Thursday, April 30, 2009

4/30/09: From Here to Eternity (1953)

By all rights, I should have watched this movie last week, when it was all Fifties movies, all the time. It's one of those universally beloved classics I've never seen that I'm very glad to cross off the list. Based on the 1952 award-winning James Jones novel, From Here to Eternity is about soldiers based in Hawaii just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The central character is Private Hewitt (Montgomery Clift), a talented bugler and former boxer whom his superior officers try to pressure to fight again for their club. When he declines, they put the heat on him in various sadistic ways. Meanwhile, Sgt. Warden (Burt Lancaster) begins an affair with his captain's neglected wife (Deborah Kerr), and another private (Frank Sinatra) gets into a pissing contest with a bigoted sergeant, played by Ernest Borgnine.

The movie is engrossing, with numerous tragic elements; as frequently happens with these older movies, all of the lead characters are chain-smoking, which tends to distract me—it ends up seeming like one giant cigarette advertisement. The movie contains the famous scene of Lancaster and Kerr making out on the beach at twilight as the tide splashes all around them. Overall, it's a very somber and sad story—I can appreciate why people were so enamored of it in 1953, relatively soon after WWII and directly after the Korean war. What made the biggest impression for me (again, as often happens in these older movies) is observing how the gritty events of the book are diluted for movie version. For example, Donna Reed plays a dance-hall hostess, but clearly she must have been a prostitute in the book. Ironically, the climax of the movie involves Reed having to retell her own sanitized version of certain events in the story to Kerr's character! Rating: 4/5.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

4/29/09: One, Two, Three (1961)

It's hard to go wrong with Billy Wilder. I already raved about him last week, when I blogged about his classic Sunset Boulevard from 1950. Today's screener was his film from 11 years later: One, Two, Three, a farcical cold-war satire featuring Jimmy Cagney as an American Coca-Cola executive working in Western Germany and charged with the task of hosting a superior's visiting daughter for a couple of weeks. The 17-year-old girl turns out to be a real firebrand, and wastes no time hooking up with a rebellious young Communist, a horrifying situation Cagney must somehow defuse at all costs or face getting fired. The movie contains nonstop rapid-fire dialogue peppered with hilarious jokes, Marx Brothers style; the pace is absolutely relentless, and is said to be the reason Cagney didn't make another movie for 20 years. It's a shame, because his comic delivery is priceless. I'll be watching this one again. Rating: 5/5.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

4/28/09: Adventureland (2009)

There's this movie plot, see? It goes something like this: two characters meet and start dating, but there's this terrible lie/secret one is withholding from the other. The romance continues until the terrible secret is exposed, leading to the inevitable breakup, which always lasts 15-20 minutes until the predictable reconciliation, where everybody lives happily ever after. So here's my question: HOW MANY MORE FUCKING TIMES am I going to be subjected to this cinematic retread? There's this feeling I get in the pit of my stomach each time I'm sitting in a darkened movie theater when I realize to my shock and disgust that I've been duped into seeing it again. I've lost count of all the times I have been subjected to regurgitations of the Big Lie movie, usually with slight modifications but always, always with the same basic construct in place. Adventureland is the latest example of how this mind-numbingly overused idea has somehow inspired numerous positive reviews from respectable critics. I freely admit that there is the occasional film that puts some fresh spin on the plot or is otherwise funny enough to warrant seeing it yet again (Tootsie is a great example of the former; About a Boy is an example of the latter), but this ain't it.

Set in the early 1980s, Adeventureland serves up the Big Lie plot in the form of a Fast Times at Ridgemont High-type comedy with characters endlessly puking, porking, toking and, of course, playing Centipede. Two high-school grads (the appealing Jesse Eisenberg and Twilight's Kristen Stewart) meet and start dating while working at a local third-rate amusement park to earn money for college. Stewart's deception is a lie of omission: she's also dating the park's mechanic/heartthrob (Ryan Reynolds), who happens to be married but boinking Stewart on the sly. Yet Stewart is drawn to Eisenberg, because he's cool—he doesn't listen to uncool music embraced by the masses, music by Duran Duran or The Eagles; he gives her mixed tapes with really cool underground tunes by Lou Reed and The Replacements and The New York Dolls. (The movie exists primarily as an advertisement for its own ultracool soundtrack CD.) Here's the main problem: the script works overtime to underscore how cool and nonconformist its leading characters are while simultaneously trapping them in the corniest movie plot in the history of cinema.

Besides the star-crossed lovers, there are various other geeks, bullies and hussies working at and visiting the park to add flavor and color, including one lad who takes glee in giving his friends a sucker punch to the groin. And if you think that's hilarious, brother, you're just going to flip for Adventureland. Kristen Stewart—so much a carbon copy of Ally Sheedy that there were times I was sure it was Ally Sheedy—is very easy on the eyes, but the movie is, to put it charitably, extremely lightweight fare. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig from Saturday Night Live, who have been much funnier elsewhere, provide a few welcome chuckles. Rating: 2/5.

4/27/09: Duplicity (2009)

Here's a movie whose trailer I'd seen repeatedly, and after the first time, I thought, "Well, no way am I seeing this." It appeared to be some sort of spy movie, a genre that I strongly dislike; moreover, it looked like the kind of film where characters are always double-crossing each other, which I also dislike because I can never figure out what's going on or who's double-crossing whom. Except now I know, because it turns out was double-crossed into seeing it.

True to my worst fears, this a confusing and complicated film, which never knows if it's a comedy, a spy thriller, a drama or some hybrid of those. In any case, through easily half the picture, I felt like I needed a cheat sheet to help me understand what was happening. Part of the problem is that the story is told in non-linear fashion, which can be an interesting and refreshing conceit in the right hands (Pulp Fiction), but this one had me scratching my head from beginning to end. It all has to do with two corporate spies, Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, who have ostensibly teamed up to steal a revolutionary and top-secret medical formula. Is their romantic union genuine? Is one conning the other? Or are they both in it for themselves? You're never quite sure, and I ran out of patience about halfway through this two-hour-long tease.

To the film's credit, there are a couple of suspenseful scenes and at least a few well-written lines of dialogue. The performers are all capable (especially the underutilized Paul Giamatti), but I never truly cared about any of the characters, and subsequently the film left me wanting more. Having said that, I really liked the lively musical score and must make a note to pick up a copy of it. Rating: 2/5.

4/26/09: The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

Two buddies drive down to Mexico on a fishing trip and pick up a hitchhiker along the way. It turns out to be a very bad idea, because the guy they pick up is a psychopathic killer who enjoys playing mind games. I may be wrong, but that's the worst kind of hitchhiker.

The movie is famous for having been directed by Ida Lupino, the famous actress, and she does a decent job creating a tense atmosphere as the creepy William Talman waves his gun around from the back seat and barks orders to the two poor saps who pulled over and let him in. He's a decent nutjob, but he has the misfortune to follow the more interesting wackos played by Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Swanson and Robert Mitchum earlier in Fifties Week. The Hitch-Hiker is an OK time-waster, but I thought the ending was rather ho-hum. Rating: 3/5.

I gotta say, this was a pretty darn good week for movies. It whets my appetite for more Fifties fare in the future!

Monday, April 27, 2009

4/25/09: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

In The Night of the Hunter, Robert Mitchum needs to be mesmerizing—both to us in the audience and to his fellow characters, whom he charms with his fake-preacher shtick. Dressed up like a man of God, the despicable Harry Powell (Mitchum) is really a psychopath in search of some stolen loot. His trail leads to two small children, John and Pearl, who have the cash hidden in a toy doll—and Powell will stop and nothing to get his uniquely tattooed fingers on it. Employing a pleasant, sing-songy voice to lure in the confidence of his "flock," Powell's mood can turn fiery at the drop of a hat if he doesn't get what he wants. It's a chilling and suspenseful yarn up until the end, which contains a number of poorly conceived and bizarrely executed elements. Blame director Charles Laughton, whose only film as a director this was. But the rest of the movie is a fine thriller. Rating: 4/5.

Friday, April 24, 2009

4/24/09: The Desperate Hours (1955)

In his penultimate film, Humphrey Bogart stars as one of a trio of convicts who terrorize Fredric March and his family in their two-story suburban home and hold them hostage for a tense couple of days. Unnerving and suspenseful, this is the kind of film where a man holds a gun to a child's head, something that just twists my stomach into knots. Fortunately, the ending has a satisfying payoff, and the film features many fine performances. It's hard to believe that this is the same Fredric March who only five years later would play Matthew Harrison Brady in Inherit the Wind—he looks about 20 years younger (and 50 pounds thinner) in this movie. Rating: 4/5.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

4/23/09: Witness in the Dark (1959)

I've never seen another film by Wolf Rilla, the director of my very favorite movie of all time, Village of the Damned. Recently I learned that Rilla directed this one a year before Damned, so I was eager to check it out. It's a mystery rather than a sci-fi flick, but I'd hoped it would contain the same kind of icy suspense. Patricia Dainton plays a blind woman whose neighbor is murdered; the killer passes her on the way out, but of course she can't see him. Still, the cops hope that maybe she's the key to solving this crime. The movie is passably entertaining, although some of the more dated aspects are rather cringeworthy. The most interesting thing for me was comparing and contrasting the directorial touches with Village of the Damned. Rating: 3/5.

4/22/09: Patterns (1956)

Wow! Three great films in a row...I never would have figured Fifties Week would yield so many personal favorites. I've always enjoyed the work of writer Rod Serling—The Twilight Zone is one of the best TV series ever—and although there's nothing out of the fourth dimension in Patterns, it's one of Serling's typical morality plays. Van Heflin (the guy who blew up the plane in Airport) comes to work for a big-ass company run by ruthless executive Everett Sloane; Heflin soon realizes he's being positioned to replace a longtime VP (Ed Begley) and unwittingly finds himself at the center of a heart-wrenching power struggle. It's an absorbing and savage peek into corporate America, with a satisfying and unpredictable resolution. Sloane is unforgettable as the CEO you'll love to hate. This film whets my appetite for another unseen Serling drama called Requiem for a Heavyweight, which is also in the queue for viewing. Rating: 5/5.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

4/21/09: Born Yesterday (1950)

An April milestone: This is the first week of my project that I've kicked off with two "5" ratings in a row. Honestly, if this keeps up, I might just have to make the rest of the year movies from the 1950s.

How did I miss this amazing picture? Based on the hit play by Garson Kanin, Born Yesterday is about a bellowing, corrupt tycoon named Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) who arrives in Washington, D.C., to buy himself a Congressman and advance a few shady business dealings. His bubbleheaded showgirl girlfriend Billie (Judy Holliday) isn't helping matters by exhibiting her extreme ignorance in front of the local politicos, so Brock hires intellectual journalist Paul Verrall (William Holden) to educate the girl and maybe bring her up to speed on matters of history, politics and certain social graces—a decision Brock soon comes to regret.

Sparkling with wit and significance, the movie delivers plenty of laughs and a strong patriotic message—and did I mention it's a love story? All three of the main actors are simply smashing, especially the obnoxious Crawford and the squeaky-voiced Holliday, whose dumb-blonde act gets funnier every time she rushes to the dictionary to look up the simplest of words. Born Yesterday is pure bliss from beginning to end. Rating: 5/5.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

4/20/09: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Here begins Fifties Week at Chez Bayne.

Billy Wilder has directed some of my very favorite motion pictures, including The Fortune Cookie, Stalag 17, The Apartment and Irma La Douce. Before any of those came Sunset Boulevard, and true to the promise of Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies (who introduces the film on my copy), it's a stunner.

William Holden, playing a screenwriter down on his luck, happens to meet silent-film star Gloria Swanson, who hires him to stage her comeback by rewriting a terrible script she's been penning for herself. What follows is hilarious, tragic and everything in between, as Holden finds himself a "kept man," more or less a prisoner in her decaying mansion on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Filmed in dazzling black and white, the picture is even more fun if you know some of the behind-the-scenes trivia and how so much of the film mirrors reality (the movie was actually a comeback for Swanson, herself a fading star of silent films). Despite the fact that Sunset Boulevard is basically a drama, Swanson turns in a hilarious performance; her turn as the amazingly overdramatic Norma Desmond had me licking my lips in delight. She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but failed to win—a pity, because she's so great in this. But so is everything in Sunset Boulevard; it kept me engrossed from beginning to end. I hope to enjoy it on the big screen someday. An excellent kickoff for Fifties Week! Rating: 5/5.

4/19/09: Tiger Bay (1959)

We end Hayley Mills week, oddly enough, with her film debut—and her only movie filmed in black and white. (It also transitions us nicely into the upcoming Fifties Week.) Generally considered one of her most outstanding movies, 12-year-old Hayley witnesses a "crime of passion"—a Polish sailor shoots his ex-girlfriend after a bitter argument—and ends up befriending and protecting him from the law. Hayley's real-life father, John Mills, plays a detective trying to solve the case. Although both Millses are superb, and the photography is splendid, I have a very difficult time with movies that ask us to sympathize with murderers—especially this guy, who at one point threatens Hayley with a gun as she pleads for him not to shoot her. Even when the Polish sailor risks his life to save Hayley from drowning, I couldn't forgive him for his crimes.

The film is impeccably acted and directed, but I simply couldn't muster up the requisite sympathy for the main character. Still, it's a fascinating glimpse into the very beginning of a great movie career for Hayley Mills—this is the one that landed her a contract with Disney beginning the following year. Rating: 2/5.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

4/18/09: Summer Magic (1963)

Here's a spectacularly harmless family musical, a period piece featuring Hayley Mills and her family relocating to Maine around the turn of the century and unwittingly moving into a house that, well, isn't exactly for rent. The Sherman Brothers songs are all very hummable, including "The Ugly Bug Ball," sung by Burl Ives. Though lighter than a feather, the movie is enjoyable without being particularly engaging—although there's a big belly laugh involving the family's shaggy dog scaring the bejesus out of Hayley's cousin. Rating: 3/5.

4/17/09: The Moon-Spinners (1964)

Hayley looks very pretty in this Greek island adventure, but the film is a bit of a bore. Based on a suspense novel by Mary Stewart, the picture's about how Nikky Ferris (Mills) gets tangled up in a jewel heist and a not-very-interesting romance. Like other Disney films from this period (In Search of the Castaways is one of the worst offenders), a lot of the outdoors and special-effects scenes were obviously filmed on a set with the actors performing in front of a movie-screen projection. (No doubt you've seen one of these sorts of scenes, typified by the one where people are driving in a convertible at 60 mph, but nobody's hair is blowing in the wind.) There are a couple of good stunt scenes, like the one where Hayley has to escape from a windmill, but there's precious little suspense in this so-called thriller. Rating: 2/5.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

4/16/09: That Darn Cat! (1965)

It's hard to imagine kids sitting through this exceptionally dull Disney picture. I may well have seen it as a youngster myself, but there's utterly nothing memorable about it except for the title. Even Hayley Mills, so endearing in the non-Disney films The Truth About Spring and The Chalk Garden only the year before, is completely forgettable here, thanks to a script that starts nowhere and stays there. You sit there itching for the movie to gain any momentum.

A couple of bank robbers kidnap a female teller and hold her hostage in an apartment for what seems like forever while planning to ultimately bump her off. (Why they keep her alive at all is never made clear.) The teller scratches the word HELP on her watch and attaches it, collar-style, around the neck of a visiting neighborhood Siamese cat named D.C., where it is eventually discovered by the cat's owner, Hayley Mills. She enlists FBI agent Dean Jones to help solve the mystery by tailing the feline back to the victim. The story moves at a pace that aspires to reach snail level, and practically all of the characters are morons nobody could possibly care about. (The most interesting thing in the movie are the kitty's pretty blue eyes.) Great comic actors like William Demerest and Roddy McDowall are totally wasted in this rubbish, and Hayley looks horrible in a poofy wig and a nightmarish wardrobe—it's the only film that actually makes her look bad. This is the second yawn-inducing Disney film I've seen this year to star Dean Jones, who can be quite likable given adequate material, which unfortunately was all too rarely. Clearly, Disney had a fetish about pairing the hapless Jones with with the animal kingdom, as his resume reads more like a zookkeeper's credits (Million Dollar Duck, The Shaggy D.A., The Horse in the Grey Flannel Suit, The Ugly Dachshund and Monkeys, Go Home). The poor schnook deserved better.

A 1997 Disney remake of That Darn Cat! featuring Christina Ricci is said to be even worse, although that is next to impossible to imagine. Despite a catchy theme song written by the Sherman Brothers and sung by Bobby Darin, this Cat needs to be put down. Rating: 2/5.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

4/15/09: The Truth About Spring (1964)

Produced in between a bunch of Disney movies, The Truth About Spring is an episodic Caribbean-flavored adventure that's far more Disneyesque than her Disney film released later the same year (The Moon-Spinners).

is one of several films she co-starred in with her famous father, John Mills, and both of them are irresistible in this one, playing (very convincingly!) a father and daughter. Hayley is Spring, a teenage tomboy being brought up by her salty-dog papa, Tommy Tyler, on his sailboat. When the pair of them play host to a handsome young fellow named William Ashton (James McArthur) for a couple of weeks, Spring becomes a coming-of-age romance story as Hayley starts to have feelings she's never experienced before. For the boys, there are pirates and buried treasure; for me, there are innumerable scenes that highlight Hayley's shapely, jeans-covered tush. It's an old-fashioned treat for the entire family, and I adored it. Rating: 5/5.

4/14/09: Gypsy Girl (1966)

In yesterday's movie, Hayley Mills played a young woman who befriends an ostensibly slow-witted man; today, she's the one who's mentally challenged. Gypsy Girl, alternately known as Sky West and Crooked, is about a young woman who becomes something of a thorn in the side of the villagers where she lives. As Brydie White, a slightly retarded girl, she leads a crusade of children to bury dead pets in the local cemetery, which is a religious no-no. Along the way, she catches the eye of a gypsy boy named Roibon (Ian McShane). It's a heartwarming star-crossed-lovers story that was written by Mills's real-life mother, Mary Hayley Bell, and directed by father, the great actor John Mills (his only directorial effort). Rating: 4/5.

4/13/09: Twisted Nerve (1968)

This week's theme is Hayley Mills, an actress I fell in love with a lifetime ago, after seeing her wonderful Disney films Pollyanna and The Parent Trap. My obsession with Mills intensified when I saw The Family Way (1966), an absolutely beautiful picture and one of her first meant strictly for adult audiences. Over the years I've made a point to catch as many of her movies as possible, but now I've got a backlog. This week, I get to scratch seven of them off the list.

Twisted Nerve is the second of three movies Mills starred in with actor Hywel Bennett (the first being The Family Way and the last being Endless Night, which was the fourth movie I saw this year). She plays a sweet librarian who catches the eye of Bennett, a wealthy psychopath who pretends to be mentally retarded to play on her heartstrings. He even figures out a way to move in with her and her mother...and then things start to go horribly wrong. This is a very curious thriller, a variation on both the crazed stalker story and the "big lie" plot I'm always complaining about, but the result is curiously compelling. Hayley never looked more beautiful, and even her mum (Billie Whitelaw) is pretty cute! Rating: 4/5.

4/12/09: American History X (1998)

An unforgettable drama, American History X gives us Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard, a hardcore skinhead with a swastika tattooed on his chest. Told largely in flashbacks, the film recounts how he became a vicious racist—and his long, hard road to redemption. AHX demonstrates, in often shocking terms, how hate begats hate. It's a film every kid in every school should be made to watch. Norton's performance is phenomenal, one of the best portrayals I've ever seen onscreen. Side note: it was interesting to see Johnny's Diner (just a few blocks from my house) used in one scene. Rating: 5/5.

4/11/09: Young People Fucking (2007)

I hadn't even heard of this movie until a couple of weeks ago. I was scrolling through lists of films on Wikipedia when the title caught my eye (how could it not?). My expectations were nonexistent; I figured at the very least there would be some hot sex in it. But Young People Fucking turns out to be a consistently funny satire on modern-day mating habits, with numerous laugh-out-loud moments. It's really five thematically linked short films in one, each featuring a couple with a unique sexual problem. Although there are obviously sexual situations and some nudity, YPF doesn't approach pornography on any level; what it does approach is comedic perfection—it's smart, affectionate, delightful and even touching—it's everything a Judd Apatow sex comedy isn't. A genuine surprise. Rating: 4/5.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

4/10/09: Luv (1967)

One of the first films I selected for my movie-a-day project was 1990's In the Spirit, solely because it co-starred Elaine May. I love May, even though she has occasionally appeared in lackluster material (California Suite) and written and directed terrible movies (Ishtar, Mikey and Nicky). So why the May fixation? Three reasons.

1. She directed and starred in one of my all-time favorite comedies, A New Leaf.

2. She co-stars in the wonderful and criminally underrated Woody Allen movie Small Time Crooks, which she is brilliant in.

3. She co-wrote Tootsie, one of the funniest and best films in the history of cinema.

May has never been a prolific actress, so I was looking forward to Luv, which is based on a successful Broadway play by Murray Schisgal (who also co-wrote Tootsie). Luv is a four-character comedy about a pair of couples whose romances occasionally overlap; one of the themes is suicide, which brings some dark laughs to the table. It undoubtedly worked better as a play, but the movie is aided by a great cast that also includes Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk. Rating: 3/5.

4/9/09: The Sting (1973)

Here's one of those classic, award-winning "Best Pictures" I have been itching to finally sit down and watch. To be honest, I think my family saw this at a drive-in when it first came out, but I remember absolutely nothing about it other than I thought it was incredibly boring. And now that I'm an adult with an interest in confidence games, I'm approaching it with quite a different mindset. Following The Hustler and Nobody's Fool, The Sting is my third Paul Newman picture this year, and each has been rewarding in its own way. Newman and Robert Redford, reuniting after their enormous success with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—another landmark movie I've never seen in its entirety—have proven chemistry together, and they make The Sting fun to watch. Very much like the other "con game" movies I've seen earlier this year (House of Games, Always a Bride), I could see the twist in the tale coming from a long way off, but it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the movie. (We'll see how I do on The Spanish Prisoner later this year.) Hilariously, the Scott Joplin ragtime music on the soundtrack predates the period of the story by some 25 years. Rating: 4/5.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

4/8/09: Handgun (1983)

A couple of years ago, I saw a movie called The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster. A passably enjoyable drama about a woman who's out for revenge after a brutal attack, it reminded me vaguely of Death Wish. Reading the reviews of the Foster movie, though, it was obvious that it more strongly resembled a little-known film from 1983 called Handgun, whose plot it closely mirrors. So I picked up the DVD to compare and contrast the two, and am just now getting around to doing that.

Turns out that The Brave One is far superior, thanks to a script, performances and production values that are immeasurably higher. In Handgun (also known as Deep in the Heart), a young woman dates a guy who rapes her at gunpoint. Understandably freaked, she becomes consumed with turning the tables on her attacker. The film chronicles her slow—and I do mean slow—descent from affable and easy-going to deeply troubled and dispirited. The movie suffers from a shoestring budget and an overly simplistic, suspense-free script, although actress Karen Young does manage to keep us at least mildly interested in her character, Kathleen. Overall, though, the movie is a snooze. Rating: 2/5.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

4/7/09: Earth (2007)

The 2006 BBC documentary series Planet Earth was re-edited, re-narrated (by Patrick Stewart) and re-released internationally in 2007 as a theatrical film called, simply, Earth. Two years later, it has been re-re-narrated (by James Earl Jones) and is about to be re-re-released here in the states. My friend Su invited me to a special screening tonight; the film opens domestically later this month.

Very much like the nature shows I watched as a boy—Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom leaps to mind—this dazzling real-life drama shows us nature in its raw, undiluted form. A familiar scene in Earth shows a hungry cheetah chasing and quickly overtaking a young gazelle (except we see it in super slo-mo, where it takes about two minutes). But the real point of Earth is to show the migration paths of several animal families: specifically African elephant, humpback whale and polar bear. Mixed in are all kinds of other animals, including wolves, birds of paradise, lions and caribou. Earth sets out to show us the challenges face by these animals in a world whose climates are rapidly changing due to global warming. We see their battles, their journeys, their struggles, their predators, their quest for food and water. All of it is shot in exquisite high-definition, and all of it is extraordinary. From a baby polar bear emerging from hibernation and walking for the first time to a great white shark chomping into its prey, the "circle of life" theme is laid before us in glorious living color. This may be the most beautifully photographed film of all time, and James Earl Jones sounds better than ever in his narration. The viewer alternately watches the film in a kind of awe, marveling at both the beauty of nature and the technical wizardry that went into filming it in the first place. The time-lapse photography in particular is truly majestic. Rating: 5/5.

4/6/09: Bart Got a Room (2009)

I was attracted to Bart Got a Room because of the adult actors, William H. Macy (Fargo) and Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm), both of whom have brought me so much joy over the passage of time. They play a divorced couple, but the movie is mostly about their awkward high-school son, Danny (newcomer Steven Kaplan), whose desperation to find a prom date forms the crux of the story. Should he invite the object of his affection, dreamy car-pool companion Alice (Ashley Benson) or longtime best friend Camille (Alia Shawkat), who's not much to look at but more worthy? The clock is ticking, and nebbish Danny is quickly running out of choices.

Closer to the spirit of John Hughes than Judd Apatow, Bart Got a Room was filmed in and around Hallandale, Florida, very close to where I grew up, and its clever script kept me chuckling. My favorite bits involved the strings attached to a date with an Asian classmate named Debbie Yang, and the sight of Danny's ultimate date, who it turns out doesn't even do proms! Wearing a "jew-fro," William H. Macy is simply hilarious as Danny's father. The entire cast is fine, and I was delighted to sit through a film that takes place practically in my old backyard. The movie's title, quoted to maximum effectiveness, is its own best joke. Kudos also to future pinup model Tyler O'Campo in a small role as Camille's much sexier sister. Rating: 4/5.

4/5/09: A Taste of Honey (1961)

Released the year I was born, A Taste of Honey was directed by Tony Richardson, who would go on to win an Oscar for Tom Jones a couple of years later. This is a much different kind of film—one of those "kitchen sink" dramas that focus on working-class people of Britain, and like a couple of others in British Sixties Week, A Taste of Honey is also about an unwanted pregnancy.

Based on a play by Shelagh Delaney, the film focuses on Jo (Rita Tushingham), a homely 17-year-old, is being brought up by her somewhat promiscuous mother (Dora Bryan, in a role Angela Lansbury played on Broadway). Jo meets a black sailor, sleeps with him, and learns she's pregnant after the sailor goes off to sea. When Mom gets married, Jo gets her own flat, which she later shares with a sexually confused boy named Geoffrey (Murray Melvin). The film chronicles their numerous spats, jealousies, pent-up resentments and flat-out arguments as insults are hurled and feelings are wounded. The film presents us with a cast of basically unlikable characters that I have a very difficult time caring about. Ugly-duckling Jo ought to evoke a margin of sympathy, but she's as rude and condescending to her mum as her mum is to her. The male characters weren't much to hang your hat on either. It's a glum affair throughout, the stark black-and-white intensifying the rather grimy, drab look of Manchester at this time period. It would have been nice if the characters could learn from their mistakes, or even each others' mistakes, but there are no happy endings for anybody here, and the overall theme seems to be that we are doomed to repeat the blunders from the past. I suspect A Taste of Honey would have worked better as a play for me; as a film, it's very sad without being remotely moving. Rating: 2/5.

Overall, British Sixties Week turned out to be a colossal disappointment! But at least there were Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Georgy Girl.

Monday, April 06, 2009

4/4/09: Tom Jones (1963)

"The whole world loves Tom Jones!" boasts the movie poster. Well, almost the whole world. How long have I been hearing about how great this movie is? Winner of four Oscars (including Best Picture) and nominated for several others, Tom Jones is based on the famous Henry Fielding novel and stars Albert Finney as the title character, born a bastard but destined for greatness—after a lot of swordfighting and sex, at any rate. Indeed, it's a lavish spectacle, with costumes and sets looking as if they'd come straight from the 1700s. But to me, this was a colossal bore. As my friend Joan is fond of saying, this was obviously a movie of its time—what must have seemed daring and ribald in 1963 seems cutesy and tame 45 years later. All the reviews talk about how "hilarious" the movie is, but I don't think I even smiled once.

Familiar faces kept turning up in the cast and credits—names I've seen all through British Sixties Week. The screenplay was by John Osborne, who would go on to write Inadmissible Evidence five years later. Lead actor Finney was also the star of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; David Warner (of Morgan) shows up as a scoundrel; and Lynn Redgrave (Georgy Girl) is briefly seen in what turns out to be her very first movie. This may be the first time I've seen the ravishing Susannah York—and I sure hope it's not the last.

Earlier this evening, I had a discussion with a friend about the true meaning of "overrated." Tom Jones might just be the dictionary definition of same. I am going to spend the rest of the evening trying to forget its authentic-sounding but nevertheless annoying harpsichord soundtrack. Oh, well, cross another supposed masterpiece off the list. Rating: 2/5.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

4/3/09: Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)

If nothing else, Morgan is probably the most original movie I've seen all year. David Warner plays Morgan, a gorilla-obsessed artist whose offbeat shenanigans have led his more upscale wife Leoni (Vanessa Redgrave) to divorce him and take up with a man in her own social class. (How interesting to see Vanessa in a movie one day after enjoying her sister Lynn Redgrave in Georgy Girl, made the same year.)

Most of the film concerns looney-bird Morgan's attempts to win back his wife's affections by staging antics that are at best irritating and at worst profane and illegal. Part of the fun is guessing which of these unsuccessful attempts will put a chivalrous grin on Leoni's face—she doesn't even protest much when being kidnapped. The film is full of surreal editing gimmicks, like freeze-frames and sped-up motion (reminiscent of TV's Benny Hill) during some of the slapstick moments. But the real draw here is David Warner's lunatic turn as anarchist Morgan, who often put me in the mind of Peter O'Toole. Rating: 4/5.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

4/2/09: Georgy Girl (1966)

Yesterday's feature was a British ’60s comedy-drama filmed in black and white that touched on the issue of unwanted pregnancy. Today we get another—but while Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was more dramatic, today's movie is decidedly more comedic.

Georgy Girl is all about Georgy (Lynn Redgrave), a plain-looking and somewhat husky 22-year-old who's full of charm and a love for children, but naive in the ways of love and sex. She lives with Meredith, a beautiful but emotionally vacant violinist (Charlotte Rampling) and is chummy with Meredith's goofy, fun-loving boyfriend Jos (Alan Bates). Complications ensue when ice-bitch Meredith gets preggers and Jos decides he's really in love with Georgy. Then there's James (James Mason) the 49-year-old (!) employer of Georgy's father, who wants Georgy to be his mistress. (Mason was in his late fifties at the time of the film's release.) The film chronicles the merriment and heartbreak as all of the romantic problems get themselves worked out.

I have wanted to see this movie for decades, and very happy to finally scratch it from the list. As expected, it's a very likable and engrossing picture, due chiefly to the sprightly direction and the terrific performance of Redgrave in her second feature film. But the real revelation for me is Alan Bates, usually a bit of a downer—I've never really enjoyed him before, but he's so carefree and animated here that he's practically a cartoon. Despite being third billed, Redgrave is clearly the star of the movie; she and Mason were nominated for Oscars, as was the immensely catchy title song (tragically, it lost to "Born Free"). Rating: 4/5.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

4/1/09: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Blindingly attractive and irresistibly charismatic, young Albert Finney commands the screen in virtually every second of this adaptation of the Alan Sillitoe novel about a working-class rapscallion. As Arthur Seaton, Finney gives us a hard-working but mischievous blighter, fond of pranking, boozing, smoking, lying and fighting when he's not sweating over his lathe down at the local factory. Seaton is part sociopath and part rebel, but will he ever be tamed? His relationships with his two girlfriends—one married (Rachel Roberts) and one single (Shirley Anne Field)—will play a big part in answering that question. In a small but pivotal role, Bryan Pringle is outstanding as the husband of Seaton's married girlfriend; his scene with Finney at the end of the movie is one of the most moving I've seen in a film all year. Finally, a British film from the 1960s I'll remember for longer than a fortnight! Rating: 5/5.

3/31/09: Accident (1967)

What an ill-conceived week this is turning out to be. Not even the dull Darling could have prepared me for the sleep-inducing Accident, starring Dirk Bogarde as a married Oxford professor who finds himself in a love-trapezoid with a beautiful Austrian girl he is tutoring and two other men, one of whom is Michael York in his first major screen role. The film starts with the moody prof at his stately country home when he hears the sound of a car accident, which has claimed the life of one passenger and left the other in a kind of catatonic shock. The rest of the movie is a flashback that details the "action" up till that point. As directed by Joseph Losey, the Harold Pinter screenplay is just like one of his plays, by which I mean it is full of pregnant pauses and hidden subtexts. In other words, it all moves at a pace that a snail would leave in the dust. The real accident is how this DVD made its way into my collection in the first place. Note to self: Beware the phrase "critically acclaimed." Rating: 1/5.