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 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)

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