Tuesday, November 01, 2011

October 2011

With the new TV season in full swing, most of my movie viewing has been relegated to weekends in the theater, and my attention to archival films has been regrettably lacking. Overall it was a rather disappointing crop this month, but there were three delightful highlights.

FIRST-RUN


THE IDES OF MARCH (2011)—A political thriller involving Governor George Clooney's presidential campaign, which is being run by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ryan Gosling, the latter of which takes a lunch meeting with a rival campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) and starts to see his career unravel as a result; there's a subplot about a scandal involving Clooney and a pretty young girl (Evan Rachel Wood) he has slept with. The movie moves along nicely, with a few cool twists, but there are a few perplexingly illogical plot points that mar the film's overall flavor (spoilers ahead!). I found it absurd that Wood would commit suicide in the wake of an abortion to avoid dragging her religious family through a scandal—wouldn't that itself create a scandal?—and it doesn't make any sense that a simple lunch meeting would qualify Gosling for dismissal from the campaign. An interesting but flawed movie with one of those infuriatingly ambiguous endings. (7)


DIRTY GIRL (2011)—Juno Temple stars as a pretty but obnoxious high-school slut who's paired up with an introverted homosexual classmate (Jeremy Dozier)...and this odd-couple pairing results in an unlikely friendship as they both rebel against their respective unsavory family members. The leads to a good job, but too many dumb/silly conceits subtract from the narrative, especially a scene where tubby Dozier mesmerizes in a striptease competition. Dwight Yoakam appears as Dozier's father as a despicable character indistinguishable from the one he played in Sling Blade, and there's no sense of why Mary Steenburgen would ever have been attracted to this earthworm. This should have been a nice redemption story involving Temple, but the movie unfortunately settles for being less than it should have been. (6)


MARGIN CALL (2011)—A decent fictionalized account of the sort of greed-fueled behavior on Wall Street that led to this country's current financial crisis, although the filmmakers unfortunately don't attempt to dumb down the details so that birdbrains like me can understand the machinations of how worthless stocks get sold in the first place. (In one of the film's more memorable scenes, the trading firm's CEO (Jeremy Irons) implores the super-smart junior employee (Star Trek's Zachary Quinto) to recount what has happened in terms that even a dog could understand, yet I still didn't quite understand the explanation. Even so, the performances by Quinto and the always-dependable Kevin Spacey are first-rate. (7)


PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 (2011)—I am a major fan of the first two "found footage" horror films in this series; the third is basically the same gimmick, the only twist being that it's a prequel to the first two and filmed using somewhat more archaic recording equipment. But the gimmick of putting one of the cameras on an oscillating fan is brilliant. I felt incredibly cheated that 90 percent of the footage in the movie's trailer inexplicably failed to make it onscreen, and I lost patience with the plot about 10 minutes before the end. Still entertaining and creepy, but not as good as its predecessors. (8)


MONEYBALL (2011)—A consistently absorbing drama about real-life baseball GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and how he hooks up with a young whiz-kid to build a winning Oakland A's team based on statistical data, to the consternation of the team's professional scouts. This is a terrific sports movie for people who aren't necessarily sports fans—it's entertaining, suspenseful and even moving. (9)


THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2: FULL SEQUENCE (2011)—Writer/director Tom Six's original horror flick had some nice dark humor and an unthinkably perverse plot; in this "meta sequel," Part 1 becomes the "film within" Part 2, and eliminates any semblance of rational plot—it just strives to be brutal and ugly, and push the tastelessness envelope. It's got a wonderfully grotesque villain named Martin (Laurence R. Harvey) and is filmed in stark, striking black-and-white...but despite all of the torture and killing, there's none of the humor, suspense and drama that the first Centipede had. Six delights in throwing stuff at us that's patently implausible: for example, how does Martin, who is evidently mute, successfully ensnare the actress from Part 1 to fly from the U.S. to England for an audition (supposedly for a Quentin Tarantino film)? And stapling people together instead of using surgery is just preposterous. (5)


TAKE SHELTER (2011)—Suffering through this interminable movie makes me want to ignore good critical reviews for the rest of eternity; how did so many of them get hoodwinked by such a nothing of a film? At its center is a husband and father played by Michael Shannon, a simple guy who starts to suffer symptoms of schizophrenia. After he begins to hallucinate and have apocalyptic dreams involving storms, he gets a loan from the bank to rebuild his storm shelter, and begins behaving more and more erratically. Over and over, the viewer is shown bizarre things that turn out to be only another one of his troubling dreams. By the time we get to the movie's climactic "punch line," I no longer cared about the protagonist or anybody else in the movie. (5)


REAL STEEL (2011)—Hilariously, while I didn't care much for the previous film (which somehow racked up many excellent reviews), I absolutely loved this critically maligned popcorn movie, which is 100 percent pure (albeit predictable) entertainment, a cross between Rocky and Robocop. In the not-too-distant future, people attend fights between large robots of the rock 'em, sock 'em variety; the special effects on display here are positively outstanding. I felt like a kid watching a monster movie. Recommended for little boys of all ages. (10)


50/50 (2011)—Occasionally entertaining comedy-drama about an ordinary twentysomething (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who gets cancer, and the best friend (Seth Rogen) who provides a measure of comic relief and genuine support as he navigates his way toward recovery. There are some slow patches, to be sure—this film needs some real tightening up—but it's not a bad effort. I just wish the filmmakers had made me care more about their protagonist; Rogen pretty much carries the film on his shoulders. (7)

FROM THE ARCHIVES


KIND LADY (1951)—This is actually a remake of a 1935 Basil Rathbone thriller about a con man who enters the life of a kind, wealthy elderly woman and ends up holding her hostage in her own home while he and his criminal buddies proceed to rob her blind. Maurice Evans (who would go on to play Dr. Zaius in Planet of the Apes almost 20 years hence) is outstanding as the charming but sinister artist who has big plans for poor, dear Ethel Barrymore. (9)


THE GREENGAGE SUMMER (1961)—Stylish and imaginative drama of a group of British children who arrive in France on a holiday with the mother, who suddenly falls ill and must recover at a nearby hospital while the kids stay at a local hotel. Taken under their wing by the hotel's sole guest (fellow Britisher Kenneth More, who's having a fling with the hotel's proprietor), the children start to view their savior as kind of a father figure...except that he starts to develop a sexual attraction to the eldest girl (Susannah York), who is about to turn 17 and is blossoming into a lovely young woman. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, it gets worse—turns out More may also be hiding from the cops. This film, based on a novel by Rumer Godden, was retitled Loss of Innocence for U.S. viewers and is a true gem, a forgotten classic that truly deserves to find a new audience. (10)

Monday, October 03, 2011

September 2011

As the summer rocketed to a close, so did my ability to watch nearly a movie a day, as my work obligations and the new TV season pulled me away from film. Of the eight movies viewed last month, only three were new. Here's what went down.


APOLLO 18 (2011)—The "found footage" horror genre that began with The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity continues with this lunar edition, which purports to tell of a secret U.S. moon landing some 40 years ago—as well as a secret USSR mission to boot. Both, as it turns out, ended extremely badly, thanks to some wicket creatures that are somehow living on our beloved satellite. While there are a few scares to be had here, most of the time you find yourself wondering (a) how and why they were filming all of this stuff (and from so many different angles), and (b) how any of the footage could have possibly been discovered. (7)


CONTAGION (2011)—Gwyneth Paltrow somehow contracts a mysterious virus that ends up killing millions of people all over the world. Her husband (Matt Damon) struggles to keep their daughter safe from both the disease and the marauding hordes who are stalking the streets and forcing the country into marshall law. The film adopts the interesting gimmick of introducing the action at Day #2 of the crisis, then letting the story unfold to its conclusion before flashing back to Day #1, where we find out how the virus got created in the first place. It's a compelling and nerve-wracking film with some nicely drawn characters, but without a truly touching and captivating human story. For me, the most moving sequence involves the fate of a scientist played by Kate Winslet. (8)


DRIVE (2011)—A man with no name, few words and excellent fighting skills helps a pretty woman who is threatened by a scary bad guy. Paging Clint Eastwood! Ryan Gosling is the modern-day antihero—a mechanic instead of a cowboy—who excels at fast getaways and kicking villains to death in elevators. Albert Brooks is a Jewish gangster who likes to slice people open with a switchblade. The two men cross paths in a dangerous ways. The pretty girl is played by talented British actress Carey Mulligan, who is totally wasted here playing a character who is sketchily written, to say the least. The film, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, contains enough action to keep men everywhere intrigued, but by the end you're still hungry for a movie. (8)


PICNIC (1955)—A watchable but at times embarrassingly dated adaptation of William Inge's hit play, featuring William Holden as a down-on-his-luck drifter who takes his shirt off a lot, arousing the carnal desires of a variety of women in a small town (notably Kim Novak). Holden is entirely too old to play the handsome young drifter, but apparently female audiences of the mid-1950s didn't agree. Susan Strasberg, as Kim's kid sister, has a very nice bit as an underage semi-tomboy. (7)


WOLF CREEK (2005)—I heard this Aussie horror flick described as "torture porn," and that's as apt a description as any. Three young attractive people on a road trip through the Australian countryside experience car trouble and get help from an affable trucker…who turns out to be a very, very bad man. The filmmakers turn the typical horror cliches on their heads, defying expectations and taking the characters' destinies in directions you haven't seen a million times before. This results in a scary but ultimately brutally sad denouement. Supposedly "based on actual events," but that's a bit of a stretch. (6)


A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948)—If I accomplished nothing else this month, it was to scratch yet another Billy Wilder movie off my list. This post-WWII comedy takes us to war-torn Berlin, where an Army captain finds himself torn between an attractive visiting Congresswoman (Jean Arthur) and a ex-Nazi nightclub singer (Marlene Dietrich). There's a generous helping of humor, but it's not top-tier Wilder; still, Wilder at his most mediocre is better than most directors at their very best. (8)


RASCAL (1969)—I was in the mood to watch a wholesome Disney flick, the likes of which the Mouse churned out for decades. This one features Bill Mumy (the kid from Lost in Space) as a boy who adopts a pet raccoon whose mischievous nature gets both of them in predicament after predicament. Harmless family fun based on Sterling North's autobiographical book. (7)


A CRY FROM THE STREETS (1958)—Well-made, terrifically acted British drama (in beautiful B&W) about a female social worker whose job finding homes for orphans—and reuniting kids with their runaway parents—impacts her new romance with a young suitor in many ways. Featuring a bunch of very talented child actors between 5 and 8 years old. Only debit: a totally out-of-place musical sequence halfway through the film. (8)


CRY TERROR (1958)—Nifty thriller starring James Mason and Inger Stevens as a couple who, along with their child, are kidnapped by villains Rod Steiger (menacing as ever), Jack Klugman, Angie Dickinson and Neville Brand in an elaborate terrorism plot. Quite suspenseful for its time. (8)

Thursday, September 01, 2011

August 2011

My basic plan for this month's archival series was to focus on "The Movies I Most Want to See." While I wasn't entirely successful in sticking to that mandate, I was able to run a red line through the names of a lot of movies I've been pining to see for quite a while. Meanwhile, most of the first-run films I saw were uniformly excellent. A very good movie month, with some excellent surprises and more winners than losers.

NEW MOVIES


RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)—Although it has been widely described as a prequel to the Charlton Heston classic, that's not technically true—particularly if you regard the 1968 film in conjunction with the rest of the original series. Regardless, this "origin story" is a gripping, imaginative cocktail of storylines from various movies, from Charly (intelligence drug) to Escape from Alcatraz (prison break) and many others—but interestingly, nothing that even vaguely reminded me of the original Planet of the Apes! Most of the CGI ape effects are astonishing and completely believable, but not quite all. As with Avatar, a few of the animated warm bodies seem to lack weight. But that's a minor quibble—this was a suspenseful and involving summer blockbuster, whetting our appetite for the inevitable sequels. (9)


THE HELP (2011)—Kathryn Stockett's 2010 novel is a rich, fabulously imagined tapestry about racial bigotry and the human condition; I wish the film version could have made the same emotional impact. It doesn't, but there are fine performances from Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Bryce Dallas Howard. Although she's a fine performer, Emma Stone turns out to be one of the weaker links for me as the main character, Skeeter, who sets out to pen a book about racism in early '60s Mississippi. Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn't come close to equalling the source material; what's left is a moderately engaging story that ultimately left me pining for the feeling the book provided. (7)


CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE (2011)—The surprise of the year—maybe the decade. Steve Carell, so hilarious in TV's The Office, has never come close to equalling that performance on the big screen (I am not a fan of The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Little Miss Sunshine, his most critically acclaimed films). Crazy, Stupid, Love, despite having a crazily stupid title, is a comedy worthy of his talents; he plays a guy separating from his wife of many years (Julianne Moore), and struggling to re-enter the dating scene with the help of a younger male friend, played by Ryan Gosling. The supporting cast, which includes Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei and Jonah Bobo, are all marvelous, and Analeigh Tipton (playing a 17-year-old, but actually the same age as Emma Stone), triumphs in the role of a babysitter inexplicably smitten with Carell. (9)


ONE DAY (2011)—I had extremely low expectations for this, as it got a depressingly low 27% "fresh" on the Tomatometer. But Irene and I were both mesmerized by this story of Emma (Anne Hathaway), a British student whose relationship with a male friend, Dexter (Jim Sturgess) is traced over a 20-year period—each year, in fact, on the same date. That conceit, perhaps inspired by Same Time, Next Year, gives us great insight into the couple's dynamic, and the actors a wonderful chance to literally grow into their roles. I did not read the David Nicholls novel the film is based on, but he's done a great job adapting it. The film is full of romance, pathos, comedy, tragedy and even a bit of skinny-dipping. (9)


FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS (2011)—A trashy but acceptably entertaining rom-com, unbelievably predictable, but pushing most of the right buttons. A pretty girl (Mila Kunis) tells hot guy (Justin Timberlake) she only wants to be fuckbuddies. Guess what happens next! The film teases us by placing A-listers Andy Samberg and Emma Stone at the beginning of the movie, but those appearances turn out to be cameos. The leads perform very well. (8)


COLOMBIANA (2011)—This is an unashamedly enjoyable popcorn movie, starring "it" girl Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Star Trek) as an assassin who's killing off the bad guys who destroyed her family when she was a tot. It's pure action from beginning to end; Saldana is sexy and beautiful, and the bloodshed is copious. As one wag observed, "Revenge is a dish best served sexy." (9)


DVDs



THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (1976)—Jodie Foster is the "little girl" whose dad never seems to be home, and Martin Sheen is a bad guy who kills her hamster with a cigarette. OK suspenser has some interesting moments; two years earlier, co-star Scott Jacoby had starred in a spiritually related thriller called Bad Ronald, a TV film in which he played an orphan living in a house under equally bizarre circumstances. (7)


X-MEN (2000)—With all of the hoopla over this summer's prequel (X-Men: First Class), I decided to dip my toe in the X pool and see what I've been missing. Although I'm not a superhero fan by any stretch of the imagination (I'm one of the few moviegoers less than enthralled with The Dark Knight franchise), I have enjoyed occasional forays into the genre (Superman II, Heroes). Although I saw X-Men a little less than a month ago, I remember almost nothing about it except that Patrick "Capt. Picard" Stewart and Bruce "Willard" Davison were in it. I recall thinking that Heroes, at least in its first season, did the same kind of thing, only much better. (6)


DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)—This is a famous horror "anthology" movie whose most famous segment features Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist who becomes increasingly unglued when his dummy starts to take on a life of its own. Internationally acclaimed as being a superior horror film, and certainly the best "portmanteau," I found it decent but hardly worthy of its extraordinary reputation. (7)


ONIONHEAD (1958)—I have wanted to check out this Andy Griffith comedy since I was in college. He plays an Okie who joins the Coast Guard during WWII and is assigned to be a cook (although he can't cook). He learns how from the galley chief, grumpy drunk Walter Matthau, almost unrecognizable with lighter hair and a wearing an appliance to give him an overbite. The movie mixes comedic and dramatic elements liberally, throwing in some romantic entanglements and some unexpected drama, making it a worthy successor to Griffith's first big hit, No Time for Sergeants, although this follow-up was a box-office bomb. (8)


BLIND CORNER (1963)—Retitled Man in the Dark for U.S. audiences, this British crime drama stars William Sylvester as a blind pop-music composer whose wife, Barbara Shelley, is plotting to kill him. I will confess to wanting to watch this because beautiful Shelley is the star of my favorite movie, Village fo the Damned, and this shocker was made shortly after it. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it has a cool little plot twist I didn't see coming, even though it was recycled in one of my favorite TV movies, 1979's Murder by Natural Causes. (9)


FROZEN (2010)—Talk about a chiller! This one is literally ice-cold. Three attractive twentysomethings are unintentionally stranded on a ski lift…right before a snowstorm…and the resort has been shut down for a week. What to do, what to do! Suffice it to say that what does happen is very bad for all concerned. Some of it seems a trifle implausible, but if you just go with it, it's a decent shocker, reminiscent of 2003's Open Water, about some scuba divers accidentally left behind by their diving group by doing the same "inaccurate head count" that leads to the stranding of these skiers. (8)


CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944)—Gene Kelly plays a charming cad, a chronic gambler who eventually gets sucked into a web of murder and intrigue, while trying to hide his dark side from new wife Deana Durbin. The story, told in flashbacks, is loosely based on a book by Somerset Maugham, whose stories and movies I've been working my way through since watching last month's Quartet, Trio and Encore. This is a pretty bleak movie considering the title, but not bad. (7)


JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1962)—Full disclosure: My viewing of this movie was much different than any of the others. As a big fan of TV's Mystery Science Theater 3000—the show where a bunch of smartasses make fun of the dialogue in bad movies—I have followed the careers of some of the cast since the show's cancellation with great interest. Mike Nelson and company crack wise during the presentation of bad movies; their new venture is called RiffTrax, and this is the second time I've seen one of their live presentations fed via satellite to a movie house (the first one was This Island Earth). The original film is actually a fairly decent fantasy-adventure for kids—I ate up this kind of stuff in my youth—but the shoddy special effects, awkward dialogue and gimcrack sets are all very much worth making fun of, which Nelson and his buddies do with a hilarity worthy of the Marx Brothers. I had a rollicking good time—hope they do more of these. If laughter were indeed the best medicine, nobody in Mike Nelson's world would ever get sick. Note: My grade of (10) is for the RiffTrax version, not the film itself.


THE SNORKEL (1958)—Teenager Mandy Miller suspects that stepfather Peter van Eyck has killed her mom, despite his airtight alibi (and "airtight" in this case has beautiful double meaning). In fact, Mandy's pretty sure that van Eyck also knocked off her daddy! And she's right: the film actually begins, Columbo-style, showing us the ingenious way the creepy German dispatches mummy, which completely stumps the police and has them telling Mandy she's nuts. Filmed in beautiful black-and-white, The Snorkel is a cracking good Hammer thriller with an incredibly satisfying finale. (9)


LOST (1955)—Retitled Tears for Simon for American audiences, Lost is the British story of a babysitter who leaves an infant in a pram unsupervised for a couple of minutes outside a local pharmacist…and when she returns, the pram and the kid have vanished. Was the kid abducted, kidnapped, or something else? The police try to keep the terrified parents calm as they look for clues and attempt to solve the case the old fashioned way. Keeps your attention throughout. (8)


LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA (1962)—A cool title for this movie might be May I Marry Your Retarded Daughter? Except that George Hamilton never really does figure out that Olivia de Havilland's offspring (Yvette Mimieux) isn't exactly all there, mentally speaking. A couple of years ago, I watched the 1966 Hayley Mills movie Sky West and Crooked (retitled Gypsy Girl in the U.S.—why do they keep doing that?!), in which she plays a pretty but mentally slow teenager who discovers love. This film, released a few years earlier, features Mimieux in a similar kind of role, although she has a much more carefree personality in this. Mama de Havilland is at first understandably concerned when a suave Frenchman (Hamilton—no joke) enters her life during a trip to Paris, but she she slowly starts to warm to the relationship. Light but enjoyable comedy-drama. (8)


A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1933)—Along with Duck Soup, one of the Marx Brothers' triumphs—simply hilarious. I'd really like to see this on the big screen someday. (10)


THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS (1957)—I continue to work my way through the filmography of director Billy Wilder, and I'm making great progress. Jimmy Stewart plays real-life pilot Charles Lindbergh, who made the first successful solo nonstop transatlantic flight between New York and Paris. Stewart, 47, was much too old to play the 25-year-old Lindbergh, but the film is otherwise perfect, recounting the ambition, ingenuity and considerable bravery that went into that flight. One of Wilder's best! (10)


JOY RIDE (2001)—From the Guilty Pleasure Files comes this low-budget thriller about a couple of brothers who run afoul of a scary truck driver during a road trip. Basically a cross between I Saw What You Did and Duel, the movie offers equal helpings of gripping suspense and laughable implausibility. (8)


TWICE TOLD TALES (1963)—Yet another horror anthology film, this one features Vincent Price headlining a trilogy loosely based on Nathaniel Hawthorne tales. The Scarlet Letter it ain't. (6)


THE FORGOTTEN (2004)—Here's a great setup: Julianne Moore, grieving over the death of her young son, is told by her psychiatrist and husband that the kid never existed—all her memories of the boy have been manufactured as a way of coping with the fact that the baby was stillborn. Is she crazy, or is there some bizarre conspiracy afoot? Unfortunately, the Big Reveal is so preposterous that I wasn't able to tell my friend Jay about it while keeping a straight face. The first half hour is great, though, and there's a wonderful jump scene involving Alfre Woodard that saves this from being a total waste of time. (6)


THE 39 STEPS (1959)—Occasionally, I end up watching a movie by accident and, well, this is one of those times. Originally, I was torn between watching the Hitchcock classic and a later version starring John Mills (one of my favorite actors). Well, guess what? I ended up downloading and watching an interim adaptation of John Buchan's novel directed by Ralph Thomas and starring Kenneth More as the typical Hitchcockian protagonist (innocent guy unwittingly caught up in a web of intrigue). It's reasonably entertaining, although I do regret not treating myself to the Hitchcock version. (7)


SUPER (2010)—Comparisons to 2010's Kick Ass are inevitable, as both movies are black comedies involving regular folks with no magical abilities nonetheless who strive to reinvent themselves as superheroes. Similar though they may be, I enjoyed both films immensely; this one features the great Rainn Wilson (The Office) and Ellen Page (Juno) as a short-order cook and a comic-book store employee, respectively, who transform themselves into The Crimson Bolt and Boltie. Like the similar spoofs Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Kick Ass, this film has a fun comic-book sensibility and a darkly wonderful sense of humor—as well as deliciously nasty Kevin Bacon as the bad guy and a great catch phrase, "Shut up, crime!" (9)


MANDY (1952)—Six years before The Snorkel (see above), Mandy Miller played the title role of a deaf child in this sensitive, touching and intelligent British drama. After discovering that their infant daughter cannot hear, Mandy's parents find themselves at odds about how to best care for her. Should they raise her at home, or send her to a special school for the deaf? By today's standards, the father's insistence that she not receive the proper care seems more than a trifle unacceptable, but the events of the film were well over half a century ago. All of the performances, including Jack Hawkins as the brilliant headmaster who helps Mandy, but isn't such a success with other adults. (9)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

July 2011

I spent last month catching up on all of the iconic movies I'd somehow missed—everything from Rebel Without a Cause and Hud to Sophie's Choice and The Godfather. I saw so many famous movies that I thought it might be fun to even the scales by doing a program of "Movies You've Never Heard Of." Naturally, I know some of my movie-loving friends will have heard of some of these, but the idea was to choose little-known films that might turn out to be gems. Even if most of them were not, it was certainly an interesting variety of flicks. Owing to a variety of circumstances—Joan was out of commission for most of the month, I did some traveling—I only found myself in a theater seeing a first-run movie once in July. (Also, there wasn't a whole lot of new stuff worth seeing.) I'll start with the theatrical offering and then move on to the DVDs. Naturally, I'm very curious about which of these movies you've actually heard of!


BEGINNERS (2011)—Ewan McGregor, recently seen in last year's Polanski thriller The Ghost Writer, plays Oliver, a sad-sack artist whose 70-something dad (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet and starts a relationship with a much younger man. The film, which is presented in non-linear format, rewinds and fast-forwards through various stages of Oliver's life—as a young boy whose half-Jewish mother nurtures him, as a mostly morose adult who deals with his elderly father's revelations, and finally after dad's passing from cancer. It is during this final phase that Oliver meets and romances Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a film actress of French extraction. The film is rarely comfortable spending more than five or ten minutes in a particular life phase before jettisoning the narrative and perching on a different platform of Oliver's life. His relationships—with mom, dad, lover and dog—are tenderly rendered, although the movie often demands the viewer's extreme patience to reap the maximum rewards. (8)


TRIANGLE (2009)—What would Dead Calm be like if David Lynch directed it? This psychological horror flick puts five survivors of a sailboat wreck on an ocean liner with no passengers, only to battle strange murderous forces…and if you think that sounds strange, you ain't heard nothin' yet. Melissa George, an Aussie actress doing a passable American accent, plays a Floridian who inexplicably gets trapped in a kind of time loop on the water. For viewers who don't mind leaving reality behind, this is an intriguing puzzle-type movie, but after a while, I grew restless with its instant-replay mentality. Still, it gets points for originality. (7)


PUNCHING THE CLOWN (2009)—This (extremely) independent film was co-written by one of my favorite comedians, Henry Phillips, who also stars as himself. It follows his "rise" to "fame" via a series of cringeworthy events, mostly involving audiences and executives who just don't "get" him or his satirical tunes. While not completely successful as a comedy film, it does serve to introduce the viewer to Henry's hilarious songs, and there are half a dozen moments of true genius—particularly a sequence involving the origin of a certain bagel, and another where his brother inadvertently cock-blocks Henry's attempts to score with a young woman. There's also an amusing turn by a sophomoric musician named Stupid Joe whose idiotic numbers inexplicably bring the house down. (8)


THIRD MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN (1959)—The story of a boy who aspires to fill his late father's shoes as a mountain climber. He joins forces with another renowned climber (Michael Rennie) to conquer the Citadel, a daunting mountain in the Alps we know as the Matterhorn. Exciting action, good performances, excellent Disney production values and scenery make for a truly superb adventure. (9)


IF I HAD A MILLION (1932)—Amiable anthology comedy from Paramount about an ailing tycoon who decides to leave a million bucks each to various strangers. Each story focuses on how the recipient uses (or misuses) the windfall. Cute, though a bit silly in parts. W.C. Fields has a great bit in a story about getting revenge on selfish drivers. (8)


THE MARK (1961)—Long before the word "pedophile" entered the common public lexicon, 20th Century Fox distributed this sympathetic look at a would-be child molester. After serving a couple of years in the clink for abducting young girl, Jim Fuller (Stuart Whitman) has made great progress in therapy—a new job, a budding romance and a gradual washing away of "those" desires—until something happens to cause his world to unravel. Based on a novel by Charles E. Israel, this is a compelling psychological study of a guy you root for despite what he's done in the past. Whitman is excellent as the reformed but confused patient, Rod Steiger is typically wonderful as his shrink, and Maria Schell performs beautifully as his new love interest. Excellent plotting and screenplay. Interestingly, when Whitman was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, his competition included Schell's brother, Maximillian Schell, for his role in Judgment at Nuremberg. Schell won. (10)


THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (2007)—Not to be confused with that 2004 teen sex comedy starring Elisha Cuthbert. What starts out something like Stand by Me—a man's nostalgic look back at life in the 1950s—turns ever-more horrifying as we meet the boy's neighbors, headed up by a sadistic woman who, with her biological kids, are brutalizing and torturing two foster girls they've taken in. Based on a true story, it's just about as unwatchable as any horror movie ever made—have any people watched the whole thing without covering their eyes? Seems pretty unlikely. This doesn't work particularly well as drama, but as a sadistic and disgusting experience, it ranks right up there. (7)


YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000)—Single mom Laura Linney grapples with her loose-cannon brother (Mark Ruffalo), hardass boss (Matthew Broderick), boyfriend (Jon Tenney) and son (Rory Culkin), all of whom put something on a strain on her life. Interesting, touching drama about believable people with genuine flaws. (8)


52 PICK-UP (1986)—Based on an Elmore Leonard novel (so Connie has undoubtedly heard of it), this crime drama has some problems—chiefly second-rate direction by John Frankenheimer and a cheesy-sounding synthesized musical score. But the hard-nosed blackmail and revenge storyline kept me interested, and there are some deliciously slimy performances by bad guys Clarence Williams III and John Glover that make it a passable way to kill a couple of hours. (8)


I NOT STUPID (2002)—This dramedy follows the adventures of a trio of Singaporean youths, as well as the trials and tribulations of their parents. It's a satirical, mildly amusing and sometimes even exciting story about blind obedience, the fear of failure, competition, corporal punishment and kidnapping! (I have to admit that some of the humor was, at least for me, based on hearing a lot of the characters speak English in their very strong native accent, as well as the "Singlish" dialect, although most of the movie's dialogue is in Mandarin.) Writer-director Jack Neo keeps things moving at a nice clip, and there are a couple of quite lovely Asian females in the cast to keep me spellbound. This was followed by a semi-sequel, which I might view when I do a month of strictly foreign films. (8)


QUARTET (1948)—I have always been a fan of anthology movies, ever since seeing the horror compendiums Tales from the Crypt and Asylum in middle school. There are actually quite a few non-scary examples, including If I Had a Million, from earlier this month, and one that I viewed last year called O. Henry's Full House (1952), which offered five adaptations of O. Henry short stories. Quartet is the first in a series of three films based on the short stories of W. Somerset Maugham, who appears at the beginning of each to introduce the adaptations. The four tales in Quartet are alternately dramatic, amusing and touching, and the three film adaptations of Maugham's work had the bonus result of leading me to read several of his excellent short stories not adapted into film, notably "The Man With the Scar" and "The Treasure." (8)


TRIO (1950)—Here's the second of the three Maugham anthology films, with three tales instead of four. This time, we get two shorter stories and a longer one that lasts for about an hour; as a result, the third (about some people staying in a sanitarium) drags in comparison to the first two, and it's my least favorite of all so far. But the opening tales are both excellent. (8)


ENCORE (1952)—Third and final of the Maugham anthologies is just as enjoyable, although the second story in Encore is similar to the second one in Trio—both are about annoying individuals aboard a cruise ship who ultimately find their way into your heart. Glynis Johns, the British beauty I discovered about a year ago in 1952's The Card (and subsequently enjoyed in 1953's Personal Affair) is in the third story as a high-diver who loses her nerve. Maugham's presence adds a lot, even though he's no Hitchcock in the introduction department. (8)


LIFE, ABOVE ALL (2010)—A South African film in the Sotho language, but based on an English-language novel called Chanda's Secrets by Allan Stratton. It's a powerful, absorbing but very depressing story about a 12-year-old African girl grappling with numerous issues, from her mother's AIDS and her best friend's resorting to prostitution to the superstitions and fears of her neighborhood. It's a very sad movie, but never dull, with extraordinary photography and a powerful message, to say nothing of the emotional and devastating performance of Khomotso Manyaka. (9)


A KIND OF LOVING (1961)—The poster might lead you to believe that there are female vampires in this movie. There aren't. Charming Alan Bates meets a pretty girl (June Ritchie) at work and begins dating her; the first section of the movie is a romantic bliss-out. Then he gets her pregnant, they're forced into marriage, and everything falls apart. Bates and Ritchie are outstanding; director John Schlesinger would go on to direct Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Marathon Man (1976). (8)


QUEEN BEE (1955)—Last month, I got a taste of Joan Crawford as a beautiful cruise-ship passenger in 1932's Grand Hotel. Now we enter more obscure territory, 23 years later, and Joan isn't so young anymore. By now, the 50-year-old fully resembles her Mommie Dearest caricature, and her villainous persona is in full swing. In Queen
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GETTING IT RIGHT (1989)—Randal Kleiser, the American director of Grease and such slimy follow-ups as The Blue Lagoon and (yecch!) Summer Lovers, was a curious choice to direct a British romantic comedy featuring (among others) Helena Bonham Carter, Lynn Redgrave and Sir John Geilgud. I believe I acquired it because I'm a fan of Jane Horrocks, who plays one of three potential love interests for Gavin Lamb, played by the somewhat wooden Jesse Birdsall, who isn't quite good enough to play the lead. Fortunately, the rest of the cast saves the picture. Gavin is a handsome but introverted 31-year-old straight hairdresser (as if there could ever be such a thing) who must overcome his shyness and somehow forge a love life for himself. Carter, Redgrave and Horrocks are the ladies in his life, and it won't take any viewer with above-average intelligence to figure out who steals his heart. The film meanders for a while, but finally gets its footing—all it really needs is Hugh Grant in the lead, and a film score better than the insufficient synth job that was obviously all they could afford. (8)


THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO (1993)—Leonard Maltin raved about this little Western period film in his book 151 Best Movies You've Never Seen, calling it one of his "favorite unsung movies of the 1990s." Inspired by the true story of a man laid to rest when it is discovered that "he" is actually a "she," the film stars lovely Suzy Amis as Josephine, a woman seduced, impregnated and eventually thrown out of her home. She finds that being pretty and single in the Old West is a dangerous combination, so she cuts her hair, wears men's clothing and gives herself an ugly scar on her face to pass herself off as a dude. Everybody falls for it, of course, except the viewers, who wonder why none of the characters in the movie point to her and say, "Hey! That ain't no man! That there's a lady!" I realize that this is based on a true story, but no way in hell was the real "Little Jo" a knockout—I'm sure the real-life Jo more closely resembled Sandra Bernhard or Janet Reno. If you can overlook this basic flaw, it's a decent movie—it even has a romance in it, although tragically brief. (8)