Thursday, January 29, 2009

1/29/09: The Wrestler (2008)

Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) is pretty much what you'd expect a 1980s WWF hero look like 30 years after his peak, his body ravaged by too many years of facebusters, backbreakers and chokeslams. Add in the myriad steroids, painkillers and various destructive elements—one competitor uses an actual staple gun on Randy—and it's little wonder that his ticker is waving the white flag of surrender. The Wrestler is ostensibly a sports movie (if you want to call wrestling a sport), but it's mostly about his attempts to bond with two women: a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), and his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), each with marginal success.

I'm either getting more squeamish with age, or movies are becoming significantly more intense and graphic. I don't remember ever needing to look away from a movie in my life, but in the last year or so, I find myself unable to stare directly at the screen. The Wrestler is loaded with unsightly and unsavory images: Randy vomits on the floor, he gets punched, bodyslammed, sliced with a razor blade, butchered by a deli slicer...and then there's that staple gun. His body is a roadmap of scars and bruises, and that's before his open-heart surgery. I'm pretty sure I groaned out loud at least twice. But the potent imagery is worth braving for the intriguing character study. Rourke's nominated for a Best Actor statue, and Tomei's got a Best Supporting Actress nod. And I try never to miss the always engaging Evan Rachel Wood (so good in TV's Once and Again and the movie Thirteen). As Randy the Ram, Rourke is hard to look at, and impossible not to watch. He's a well-meaning fuckup, a broken wrestler who's past his prime but can't get the damn sport—to say nothing of his former glory—out of his system. The film kept me interested all the way through to its sad but logical conclusion. Rating: 4/5.

1/28/09: Frozen River (2008)

Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is a woman with a low-paying part-time job and two sons to feed in their ramshackle trailer in upstate New York. Her drug-addict husband has just skipped town, and the very real threats of repossession and eviction are closing in. But when Ray meets Lila (Misty Upham), a young Mohawk with a baby of her own, they forge an uneasy bond to earn some cash, and we learn just how far each woman is willing to go to stave off poverty. Frozen River is a bleak, slow-moving but ultimately rewarding picture ab0ut maternal love—the sacrifices, risks and compromises Ray and Lila face for their kids. It's an emotionally draining story that doesn't shy away from asking tough questions. Set in the dead of winter, the film is masterful at tugging at your heart while making you feel numbingly cold. Rating: 5/5.

1/27/09: The Visitor (2008)

Writer-director Thomas McCarthy crafted this extraordinary picture about a professor whose life intersects with a pair of illegal immigrants in New York City. Richard Jenkins (the dad from Six Feet Under) won a Best Actor nomination for his role as Walter Vale, an aging teacher who learns, in a few short weeks, a great deal about friendship, loyalty, love, and how to play djembe drums. Israeli actress Hiam Abbass shows up at the halfway point to make it a four-character drama that examines, among other things, the nature of xenophobia, the power of human kindness and the devastation of loss and regret. There are unexpected moments of humor sprinkled throughout in McCarthy's rich script, and the cast (especially Abbass) does a remarkable job. Very deeply felt, by which I mean I had tears in my eyes during a couple of scenes. As Oscar week and the first month of my year-long movie marathon draw to a close, I am left hoping there are many more movies as good as this one on the horizon. Rating: 5/5.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

1/26/09: Revolutionary Road (2008)

This is the third film I've seen in the few days that is essentially the story of family members arguing like the dickens through a haze of cigarette smoke. But it's the only one I found truly absorbing. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are uniformly excellent as a couple in the mid 1950s whose marriage is on the rocks after the birth of their two kids. It's about hope and disillusionment, love and infidelity, honesty and lies, and a final act of desperation that changes their lives forever. In the decade that has passed since American Beauty, director Sam Mendes has lost none of his power to provoke and intrigue. Unusually, the kids have virtually no screen time—I never got the sense that these people actually had any children, as they are more alluded to than actually seen. Also, the musical score (by Thomas Newman) sounded distractingly like another one of his soundtracks. But these are minor quibbles. This movie is worth seeing for the performances alone. Amazingly, it is actor Michael Shannon, playing a guy with psychological issues, who won the film's only major Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actor); DiCaprio was unfairly snubbed. Zoe Kazan has a couple of nice scenes as a secretary Leo beds (we get a brief glimpse of her lovely breasts), and I was convinced that DiCaprio's boss was played by Jeff Daniels, but it turned out to be an actor named Jay O. Sanders. Rating: 4/5.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

1/25/09: Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Forget the story: in Rachel Getting Married, it's all about the backstory. Middle sibling Kym (Anne Hathaway) is a substance abuser who caused the death of her little brother while high. She's been in and out of rehab, and now her highly dysfunctional family (including stepparents) are gathering on home turf for the interracial wedding of older sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). The film documents the day or two leading up to the big event, during which the spiteful sisters segue from snipping at each other to full-blown war—inconvenient timing, to say the least. It's all acted very convincingly, of course, and director Jonathan Demme's idea to film it all with a handheld camera (shakier even than in Cloverfield) is meant to give the viewer an uncomfortable sense of proximity. The technique is effective, inasmuch as I felt as uncomfortable as possible.

The intense scenes of awkwardness and nerve-frazzlng vitriol take us through two-thirds of the film, to the wedding, when it suddenly and inexplicably turns into a bush-league version of Woodstock, with more musical acts singing and jamming than at your average Lollapalooza concert. (There's even an extended Brazilian belly dance scene—for a moment I thought I'd nodded off and woke up during a different picture.) Hathaway's performance snared an Oscar nomination for Best Actress; with her bottle-colored hair and sad eyes—check out that cool poster!—her Kym suggests a grown-up version of Claire Danes' character from My So-Called Life, had Angela Chase discovered Pall Malls and Percocet. And I completely failed to recognize Debra Winger as the girls' biological mother. As the various family members blast epithets, dredge up old battles and slap each other in the face, the tears turn on like a faucet, all while father Bill Irwin struggles valiantly to keep the peace. Rachel Gets Married goes for the Olympic gold in making viewers squirm, and wins. Rating: 2/5.

1/24/09: The Reader (2008)

The 2008 Academy Award nominations were announced last week, so in the interest of catching up with some of the year's better films I missed, I'll be turning my attention this week to current theatrical films that have been honored.

Warning: Contains spoilers. In 1958, 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) begins an affair with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a 36-year-old cable car ticket taker. It's a story of love and sexual awakening...but before you can say "pedophile," it turns out Hanna has other more troubling skeletons in her closet: seems she was a former guard at Auschwitz who sent more than a few Jews to the incinerator.

Never moving at a pace faster than leisurely, The Reader offers two main characters who behave somewhat too enigmatically for comfort. As the credits to this Oscar contender for Best Picture rose, Joan (my faithful movie companion) told me she had a peculiar disdain for movies and plays that make her want to "hit the characters over the head with a stick" for their illogical behavior, particularly poor communication skills. When Hanna goes on trial for war crimes, she chooses to risk a life sentence in prison rather than simply copping to being illiterate (which likely would have led to a substantially reduced sentence). Michael, possessing compelling evidence that might help Hanna, chooses to do nothing with it.

Still, Oscar loves old-age makeup, and Winslet is totally convincing as both a woman in her 30s and in her 60s; Ralph Fiennes, meanwhile, is called in to portray Kross's character as an adult. On the one hand, this period drama (which is told through a series of flashbacks) lacks genuine emotional punch, but the acting is first-rate, and the film does raise some interesting questions about the true nature of Hanna—do we scorn her for her Nazi past and possible child molestation, or should we feel sympathetic because she's a victim of circumstance? It's a conundrum that Michael obviously wrestles with as well, and there lies the movie's main point of discussion. Winslet and Kross are extraordinary, Lena Olin has an excellent scene near the end as a Holocaust survivor, and Vijessna Ferkic, in a small role, is a vision of beauty as Sophie, a classmate who briefly catches Kross's eye. The Reader captured five Oscar nominations, among them Best Director (Stephen Daldry), Best Actress (Winslet), Best Screenplay Adaptation (David Hare) and Best Picture. Rating: 3/5.

1/23/09: Divorce American Style (1967)

Dick Van Dyke, Debbie Reynolds, Joe Flynn, Tom Bosley, Shelley Berman, Pat Collins...with that cast, you expect this late-Sixties flick to be full of whimsy and laughter. But hold your horses. This "comedy," devised by TV legend Norman Lear, doesn't inspire much laughter—it's actually meant to be more satirical than outright funny.

Dick and Debbie are a married couple with two boys and nothing much more in common anymore except their passive-aggressive behavior. The first quarter of the movie focuses almost exclusively on their bickering...but after they separate, they find that being apart doesn't hold much more appeal either. Complications ensue, and it all leads to a predictable punch line. Some scenes resonate with a satirical glow, and it's fun to see many '60s actors and other artifacts around, but the movie is clouded by the near-constant fog of cigarette smoke spewed forth by nearly all of the leads, which I frankly find disgusting. I didn't much enjoy this, but on reflection, I guess it must have been kind of groundbreaking in its day to tackle the subject of marriage in such a seriocomic manner, especially with this cast. Still, it's hard to believe the screenplay actually got an Oscar nod. Then-20-year-old Tim Matheson can be seen as Dick and Debbie's son. Rating: 2/5.

Monday, January 26, 2009

1/22/09: The Lost Weekend (1945)

I suppose I reached for this multi-Oscar winner to cleanse myself after viewing yesterday's garbage. Although I find alcohol itself distasteful, for some reason I've always had a taste for alcoholism stories. (Two of my favorite books are Jack B. Weiner's The Morning After and Charles Webb's Booze.) So it was a cinch that I'd take to this movie like its protagonist takes to rye whiskey. Ray Milland is Don Birnam, a would-be novelist whose binges have begun to alarm his brother and girlfriend, who are encouraging him to stay on the wagon. But Birnam keeps boozing, and the movie shows us how quickly and horrifically he sinks to the bottom—in fact, at times it actually does resemble a horror movie.

The film version of Charles R. Jackson's acclaimed book is said to be the first honest depiction of the ravages of alcoholism, which Hollywood had previously treated as one big joke. The movie's in black and white, but Milland's self-hatred and pathos comes across in full color. I found it very entertaining, although the musical soundtrack at times is overly melodramatic. Jane Wyman (who was married to Ronald Reagan, her third of five husbands, at the time of this picture) is quite fetching. Rating: 4/5.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

1/21/09: Because of the Cats (1973)

Sociopathic rich kids form a "secret society" called the Ravens, then raid the houses of married couples, destroy all their belongings, and rape the wives. A detective, Inspector van der Valk (Bryan Marshall), quickly narrows down the suspect pool and spends the movie trying to prove their guilt. Based on a 1963 series novel by British crime writer Nicolas Freeling, this sounded like an absorbing and suspenseful idea for a thriller—or, at least, the source for a few cheap thrills. But despite graphic violence and liberal amounts of female nudity, Cats lures you into a catnap. Dutch director Fons Rademakers directly sloppily, barely managing to scrape together a few passable scenes. It's a horrendously made thriller made on a shoestring budget—the results are very dull and slow moving, and the musical score is inappropriately bombastic and intrusive. Worst of all, Marshall has absolutely zero appeal (maybe he needed some catnip). Best appreciated as an artifact from the early 1970s trash heap. Sylvia Kristel, who appears in a small role, filmed this only a year before her star turn as Emmanuelle. Rating: 1/5.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

1/20/09: Semi-Tough (1977)

Semi-Tough is one of four sports-related films from the 1970s that have been on my movie-queue list for quite some time. (I finally saw The Longest Yard over the Christmas break, so now all I've got left are Slap Shot and North Dallas Forty.)

This movie is openly scorned by fans of Dan Jenkins' comic novel about drinkin', smokin', cussin', screwin'...oh yeah, and playing football. By all accounts, the book is riotous affair, loaded with sex, racial slurs and all manner of hilariously inappropriate content. Clearly, something has been lost in the translation to film, which is largely about the relationship between Miami gridiron heroes Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson, and the team owner's daughter, Jill Clayburgh. Aside from suffering from a case of Tourette's Syndrome (someone, usually Clayburgh, has to say "fuck" or "asshole" every couple of minutes), the movie is rather tame by today's standards. The three leads start out as close Platonic friends/roommates, a la Three's Company, but when Clayburgh and Kristofferson pair off, Reynolds does a slow burn that lasts all the way through to the predictable payoff. I would have been fine with a simple love-triangle flick with a football backdrop, but the filmmakers decided to add a subplot satirizing the EST movement of the Seventies, as well as a depiction of rolfing—the first of which seems ridiculously out of place in this film, and neither of which would make the slightest bit sense today to anybody under the age of, say 45.

There's a very decent movie buried here somewhere. I enjoyed the chemistry between the leads; Burt Reynolds (doing another football flick three years after Longest Yard) is at his cowboy-hat-wearing, gum-chewing best, and Jill Clayburgh is surprisingly sexy—I've never had that reaction to this actress before. And there are several scenes I thought played very well, along with a few memorable lines. However, all of the actors were right around 40 years old at the time, which strikes me as a little long in the tooth to be NFL players, and the various parts of the film don't really mesh as a whole. There should have been a lot more football in the movie, more of the great Robert Preston (as the slightly batty team owner) and none of the material involving Bert Convy as a self-help guru, which I found embarrassingly unfunny. (Note: turns out I had seen some of those scenes on TV many years ago, but had no idea it was this film.) Character actress Mary Jo Catlett has a memorable bit as a less-than-stunning barfly seduced by Reynolds, and it was funny to see Brian Dennehy in his relatively younger days (i.e., almost 40). Also, it's worth noting that Reynolds uses the word "nigger"—tellingly, another white character throws the same word around in director Michael Ritchie's previous movie, The Bad News Bears. That kind of talk wouldn't fly with moviegoers today. Flawed but sporadically fun; I doubt I am the first one to suggest a better title for this would be Semi-Entertaining. Rating: 3/5.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

1/19/09: Burn After Reading (2008)

I tend to run hot and cold on the Coen Brothers. Fargo is one of my very favorite movies—I've seen it at least six times in its entirety, and if I'm flipping channels and discover it's on HBO, I'll let it play out. It's highly dramatic, with occasional touches of black comedy. No film by the Coens has kept (or could keep) me riveted quite like Fargo; even the much-heralded No Country for Old Men failed to surpass its predecessor. Most of Fargo's main characters are seamy and morally bankrupt, but Frances McDormand, as a kind-hearted policewoman, gives the story its incorruptible good guy.

There are no such good guys in Burn After Reading, the Coens' 2008 offering, and in a screenplay littered with idiots and misfits, McDormand is relegated to being one of the main ding-dongs. (I missed her Midwestern accent from Fargo—she should be required to do it in every movie.) The convoluted story involves an ex-CIA operative (John Malkovich), a philandering Treasury agent (George Clooney) and a couple of birdbrained gym employees (Brad Pitt and McDormand), whose lives all intersect after a blackmail plot goes awry. The viewer is never compelled to give anything remotely approaching a shit about any of these people, so we're left to chuckle at the curious coincidences and occasional dollops of black comedy. The drama doesn't add up to much of anything, but the Fargo-like musical score (by Coen favorite Carter Burwell) works overtime to keep reminding us that it's all very dramatic. Rating: 3/5.

1/18/09: Hotel for Dogs (2009)

This is technically my first official viewing of a 2009 theatrical release. A ragtag group of young teens (including a brother/sister pair of foster kids) rescue stray dogs, which they keep in a condemned building where, curiously enough, the electricity is always up and running. My niece bawled uncontrollably when the story took an abrupt turn from the lighthearted to the bleak (all of the hounds sent to the pound and the brother and sister forcibly separated). I was forced to wax philosophical about a more innocent time when I myself lacked the cynicism to know that a kid movie like this can't possibly end on a sour note. And what a magnificently corny ending Don Cheadle gives us—as long as you're able stop your mind from boggling over how he got to this canine caper after Boogie Nights and Hotel Rwanda. Oh, well, I guess a paycheck is a paycheck. Rating: 3/5.

1/17/09: Outbreak (1995)

We close out Dustin Hoffman week with a medical drama in the tradition of Robin Cook and Michael Crichton novels. (How this was not written by one of those two guys, I'll never know.) Outbreak is the 1995 hit all about how an extremely virulent strain of an Ebola-type virus makes its way from Africa to the United States. Hoffman plays a heroic Army doctor racing against the clock to find a vaccine before comically evil Major General Donald Sutherland can blow up the town where the infected people live.

Throughout the movie, I kept wondering: How did Hoffman steal this role from the clutches of Harrison Ford, whom it very obviously was written for (or, at least, somebody like him)? I don't want to say Dusty is miscast, exactly—how does Ratso Rizzo act "against type?" I have seen him play everything from an autistic savant to an actor in drag, but this has to be one of his few ill-fitting roles. Still, the movie has a dream cast, which includes Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey and a pre-Jerry Maguire Cuba Gooding Jr., and plenty of nail-biting suspense at every turn. Sure, there are plot holes and clichés up the wazoo, but I was thoroughly entertained throughout. It's a solid thriller that kept me glued to the edge of my seat.

This was a fun week. It'd be nice to do another Dustin Hoffman marathon sometime next year, featuring more of his films I haven't seen. My dream lineup: Who Is Harry Kellerman, Straw Dogs, Death of a Salesman, Billy Bathgate, Moonlight Mile and I Heart Huckabees. Rating: 4/5.

1/16/09: Mad City (1997)

Once more, we go back to the future, this time to 1997's Mad City, a maddeningly heavy-handed smackdown of the media from director Costa-Garvas. When an ex-security guard takes a bunch of little kids hostage at the museum where he was fired, a TV newsman (Dustin Hoffman) on the scene gets entirely too involved in the unfolding drama, using his proximity as a way of advancing his own career. For once it's not about Hoffman giving a stellar performance (in fact, he's mostly phoning it in). It's about the director making a grand statement about the media circus. We don't care one iota about any of the characters, and unlike Wag the Dog—Dusty's other film from the same year—there's no humor in the satire. It's just preachy as all outdoors, and it doesn't help that the film's pace is agonizingly slow. One bright spot: the lovely Tammy Lauren as Miss Rose. Rating: 2/5.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

1/15/09: Papillon (1973)

I've hopped back into the Dustin Hoffman time machine and set the dial to 1973. Published in 1969, the memoirs of Henri "Papillon" Charriere (now widely considered to be a novel more than an autobiography) serve as the basis of this film, featuring Steve McQueen as Papillon and Hoffman as his myopic sidekick, Dega.

The movie chronicles their long years in various prisons and penal colonies, their repeated attempts at escape, and their brutal punishments. The costumes, scenery and makeup effects are extremely impressive; a typically convincing touch are the various oral appliances worn by the leads to suggest deteriorating dental health. We never really learn very much about Papillon other than the fact that he was convicted on trumped-up charges and that he'll stop at nothing to win his freedom—everything else is either implied or left unsaid. (For a two-and-a-half-hour long movie, the backstory is surprisingly nonexistent.) The story frequently reminded me of the British TV series from five years earlier, Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner, which described another fellow wrongly jailed and relentlessly hell-bent on escape from his own island prison. As Dega, Hoffman turns in another astonishing performance—yet inconceivably, not only did he not win an Oscar, he wasn't even nominated for Papillon! Rating: 4/5.

Monday, January 19, 2009

1/14/09: Wag the Dog (1997)

The Dustin clock is turned considerably forward a couple of decades to this late-Nineties comedy, a political satire featuring Hoffman as bigshot Hollywood producer Stanley Motts, who along with professional spin doctor Corad Brean (Robert DeNiro) is called in to tidy up a sex scandal involving the president of the United States. Most of the humor comes from the lengths these guys will go in order to distract the public, even if it means conjuring up a fake war with Albania. The twist involving a war hero (Woody Harrelson) is pure comedy gold; Denis Leary, Anne Heche, Jim Belushi (as himself) and country crooner Willie Nelson all add their personal touches. I take a particular shine to comedies that mine laughs from unexpected places, and this one trades on rape and murder, among other things. Dustin's character is said to be based on real-life producer Bob Evans, who of course produced Hoffman's movie Marathon Man. Rating: 4/5.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

1/13/09: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Although I have seen bits and pieces of Midnight Cowboy since it was first broadcast on TV, I've never watched the entire unedited film from beginning to end. What I remember of it as an adolescent was very dark and confusing and not at all something I would ever fully enjoy. But this is Dustin Hoffman week, and since the movie has had untold accolades heaped upon it (including a Best Picture Oscar), it was way past time for me to take a closer look at it as an adult.

Seeing it in its proper linear fashion hasn't changed my mind about it being dark and confusing, but it is obviously much more cohesive as a film. The themes are loneliness and shattered dreams permeate this very visually intriguing picture. Both of the main characters have doomed aspirations: Joe Buck (Jon Voight) wants to make it as a gigolo in New York City, while Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) dreams of escaping his deteriorating health by way of Miami Beach. But they soothe their loneliness by forging a friendship together, two very different men unified by their dark pasts. I was a little annoyed and disturbed by the psychedelic freak-out party scenes, and the fractured flashbacks and dream sequences give only hints and clues about Joe's troubled history. Overall, Midnight Cowboy is a quite dour and pessimistic movie (everybody in New York is depicted as a lunatic or a pervert), but it's effective and surprisingly poignant. This was Dustin Hoffman's immediate follow-up to The Graduate, and it's immediately clear that the sheer breadth of his range is staggering. Talking in a Flatbush accent reminiscent of the earliest Bugs Bunny cartoons, Hoffman is truly mesmerizing as Ratso—filthy, unshaven and walking with a limp, it's as if he'd contracted tuberculosis just for this particular role. With Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and John McGiver. Rating: 4/5.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

1/12/09: John and Mary (1969)

Yesterday I watched 71-year-old Dustin Hoffman meet a woman and spend an entire day getting to know her as the seed of romance takes root; today I experienced the same thing with a 32-year-old Dusty. Fresh off his international smash The Graduate, Hoffman teamed with Mia Farrow, herself enjoying the stardom that came with Rosemary's Baby. Both actors look exactly like they did in their previous hits (let's face it, Mary is not a huge leap from Rosemary), but John and Mary enjoyed none of the enduring esteem of those earlier movies—in fact, today it's even more obscure than your average Ed Wood trifle.

The story couldn't be simpler: Dustin meets Mia at a bar, they go back to his flat in New York City, sleep together...then spend the next day trying to figure out what comes next. The film is surprisingly gimmicky, with interior monologues and flashbacks providing the various thoughts and backstory to help flesh out the obvious limitations of observing two people held captive in his apartment making soft-boiled eggs and chitchat; there's also the added conceit that they don't even ask each other's names until the movie's over. The performers do their best to overcome the so-so script, but the film is not without its peculiar charms. The chemistry between Hoffman and Farrow make it worth watching to see whether what they had was a one-night or maybe something more. Cool also to see the Hoffmeister act in a similarly romantic movie some 40 years earlier. Also featuring Michael Tolin and Sunny Griffin (in flashbacks) as the pair's former lovers. Rating 3/5.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

1/11/09: Last Chance Harvey (2008)

Here's my first unqualified thumbs-up for the year (and the perfect kickoff to Dustin Hoffman week). It's an old-fashioned romantic comedy about two older people finding love when they aren't expecting it—or even necessarily hoping to find it. TV commercial jingle writer (and failed jazz pianist) Hoffman flies to London to witness the marriage of his daughter and meets Emma Thompson, an employee of Heathrow Airport. The rest is a Before Sunrise-style story of two strangers who start to fall in love. It's an unashamedly corny picture that dares not to insult the intelligence of the viewer—only one scene (involving a dress shop) was genuinely idiotic, but blessedly brief. The movie is about learning to overcome and conquer disappointment, and it's delightfully corny, with a touching score by Dickon Hinchliffe, and it put a tear in my eye not once but twice. See it with someone you want to make out with afterwards. With Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Kathy Baker, Eileen Atkins, James Brolin and West Wing alum Richard Schiff. Rating: 5/5.

1/10/09: Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

Completely plotless and largely pointless, Happy-Go-Lucky is British director Mike Leigh's aimable piffle all about Poppy (Sally Hawkins), an incorrigibly upbeat free spirit who can't take anything or anybody— least of all herself—very seriously. Forever joking and laughing at life's minutiae, Poppy parties with her female friends, jumps on a trampoline, prowls through a bookstore and rarely thinks anything she doesn't say. If the film is about anything, it's Poppy's conflicting role as a teacher (of primary school) versus her role as a student (of Flamenco dancing and driving school), and how her endless effervescence and endearing jokiness ultimately attract the best—and worst—in the people around her. After her bicycle is stolen at the beginning of the film, an incident she naturally laughs off, Poppy pays a grouchy driving instructor to teach her the rules of the road; the scenes detailing their clash of personalities become the glue that holds the film together. Beyond that, we spend a lot of time with her as she goes to a chiropractor, visits her pregnant sister, sleeps with a handsome social worker, and even attempts to mind-meld with a mentally disturbed homeless man. The film urges us, Patch Adams style, to live life to the fullest, and Poppy's cheerful refusal to be serious for three seconds is designed to win our hearts, and it mostly succeeds. (The movie should be called Poppyanna.) She's the sort of girl you wish you knew, but didn't necessarily have to spend two consecutive hours with; in Happy-Go-Lucky, she's onscreen virtually every single second. Whether you flip for Poppy or not, Hawkins does give a star-making performance. With Stanley Townsend and Eddie Marsan. Rating: 3/5.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

1/9/09: House of Games (1987)

I came to House of Games with heightened expectations. I like con-man movies, and I admire the work of David Mamet (this was his directorial debut, which he also co-wrote). It's a decent idea, involving bestselling psychoanalyst Lindsay Crouse and her interactions with con man Joe Mantegna. The film has a reputation of excellence, so I was amazed to find that it is loaded with terrible acting, chiefly by Crouse, who looks all the world like David Bowie and reads her lines like she just memorized them five minutes before Mamet yelled "action." Once you know that the theme is about confidence games, it isn't awfully difficult to predict the main twist in this tale, unless, like Crouse's character, you're exceptionally stupid. With Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Mike Nussbaum and J.T. Walsh. Rating: 2/5.

Friday, January 09, 2009

1/8/09: In the Spirit (1990)

When I embarked on this cinematic odyssey, I never stopped to consider that some of the films I shoved into the ol' DVD player might just be...unwatchable. Such was the case with In the Spirit, a mess of a comedy starring some of my very favorite performers. Unfortunately, they are saddled with a lousy script and extremely awkward direction (by Sandra Seacat—this was her first and, understandably, last picture). I was unable to sit through the entire movie, despite the presence of the usually hilarious Peter Falk and Elaine May. Truth be told, I did laugh out loud twice, both times at Marlo Thomas, who—along with the rest of the capable cast—deserved much better than this "quirky" comedy. With Elaine May, Peter Falk, Jeannie Berlin, Marlo Thomas and Melanie Griffith. Rating: 1/5.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

1/7/09: Force of Evil (1977)

A good deal of the nearly 400 DVDs in my unseen collection are TV movies from the 1970s. These were the films I grew up watching, and I get a perverse, nostalgic kick watching them 30 years later. Today's choice was random, although I did deliberately choose a TV thriller from that decade. Force of Evil contains all of the elements I look for in a movie of this type: revenge, murder, suspense and people forced to take the law into their own hands. (The archetype of this genre is 1973's irresistible Outrage, starring Robert Culp as a guy whose family is being terrorized by no-good punks.)

Force of Evil is about Yale Carrington (Lloyd Bridges), a doctor who's visited by a hospital employee he helped send to jail years before on a rape and murder rap. Now on parole, the sinister Teddy Jakes is back to get revenge against the doctor, his wife and pretty daughter, played by former Brady Bunch star Eve Plumb. Very Bad Things start to happen when Jakes is around, but as always, the law's hands are tied because there's no hard evidence against him. The movie is basically a made-for-TV carbon copy of Cape Fear—it even cribs the earlier movie's famous houseboat climax.

William Watson, a hulking badass with a grotesque grin and an evil glint in his eye, is perfectly cast as the villain, but the movie goes off the rails in its third act when things go from implausible to ridiculous. Still, it was a fun ride until the last 15 minutes. With Lloyd Bridges, William Watson, Pat Crowley, John Anderson and Eve Plumb. Rating: 3/5.

Monday, January 05, 2009

1/6/09: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

I had been under the impression that this was an indie film made on the cheap in Mumbai, and that it had really connected with movie audiences and critics alike. I was expecting kind of a feel-good type of feature, but nothing could have prepared me for how truly gruesome, nauseating, violent and profoundly distasteful much of the first two-thirds of this movie is. It's a particular quirk of mine to be turned off by depictions of children in peril, and more than half of Slumdog focuses on chidren living amid poverty, filth, garbage, crime and such abhorrent conditions that I found myself repeatedly having to look away from the screen. (In one scene, the child protagonist is compelled to wade through a giant pile of human waste; another shows us how another boy is deliberately blinded to make him a profitable beggar. And that's just for starters.) I suppose Slumdog's portrayal of kids living in poverty is an accurate one, but the sheer gruesomeness of it was relentlessly repulsive to both me and Joan, my faithful movie companion. The adults in the movie don't fare much better; a young woman's face is slashed with a razor, a teenage boy is repeatedly tortured, first by being nearly drowned, then electrocuted. There are also numerous killings by handgun, including one murder carried out by a child. The film is terribly potent and brutal.

Having said all that, the final third of the movie lightens up just long enough for a satisfying payoff—a surprisingly corny Hollywood ending. (Thank God; I'd have felt cheated without it.) Despite being occasionally difficult to watch, the film is stylistically brilliant and deserves its universally great reviews, thanks in no small part to the first-rate direction, excellent performances and extraordinary script. My review does not reflect the quality of the movie—just my excessive squeamishness. With Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor and Freida Pinto, a real standout as the immensely beautiful grownup Latika. Rating: 2/5.

1/5/09: Frost/Nixon (2008)

Peter Morgan adapted the screenplay from his own stage play. It's a (very) slightly flctionalized dramatization of the real-life interviews disgraced President Richard Nixon did back in the summer of '77 with British TV personality David Frost. It was apparently Nixon's plan to snare an easy $600 grand by doing the equivalent of a "puff piece" interview with Frost—who surprised everybody by being much better informed and researched than Nixon could have guessed. It's a battle of wits as Frost attempts to trick the Trickster into admitting his guilt in the Watergate affair; the film shambles along at its own pace until the electrifying third act, where Frost finally confronts Nixon about Watergate. Certain dramatic licenses were obviously taken (the real interviews did not climax with Watergate, and Nixon's movie "confession" is wildly blown out of proportion), but it's still a fascinating—if fictionalized—account of the meeting of two very interesting public figures. With Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as the very sweaty ex-POTUS. Rating: 3/5.

1/4/09: Endless Night (1972)

And we close out George Sanders Week with this Agatha Christie adaptation, which also stars one of my favorite actresses, Hayley Mills. Sanders had aged quite noticably in the 11 years since yesterday's selection, 1961's Five Golden Hours. This was one of his last films, released the same year he committed suicide by swallowing several bottles' worth of barbituates; he was 65.

Endless Night surprised me by reuniting Mills with Hywel Bennett, the young co-stars of The Family Way, one of my all-time favorite films. This is a Hitchcockian chiller with a Gothic-type setting, about two lovers moving in to a spectacular mansion they've built on land supposedly cursed by gypsies. There's something menacing and sinister in the air, and the film contained a fairly surprising twist I didn't see coming, which was a nice surprise. Mills struggles with an American accent, and her singing voice is obviously dubbed in a scene where she accompanies herself on piano (I own her 1961 single "Let's Get Together," so I know her real singing voice pretty well). The movie lacks Hitchcock's directorial style and finesse, but the creepy Moog-highlighted musical score helps to heighten the suspense. With Hayley Mills, Hywel Bennett, Britt Ekland and George Sanders. Rating: 3/5.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

1/3/09: Five Golden Hours (1961)

George Sanders Week continues with this con-man comedy cut from the same cloth as David Niven's Bedtime Story (later remade as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). 1950s TV star Ernie Kovacs stars as a professional pall-bearer in Rome who tries to bilk various widows out of money, and hilarity ensues. As The New York Times pointed out in their review, it's the sort of movie Alec Guinness made many times; the all-British cast (except for Kovacs, an American) do a very good job in this sometimes dark comedy. Cyd Charisse—whom I've never before seen in a movie—is extremely charming and beautiful as the widow Kovacs ill-advisedly falls in love with. Sanders himself doesn't show up until more than halfway through, but he's worth waiting for. This was his first movie following my beloved Village of the Damned from 1960. With Ernie Kovacs, Cyd Charisse and George Sanders. Rating: 4/5.

Friday, January 02, 2009

1/2/09: Death of a Scoundrel (1956)

Two years (and about 10 movies) after starring in Witness to Murder, my selection from yesterday, George Sanders headlined this quite different crime drama. Far better acted and directed than that earlier two-dimensional story, Death of a Scoundrel recounts the life of Clementi Suborin, a Czech refugee who becomes a super-suave womanizer, stock manipulator and professional con man by unscrupulously plotting and bilking his way to astonishing wealth. (How Suborin acquires his money isn't a mystery; where he got his perfect British accent is the real puzzler.) It does the Citizen Kane trick of starting with the main character's death, and the rest of the story unfolds in flashbacks.

A variety of actors familiar to me from their later TV appearances come along for the ride, including Lily Munster, Col. Klink and George Sanders' ex-wife, Zsa Zsa Gabor, looking and sounding much more lovely than that shrew who would go on to slap a Beverly Hills cop 33 years hence. The film is a fictionalized account of real-life Wall Street wizard Serge Rubenstein, whose bribes, schemes and other illegal activities led to his own unsolved murder a year before Death of a Scoundrel came out. With George Sanders, Yvonne De Carlo, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Nancy Gates, Victor Jory, Werner Klemperer and Tom Conway (Sanders' real-life brother). Rating: 4/5.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

1/1/09: Witness to Murder (1954)

There was no compelling reason for me to launch my crazy project with this film noir from 1954. I don't even particularly like noirs; I'm just a big fan of its star, George Sanders, who would go on to star in my favorite movie, Village of the Damned, six years after this one. I've got four Sanders movies in my vault, and since this is a partial week, it should work out fairly nicely.

Sanders strangles a woman in his apartment, but makes the classic 1950s movie mistake of doing it with the drapes wide open, leaving neighbor Barbara Stanwyck to watch the murder in horror from across the street. Naturally, this being the ’50s, the cops don't believe her and accuse her of dreaming the whole thing. Released the same year as Rear Window, this movie has absolutely none of Hitchcock's directorial flourish—it reminded me more of TV's Dragnet (which isn't helped by the film's blatant references to it).

I found Stanwyck to be homely and somewhat difficult to look at, and the script isn't much better. Much of the drama involves Stanwyck confronting Sanders about the killing, and him denying it ("I saw you do it!" "I did no such thing"). Eventually it turns into a game of cat and mouse, with Sanders successfully framing Stanwyck to look like a nutcase. When she's hauled off to the psych ward, the story recalled 2008's The Changeling, another movie about a woman unjustly thrown into the looney bin. There's a preposterous romantic subplot involving Stanwyck and Gary Merrill as a sympathetic cop who thinks she's merely hallucinating everything, but he digs her anyway, despite her ho-hum looks and debilitating psychosis. The intrusive music soundtrack works triple time to compensate when there's very little happening on the screen. With Barbara Stanwyck, George Sanders, Gary Merrill. Rating: 2/5.