Monday, April 30, 2012


A Roman General suppresses a rebellion and averts a food shortage crisis at the expense of the people. When he is hailed in the Senate and nominated for consul, the people reject his bid, and the newly dubbed Coriolanus bitterly retreats in exile to take up arms with the very foe he once so viciously battled. For his directorial debut, Ralph Fiennes, along with acclaimed screenwriter John Logan, chose to adapt one of William Shakespeare's lesser known (and more violent) works and transplant it to a modern setting while retaining the original language. In the lead role, Fiennes is powerfully fierce as the proud and determined general and surrounds himself with an extremely fine cast, including Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, and Jessica Chastain, all of whom passionately emit the Bard's words (the exception is Gerard Butler, who I'm not quite sure why he was cast in a crucial part as Fiennes' rebel enemy). The film does not have any great cinematic value, and is shot in a rugged, digital format, and I'm not quite sure the modern setting was necessary as well. "Coriolanus" is the kind of film that would probably play better on the stage, but in this format, the eloquence of the words and the strength of the acting cannot be denied.

The Announcement

Throughout his professional playing career with the Lakers, Magic Johnson was the toast of L.A.: 5 NBA Championships, 3 MVP Awards, 12 All-Star Game Appearances, in addition to a winning personality to match his supreme talents on the court. However, in November of 1991, Magic shook the world when he announced that he had contracted the HIV virus, retired soon there after, and became the face of a disease that affects over 33 million people worldwide. "The Announcement", a recent entry in the ESPN film series, is a personal and moving account told directly by Magic himself. With highlights from his career followed by some brutal truths and coverage of his new found activism, this sports documentary never ceases to be both engaging and informative, with Johnson's brimming disposition shining through the entire time.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Great Gatsby

Nick Carraway takes up a modest residence in Long Island next door to a mysterious millionaire of newly acquired and likely ill-gotten means. Gatsby, the endearing new friend, hopes to stoke the flames of a love that once burned between himself and Daisy, Nick's cousin who is married to an old money man. Gatsby's dream eventually manifests itself in tragedy against the backdrop of the aimless opulence of the Roaring Twenties. F. Scott Fitzgerald's monumental novel is given a faithful rendering in this adaption written for the screen by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by Jack Clayton. While all the plot points are mostly hit, symbols such as the the green light on Daisy's dock and the glowing eyes of Dr. T.J Eckleburg are nicely realized, and Gatsby's parties are gloriously recreated, the spirit of a classic that probably does not need a film rendering is never rightly instilled. The film is well cast, with Robert Redford making a near ideal Gatsby, Bruce Dern excellent as the cruel, philandering Tom Buchanan, and Sam Waterston as the naive and reticent Nick (I felt Mia Farrow was wrong as Daisy, playing her as too broad and wooden). Despite this inspired casting, the film fails to delve deeply into the hearts of these, which Fitzgerald does so well in the novel. "The Great Gatsby" is a film that may defy cinematization due to its narrative structure and beautifully poetic and descriptive prose. This version gives it a good, perhaps overly faithful but ultimately hollow crack at it, and I hold deep reservations for the upcoming 3D(?) Baz Luhrmann version featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan due out later this year.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Going My Way

A magnetic, young priest is sent to smooth over the replacement of the old cantankerous pastor of a Brooklyn Church. While handling the affairs of the struggling parish, the musically inclined padre also starts a choir with the troubled local youth and aides a wayward runaway. "Going My Way" is old-fashioned corn presented in a highly affable manner, and made all the more palatable by the amiable nature of Bing Crosby, the famous crooner in his Academy Award winning turn, and the enderaring performance of Barry Fitzgerald, also an Oscar winner, as the cranky old cleric. Director Leo McCarey's immensely popular film seems dated in some regards, and almost impossible to succeed today. Despite oversentiment and a few meandering moments, it is still a highly entertaining and nostalgiac film.

Friday, April 27, 2012


The lives of the trainers, owners, jockeys, and gambles at the Santa Anita Racetrack in California are examined, while a notorious mob figure, just sprung from prison, plots his takeover of the facilities as part of a revenge plot against the cold blooded thugs responsible for his internment. The short-lived HBO series "Luck" is a slow-burn marriage of two unique and brilliant minds, that of creators Michael Mann ("Heat", "Collateral") and David Milch ("Deadwood", "NYPD Blue"). The series features phenomenal race sequences and measured pacing that leads up to an incredible season (hopefully not series) finale. The cast led by Dustin Hoffman and featuring old pros and affable newbies is excellent, with the often overlooked Dennis Farina rising to the top as a particular standout as Hoffman's chauffeur and personal bodyguard. Nick Nolte is also quite powerful also, playing the grizzled owner of a standout horse. More serious elements of the show are also given a nice counterbalance in the form of comic relief in the story four bumbling gamblers (Kevinn Dunn, Ian Hart, Ritchie Coster, Jason Gedrick), who have just one a major sweepstakes and hope to assert themselves as players in the horse racing game. I wanted to address the issues surrounding the shutdown of production of this series, hopefully without seeming crass, with a simple question: Which is more important, Art, or the lives of three elderly horses?

26 Years: The Dewey Bozella Story

In 1977, Dewey Bozella was convicted for a brutal murder of an elderly New York woman which was overturned no less than 26 years later, the duration of which was spent at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. With his newfound freedom, Bozella sought to become the oldest person to attain a boxing license in the state of California and took it a step further when, at the age of 52, he fought in and was victorious in his only ever professional match. "26 Years" is a heartbreaking but ultimately triumphant story of injustice and determination. There are times during the course of this brief documentary, which largely follows Bozella's training, when Dewey and other participants are clearly acting for the cameras and the "fly on the wall" effect is lost. However, it is hard to not get behind a story this appealing and inspirational.

I'm No Angel

A dancing queen (Mae West) accepts the affections and offerings of numerous gentlemen callers, but when her boyfriend is sent up the river, she heads to the city and becomes a lion tamer in the Big Show. When the cousin (Cary Grant) of one of her "fans" seeks to extricate his relation from her acquaintance, she genuinely falls in love with this new companion. Following the massive success of "She Done Him Wrong", Mae West was given a large amount of control in this riotous film in which she both wrote and stars in. In a Hollywood that hadn't just yet been strangled by the Hays Code, "I'm No Angel" sizzles with West's inimitable innuendos and an endless barrage of sinuous punchlines. Cary Grant, reuniting with West following the success of their prior outing, shines in the sort of patsy role he went on to perfect so well throughout his career. In an film era where anything goes with intelligence and cleverness almost entirely out the door, the sexy witticisms of Mae West in "I'm No Angel" serve as a breath of fresh air.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Love Story

A brooding Harvard student of means wanders to nearby Radcliffe College and check out a book from their library and falls for the imperfect, blue-collared girl behind the counter. To the chagrin of his disapproving father, the two begin a courtship and we follow them through the peaks and valleys of their loving and ultimately tragic union. "Love Story" is ubiquitous, shameless, and often insincere pap that is not entirely without appeal. Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw bring a great likability to their characters, and are aided greatly by the supporting actors playing their fathers, Ray Milland his and John Marley as hers. Arthur Hiller's film is a contradictory one, a movie with off-putting qualities that is somehow made palatable and enjoyable, mostly due to the fact of the allure of its cast.

Far from the Madding Crowd

A beautiful, provocative, and bull-headed country girl (Julie Christie) inherits her uncle's farm and insists on running it herself, while inviting the affections of three suitors, a noble shepherd (Alan Bates) , a bottled up landowner (Peter Finch), and a roguish British soldier (Terence Stamp), and falling in love with the most inappropriate one. John Schlesinger's "Far from the Madding Crowd" is a sumptuous screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel, that features splendid cinematography from Nicolas Roeg. The film is supposedly faithful to the book, and successfully captures notions of independence, repression, unrequited love. Its superb cast is uniformly excellent, with Christie running a gamut of emotions amidst her three powerful male supporters. "Far from the Madding Crowd" is not only well-realized and brilliantly acted literary treatment, but also a modern and relatable cinematic fare.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Hard Day's Night

Over a 24 hour period or so, The Beatles dodge hordes of adoring fans, try to keep Paul's rascally grandfather in line, pick on Ringo, and even manage to find a few moments of peace and revelry in a sparse field while they prepare for their latest television broadcast. Filmed on a shoestring and rushed to theaters at the height of Beatlemania, "A Hard Day's Night" is a rollicking, whimsical, and irreverent pseudo-documentary recreating and imagining what a day in the life of the Fab Four would be like. Director Richard Lester employs a number of exhilarating techniques that give the form a free flowing feel. The film greatly depicts the exploits of John, Paul, George, and Ringo in a series of light and humorous vignettes, including that of Wilfrid Brambell who is a particular treat as Paul's mischievous grandpa. It also features wonderful concert footage and a fine array of their early tunes including "Can't Buy Me Love", "She Loves You", and the title track. "A Hard Day's Night" gloriously captures a pop phenomenon that has shook the world like nothing since and seemingly does so without effort.

Custer's Last Stand

From his heroic exploits at Gettysburg to his controversial and mythicized demise at the Battle of Little Bighorn, General George Armstrong Custer was always one for gallantry and honor, never content with taking up the rear of his company, but rather facing the hellish blazes of battle head on. He was ill-tempered, and loved pageantry, publicity, and controversy which seemed to follow him in some form for his entire life. "Custer's Last Stand", an entry in the excellent Wild West series of the American Experience, traces the ostentatious cavalry man's life and examines the event the signified his end and yet marks his legend. This entry features of wealth of photographs, which were the result of Custer's vanity, and also features insightful commentary from experts on the famed General, all adding up to an engrossing portrait of a grandiose and legendary figure.

The Mousetrap

During a massive blizzard, an assorted array of travelers arrives at an inn just taken over by a young couple, shortly after a murder has taken place at a flat in nearby London. A notepad found at the scene of the crime had two addresses scrawled in it, first the location of the murder and second, the address of the inn. With everyone present a suspect, Scotland Yard sends a detective in the middle of night to investigate and root out the murderer. Agatha Christie's most famous play began its London run in 1952 and has not ceased in the 60 years since, making it the longest running play in the modern world and swearing its audience to secrecy of its major plot revelation all the while. The play is a brilliant and eerie construction and was given marvelous treatment in its recent run in Cleveland by the Great Lakes Theater Company, whose eclectic cast carries off the difficult, highly British material with intelligence and grace. I have longed  to see the great mystery writer's intriguing work on the stage and with this interpretation, it more than does her work justice. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

Toynbee Tile located at W. 3rd St. and Prospect Ave., Cleveland, OH
Over the last twenty years, abstruse tiled messages have been appearing in the city all over eastern parts of the U.S. and some segments of South America, warning of a resurrection of the Planet Jupiter as told by the teachings of Albert Toynbee and found in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", or something to that effect. Largely ignored by the millions who pass over them everyday, a group of three people recently decided to seek out the one thought unsolvable authorship of the mysterious tile, whose quest is detailed in this investigative documentary. "Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles" is a fascinating documentary that goes to wildly intriguing places with its obscure topic. The material is expertly handled, with the current stages of the investigation given proper treatment, and occurrences taken place before filming being clearly explained. Even a personal touch which I initially took umbrage with eventually pays off and gives considerable weight to the story. "Resurrect Dead" is eye opening and unexpected documentary, that succeeds beyond the constraints usually associated with the genre.

Shanghai Express

Passengers ride the title locomotive in the midst of a Chinese Civil War, and speak in a hushed tone of Shanghai Lily, a woman who lives by her wits and off many of the male passengers. On board, she encounters her ex-fiance, an army surgeon who never got over his love for her and her seedy lifestyle. When a guerrilla leader takes the passengers hostage, Lily gives herself up to the rebel for her husband's life but now faces an even more difficult task of conveying her true affection for him. "Shanghai Express" is a finely directed and edited film that reunited director Josef von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich, who dazzles in a sultry lead role in this surprisingly risque precode film. The audio in the print I watched was somewhat hard to hear, and the film itself is not immediately grabbing, but elements come together nicely in the end and the entire production is abetted by von Sternberg's direction and Dietrich's engaging performance.

Monday, April 23, 2012


A bruised and battered man awakens in the passenger seat of wrecked car at the base of a ravine. Gauging his surroundings, he notes the rear passenger and the driver both have been killed, his leg is seriously wounded, he has no food or cell phone reception, in addition to no recollection of who he is or what has happened. As he goes into survival mode, glimpses of who he was come into focus and he begins to wonder if it is even worth preserving his previous life. "Wrecked" is an immediately grabbing survival movie that gradually begins to drag and ultimately gets spoiled by unnecessary backstory and gimmicky hallucinations. The movie is held together by Adrien Brody's commanding lead performance.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Here Comes Mr. Jordan

A cocky prizefighter on his way to the title crashes his self-piloted plane after his latest bout. Upon arriving in heaven, it is determined that his "messenger" pulled his soul from his body too quickly and, according to schedule, he still had another 50 years on earth. Now, it is owed him a new body and the proper life span, and he is given  that of a millionaire chiseler who has just been murdered by his wife and her lover. Now, while preparing his new self for a title fight, he begins to correct the wrongs by the previous owner and romance a sweet girl who's father he had put the screws to. "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" is a highly entertaining and awfully complex lighthearted tale. Plot contrivances abound, but thanks to the sincerity of its cast, the film never ceases to be engaging. Robert Montgomery is extremely likable in the lead as the street tough Joe Pendleton and is surrounded by a wealth of supporting players. Claude Rains is his usual inimitable self as the title heavenly boss and Edward Everett Horton is funny as his bumbling messenger. Evelyn Keyes plays the love interest well and James Gleason is a particular standout as Montgomery's disbelieving manager. "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" is old fashioned, often unrestrained, but always fun and engaging entertainment.

Sam Cooke: Crossing Over

With his angelic voice and charismatic style, Sam Cooke was the first rhythm and blues singer to cross Gospel and Pop music. His epic career was marked by an independence unheard of in black performers of the time and a determination to fight racism, shown in his boycott of segregated Southern venues. His life was tragically cut short in a bizarre shooting in an LA hotel room, but his influential legacy has carried on by an indeterminate amount of artists to this day. "Sam Cooke: Crossing Over" is a loving portrait of an icon, made all the more immediate through interviews with friends and family and some great archival footage and songs. The profile is not particularly well written, but Sam's music is so beautiful as to make this more than worth a look.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Five Graves to Cairo

After his tank division has been shelled in North Africa, a soul surviving British officer stumbles his way across the desert into an abandoned hotel in a bombed out city inhabited only by its manager and a female member of the staff. When General Rommel, the Desert Fox, takes up residence with his unit in the inn, the officer assumes the identity of a deceased server, which puts him in a unique position due to the fact that this waiter was also a German spy! Now, with access to the secret location of five arms bases, the officer now has the ability to turn the tide of the war in Britain's favor! "Five Graves to Cairo" is an early war yarn from master writer/director Billy Wilder. It is not funny in the typical Wilder sense, but it is still a tense, pointed, and well constructed film. Franchot Tone is excellent as the dry hero and Akim Tamiroff, Anne Baxter, and Peter van Eyck have fine supporting roles as the hotel manager, the staff member, and the German officer she is trying to seduce to return for her POW brother's release. Erich von Stroheim is also a lot of fun as an idiosyncratic Rommel. With "Five Graves of Cairo", Wilder demonstrates his dexterity and his certified skills as one of our great auteurs.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Kid with a Bike

An irascibly defiant young boy refuses to accept the fact that his father has abandoned and journeys across his village to find him and get answers, while his foster center counselors give chase. In the course of his search, he accosts an angelic hairdresser who helps him retrieve his missing bike and eventually takes charge of the lost boy. But this sudden change will not prove to be to easy as the boy's angry nature and the temptation provided by local hoodlums will test the resolve of his new foster mother. "The Kid with a Bike" is another observant and intimate film by the Dardenne brothers ("The Son") involving youth. Watching this seamless film, one cannot help but think of Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows", another masterpiece about another disaffected youth. In the lead role, Thomas Duret does an excellent job purveying the emotions of a lost, wounded, and angry boy and Cecile de France is absolutely wonderful as the woman who takes him in. "The Kid with a Bike" isn't a fancy movie. It is stripped down, realistic filmmaking with believable characters told in a simplistic and keen manner.

Cab Calloway: Sketches

Cab Calloway was a charismatic jazz musician in the big band era who, compared to his contemporaries such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, you could call a self-invented man with his wild and fluid body movements and his unique singing voice. With his hit song "Minnie the Moocher" and its largely infectious hi-de-hi-de-hi chorus, Calloway was the hit of Harlem nightclubs and helped bring black music to a larger audience. "Cab Calloway: Sketches" is a fascinating and highly entertaining entry in the American Masters Series. Calloway, who is now familiar to most through "The Blues Brothers", was a truly engaging personality and is wonderfully captured here in rare and exciting footage (I really dug a clip that showed him dancing side by side a cartoon walrus he was the model for). "Cab Calloway: Sketches" is a wonderful profile of a great talent and a great way to be introduced to the sadly forgotten artist.

The Walking Dead

Season 2 (2011-12)
Following their escape from the CDC, the group is back on the road as things become bleaker and bleaker in the face of the seemingly hopeless zombie apocalypse. A near tragic accident soon places them in the hands of a Southern landowner and his spacious farm, as the camp begins to split into two factions and more secrets regarding their situation come to the forefront. The sophomore season of "The Walking Dead" retains many of the elements that made the first season so engaging such as strong tension and great location shooting. However, the acting largely remains grating and amateurish and the plot continually goes in circles, with intriguing developments few and far between. Again, I found much of the season to be effective but based on the strength of the remaining cast and the circular and now tiresome nature of the plot, I fear the show has little where else it can go. 
** 1/2

Season 1 (2010)
Zombies have had a staying power in the movies for awhile now, and I never understood why. So when I checked out The Walking Dead only because of AMC's recently formed reputation for original programming, I was pleasantly surprised. The story takes place in a town outside of Atlanta, where police officer Rick Grimes has just been shot in a shootout. When he awakens, he finds dead bodies strewn along the hospital corridor and no sign of the townspeople anywhere. Instead, they have been replaced by fleshed eating zombies. With help given by a father and son who have stayed, and hope kept alive by signs that his own wife and son are still alive, Officer Rick sets out to Atlanta on a quest to find his family. In addition to battling the hoards of undead who have seemingly overrun the country, Rick and the other survivors he encounters must also battle themselves. The Walking Dead  was developed from a graphic novel by Frank Darabont, the filmmaker who made a career out of adapting Stephen King's work. Here his greatest strengths are the plot developments and the action sequences, which are well realized and exciting. Where he falls short is the human stories, which ranges from mushy to overly dramatic, and they are carried out by mostly poor actors. The fact that this is amateur hour in the acting department should have taken a bigger toll on how I responded, but I was so drawn into the action that I almost didn't mind.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles

Sir Charles Baskerville has just died on the moors on his estate near Devonshire from an apparent mauling by a giant hound. His death, and the story of his family's curse, is related by his and physician and friend to Sherlock Holmes whom he implores to take on the case before the state his transferred to Charles' relation Sir Hennry. In his stead, Holmes sends his dear friend Dr. Watson to investigate and, after meeting up with him later, uncovers the truth behind the Baskerville curse. This adaptation of the popular Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel is notable for the strengths of its lead performers. Peter Cushing makes an excellent Holmes, finding his idiosyncrasies and avoiding tendencies to bring likability to the character. Andre Morell likewise makes an excellent Watson, and Christopher Lee turns in good work in an early role as the Sir Henry. I thought this version got bogged down by its unnecessary flourishes and silly asides, and doesn't really measure up to the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce 1939 version, but is worth seeking out due to the fine performances.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

A group of five co-eds pack the camper and head for a weeked respite at a remote cabin in the hilly woods. After encountering the usual abandoned gas station creep en route to their stay, and uncovering a few expected ghoulish elements, it seems that all is set for a standard "isolated teenager massacre." However, something more subversive and sinister is looming below the surface, as members of some sort of corporation watch the entire ordeal, wager on the methods of attack, and manipulate the teens surroundings. "The Cabin in the Woods" is another self-aware horror film, this one from director Drew Stoddard and his cowriter Joss Whedon. Stoddard and Whedon attempt to mesh two different tones in making the film, the horror one involving the camping teens and the humorous bordering on parody one involving the controllers in the corporate office. This blending of styles does not mesh well, and serves as counterproductive to all attempted. I did enjoy the cast. The teens, especially Chris Hemsworth and Kristen Connolly, are engaging, and it the tower, Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins provide comic relief. Without giving anything away, the movie mostly serves as an excuse to arrive at a scene of orgiastic violence, which is impressive in itself but cannot justify an entire movie. I must say though, that I was impressed that the movie did not take the easy way out in the end (though I could of done without the cameo). I think that horror movies (and comedies as well) are subjective experiences, and probably immune to criticism. Many are praising this film for its creativity and for what it does with this staid set-up, but I still found it lacking. Being billed as a horror movie, I also found it to be misleading, as what is promised is not what it is provided. Despite some high ambitions and a few creative ideas, "The Cabin in the Woods" is still another entry in an underperforming genre that leaves much to be desired.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Histoire(s) du cinéma

"Histoire(s) du cinéma" is an ambitious art house project by legendary French director Jean-Luc Godard, made over a period of over ten years, and generally considered to be his greatest work outside of his New Wave period. In a series of eight, 25-50 minute long episodes, Godard offers essentially what the title says, except not only just history of the cinema, but an attempt to explain the 20th century through the history and with images from the cinema...I think. The movie is deliberately vague and extremely obtuse, with Godard meshing images from films as diverse as "Rear Window", "Notorious", "Scarface", "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", with pornography and other bizarre imagery while spouting outlandish and sometimes mad declarations, to what end I'm not sure even its esteemed director could explain. The work is intriguing and even hypnotic, to a point but I would only recommend this to the most adventurous viewer of loyal Godard devotee.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

La Jetée

In postwar bombed out Paris, a man haunted by a childhood vision of a woman is imprisoned, experimented on, and sent to time travel with the hopes of merging the past and the future in the present. "La Jetee" is a highly original short film which tells a bizarre and highly engaging story using narration on top of mostly pictures and very little, if any, live footage. 33 years after its release, Terry Gilliam would directly remake this movie into "12 Monkeys". Here you can watch this hypnotic film, in two parts:


Known as The Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan was a charismatic leader who became President at a time of economic despondency and garnered a fervent following as he led the country for two terms into a conservative age, one which saw the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today many speak his name with the reverence held for the great leaders of our distant past, while others see him as a misrepresented figure, unduly credited with many of the achievements and not given enough criticism in his time. Eugene Jarecki's "Reagan" is a fascinating look at the 40th President of the United States from his early days in relative poverty, to his breakthrough as a B-picture actor up until his political career which included his governorship of California and his often lionized but also questionable presidency. Jarecki's film is wonderfully cut from a great amount of footage which is abetted by interviews with proponents, including family members, as well as detractors. Reagan was a compelling figure, whose legacy can be interpreted in a number of differing ways, and is documentary does an excellent job of conveying that.

Jesse James

Almost immediately following his exploits, the legend of Jesse James was elevated to almost mythic proportions to that of Robin Hood type. The reality of the man was much different. Born in Missouri to a Confederate family that was extremely hostile to the Union, Jesse got his first taste for violence as a bushwhacker, ambushing and brutalizing northern soldiers with his brother Frank and a band of older outlaws. From then, Jesse and his brother took to robbing banks and with the help of a pulp novelist, began to spread his name throughout the West until his cold blooded murder at the age of 34. "Jesse James" is another excellent entry in the American Experience western series, and features great footage, insightful experts, and really fine narration from Michael Murphy. Even today, one has a tendency to thins of Jesse James as a champion of the poor. This documentary helps to dispel that myth.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Game Change

The film opens on Anderson Cooper asking Steve Schmidt, lead campaign strategist for the 2008 McCain campaign, if he felt selecting Sarah Palin as a running mate cost them the election. Before answering and following an awkward pause, the film flashes back to the heart of that campaign, when a wild card was needed to counter Obama's popularity, and the governor of Alaska seemed like a longshot but a possibility to put McCain over the edge. Watching Jay Roach's "Game Change". with its imitations of well-known figures and constant barrage of news footage, is more like watching the 2008 election again on CNN rather than regarding a fully fleshed out film. Naturally expecting a caustic assault on the Republican campaign, I was surprised how genial the film is towards McCain and his campaign members and how scathing they are towards Palin, painting her as a single minded monster. As the VP nominee, Julianne Moore is successful in recreating look, manner, and speech, but not so in developing a character. Ed Harris is closer to the mark in his portrayal of John McCain, focusing more on characterization and less on look and appearance. Woody Harrelson is also on point as Schmidt, and delivers a few good speeches also. Like Roach's "Recount", another HBO film depicting recent historical events, "Game Change" is overly simplistic, fires at easy targets, and tells us things we already know.

The Canterville Ghost

When a British aristocrat is injured and unable to duel, his bumbling brother is called on to defend his honor, who then scampers away in cowardice. For his act of pusillanimity, his father walls him up in a back room of the Canterville Castle until one of his descendants commits an act of bravery and frees his imprisoned ghostly soul. Fast forward to WWII where the matron of Canterville manor hat let her castle out for some American GIs to stay, and wouldn't you know it, one of the private happens to be a distant relative of the long suffering ghost. Now the blithering ghost along with a young resident of the manor must help the timid private find his footing when enemy troops mount a nearby attack. "The Canterville Ghost" is a wartime update of Oscar Wilde's short story and is a silly yet enjoyable excursion boosted by the very fine performance of Charles Laughton on the title ghoul, the affability of Robert Young as the timid GI, and some pretty inventive special effects.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Saturday Night Fever

Brooklyn teen Tony Manero works a dead end job at a paint shop and is constantly barraged by his middle class parents for not living up to the standards set by his older cleric brother. On the dance floor of the discotheque on Friday and Saturday nights however, Tony is king where is is fawned on by girls and his entourage of lackeys. Now, with the help of a dance partner undergoing a similar class crisis, Tony sees his shot at elevating himself out of his banal existence. Of all the performances in all the films I've seen, I don't know if I've witnessed a more engaging one than John Travolta's in "Saturday Night Fever". In the film that shot him to superstar status, Travolta is magnetic from the get and draws the viewer in with charms, grace, and yes even acting ability. The rest of John Badham's film is likewise excellent and successfully captures this empty culture longing for meaning. Even the now tired Bee Gees songs work wonderfully within the context of the film. "Saturday Night Fever" is an excellent modern musical, one that paved the way for those to follow, and one that features one of the most endearingly likable performances in memory.

The Wolf Man

Lawrence Talbot returns home following the death of his brother to reunite with his father and oversea the family manor. In town, he meets a local shopgirl who tells him the legend of werewolf when he expresses interest in a walking cane adorned with a wolf's image. Dismissing the notions of lycanthropy as childish inanity when he comes across a mysterious band of gypsies and saves the local girl's friend from a wolf attack and is then bitten himself. "The Wolf Man" has a reputation as being one of the best early monster movies, by I found it awfully plodding, especially for a short film. Lon Chaney, Jr.'s performance is too mannered, and doesn't capture the qualities of an everyman which he is supposed to embody. Still, there is much to enjoy here including the great makeup, and the sense of unease cast over the entire film. Claude Rains is excellent also as the disbelieving father and Bela Legosi has a great cameo as the strange and infected gypsy who bites Chaney. "The Wolf Man" does earn its place as a monster movie classic. I'm just not sure I would place it above "Dracula", "Frankenstein", or its sequel.

21 Jump Street

A bookish outcast and brainless jock who once were at odds in high school, now find themselves as friends in the police academy and bored to tears in their first assignment on bike patrol at the local park. After squandering a small time drug bust, they are transferred to the Jump Street Unit where, due to their boyish looks, they will go undercover in their old school and infiltrate a major drug ring. "21 Jump Street" is an overly self-aware adaptation of the television series of the same name that helped aid Johnny Depp's rise to stardom. With the story to his credit, Jonah Hill costars with Channing Tatum, both of whom are affable and adept as their characters take on role reversals. Supporting players add moments of levity which include Brie Larson, Rob Riggle, Ellie Kemper, Ice Cube, Chris Parnell, Caroline Aaron, and a pretty humorous cameo. The film starts slow with many of its jokes missing the mark,  then hits its stride which it carries out for awhile with many funny gags, before resorting to mostly laughless shootouts and car chase closing sequences. "21 Jump Street" often surprises with more than a few laughs, but still is overlong and contains more than a fair share of stale, ineffectual material.

Monday, April 9, 2012


A white half-wit stumbles into an all-black nightclub in Memphis circa 1950, claiming he can get the music heard by a larger audience. After much debate, he leaves with a few records and after being fired for playing them at the department store he clerked at, he steals airtime at a local station and begins the rock revolution. Soon, alongside his improbable rise to fame, he begins to an even more improbable courtship with the nightclub proprietor's sister, whose career he also tries to promote in a racially tense city. "Memphis" is a lively, high energy musical from Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan, that features spirited, exaggerated and sometimes irritating performances. The songs are largely forgettable, but are performed with fervor in front of specatular set designs. "Memphis" is somewhat of a mixed bag but achieves its primary goal in being an engaging and infectious stage performance.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


Bill Clinton was a natural politico, exceedingly charismatic and having that rare ability that made people believe that he actually cared. He was also drawn to the fire, seemingly magnetized to scandal and constantly rebounding from disgraces brought on by his own demons. The "American Experience" Presidential Series profiles the life of the 42nd Commander in Cheif from his humble beginnings in Hope, Arkansas to his inevitable rise to governorship up through his tumultuous, scandalized, yet economically sound presidency. "Clinton" is an often fawning, yet well made look at the complex leader featuring a wealth of footage from throughout his political career as well as interviews from cabinet members, friends, and journalists. Bill Clinton was a complex and enigmatic figure, and this documentary nicely catches the intricacies of his life and presidency.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Derek Jeter 3K

In the history of baseball over 18,000 men have played professionally, with only 27 of them accumulating 3,000 hits. "Derek Jeter 3K" follows the dynamic shortstop for the two weeks before he becomes number 28, and the first to do so for the Yankee organization. "DJ3K" draws on very little and is a pretty meager documentary as we watch the incredibly arrogant Jeter rehab from a minor injury and talk on and on about how he hopes to accomplish his feat at home. I enjoyed the sparse footage from his career, but listening to him speak and watching his minor league stint grows quickly redundant. The 3,000 club is a remarkable achievement that this documentary fails to capture significantly.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World

At least to someone from a later generation, George Harrison always seemed like the reticent Beatle, less enamored with the fame their success had brought them and more taken with the deeper powers of the universe. Master filmmaker Martin Scorsese, whose skills are no less impressive in the realm of documentary, takes us through Harrison's life in an intimate portrayal largely told by the man himself in audio recordings taped before his death. In a two part film, Scorsese dedicates the first and lesser half of the film to his childhood in Liverpool, formation of the band with classmate Paul McCartney, early riotous shows in Hamburg, and the phenomenon of Beatlemania, which caused George to turn to India for meditation. We reach the real heart of the subject in the second half of the post Beatle's years which includes George's solo career, his producing ventures with the Monty Python troupe, and his formation of the Traveling Wilburys. In addition to an incredible wealth of stock footage and imagery and George's commentary we also hear from the likes of his family and friends which includes his wife Olivia, Paul, Ringo, Tom Petty, Eric Idle, and Terry Gilliam. Though not quite as fascinating as Scorsese's "No Direction Home", which profiled Bob Dylan (why didn't he appear for this), "Living in the Material World" paints a rich portrait of a mysterious and often underappreciated artist.

Friends with Kids

Jason and Julie have been friends since their college days but have never felt an attraction towards each other. Seeing the rest of their married friend's relationships turn sour as soon as the stork arrives, they devise a radical plan: have a kid together and raise it in a happy, platonic relationship while they see other people. Needless to say, complications arise from this arrangement. Not one second of "Friends with Kids" resembles anything plausible, relatable, or even minutely enjoyable. Director/Writer/Star Jennifer Westfeldt's phony and misleading film comes billed seemingly as a "Bridesmaids" followup, but standouts Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm (both excellent here) are scarcely to be found, leaving us with off-putting and highly unpleasant Westfeldt and Adam Scott to serve as leads. "Friends with Kids" rides the coattails of major success and offers virtually nothing to its viewers, unless you happen to be a coarse and self-involved Manhattanite.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

One, Two, Three

In the days before the erection of the Wall, a Coca-Cola man in West Berlin is jockeying for a job in the London office when his boss back home in Atlanta asks him to look after his teenage daughter as she passes through on her tour of Europe. Seeing this as a way to score points, things go from bad to worse after the girl disappears for the night and returns with a firebreathing, East Berlin communist radical! Now he must come up with a plan to annul the marriage and ditch the red, but things just keep getting more and more out of hand for the controlling executive. Like its title would indicate, "One, Two, Three" is a flat out assault, made at a breakneck pace, and featuring an endless barrage of gags and one-liners-the kind of film The Marx Brothers would have appreciated. Made by legendary auteur Billy Wilder and scripted with oft collaborator I.A.L Diamond, the film features his inimitable brand of humor. In a whirlwind performance, which would prove to be his penultimate one, James Cagney barely comes up for air in a spectacular turn. His supporters, all perfectly cast, are uniformly wonderful most notably the young Horst Buchholz as the unfortunately named commie beau Otto Ludwig Piffl. Wilder and Cagney is a fortuitous match, one that should have happened sooner and more often, and both live up to their deservedly high reputations.

The Sea Hawk

In Elizabethan Britain, the unsanctioned Sea Hawks patrol the seas and plunder the ships of the ever expanding Spanish Empire. Among the bravest of these men is Geoffrey Thorpe whose dangerous actions not only jeopardize his own life and freedom, plus place him in a position to overhear of high treason and warn her majesty of an impending assault by the Spanish Armada. Michael Curtiz's high seas auctioneer the sea romp represented and rallying call for a Britain staring war in the eye, and features an expectedly dashing, but more serious Errol Flynn in the lead role. As a supporter, Flora Robson is quite excellent as Queen Elizabeth I, especially in a rousing closing speech. The film is well directed and shot, except in a sequence where Flynn and his men sail to Panama to raid the Spanish. These scenes are shot in an ugly brown tint, and are jarring and unpleasant. "The Sea Hawk" is excellent action propaganda from one of the most underappreciated studio directors and one of the top stars of all time.

Executive Suite

The CEO of a large furniture manufacturer wires his secretary to keep the executives late for a meeting and drops dead on his way to the train. Almost immediately, the backbiting begins as those directly below him jockey for his job, among them a heartless numbers man (Frederic March), an unscrupulous exec (Walter Pidgeon), a Charles Eames like innovater (William Holden), and the majority shareholder and daughter of the founder (Barbara Stanwyck) who could prove to be the wild card for all involved. "Executive Suite" is a stark and measured film from director Robert Wise, filmed without a soundtrack, and featuring fine performances from its notable cast. Although it is not quite as scathing as it could have been it remains completely relevant in this era of heightened corporate greed.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Tarzan the Ape Man/Tarzan and His Mate

"Tarzan the Ape Man" and "Tarzan and His Mate" were the first two adaptations of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels featuring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in their iconic roles and are generally considered by fans to be the best. Both are extremely similar, begin with white imperialists seeking a mythic Elephant burial ground in the deepest parts of Africa, and mesh imagery with the documentary "Trader Horn". On the first film's quest they find Tarzan, a man raised in the wilds of nature who fascinates Jane, the daughter of one of the members of the safari members. After Tarzan saves the day, Jane decides to leave civilization to live with him in the jungle. The second film follows basically the same story, Jane's beau on the same mission now trying to rescue her from the wild. These two Tarzan entries are well-made and surprisingly thrilling (I actually gasped during a sequence where Jane falls off a mountain pass), but are most notable for their pre-code sexually scintillating manner of dress (or lack thereof). A skinny dipping segment in the second film almost must be seen to be believed it was made by a major studio in 1934. Much of these films are silly, but achieve their goals in providing thrilling and candid entertainment.

49th Parallel

The crew of a German U-boat is stranded in Hudson Bay and begins to terrorize its way to the still neutral U.S.A. From fur trappers, to a Hutterite commune, to a camping intellectual, to a discouraged AWOL soldier, the Nazis only reinforce Canadian solidarity as the members of their group begin to dwindle. "49th Parallel" was a WWII propaganda film from the inimitable directing and writing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and shows the cruel and brutal actions of the brainwashed Germans against the colorful Canadian inhabitants, played by the likes of greats such as Laurence Olivier, Anton Walbrook, Leslie Howard, and Raymond Massey. "49th Parallel" serves dual purposes in being both a rousing and formidable entertainment.

The Criterion DVD features another propaganda film made for the war by the directing duo called "The Volunteer and made in 1943 to stir recruitment. It stars Ralph Richardson, currently performing Othello in London and follows his dresser as he becomes a war hero. Also featuring Olivier, this is a slight but not uninteresting relic from a great directing team.

Project Nim

In the early 70s a professor from Columbia University wanted to conduct an experiment to see if a chimp, stripped from its mother at birth and placed in human care, would be able to develop physical and verbal communicative skills. So begins the extraordinary, humorous, and sometimes harrowing story of Nim, a baby chimpanzee born in a lab, raised in a New York brownstone, and transported from location to location as situations arose surrounding the project. "Project Nim" is an insightful documentary on the famous study from director James Marsh, the man behind the wonderful Oscar winning film "Man on Wire". While telling Nim's intriguing story, the documentary is revelatory about the human participants in the project, many of whom appear on camera. "Project Nim" is a great film, a kind that offers humor and intrigue while also providing a valuable lesson, here one of nature and nuture, human kindness and cruelty, and the proper roles of man and beast.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


On April 12, 1912 the "unsinkable" behemoth RMS Titanic departed on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, never to see land again and dragging over 1,500 souls down to the bottom of the ocean with it. 100 years later, we still remain fascinated by the history and takes surrounding the mythical ship. James Cameron's immensely successful telling of the disaster is also celebrating an anniversary (15th), and it is being rereleased theatrically with a 3D update. Although I did not wish to pay for this new version, I decided to rewatch the film at home in honor of the occasion.
What strikes me about Cameron's film is just how bad or off so many elements about it are. The main culprit, which is the case in most of the movies he scripts, is the putrid and insufferable dialogue. Good actors are given just the worst material possible and their characters are drawn in the most broad of terms. Also class depictions are given the most simplistic rendering and we are given only snooty rich snobs and noble peasantry down below.  Aside from Kate Winslet, none of the actor's stand out. Leo is too boyish, Billy Zane is a cartoon, Bill Paxton is irritating, and Gloria Stuart, I apologize, is insufferable (there's that word again). Her final scene of the movie is gag worthy. And I didn't even mention the soundtrack yet. Then, about 2/3rds into the film, the boat broadsides the iceberg and the remaining hour or so of the film is absolutely riveting, if not preposterous in Zane's pursuits of Kate and Leo. (I found a sequence depicting the band, the captain, and others involved with the creation of the ship deciding to remain on board particularly touching). "Titanic" moves swiftly and the sinking segment makes it worthwhile, but the film does not live up to its reputation.

Essential Killing

A Taliban member kills three U.S. soldiers in a canyon in Afghanistan, is detained and tortured, and escapes en route to a snowy eastern European detention center. Now, in a foreign climate and without the proper gear, the terrorist faces a brutal struggle both with the foreboding environment and his pursuers. Respected Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski's "Essential Killing" is minimalist filmmaking with a lower case size 4 font. Vincent Gallo barely speaks in the lead role and while it is exhilarating to a point watching this scenario play out in a firsthand manner, it also grows a bit redundant. Watching a terrorist in the protagonist role like so is also unsettling. "Essential Killing" has its merits but does grow thin. It is the kind of film where people criticize you for not seeing so much in so little.

Treasure Island

A drunken pirate stumbles into a pub overseen by young Jim Hawkins and his mother. Soon the old pirate is murdered and among his belongings, Jim finds an old treasure map. Soon Jim has booked a ship and hired a crew, among which is the treasonous scurvy dog Long John Silver and his men who have signed on the galley and plan to overtake the ship and keep the gold for themselves. Now the impressionable Jim's loyalty is torn between his own men and that of the charismatic but amoral Captain Silver. Robert Louis Stevenson's classic children's tale receives an excellent treatment in this early MGM production helmed by Victor Fleming. Having read "Treasure Island" as a child, I had forgotten (or maybe didn't realize) how brutal and calculated the actions of Long John Silver are. As the lovable tyrant, Wallace Beery is ideal, fully capturing the particulars of his complex character. As Jim, Jackie Cooper is often criticized for his performance, but I thought he wonderfully embodied a wide-eyed and confused young boy (the last bit of deceit between him and Beery is a doozy). Classic supporters round out the cast including Lionel Barrymore and Nigel Bruce. "Treasure Island" is a fine adaptation that captures the adventurous and often wicked spirit of the novel.

Strikes and Spares

"Strikes and Spares" is an Oscar nominated short from 1934 that features top professional bowler Andy Varipapa demonstrating proper bowling technique followed by an incredible trick shot display. Filmed showing two lanes with a manual pin setter, this film is pretty fascinating not only for the impressive bowling ability of its star but also for the nifty camerawork employed by the filmmakers. You can watch the short in its entirety below:

Monday, April 2, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

A mother is barely treading water and leading a dismal existence following the unspeakable massacre committed by her son. In flashback, we see the strained relationship between the two and the innate evil that leads him towards the unfortunate incident. "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is unlike any film I have ever seen before. Instead of using plot or dialogue, director Lynne Ramsay propels her disturbing film along with stark and mostly unpleasant imagery, which is done so quite engagingly. In the leading role, Tilda Swinton turns in her usual stunning performance as a mother who can't even begin to fathom what went wrong with her son, and her scenes taking place following the tragedy are quite remarkable. An issue I had with the film is the decision to make the boy so ludicrously evil, and once we reach a certain point in the film, we are no longer getting anything new out of it, but rather witnessing the cruel acts of a psychopath. It is at this point we are watching a "horror" movie and no longer a horrific, realistic, and insightful nightmare.


A man of uncontrollable rage stumbles drunkenly out of a bar, mistakenly kills his pet dog, and passes out at the entrance of a Christian charity shop. When he is brought to his senses by a kind and seemingly content store worker opening up for the day, the two gradually form a bond that leading to healing and redemption. "Tyrannosaur" is actor Paddy Considine's excellent directorial debut focusing on two individuals paralyzed by two very different kinds of anger and suffering. Peter Mullan gives a vicious and honest performance as an inwardly decent person, suffering from alcoholism and the loss of wife, and almost magnetized towards violence. Olivia Colman is just as great playing a kindhearted but inwardly anguished victim of an abusive relationship, perpetrated by her vile husband played by the fine character actor Eddie Marsan. Tales of redemption in the movies are many and the achievement of such by their story's characters often feels cheap and unwarranted. "Tyrannosaur" tells the story of individuals whose suffering is palpable, and whose alleviation of these agonies we so desperately wish for.