really hard to stomach. While I do not think this is a great movie, I do think it is a good one that has been unjustly attacked. I has also done right by its sensitive yet fair game subject.

    Ip Man

    In 1930s China, the town of Fo Shan was an epicenter of the martial arts, where students traveled from miles away to study under the various disciplines. Of all the teachers in all the schools, the most skilled was Ip Man, a courageous master who practiced the art of Wing Chun and defended the townspeople from invading forces. When the Japanese overran their town, Ip Man and the rest of the villagers were resorted to a life of destitution, hunger, and misery. Soon though, a sadistic general and his brutal lieutenant's need for sport will give the great master another opportunity to demonstrate his supreme talents and fight against injustice. "Ip Man" is an entertaining and kinetic martial arts movie about the man who eventually train several Kung Fu legends, among them Bruce Lee. As the title hero Donnie Yen, an unknown to me, is absolutely magnetic and in addition to a stunning arsenal of moves he also brings an intense likability to his character. The film's subject is somewhat broad and more concerned with the action sequences than the plot (as are most of its viewers). Still, "Ip Man" serves its purpose thanks in large part to an outstanding lead performance.

    Sunday, February 5, 2012

    A Little Help

    In 2002 Long Island, an alcoholic dental hygienist has a quarrel with her philandering husband who proceeds to drop dead after a visit to the doctor's office for chest pains. Now, with her overbearing family forcing her to be party to a malpractice suit and demanding she move her loner son to a private school, she begins to perpetuate a lie when he tells his new classmates that his father was one of the fallen firefighters in 9/11. Michael J. Weithorn's "A Little Help" is a slight film that is notable for a strong central performance from Jenna Fischer from TV's "The Office". In a film filled with more than a few misfire gags and irritating supporting performances, Fischer carries it with a commanding lead performance that succeeds both comically and dramatically. Watching "A Little Help" I was reminded of "Big Fan", another tale about a maladjusted New Yorker centered on a towering lead performance. As Patton Oswalt elevated that film, so does Jenna Fischer in this movie that is not quite worthy of her talents.

    Saturday, February 4, 2012

    The Iron Lady

    A confused and alone Margaret Thatcher walks to her corner store, unnoticed, buys a pint of milk and returns home. As she goes about the course of her day, with the early stages of Alzheimer's setting in and receiving frequent visits from the ghost of her dead husband, Britain's first female Prime Minister recounts her improbable political career defined by an indomitable will which earned her the title moniker. "The Iron Lady" is a poor treatment of an invigorating and controversial figure. Meryl Streep looks and plays the part impeccably but she is letdown by a lame and poorly focused screenplay by Abi Morgan (who also penned the script for the excellent "Shame") and distracting and lacking direction by Phyllinda Lloyd ("Mamma Mia!"), an inexperienced director who was perhaps not the right person to helm this project. Some of the sequences due come off well, particularly the parliamentary scenes with the bullying male members and the Falkland War sequence. Most however seem rushed and undeveloped ("Oh my campaign manager was just blown to bits" cut immediately to scene where I become P.M.). Sadly, it also must be said that Jim Broadbent, an actor I cherish, is not only misused as Thatcher's goofball husband, he is downright insufferable. With a magnetic topic, a finely tuned lead performance, and a fine supporting actor put to paltry use, this failure should be chalked up to that of the writer and director.

    Friday, February 3, 2012

    One Day

    A plain and shy girl and an arrogant charmer hook up on July 15th, 1988, the day of their college graduation and we are shown that day every year over the course of twenty plus years to revisit their relationship. "One Day" is a lifeless, lazy, and shameless film which contains unbearable acting, unlikable characters, and easy plotting. It's directed by Lone Scherfig who made the well realized "An Education" and here is failed by the screenplay (written by David Nicholls, author of the book) and only succeeds in employing pleasant production values. Anne Hathaway's British accent comes and goes and her performance is paltry to boot, same goes for Patricia Clarkson playing Jim Sturgess' mother, and he is just as putrid as well! The characters and the relationships are so poorly drawn that the relationship between Hathaway and her nerd husband played by Rafe Spall, which is supposed to be bland and ungainly, ends up being more compelling then the one between her and Sturgess. The filmmakers here are trying to convey that crazy kind of love that knows no rationality, but it's not that crazy inexplicable kind of love. It's the screenwriters were two lazy to invest in their characters so they employed a cheap gimmicky screenplay kind of love.

    Thursday, February 2, 2012

    Le Havre

    A childlike yet streetwise shoe shiner in the French harbor town of the title comes across a young Senegalese boy who has just escaped deportation and is trying to reach his family in London. Pooling his resources, even with his sick and loving wife in the hospital, the man along with the other members of the community decide to assist the boy in his travels. "Le Havre" is  from Aki Kaurismaki who, with his starkly painted town and gentle lightheartend tone, creates an evocative atmosphere while making a subtle statement on immigration and general humanity. As the old rascal, Andre Wilms is exceptionally fine and has his best moment in a scene where he improbably threatens a local official. Blondin Miguel also contributes fine work as the boy and Kati Outinen is great as well as Wilms' protective wife. "Le Havre" is a genial if unspectacular film that, if nothing else, succeeds in celebrating the human spirit.

    Wednesday, February 1, 2012


    After an altercation between two young lads at The Brooklyn Bridge Park leads two one of them getting two of his teeth knocked out, the parents of both parties gather at the victim's apartment to hold an amicable discussion. Soon, as tensions begin to mount, civility is lost and the true nature of the parents begins to shine through. Roman Polanski's "Carnage" is a tightly wound, claustrophobic, and extremely funny adaptation of Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage. Aside from the dialogue free scenes involving the children which bookend the film, Polanski keeps the action entirely within the confines of the apartment and is able to generate the same kinds of caged feelings utilized in his classics such as "Rosemary's Baby" and "Repulsion". All four members of the cast are uniformly excellent, and by painting them as liberal (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly) and conservative (Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz)  Polanski, coscripter Reza, and the players get to have an even greater field day with the material. "Carnage" is a laugh-out-loud stage to screen adaptation from a master of tension that features four finely tuned and on point performances.