Tuesday, December 14, 2010

October/November 2010

Toward the end of October, I suffered a terrible computer mishap: I lost the file where I kept track of the movies I had been seeing. This led to a period of inactivity updating my blog while I procrastinated about reconstructing the list. Now, as we hurtle toward the end of the calendar year, it is finally time to try piecing together the list of the films I have seen during the last couple of months. I have zero memory which of these I saw in which month, but at least I am reasonably sure that all of the feature films are accounted for. No doubt I've lost track of some of the older films I viewed on DVD or AVI, but I do remember most of them.

I'll start with the newer stuff and list everything in order of enjoyment, since I no longer have a record of what I saw chronologically.


FIRST-RUN

TANGLED—At the start of this year, it was still known as Rapunzel, Disney's latest attempt to breathe life into the old princess fairy-tale formula. But after The Princess and the Frog did less-than-spectacular business (especially among boys), the Mouse's marketers tinkered with the title and the ad campaign, helping to create a huge hit. The movie has flair, humor, suspense and great music (by Alan Menken). (10)

EASY A—This takeoff on The Scarlet Letter presents Emma Stone as a clean-cut high-school girl who pretends to be a slut to beef up her popularity—a plan that works a little too well. It's a surprisingly fun comedy with uniformly good performances, including Amanda Bynes as an annoying Bible-thumper. (9)

MEGAMIND—The latest Dreamworks animated feature stars Will Ferrell as the title supervillain, who has a few more likable bones in his body than he ought to have. The top-notch cast includes Tina Fey, David Cross and Brad Pitt. As with all Dreamworks cartoons, the only thing that really bugged me about this one is the perpetual, predictable and highly annoying reliance of hit songs on the soundtrack. Still, this is a very fun and lively outing, if a bit formulaic. (9)


IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY—My jokey alternate title for this was Love Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. A depressed teen with thoughts of suicide (Keir Gilchrist) checks himself into a psych ward and meets an adorable pseudo-crazy girl there. Is it true love, or will he pursue the classmate he has a crush on? Zach Galifianakis provides some laughs as another fellow inmate. (8)

THE SOCIAL NETWORK—Perhaps the year's most talked-about movie, a largely fictionalized account of how computer genius Mark Zuckerberg either invented or stole the idea for Facebook, depending on whose story you believe. Jesse Eisenberg seems to be channeling Michael Cera as the laconic Zuckerberg; despite some fun, snarky dialogue by Aaron Sorkin, the whole plot comes down to "he said / he said." (8)

LIFE AS WE KNOW IT—This may be the only movie I have seen accidentally. After sitting through one movie at a local multiplex one afternoon, I sneaked into this one under the impression that it was Never Let Me Go, which has a similarly generic title. I had been actively avoiding this unbelievably contrived Katherine Heigl romantic "comedy," but since I wasn't paying for it, I decided to give it a chance...and found it to be not nearly as terrible as I had anticipated. It's enjoyable in a very cute, mindless way, and Heigl is, after all, extremely beautiful. (7)


LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS—Unlike the previous entry, this was a movie that I'd had very high expectations for that was a bit disappointing. I happen to be a big fan of director Ed Zwick, who has provided me with untold hours of pleasure with his many TV dramas, as well as movies like Courage Under Fire. This film is part romantic comedy, part historical satire and part disease-of-the-week drama, and while each of these parts succeeds on its own, it doesn't really quite jell as a whole. Anne Hathaway, as a sexy sufferer of Parkinsons, is worth the price of admission—both for her acting and the considerable nudity she has on display. (7)

FAIR GAME—Naomi Watts plays real-life CIA agent Valerie Plame, whose cover was blown by certain White House officials out to discredit her husband (Sean Penn). I remember that I enjoyed it, but most of my specific memories about the film have already evaporated from my mind. (7)

MORNING GLORY—Ironically, even though the Valerie Plame movie has social relevance and high-caliber acting, it is this wispy, silly, ineffectual comedy that I recall all the details about. Harrison Ford is a grumpy, award-winning broadcast journalist (think Dan Rather) who reluctantly takes a position as the host of a TV morning show produced by novice Rachel McAdams. The movie is frightfully contrived, extremely silly and nearly impossible not to enjoy. McAdams is arguably the most beautiful of actresses working in movies today. (7)


HEREAFTER—It starts with a devastating and spectacular tsuami, one of the single best special-effects sequences I have ever seen. Director Clint Eastwood's movie, about a guy (Matt Damon) who communicates with the dead but doesn't really enjoy his gift, is a slow-moving affair, featuring three characters in different countries who have each been touched by death and who, after an extremely long wait, finally converge. Interesting, but overlong; and Damon's reluctance to use his amazing powers was never explained to my complete satisfaction. (7)

LET ME IN—Remake of a Swedish vampire movie; moderately entertaining, thanks to actress Chloe Moretz of Kick-Ass. (7)

SKYLINECloverfield meets War of the Worlds as a small group of L.A. dwellers cope with a terrifying alien invasion. Despite a truly horrible screenplay with laughable dialogue, it's worth seeing just for the monsters. (7)


STONE—No-nonsense prison parole official Robert DeNiro must decide the fate of loopy inmate Edward Norton, which proves tricky when Norton's sexy wife, Milla Jovovich, attempts to intervene. Intriguing premise, which ultimately suffers from a total lack of any sympathetic characters. (7)

THE AMERICAN—George Clooney is a hit man hiding out in an Italian village and playing the mattress mambo with hooker Violante Placido. Decent, but as with the previous entry, it's hard to truly care about any of the characters. (7)

BURLESQUE—This is the kind of terrible movie you check out just to see how bad it is. It did not disappoint in that respect (everything about it is either asinine or ludicrous), but Cher continues to shine as an actress. (5)


REVIVALS / DVD / iPAD

SUSPICION (1941)—Fun Hitchcock film about how Joan Fontaine marries a charming gambler (Cary Grant) who might just be plotting to bump her off for her money. (8)

SAW (2004)—This was one of a series of horror movies I viewed while sailing on my Royal Caribbean cruise of early November. A relentlessly gory and disgusting entry that launched the extremely successful series. This first chapter, at least, contains a good idea and a few decent twists. Not sure if I'll bother with any of the sequels. (8)

HOSTEL (2005)—People keep disappearing in Eli Roth's creepy and sadistic horror movie, set in a Slovakian city where you can torture kidnap victims at a price. Like Saw, it is disgusting and horrific, but it sure keeps you interested. (8)


SPLICE (2009)—A suspenseful sci-fi film that zips along at a breakneck pace. A pair of romantically involved scientists secretly cross-breed a human and animal named Dren, whom they perversely keep as part lab experiment, part pet, and part daughter. Alternately compelling, silly and wildly implausible, but always entertaining. Good SFX. Suggested sequel: Diet Splice. (8)

A PERSONAL AFFAIR (1953)—Having recently very much enjoyed the young Glynis Johns in The Card, I decided to check out this film from around the same time period. It's a low-key melodrama/mystery about how Johns falls in love with her clueless married schoolteacher (Leo Genn), then vanishes after being confronted about her feelings by Genn's wife (Gene Tierney). With the lovesick teenager missing, things start to look very bad for the teacher. This being the 1950s, all is happily resolved by the end. (8)

MR. DENNING DRIVES NORTH (1952)—I continue to plow through the John Mills filmography with this Hitchcockian thriller about a guy suspected for a murder he didn't commit. He must put the pieces of the puzzle while running from the cops. It's a very familiar plot, but Mills is never less than fascinating to watch onscreen. (8)

THE GAME (1997)—The phrase "laughably preposterous" gets thrown around a lot, but it definitely applies here. Michael Douglas is given a gift of a live-action "game," which he must play out in order to gain some sort of relevant epiphany, but the rules seem to entail putting his life in almost constant peril. The result is a movie about a game that becomes kind of a game itself, as the viewer tries to piece together exactly what is going on. Michael Douglas is very watchable, but the movie is so ludicrous that it's difficult to take seriously. (7)

THE THIRD MAN (1949)—Noirish adaptation of Graham Greene's novel about a man (Joseph Cotten) who investigates the mysterious death of his friend (Orson Welles) in Vienna. I wanted to like it more than I did; I never like these film noirs, and Cotten is one of my least-favorite actors. (6)

PEEPING TOM (1960)—British thriller about a twisted psychopath who likes to film women as he murders them; it was way ahead of its time when it was released, but it's lost a great deal of its impact after 50 years. (6)


MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY (1993)—There's nary a twist in Woody Allen's comedy-mystery, his first post-Mia movie. It's neither hilarious nor suspenseful—it's just about as mediocre as the poster for it would seem to suggest. Allen himself whines way too much in it. (6)

A CHILD IS WAITING (1963)—Teacher Judy Garland clashes with the principal of the school for retarded children. (Real retarded kids were used, and it's funny to hear them referred to as "retarded kids" way before the political consciousness deemed that a bad word.) Innovative, at least in 1963; a bit dull and overwrought today. (6)

CHINATOWN (1974) Landmark film-noir tribute starring Jack Nicholson as a private eye who investigates some excruciatingly boring goings-on related to the local water utility. "Vastly overrated" is putting it mildly—I guess I will never understand why people love this movie. (4)

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

September 2010

Last year, I attempted to watch an average of one movie a day. It was a challenge, and doomed to fail, but I was surprised when I was able to keep it up for nearly half of 2009 until other distractions demanded my attention. Now, thanks to my new iPad, I am able to watch more films on the go, and I was actually able to view a movie every day this September.

I've also adopted a new philosophy about movie watching—it suddenly dawned on me that I need not commit to watching a movie in its entirety if I find it boring, nonsensical, inferior or unbelievable. So I've actually begun to abandon some movies after 15-30 minutes when they fail to carbonate my imagination.

Here's September's cinematic lineup, more or less in chronological order:


1. FRIGHT (1971) I picked this because I enjoy scary movies—and because British actress Susan George was so sexy during this period of her career. This fright-fest starts off extremely well: Susan plays a pretty girl who comes over to babysit while the lady and gentleman of the house spend the evening out. The setup is done very skillfully, and I was rapt with interest as the groundwork was laid for the terror to come. As Susan spends the first quarter-hour alone in the house, there's a growing sense of foreboding...and then, much to my disappointment, the film proceeds to slowly jump the shark. The source of the film's evil menace—which should deliver the paralyzing fright that the film's title promises—is far more annoying than horrific, and modern-day viewers are apt to be bewildered by the police response (if you can call it that), which involves standing around outside the house talking somewhat loudly. What a terrible pity this movie couldn't follow through on what starts out so well...although as I say, Susan is quite easy on the eyes. (5)

2. THE BROTHERS BLOOM (2008) This is one of half a dozen films I saw this month that were recommended by various friends. Valerie Collins implored me to give this "flim-flam" film a chance—and since I love con-artist stories, I accepted the challenge. Two brothers (sexy Mark Ruffalo and eagle-nosed Adrien Brody) who have had a lot of success swindling people decide to do one final con, this time on an eccentric rich girl named Penelope (Rachel Weisz). Their very elaborate and well-plotted scam is fraught with peril, thanks to the unpredictability of their "mark." It's an interesting though quite offbeat story, and one of the better con movies. (8)

3. MACHETE (2010) This is a new film by Robert Rodriguez, based on the fake trailer that appeared in Grindhouse, his double feature with Quentin Tarantino. It's another tribute to the farfetched but relentlessly action-packed drive-in films from the '60s and '70s, and he does it so well that the parody aspect begins to blur as the movie becomes nearly indistinguishable from the ones it intends to satirize. Danny Trejo is perfectly cast as the macho man's macho man, and his beautiful co-stars (Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba) make this a must-see movie for men. Bloody, preposterous, fitfully enjoyable fun. (8)


4. THE CARD (1952) Recently I purchased an obscure show-tune LP of a musical called The Card, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I learned that the musical was based on a 1911 novel by Arnold Bennett, which was later made into this 1952 comedy film. Having enjoyed the musical so much, I was eager to check out the (non-musical) movie version, and I was not disappointed. Alec Guinness (37 years old at the time of filming, but seeming much younger) stars as a self-made entrepreneur who gets involved with a woman played by the lovely but spoiled Glynis Johns. Her performance is so delightful that I subsequently picked up several of her other movies and forcing my friend Jay to watch it (and he liked it well enough to share it with one of his friends). Now if I can only get him to listen to the musical! (9)

5. A CHRISTMAS WISH (1998) Here's a made-for-TV movie recommended to me by my friend Joan, who'd seen it several years ago. It's a serviceable, low-budget drama, reminding me of one of the Danielle Steel novels I've read. Neil Patrick Harris stars as a man who has taken over his grandfather's real-estate business, grappling with trying to fill grandpa's estimable shoes, striking up a new romance—and solving a compelling mystery in time for Christmas. The movie tries hard to be heartwarming while winding up mostly corny and syrupy (just like the vast majority of TV movies) but it's watchable enough. I did have a problem with the mystery's inevitable solution, but seeing a pre-Ring Naomi Watts was a revelation! (8)

6. THIS HAPPY BREED (1944) My favorite movie of the month and possibly the year, this intensely moving drama is about a working-class family in England spanning the time between the two World Wars, exploring the themes of love, death, war, loyalty, friendship, motherhood, fatherhood and maturity. It left me sobbing and shattered; I have now sat through it three times so far and can't wait to see it again. Featuring the always-fantastic John Mills, as well as Robert Newton, Celia Johnson and Kay Walsh—every one of them riveting. Directed by David Lean and written by the great Noel Coward. (10)

7. IN WHICH WE SERVE (1942) My selection of this film was directly influenced by the preceding one; not only does it also feature John Mills and Kay Walsh, but it was also written by Noel Coward (and actually stars Coward as well)! This one takes place during WWII, and interestingly, was made and released well before the end of that war. The stories of the movie are told mostly in flashback. (8)

8. THE MILLION-POUND NOTE (1954) Penniless American Gregory Peck wanders around London looking for a job and a meal, and is given an extraordinary gift of £1,000,000 by two rich men who have made a private bet about their gift. The movie makes its point—people treat you differently if they think you're rich—over and over again. This contrived comedy is not bad, but not quite as funny as I'd hoped. (7)


9. THE NOTORIOUS LANDLADY (1962) Jack Lemmon, one of my very favorite actors, stars in this comedy-mystery as an American embassy man in London who falls for a woman with a possibly murderous past. The film has the promise of a Hitchockian-type thriller, but eventually becomes too silly and slapsticky. Still, the first half is quite enjoyable. (7)

10. STARTER FOR 10 (2006) Back in 1985, a freshman at Bristol University competes for a chance to appear on a famous TV quiz show (with a beautiful girl he falls for). Moderately interesting study of a guy who learns some big Life Lessons, with the always enchanting Rebecca Hall as the girl he's clearly more suited for. I like to think I am very well suited for her myself. (8)

11. SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010) It seems only yesterday that Joan and I were staring at an oversized poster of this movie and remarking on how terrible it would probably be. But free screenings at Paramount have a way of luring us in, and I'm glad it did. This turns out to be a mad, loud, unexpectedly surreal video-game of a movie that I loved—and that she despised. The picture positively percolates with goofy humor and frenzied action. A pure bliss-out. (10)


12. THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) This is one of a handful of movies (along with Saturday Night Fever, Chinatown and Raging Bull) that most film buffs have seen but that I have inexplicably missed. When a local revival cinema was showing a new 35mm print of the classic musical, I knew the time had finally come for me to see it. Not only was I amazed by how truly excellent it was, I was totally unprepared for the mad crush I would develop on Julie Andrews, who is more than just sweet in this film—she's incredibly sexy as well. I've heard "Do, Re, Mi" all my life, so how wild is it that this sequence in the film reduced me to tears? (10)

13. INDISCREET (1958) Halfway into this movie about how a married man (Cary Grant) has an affair with a famous actress (Ingrid Bergman), I realized I was watching yet another variation of the "Big Lie" romance flick, and I never quite recovered from that revelation. Odd revelation: I always enjoy Cary Grant, but I rarely love any of the movies I see him in! (7)

14. WHO IS HARRY NILSSON? (2010) A fun and informative documentary about the famous singer-songwriter who shot to stardom with his version of "Everybody's Talkin'" from Midnight Cowboy. It's full of great interviews with people who knew and worked with him, including my musical hero, Randy Newman. (8)


15. THE MORTAL STORM (1940) I love Jimmy Stewart...but is he really the best person to cast as a German citizen who finds himself up against the Nazis? It wasn't easy to buy him in that role, but fortunately Stewart is watchable in virtually everything he does, so I stuck with this story of 1930s anti-Semitism in a German alps setting. Frank Morgan (aka the Wizard of Oz) appears as a college professor whose career is cut short when he teaches that Aryans and non-Aryans are biologically identical. (8)

16. EAT PRAY LOVE (2010) Reasonably entertaining travelogue starring Julia Roberts on a spiritual journey to Italy, India and Indonesia (WHAT? No Iceland?), where she indulges in the title verbs. Not nearly as bad as I feared it'd be; still hard to look at Javier Bardem and not recall his sinister character from No Country for Old Men. (8)


17. I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) Extremely low-budget, poorly made revenge flick about a woman who's brutally raped by a quartet of rednecks...and the comeuppance each receives after they unwisely leave her alive. It's hard to defend my viewing of this outright trash, horribly written and directed as it is, but I just have a passion for revenge movies—even shamelessly exploitative ones like this. (8)

18. GENEVIEVE (1953) I'd read exceedingly good things about this British comedy about a pair of couples who own antique cars and drive them from London to Brighton in a kind of race. Hilarity ensues when the cars continually break down and the rival men mock and trick each other. Clean, good-spirited fun. (9)

19. A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946) Yet another acclaimed British film, this one features young David Niven as a WWII aviator who by all rights should have died when his bomber crashes, but Heaven apparently makes some sort of mistake (à la Here Comes Mr. Jordan) and he has to argue his case in the Court of the Great Beyond. Despite universal enthusiasm for this otherworldly comedy, I found it just ho-hum, although I liked the romance between Niven and Kim Hunter (who would go on to play Zira the chimp in the Planet of the Apes series). Interestingly, in a reverse of the old Wizard of Oz gimmick, the film reverts from color to black-and-white when the action shifts to the dreamy world of Heaven. (6)


20. THE TOWN (2010) Armed robber Ben Affleck gets involved with one of his bank-employee victims, the always enjoyable Rebecca Hall. I generally dislike films where I'm asked to sympathize with, and root for, an obvious bad guy, and although there are some obvious plot holes in the film, I was never bored in what is ultimately an entertaining and suspenseful crime thriller. It features excellent performances from the entire cast, including Jon Hamm as a cop, Jeremy Renner as Affleck's hot-headed partner in crime, and Blake Lively as Affleck's lowlife ex. (8)

21. DEVIL (2010) Five people are trapped in an elevator...is one of them Satan? Essentially a slasher movie with a twist, Devil serves up pure adrenaline to distract you from thinking too much about the plot. (7)

22. THE FIVE PENNIES (1959) The first of two Danny Kaye movies that were recommended to me by different people; this one is courtesy of Eileen. A somewhat fictionalized biography of Red Nichols, the famous cornet player, The Five Pennies offers us a look at his romance with young Barbara Bel Geddes, his career achievements, the birth of his daughter (and her battle with polio), lots of jazz playing, and cameos by Louis Armstrong and other performers. Kaye is his usual funny self. (8)



23. YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER (2010) Woody Allen's latest is set in England, involving two couples wrestling with various affairs of the heart (i.e., divorce and infidelity). Although far from Woody's best, it's a bit more enjoyable than some of his other output over the last 20 years or so, successfully mixing drama, romance and some very light comedy (thanks to a perfectly cast Lucy Punch as a Chav hooker who hooks up with aging Anthony Hopkins). Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire also scores points as a delectable neighbor who catches Josh Brolin's eye. (8)

24. STAGE FRIGHT (1950) Hitchcock directed this thriller about a young woman (Jane Wyman) hell-bent on proving the innocence of a friend accused of murder, and the usual hot water all Hitchcock protagonists get themselves into. I had recently seen Wyman in my umpteenth viewing of Pollyanna (1960) and was wondering how cute she must have looked as a slightly younger woman. Now I know! Two of my favorite performers, Alastair Sim and Kay Walsh, keep things lively in what is ultimately lesser Hitchcock. (8)

25. MADAME X (1966) Unbeknownst to me at the time I saw this on DVD, this was at least the third filming of the identical story of a woman (Lana Turner) whose life crashes down around her after she cheats on her absentee husband (John Forsythe). And the film was remade yet again after this version! Clearly, this tragic melodrama has a lot of life in it. (8)


26. LIFE WITH FATHER (1947) William Powell is the whole show in this story of a man who rules his wife and four sons with an iron fist—and there is no way he's getting baptized! Powell's views on religion and baptism provided no end of hilarity, and I liked the curious relationship he has with his wife (Irene Dunne), who employs a variety of tricks to get what she wants out of him. There's very little story here, per se; it's all just a grand opportunity for Powell to play his blustery role with as much horsepower as possible. Special thanks to Merf for the recommendation! (9)

27. HOW TO STEAL A MILLION (1966) Both Merf and Jay had recommended this comedy to me; since it stars two of my favorite actors (Peter O'Toole and Audrey Hepburn), there was little point in resisting. Both actors are at the top of their game in this amusing caper about their attempt to steal a priceless statue belonging to Hepburn's art-forgery dad from a museum before it can be discovered as a fake. The movie is grand fun with a lot of sparkling dialogue. Gotta love that boomerang! (9)

28. CATFISH (2010) Supposedly real documentary about a good-looking young man (Nev Schulman) who forges a relationship with some people on Facebook, and his slow realization that everything is not what it appears to be. Real or not, I found myself absorbed throughout by this shoestring-budgeted feature, which has some suspenseful and disturbing elements, as well as some excruciatingly uncomfortable laughs. (8)


29. THE COURT JESTER (1955) The second Danny Kaye movie I viewed this month that was a friend's recommendation (this one by Joan's sister, Nancy). It's a delightfully funny spoof of historical costume dramas, with Kaye doing his best to overthrow the evil usurpers of the royal family. There are lots of great lines, jousting, romance, et al. I only regret that I did not get to enjoy it on the big screen, where it clearly is meant to be seen. And don't forget: The pellet with the poison's in the pestle with the vessel! (9)

30. CASE 39 (2010) This Paramount horror movie has been sitting on the shelf for a few years. Given my penchant for evil-kid movies, I found it enjoyable enough; what it lacks in logic, it makes up for in thrills. It's one of the many horror flicks that begs the question: Why do people continue to go back to a house they know is deathly dangerous? Between this and garbage like New in Town, Renée Zellweger's career has really taken a beating since Jerry Maguire. (8)

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

August 2010


FIRST-RUN FILMS

Seven of the 13 movies I saw in August were new or relatively new, including one I saw twice; that one will undoubtedly be among my very favorites of 2010.

I'll start with the best and work my way down.

Rob Reiner can be unpredictable. He has directed some wonderful movies that I cherish, including This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, Misery and The American President. But he tends to lose his footing—the bomb North is famously hated by critics, and some of his later-period flicks were reviewed just as poorly. Even so, I have seen far more hits than misses by the ex-Meathead, so I was curious to check out Flipped, which was said to be in the same vein as TV's sweetly nostalgic The Wonder Years—a period-piece coming-of-age story that harkened back to his earlier hit Stand by Me, also taking place during the late 1950s. Based on a novel set in contemporary times, Flipped readjusts the timeframe back half a century, but retains the book's gimmick of telling the tale from two schoolmates' disparate points of view. Bryce, a cute boy (Callan McAuliffe) moves next door to free-thinking Juli (Madeline Carroll), and she instantly falls in love with him. He can't stand her, though, and the movie chronicles his extremely slow re-evaluation of her beauty, both inner and outer. It's an extremely thought-provoking and moving film with a number of excellent adult performances (John Mahoney, Anthony Edwards, Rebecca DeMornay and Penelope Ann Miller among them). I would see it a third time.

Here's the review of Flipped that I posted to IMDB.com:

Back in 1973, an episode of TV's All in the Family told the same story from three different perspectives, one of which was from the point of view of Mike Stivic, played by Rob Reiner. Watching his latest directorial effort, I wondered if the "he said / she said" gimmick of that episode ("Everybody Tells the Truth") was what attracted Reiner to Flipped, the young-adult novel by Wendelin Van Draanen, which employs the same multi-POV technique that Lawrence Durrell perfected with his Alexandria Quartet in the late 1950s. The film version of Flipped shows Reiner at the top of his form, a worthy addition to an ouevre that includes Stand By Me, the 1986 period piece that Flipped most recalls, with its younger characters and coming-of-age theme. At the heart of Flipped is Juli Baker (Madeline Carroll), a smart, pretty and thoughtful girl who you just can't help losing your heart to. Juli herself flips for Bryce Loski, who is at first repelled by Juli and then slowly starts to see her for the lovely person she is. The cast is augmented by such pros as John Mahoney (Frasier's dad on Cheers), Anthony Edwards, Aidan Quinn and Rebecca De Mornay and Penelope Ann Miller. The film offers up various slices of life from the late '50s and early '60s that makes for a nostalgic, romantic and very moving film. Special kudos to the filmmakers for finding a girl to play young Juli (Morgan Lily) who looks chillingly like Madeline Carroll; I would have bet anything the two were sisters. For those who are bored by the dumb-dumb summer comedies of 2010, this is a tender and emotionally satisfying journey that will stay with you for years.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a three-character British thriller about two men (including Happy-Go-Lucky's gruff Eddie Marsan) who snatch a pretty girl (Gemma Arterton) for the ransom...but everything is not quite as it seems, and the fun of the movie is in the numerous revelations and twists that the writer/director J. Blakeson keeps throwing at you. It's a gripping, edge-of-your-seat nail-biter, very well acted and immensely satisfying.

And then we have Piranha 3-D, one of those movies I couldn't drag Joan to with a heavy chain, and wouldn't bother trying. Just as well—this is a real "guy" movie with nonstop action and wall-to-wall blood, gore, nudity, cardboard characterizations and evil fishies with razor-sharp teeth. Some of the gorier scenes were almost cartoonish in their absurdity, reminding me of a Road Runner cartoon in which Wile E. Coyote is skewered by, say, a falling harp. No, it's not going to win any Oscars, but it guarantees that I will be first in line for Piranha 3D II.


Dinner for Schmucks is Steve Carell's latest zany vehicle, a remake of a French farce I haven't seen about some pompous lawyer types who find and invite idiots of their acquaintance to a periodic get-together so they can make fun of them. Paul Rudd's "find" is Carell, a maker of dioramas featuring stuffed rodents. He's a well-meaning klutz who won't leave Rudd alone, but he may have an important lesson to teach him about who the real idiot is. Get it? It's sporadically entertaining and doesn't require any excess brain power, but two things about the movie confounded me. First of all, Rudd has a gorgeous girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) who disapproves of the whole dinner gambit and demands that Rudd not participate at the cost of missing out on his promotion. Um, excuse me? This bimbo is the biggest schmuck in the movie—I would have dropped her like a hot potato for suggesting I intentionally forego my big promotion. Another thing that doesn't add up is the fact that Carell is supposed to be a blithering idiot, yet he possesses ingenious talent and skill—his mouse dioramas are so cute that I would have purchased several in the lobby, had they been for sale. The filmmakers want to have it both ways; the film's other characters make fun of Carell's creations, but they're way too delightful to be considered odious.

Middle Men was a free screening at Paramount, and I think Joan and I walked away from this story of how the Internet became so inundated by porn with a sense that we'd seen something reasonably entertaining and informative if not exactly memorable. Luke Wilson plays a lawyer who assists two very technically savvy but socially despicable nitwits form the first pay-for-porn website on the Web. The movie tells us that it's based on a true story while simultaneously informing us that it's a work of fiction—a confusing contradiction that left us scratching our heads. Quite a bit of the movie details the basic conflict, which is that the Russian mob has their hands in this indecent but wildly lucrative innovation, and their crooked attorney (James Caan) is also hungry for a percentage. The end result is a mishmash of character study and fictionalized history lesson, but I can't honestly claim to have been bored.

Now we get to the two movies I genuinely wish I hadn't seen.

The first is Life During Wartime, writer-director Todd Solondz's sequel to his splendid and groundbreaking 1998 film Happiness, a unique and sickly hilarious concoction about three sisters and their struggles with men. The new movie picks up where that one left off, but with an entirely new cast of actors who resemble the previous ones the way a teacup resembles a blizzard—for example, one of the white characters from Happiness is now played by a black actor. Alarmingly, Solondz's ability to convey his dark-comedy tales in an endearingly goofy way seems to have suffered over the passage of time. It had been awhile since I'd seen Happiness, so I watched it again the night before my screening of Life During Wartime, and only a glimmer of the director's considerable skills are on display in the new film. It's got some interesting ideas, but the movie just doesn't entertain or challenge us in the same way as before. On the plus side, there is one electrifying scene with 64-year-old Charlotte Rampling, a character not featured in the original film, and I'll always remember it fondly. She's topless in the scene, and she still looks incredibly sexy.

Finally, there was The Other Guys, or as I like to call it, "Connie's Revenge." Years ago, I brought a DVD of one of my favorite comedies, Team America, over to Connie's house, and she wound up having so much loathing for it that it surprised me how different our respective senses of humor could be. Now I get my comeuppance as her recommendation of the buddy-cop spoof The Other Guys (which she called "really funny!") sent me rushing to the theater (with Joan in tow), only to encounter one of the most foul, dismal and dreadful piles of cinematic crap it has ever been my misfortune to sit through three-quarters of. I stalked out about 20 minutes before the end of the movie and played Angry Bird on my iPhone, which was about 100 times funnier than the movie. Joan stuck with it all the way through, and to be fair, Will Ferrell has made me chuckle on occasion. But Mark Wahlberg is so repellent and awful in the movie that, like a comedic black hole, anything that might have been halfway amusing gets sucked into the vortex, never to be seen again. After the movie, I felt like I needed to take a shower—it made me feel that dirty.


DVDs

Once again, going from good to not-so-good:

Judgment in Nuremburg is the famous 1961 Stanley Kramer movie featuring the great Spencer Tracy as a small-town American judge who travels to Germany to consider the case of a few Nazis after WWII. Although it's very long (186 mins.) and doesn't contain a lot of action, I was absorbed throughout; there's a surprising scene where one of the prosecuting attorneys shows a lengthy film-within-the-film documenting Nazi atrocities that must have been extremely potent for 1961, because I could barely watch it nearly 50 years hence. There are many great performances; Tracy is always superb, and there are great turns by Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich and Maximilian Schell. It was also fun to see future TV series stars William "Capt. Kirk" Shatner and Werner "Col. Klink" Klemperer.


Bad Day at Black Rock—Continuing in my Spencer Tracy phase, this was my last movie of August; in fact, I watched it last night. It's an odd movie, basically a Western with one-armed city man Tracy traveling to very small desert town to get to the bottom of a Japanese man's disappearance. He finds nothing but creepy menace and threats of violence in the few townspeople he meets, who obviously have something to hide. Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin are a memorable pair of villains, and it's always great to see (and hear) Walter Brennan. Best scene in the movie involves nice-guy Tracy finally reaching the end of his rope with Ernest Borgnine.


Private's Progress (1956) and its sequel, I'm All Right Jack (1959) are two very British black-and-white comedies about Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael), a not particularly bright fellow who confounds his Army superiors in the first movie and his business superiors in the second. They're very dry comedies in the grand English tradition, directed by John Boulting and featuring much of the same cast of British actors like Terry-Thomas and Richard Attenborough. The sequel has the benefit of starring Peter Sellers as a Communist union leader at the missile factory where Stanley works, and the film contains a hilariously memorable scene in a sweets factory where Stanley gets his fill of the candy-coated Twinkie-type desserts off an assembly line.


Dime With a Halo is an obscure 1963 independent film that I watched merely to gaze at its incredibly beautiful star, Barbara Luna. The story is about Luna's little brother once they have relocated to Mexico, and how a winning race-track ticket causes misery for everybody involved. The movie is also memorable for an eyebrow-raising scene where Luna appeals to the libido of a 12-year-old boy; no film made today could ever get away with something like that, yet Dime With a Halo was obviously marketed to kids—and Luna plays a stripper to boot!

The Pursuit of Happiness (1971) is about what happens when young Michael Sarrazin accidentally runs down a woman in his car, is sent to prison, and then escapes to be with his girlfriend, the beautiful Barbara Hershey (the main reason I watched the movie). Not a great film, but Hershey is worth watching in practically anything.

THE FINAL TALLY (with 1-10 ratings)

Flipped (10)
Judgment in Nuremburg (9)
The Disappearance of Alice Creed (9)
Bad Day at Black Rock (8)
Piranha 3D (8)
Dinner for Schmucks (7)
I'm All Right, Jack (7)
Middle Men (7)
The Pursuit of Happiness (6)
Dime With a Halo (6)
Private's Progress (6)
Dime With a Halo (6)
The Pursuit of Happiness (6)
Life During Wartime (4)
The Other Guys (2)

Saturday, July 31, 2010

July 2010


DVDs

I've started each of my 2010 blogs with a report on the new movies I've seen, but this month I'm going to lead with the oldies, because of one gleaming, shattering film that moved me so immensely that I've managed to shed a tear every day that has passed—merely by thinking about it.

How is it possible that I had never even heard of 1952's Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games) until this month? In recent months and years, I have attempted to catch up on the "classics" of cinema (i.e., A Clockwork Orange), and too often I find myself disappointed by the lack of an impact they make. Well, here's the opposite occurrence: a movie that is totally unfamiliar to me, and it shatters my world. A 5-year-old French girl named Paulette (Brigitte Fossey), orphaned by a Nazi air raid, wanders the countryside before being taken in by a peasant family. She makes friends with the youngest son (Georges Poujouly), and together they learn how to cope with their respective tragedies, as well as with the horrors of war. The film celebrates the innocence and curiosity of children, and lampoons the imbecility and savagery of adults. It sounds dark and serious, but there's actually a fair amount of humor in this astonishing and marvelous film. I recommend it without reservation, with the warning that the ending will haunt you forever. I can't think about this film, or even hear any of the music, without the waterworks turning on. It is very simply the single most touching and poignant film I have ever seen—a masterpiece of cinema.

Another truly superb older movie I discovered in July was King Rat (1965), based on the James Clavell novel, and also taking place during WWII. This one takes place in a Japanese POW camp based in Singapore, with various British and American soldiers being kept in less-than-ideal conditions, to put it mildly. One prisoner who seems to do very well for himself is U.S. Corp. King (George Segal), who has learned how to turn his considerable charm and black-marketing skills to his advantage. He befriends a British soldier played by James Fox, and their uneasy relationship forms the heart of the movie. Although the Japanese are obviously the bad guys, the real antagonist takes the form of a British lieutenant (Tom Courtenay) who tries to catch Segal and others breaking the rules; his Javert-like obsession threatens to become his own undoing. I took a chance on the film because it stars one of my very favorite actors, John Mills, whose role is small but pivotal.

Both WWII movies were filmed in glorious black and white, as were my next two British oldies, which also kept me riveted throughout: The Green Man (1956) and The Third Secret (1964). The former is a farcical comedy starring the amazingly funny Alastair Sim as an unlikely hit man; the latter is a Hitchockian thriller featuring the phenomenal Pamela Franklin as a young girl whose psychiatrist father is murdered. Although both movies are excellent, English and in B&W, they couldn't be more different in flavor.


Though I'm a big fan of Jimmy Stewart, I haven't seen close to even half of his movies. And I haven't even seen one of the many Westerns he made, so I treated myself to what many consider his best: The Naked Spur (1953), with a classic bounty-hunter plot that details Jimmy's attempts to round up a bad guy who has a price on his head. Although he's the protagonist, Jimmy gets as far from his nice-guy persona as I've ever seen him do. He's "helped" by a couple of guns-for-hire, who may not be the most trustworthy souls around, and sexy Janet Leigh is involved as a prospective love interest. It's a very good Western, as Westerns go.

I had heard good things about 1944's The Uninvited, in which Ray Milland and his sister, Ruth Hussey, buy a house together, only to find out that the damned place is haunted. This interesting occult comedy-thriller-romance gets a boost from the lovely Gail Russell, who plays Milland's new neighbor; she was just 20 when this film was released; tragically, she later became an alcoholic and died at age 36 from a booze-related heart attack.

SherryBaby (2006) is a film that my friend Geof O'Keefe has been urging me to watch. It stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Sherry, a newly paroled drug addict who attempts to connect with her young daughter, who's being raised by her brother and sister-in-law. I was sure I hadn't seen the movie before, but so much of it was familiar to me that I realized fairly early on that I must have seen a big portion of it on cable. That doesn't sound like much of a recommendation, but this is indeed a very riveting and well-acted drama, with Gyllenhaal giving the performance of her career (so far). The movie doesn't try to gloss over Sherry's flaws—or the devastating reasons for those flaws. I highly recommend it.

Hot Millions, from 1968, was ironically the "newest" old movie I saw in July. It's a comedy about how ex-con (and current con man) Peter Ustinov launches an elaborate embezzlement scheme using a computer at his new job. I was seduced by the critics' rave reviews, but only found myself mildly interested, despite the presence of ace performers like Maggie Smith, Karl Malden and Bob Newhart.

I closed out July (this very afternoon, actually) with 1959's Sapphire, knowing not a thing about it beforehand. It's a British whodunit involving a slain young woman whose murder investigation turns up some rather surprising things about her recent past. Although it's involving and not at all slow-moving, what must have seemed like a shocking and innovative "reveal" by pre-1960s standards was not especially difficult to predict today, especially after so many years of watching Law and Order and its many predecessors. Still, it's a taut and well-acted mystery in which race relations plays a major theme.


FIRST-RUN

I'm rather proud of myself this month for having made some very good film selections in July; I enjoyed nearly everything I saw—the one exception being the summer's big-budget blockbuster, which left both Joan and me bored. Directed by Christopher Nolan (of Memento, which I loved, and The Dark Knight, which I didn't), Inception is this year's Matrix—a complex sci-fi outing which does not bear close, or any, logical scrutiny. It plays with many of same ideas as 1984's Dreamscape, which also involved the plot device of entering other people's dreams. This is essentially a heist movie in which it becomes necessary for the protagonist (Leonardo DiCaprio) to get inside the head of an energy bigwig so as to plant some information in his brain that will lead to a satisfactory outcome that involves one giant energy corporation getting the upper hand over another (although why any moviegoer should give a rat's ass about this completely escaped me). Superior performers like Ellen Page are around not to have their characters explored, but to get shot at in somebody's dream and tell other characters to hurry up. There are occasionally some interesting special effects in the film (such as the famous Paris-folding-on-itself clip, which everybody saw in the trailers), but there aren't any people to care about in this overlong mess, and absolutely zero suspense. It's a jigsaw puzzle of a movie where the finished image turns out to be as interesting as a pane-glass window.

Ironically, while Inception drew rave reviews from critics and audience members alike, I far preferred The Last Airbender, which received a severe critical lambasting. No doubt because my expectations were already at an all-time low (not helped by the fact that director M. Night Shyamalan's last couple of movies were manure), I was pleasantly surprised by this fast-paced adventure-fantasy. Prior to the screening, Joan had passed along some helpful advice from a colleague, who said that as long as you accept it as a kid's movie, you'll be reasonably entertained, and that was precisely correct. Sadly, the information didn't help Joan herself, as she lost interest in the movie early on.


Joan was also my date for a couple of pleasant comedies: Cyrus and The Kids Are All Right. Both are sweet and funny, never wearing out their welcome (in fact, Cyrus was surprisingly short—we were equally stunned when the closing credits came up).

Cyrus is the story of a homely fortysomething man (John C. Reilly) who unexpectedly finds love in attractive Marisa Tomei, whose son, the title character, is a corpulent Jonah Hill with some troublesome Mommy issues. Although it's hard to imagine two men I'd rather stare at less for 90 minutes, the film, admittedly a trifle, goes down like a spoonful of honey, and there are some laughs to be had and all the actors do a fine job.

The Kids Are All Right, meanwhile, is another winning comedy with a family at the center, this one involving a pair of lesbian moms (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) whose teenage son and daughter connive to meet their sperm-donor dad (Mark Ruffalo). All of the performers do extremely well in this gentle, genial story, and everybody is quite likable. Though there are inevitable personality conflicts, there's scarcely a person to truly dislike in the film. By the end, I wished that the Ruffalo story thread had had a better resolution, but overall, Kids is a superb summer movie starring two actresses who normally don't appeal to me at all.

It's hard to know where to mention Peacock, which was technically released in 2010, but bypassed theaters and went directly to video without collecting $200 (probably in the literal sense). I picked up this drama because it co-stars Ellen Page, and it sounded appropriately offbeat: talented Irish actor Cillian Murphy plays John, a man living in Peacock, Nebraska, who has a big secret: he lives half his life in drag as Emma, his "wife," who rarely if ever leaves the house (this is apparently due to an extremely poor case of mothering). When a train accident in his back yard causes a lot of unwanted local attention, Emma finds herself thrust into the world, and John's two personalities begin to battle for dominance. Half Katherine Ann Porter, half Psycho, this odd little movie kept me guessing from scene to scene, and although more could have ultimately been done with it, it's a decent movie, worth seeing for Murphy's two excellent characterizations.

Similarly, I'm not sure if The Lost Skeleton Returns Again counts as a new film or a revival. A sequel to the hilarious 2001 horror parody The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, it was filmed several years ago and has been gathering dust while its producers have sought a distribution deal. It has gotten minimal and unofficial screenings around the U.S., but made a showing at this year's Comic Con (as well as a couple of evenings at my local revival cinema), and is out on DVD in a couple of weeks. Full of (intentionally) awful dialogue and wooden acting, both movies are affectionate sendups of Ed Wood-style cheapie '50s and '60s sci-fi schlock. The cast is very likable and writer-director Larry Blamire obviously loves the genre he is lampooning. Sequels are rarely as good as the originals, but I enjoyed Returns Again very much.

July was also the month for the eagerly anticipated Eclipse, third in the Twilight vampire franchise by Stephenie Meyer. I was a big fan of the first in the series, but the second one dragged. Number three is somewhere in between, lacking the novelty and excitement of the first film, but registering more of a pulse than the soulless New Moon. I genuinely like the three young leads, and as with the preceding entries, I find myself perking up when the personality dynamic between them is explored—and extremely bored whenever they're not on screen (or, worse, when the oh-so-dull Volturi clan take center stage). My favorite scene took place in a freezing-cold tent where Edward and Jacob have a frank but gentlemanly conversation about their love for Bella—while Jacob lends some much-needed body warmth to the shivering object of his affections.

THE FINAL TALLY (with 1-10 ratings)

Forbidden Games (10)
King Rat (10)
The Green Man (9)
The Third Secret (9)
The Kids Are All Right (9)
The Lost Skeleton Returns Again (8)
The Last Airbender (8)
Eclipse (8)
Cyrus (8)
The Naked Spur (8)
Sapphire (8)
Peacock (7)
The Uninvited (7)
Hot Millions (6)
Inception (5)

Friday, July 02, 2010

June 2010


FIRST-RUN FILMS

Owing to a variety of excuses (a week-long vacation among them) this was an exceptionally light movie month. I saw only three feature films in June:

Toy Story 3 (which I saw twice). Joan called this the best of the three, but to me, the first will always be the best. Having said that, the entire Toy Story trilogy is amazing—funny, moving and musically quintessential (thanks to the perfect songs and scoring of our idol, Randy Newman). The story this time around is loaded with equal amounts of sentimentality and suspense. Joan and I were both left sobbing by the finale (and that was my second viewing of it!).

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. This was touted to me as a blemishes-and-all look at the 77-year-old comedienne, showing how she lives and works, and how she has survived in her industry for so long. We see archival footage of her on old TV shows (i.e., The Tonight Show) interspersed with her current act and her day-to-day life. She grapples with an inattentive manager, a periodically slow work schedule, keeping various friends and relatives on the payroll, etc. To be honest, I was much less interested the machinations of her personal life than I was in her vintage comedy—it's extraordinary to see her performing live in the 1960s, and the fact is that I would have been much happier seeing a two-hour clip reel highlighting her standup act over the years. Rivers can be hilarious, yet often off-putting in an "outrageous" way, and I frankly find it difficult to watch her with the freakish amount of plastic surgery on her face. Not to say that a little nip and tuck here and there can't keep you looking youthful, but her face has started to resemble a rubbery Halloween mask.

Just Wright. OK, this actually came out back in May, but Joan invited me to a screening at Paramount, and we just can't resist those freebies! We'd enjoyed the Queen Latifah comedy The Last Holiday a few years ago (or so she had to remind me), so perhaps this will be a tradition for us to see every corny QL comedy she puts out. Just Wright is as predictable and by-the-numbers as any movie ever made, but I find her to be a real charmer—she deserves to be a movie star, even if she's destined to earn her nut making these extremely contrived kinds of flicks. I liked it more than Joan did, having a slightly higher tolerance for unabashed romantic chick flicks than she does.


DVD/REVIVALS

Over the years, I have read numerous accolades for the 1968 British film If... (directed by Lindsay Anderson). Made only a few years before A Clockwork Orange, the film stars Malcolm McDowall as an odd lad in a private school who suffers brutality and indignities from his classmates, and finally rebels in a shocking and savage manner. The film could almost be a prequel to Clockwork Orange—in fact, there was a sequel of sorts to this movie called O Lucky Man. As meaningful and innovative as If... is supposed to be, I had much the same reaction to it as I did with Clockwork Orange; I just think you have to be British to sufficiently appreciate these films. I don't identify or sympathize with McDowall's characters, and each picture fails to move me because I don't care about any of the characters.

Hard Candy (2005) is another tough one for the same reason—in this two-character drama, who do you root for: the yuppie pedophile (Patrick Wilson) or the relentlessly sarcastic 14-year-old (Ellen Page) who stalks, torments and brutalizes him? I watched this film on the recommendation of my friend Geof, and because I was so profoundly impressed by Ellen Page when I saw Juno in 2007. (I even love her in the series of TV commercials she made for the information-technology firm Cisco.) Although it's a tough film to watch, and lacks a character you can truly like and identify with, Hard Candy is the demanding, challenging and provocative drama that I was expecting If... to be. There are a few twists as the game of cat-and-mouse unfolds, and although it's not really a home-run kind of movie, at least it made a deep impression on me—and deepened my appreciation for Page's talents. She is a powerhouse in Hard Candy; it's a phenomenal performance.

Another movie I've always heard fantastic things about, and finally had to make myself sit down and watch, is The Magnificent Seven (1960). This is a Western remake of a Japanese film called The Seven Samurai (which was itself inspired by American-made Western movies). Like most Westerns, the plot is a pretty basic good vs. evil story: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, et. al., are gunfighters who band together to protect some gentle Mexicans against bad guy Eli Wallach and his gang of thieves. It's entertaining but didn't strike me as anything remarkable.

RERUNS

Lately I have been thinking about Sandy Duncan, an actress who had a lot of success on TV, but who I fell in love with in various movies from the early '70s. I find her to be quite fetching in a tomboyish way, and her smile never fails to melt my heart. So I treated myself to the old Disney movie Million Dollar Duck (1971), co-starring Dean Jones and Joe Flynn in a refashioning of the old Aesop tale about the goose that laid the golden egg. It's a wonderfully enjoyable kids' movie and Duncan is incredibly cute and enjoyable in it.

THE FINAL TALLY (with 1-10 ratings)

Toy Story 3 (10)
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (7)
Just Wright (8)
If... (5)
Hard Candy (8)
The Magnificent Seven (7)

Saturday, June 05, 2010

May 2010


FIRST-RUN FILMS

Of the five new movies I saw in May, two will undoubtedly make my top-five list of 2010. While created by entirely different production teams, the two are "twinned" in my mind as both are independent, adult comedies with a few dramatic undertones. Both are intelligent, unpredictable and quite satisfying.

The first of these was Please Give, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener. It's her fourth feature, and after having seen it, I immediately ordered her three earlier pictures on DVD (Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing and Friends With Money). New York City-based Please Give centers on married used-furniture dealers Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), along with their teenage daughter Abby, elderly neighbor Andra, and Andra's granddaughters (stunning Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet). How their lives intertwine forms the basis of the story, and it's a total winner—I saw the movie both at the beginning of the month and then again at the end of May with Joan.

Its spiritual cousin is City Island, another movie about a New York City family, this one headed by bickering Andy Garcia and Julianna Marguiles and their bickering children. Everybody in the family has a Big Secret, and when Garcia's son (by another woman) enters the picture, the lies gradually become exposed like falling dominoes. Directed by Raymond De Felitta, the movie took awhile to win me over, but it did, completely.

As a fan of vigilante movies, Harry Brown (starring Michael Caine) seemed like it would be an exciting British variation on the Death Wish formula, and while most of the same basic elements are there, it doesn't have quite as much suspense as most of the movies in the genre. Although this is far from Caine's best movie, it's probably farther from his worst. He's always worth watching.


Joan invited me to the Paramount Theatre to see Shrek Forever After, the fourth installment in what is purportedly the last picture in the animated franchise. What began as a fun novelty has lost a great deal of its charm, and the movie seems to be aware of this, incorporating the idea of staleness into a story that features Shrek growing bored with his life. Through a magical conceit, he is transported to a world where he was never born, a plot shamelessly ripped off from It's a Wonderful Life, and in the spirit of that movie, he comes to realize everything he has taken for granted. Fortunately, the movie is not without humor: when Eddie Murphy's Donkey delivers the line "What are you talking about, cracker?" to the Gingerbread Man, that's a gag that kids and adults laugh at for different reasons. Although this installment of Shrek relies way too heavily on popular songs—a hit tune is trotted out dutifully every 10 minutes or so—the voice cast is excellent, as usual. Even if the series has worn out its welcome, it's been a fun ride.

Joan and I were also curious to check out Letters to Juliet, apparently to confirm that it would be a slightly longer version of its own trailer—which, as it turns out, it most certainly is. Juliet is an entertaining, utterly predictable and shamelessly by-the-numbers romcom that plays like Mamma Mia without all the ABBA music. (The fact that both movies star gorgeous Amanda Seyfried as a girl named Sophie is only where the similarities begin.) Vanessa Redgrave, looking handsome but acting alarmingly frail, searches for her long-lost love with her grandson, cocky Christopher Egan, in tow. If you spend more than a moment wondering if Seyfried will dump her neglectful fiance for Egan in the film's climax, well, this must be your first romcom.

Footnote: I like to give small-budget independent movies a chance whenever I can, but the horrific acting (by star Dario Deak) in Dreamkiller drove me from the screening about halfway through.

DVD/REVIVALS

While visiting Jay in Palo Alto (to see him star in the musical Hello Dolly), we caught a double feature at the local revival cinema: Love Me Tonight and Trouble in Paradise. The two films had more in common than their 1932 release year—both are variations of the old "Big Lie" romance formula that has been inflicted upon the general public presumably since the dawn of time. In Love Me Tonight, Maurice Chevalier plays a tailor who falls for a young princess while disguising himself as a baron; Trouble in Paradise, meanwhile, stars Herbert Marshall as a con artist who captures the heart of the woman he's trying to steal from. Both movies are consistently funny, and Love Me Tonight has the good sense to contain several excellent Rodgers and Hart songs, including the very popular "Isn't it Romantic?" Jay and I were amused by the fact that although the movie takes place in Paris, Chevalier is the only actor who talks in a French accent.

Apparently I watched only one movie on DVD this month, which was American Psycho, a favorite movie of my friend Anna. She is obsessed with serial killers, which makes this a natural choice; sadly, barely a month after viewing it, I find it difficult to remember very much about it.

THE FINAL TALLY (with 1-10 ratings)

Please Give (10)
Harry Brown (6)
City Island (10)
Love Me Tonight (8)
Trouble in Paradise (8)
Shrek Forever After (7)
Letters to Juliet (8)
American Psycho (4)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

April 2010


FIRST-RUN FILMS

Four of the new films I saw this month are ones I'll remember fondly for many years—and one was so good, I was happy to see it twice (once in 2-D, once in 3-D, mirroring the way I saw and enjoyed Avatar).

The first of the first-runs was Repo Men, a violent sci-fi thriller that combined elements from numerous futuristic actioners I've seen over the years. Since it's about a person in authority whose job it is to run after wrongdoers—and who ultimately finds himself the hunted rather than the hunter—it bore more than a passing resemblance to 1976's Logan's Run. Naturally, this version of the tale is vastly more grisly and shocking, and although I had a few problems with the narrative, it moved along at quite a clip and was never dull for a moment. The twist ending didn't make a massive amount of sense, but it did take me by surprise, and that's the important thing.

Next up was How to Train Your Dragon, the 3-D animated adventure that I first saw in 2-D (I always seem to enjoy the traditional configuration better). This is my favorite Dreamworks picture so far—a grand, funny, moving and very human story about a boy and his dog...er, dragon. It's jam-packed with thrills and quotable lines, and it appealed to both the adult and the kid in me.

The beautiful Carey Mulligan (from last year's An Education) returns to the big screen with shorter hair in The Greatest as a pregnant girl who moves in with the family of her recently killed boyfriend. As the still-grieving parents, Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon perform very well, capably and below par, depending on the scene and the actor. But the overall film is still wonderful, a nice companion piece to 1980's Ordinary People. It's a great chick flick; not for every taste, but I enjoyed it wholeheartedly.

Un Prophète (A Prophet) is a French picture with subtitles, released in 2009 but only now getting around to the local art houses in L.A. It's about an Arab man sent to a French prison, the suffering and traumas he endures, and ultimately the story of how he slowly gains power and momentum there. It's a very cool idea for a movie, but because there's a fair amount in here about organized crime and such, I got a bit lost in those complicated machinations, as I tend to do. About half of the time, I was mesmerized, but much of the time I was bored and/or confused.

Joan had suggested The Joneses, a movie I'd heard or read nothing about, and I was extremely pleased by its fresh, satirical and amusing story about an upscale neighborhood that gets some new neighbors who appear to be a traditional family...but who are anything but. Demi Moore and David Duchovny are outstanding in this very original film.

I had been looking forward to Kick-Ass, which had been touted as a comic-book superhero movie with an edgy twist, and there was a lot of truth in that advertising. Filled with comically gruesome violence, the film is about a ragtag group of makeshift, costumed "superheroes" who are ordinary humans, but with some tricks up their sleeve. My favorite was the 11-year-old Hit Girl, a cute but dangerous child with an arsenal of killer moves who isn't afraid to unleash a deadly blow or a shocking cuss word. Director Matthew Vaughn keeps things moving at an exciting clip. Can't wait for the sequel!


Joan invited me to Paramount for a special screening of The Ghost Writer, starring Ewan McGregor as the unnamed title character, who is hired to complete work on the autobiography of the former Prime Minister, played by Pierce Brosnan. It's the latest directorial effort of Roman Polanski, who finished editing the picture in Switzerland after his detainment on his sexual-abuse charges. Much of the movie is an absorbing, somewhat claustrophobic thriller, but to my mind, too much of it (including the "shocking" twist ending) is completely implausible and nonsensical.

Two movies I saw toward the end of the month were my least-favorites: The Runaways, a repellent version of Joan Jett's early career, and Greenberg, a "comedy" featuring Ben Stiller as an incredible asshole who somehow attracts the younger and immeasurably more lovely Greta Gerwig. The two films are somehow linked in my mind because I couldn't have cared less about the heroes of either movie—both were crass and charmless.

DVD

Things got off to a good start on the old movies, as I'd recently acquired a copy of The Intruder, a 1962 Roger Corman-directed drama starring William Shatner as a "professional bigot" who moves from town to town trying to get the locals to reject racial integration. It's based on a novel by Charles Beaumont, who wrote several of the great Twilight Zone episodes. It's a little-seen but imaginative little movie—the only "serious" one in Corman's ouevre.

I finally broke out my copy of How Green Was My Valley, the famous, Oscar-winning 1941 version of the Richard Llewellyn novel. Young Roddy McDowall stars as Huw Morgan, whose early life growing up in a Welsh coal-mining village is recounted with much drama as the work starts to dry up, the community starts to face unbearable hardship, and his own family starts to disintegrate. There's menace and death at every corner. I can't deny that John Ford's classic film is entertaining, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

More disappointing was Artificial Intelligence: AI from 2001, a sci-fi film directed by Stephen Spielberg that I'd missed. It's one of those android stories where we're supposed to have feelings for the robot (here played by Haley Joel Osment from The Sixth Sense). But although they've created a machine that can convincingly express feelings, I couldn't bring myself to truly care about this glorified toy. And the ending was an insult to my very non-artificial intelligence.

RERUNS

I managed to inflict several of my all-time favorite movies on my friend Anna, including 1967's Bedazzled (Dudley Moore), 1979's Real Life (Albert Brooks), 1980's The Stunt Man (Peter O'Toole) and 1983's Zelig (Woody Allen). I think she enjoyed most of them. I was delighted, as I always am, to re-view these classics. Meanwhile, as part of Paramount's revival series, I accompanied Joan to a screening of the original version of The Bad News Bears (1976), starring Walter Matthau as a drunken former baseball player who coaches a hopeless little-league team...and becomes a better person for doing so. Sorry to say that Joan didn't enjoy it, but she was most assuredly the only person in the theater who didn't.

THE FINAL TALLY (with 1-10 ratings)

The Intruder (8)
AI: Artificial Intelligence (6)
Repo Men (8)
How to Train Your Dragon (10)
The Greatest (9)
A Prophet (4)
The Joneses (8)
Kick-Ass (9)
The Runaways (3)
Greenberg (4)
The Ghost Writer (5)
How Green Was My Valley (7)

Friday, April 02, 2010

March 2010


It was another very light (for me) movie month, owing to the usual string of excuses. The big highlight were the reruns, but more on them momentarily.

FIRST-RUN FILMS

Joan and I saw a couple of new movies in March, and I saw one "new" movie on my own. I say "new" because Harmony and Me was completed in 2009 and evidently already available on DVD, yet is making the rounds in a variety of local theaters anyway. I became aware of this indie comedy because I am a fan of one of its cast members (Suzy Nakamura), and her Facebook page kept promoting her appearance in the movie. In actuality, she is hardly in it. After the screening at the local Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax, I submitted this review to IMDB:

Halfway through the film Harmony and Me, the central character's ex-girlfriend sizes him up and declares, "You know how sometimes you're watching a movie, and halfway through, you realize that you don't care about these characters? That's what's wrong with you." The line simultaneously demolishes our suspension of disbelief and reminds us what's wrong with Harmony and Me. Ultimately, it's a chore to care much about Harmony, a sad-sack amateur songwriter with a boring day job and a bevy of quirky co-workers, quirky friends, quirky family members and quirky neighbors, all of whom are immensely more watchable and fun to listen to than he is. Shot in three weeks, Harmony and Me is an indie comedy with a budget so low that the cameraman couldn't afford Windex to wipe off the perpetually dirty lens. The film is relentlessly quirky, with some inspiringly improvisational-type humor, and only loses its footing when it settles for being quirky for quirk's sake. As Harmony, glum Justin Rice whines to anybody who will listen that his ex won't stop breaking his heart, and you can't help wondering how Jessica (fresh-faced Kristen Tucker) put up with this whiner for ten minutes, let alone a full year, before dumping this loser. (Tucker's shtick about mourning the relationship several weeks before actually breaking up with him is the funniest thing in the film—somebody needs to give this gifted actress her own comedy.) Viewers with a high tolerance for quirk are encouraged to give the movie a chance for the occasional moments of brilliance and for the excellent supporting players—including a genius turn by director Bob Byington and recurring Modern Family actress Suzy Nakamura, who has been cast as so many doctors that she deserves a medical diploma.


Neither of the two first-run films I saw with Joan are likely to linger in my memory for very long. Alice in Wonderland, the Tim Burton version of the classic Lewis Carroll books, was visually arresting—it had some of the coolest optical effects I've ever seen on film —but meandered a lot until the final battle scene, which was extremely well done. Meanwhile, the Clint Eastwood-directed Invictus featured a perfectly cast Morgan Freeman as South African President and rugby fan Nelson Mandella, who uses the World Cup as a way of pulling his country together. It's the thinnest wisp of a movie plot idea; the climactic game is full of slow-motion effects and one outrageously misleading and factually iffy sequence involving a jetliner buzzing the stadium that the audience is meant to think might be an act of terrorism—it's a despicable bit of trickery and dishonesty.


DVD

Prior to seeing the Tim Burton remake, I decided to acquaint myself with the 1951 Disney animated version of Alice in Wonderland, which is lively and colorful and imaginative but completely devoid of a real story—Alice merely stumbles into one seemingly drug-influenced situation populated by bizarro characters after another. Every five minutes or so, the hookah-smoking caterpillar or hammer-head birds are dismissed and the next set of weirdos are introduced. I had tried to watch this movie many years ago and was turned off by its lack of a cohesive story, but this time I was more comfortable with just letting the movie take me on its psychedelic journey.

Late in March, I took one of my periodic trips up to Northern California to meet Jay for some musical-theater fun. Although he is usually starring in a show, this trip featured him as an audience member rather than an actor. We planned to attend two musicals I was interested to see for the first time: Kismet and Sweet Charity, respectively. Since I already had both of the movie versions on DVD, I decided to compare and contrast the productions. It's interesting that both shows are based on earlier works—the 1953 Broadway production of Kismet (and subsequent 1955 film) derive from a 1911 play, and the 1966 Broadway production of Sweet Charity (and 1969 film) come from the 1957 Federico Fellini film Nights of Cabiria—which I also own but have not yet seen. Even the music from Kismet is based on earlier material, specifically the compositions of Alexander Borodin (1833-1887).

Of the two, Kismet is by far the more enjoyable film. While not quite as lavishly produced as the best musical movies, it's still quite colorful and enjoyable, even though some of the musical numbers have been excised. Taking place in Baghdad during the time of the Arabian Nights, the story features a charming rogue of a hero, a couple of attractive heroines, an alluring harem of assorted lovelies, a despicable bad guy and a happy ending. What's not to like?

The film of Sweet Charity is infinitely more problematic. The first movie of choreographer/dancer-turned-director Bob Fosse, the adaptation has been mucked up with the addition of any number of optical effects (slow-motion, freeze frame, backwards-filming, etc.) that fatally distract from the characters and story. Presumably, these effects were considered innovative in the Sixties, but they are deadly antiquated by today's standards—as is the creaky plot involving a "dance hall girl" who dreams of finding a decent guy. As a big fan of Shirley MacLaine, my hopes were high, but aside from the occasional bright spot (such as the performance of "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This"), the movie falls flat.


RERUNS & REVIVALS

Joan had expressed interest in the suspenseful war film The Hurt Locker (which I'd seen last year and liked a lot), so I eagerly accepted her invitation to see it at the Paramount Theater; the movie went on to win a bunch of Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Paramount is also beginning to screen some classic films, such as 1951's The African Queen (to celebrate its finally being restored and released to DVD). Although I know I saw the movie back in college, I remembered almost nothing about it. Seeing the restored version on the big screen was indescribable; it looks so spectacular that you come away feeling that it could have filmed fairly recently. Everything about this movie is perfect—the performances, the story and especially the direction (by John Huston). Understandably proud Paramount's bigwigs insisted on showing a brief documentary of their elaborate and immaculate restoration, but Joan and I felt this would have been better shared after the movie rather than before. Even so, I am greatly looking forward to more Paramount screenings in the year ahead!

THE FINAL TALLY (with 1-10 ratings)

Invictus (5)
Alice in Wonderland-1951 (8)
Alice in Wonderland-2010 (7)
Sweet Charity (5)
Harmony and Me (6)
Kismet (8)