Saturday, July 31, 2010
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.
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)
The Naked Spur (8)
The Uninvited (7)
Hot Millions (6)
Posted by Brett at 10:56 PM
Friday, July 02, 2010
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.
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.
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)
Hard Candy (8)
The Magnificent Seven (7)
Posted by Brett at 5:13 PM