Wednesday, February 02, 2011

January 2011

A new year, a new opportunity to fritter my life away watching movies! Although I wasn't able to watch a film a day this month, I wasn't far off—25 is a pretty respectable number, depending on your definition of "respectable." This month ran the gamut from movies I've been curious about since childhood (Bedlam, The Pawnbroker) to movies I never even heard about mere days before I saw them (Mao's Last Dancer). There were recommendations by friends (Susan Slade, The Women), marvelous surprises (Barney's Version, The Silent Partner) and predictable disappointments (Little Fockers). Thanks to those who watched with me—Joan, Anna, Irene and Jay. Here's the gallery.

COUNTRY STRONG (2010)—Given the considerable talents of Gwyneth Paltrow, including her remarkable singing voice, I had big hopes for this tale of a C&W superstar battling addiction and other demons, but despite a bunch of excellent songs, the movie is marred by too many puzzlingly dumb plot points and a preposterous, unbelievable resolution. Update: after a second viewing (thanks to Irene for the invite!), I have upgraded my rating by one point. It's still not a great picture, or even a good one...but I did find it enjoyably trashy, and the cast is excellent, especially Paltrow and Garrett Hedlund. (7)

LITTLE FOCKERS (2010)—The original Meet the Parents was a hoot, that rare Ben Stiller comedy that actually delivered the laughs, many of them courtesy of co-star Robert DeNiro. The first sequel (Meet the Fockers) was weak, and the trend continues with the most anemic of the trilogy...although the cast (aided by the always breathtaking Jessica Alba) does its best to make the lackluster script come to life. (6)

YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938)—Eight years before Jimmy Stewart clashed with Lionel "Mr. Potter" Barrymore in It's a Wonderful Life, here they were together, making nice instead of waging war. There's a romance at the heart of this story of an eccentric family that knows how to life life to the fullest; director Frank Capra has opened up and improved George S. Kaufman's hit Broadway play considerably. (8)

MADE IN DAGENHAM (2010)—It's always a pleasure to watch Sally Hawkins, a gifted actress who invariably proves she's better than the material she's starring in (Happy-Go-Lucky). Dagenham is based on an actual women's strike at Ford plant in Great Britain in the late 1960s; Hawkins puts her family on the back burner to lead the gals toward a pay raise and equal rights in the workplace. Hawkins' resemblance to real-life 1960s movie star Rita Tushingham continues to amaze me; this film is certainly interesting and entertaining, but I never completely lost myself in it. Still, I will happily see anything that features Hawkins or her captivating co-star, Rosamund Pike. (7)

THE FIGHTER (2010)—I swore I was done with Mark Wahlberg following the disatrous one-two punch of The Happening and The Other Guys. But I found myself in the audience of this picture mostly by accident (I'd gone to the theater to see a free screening that turned out to be overcrowded, and The Fighter was the only thing playing that I hadn't already seen). Reviews were positive, so I gave it a chance, and I wasn't disappointed. Wahlberg overcomes a series of obstacles—mostly drug-addicted brother Christian Bale—to make a name for himself as a prizefighter. This real-life tale is brought to the screen with deftness and humor, and with the outstanding performance of Melissa Leo as the conniving and insipid mother. (9)

LITTLE WOMEN (1933)—Here's one of about a dozen film versions of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel; I've long been interested to know what it's all about without actually having to read it, so I started with the classic George Cukor adaptation. (I own two other versions.) My mind was blown three ways to Tuesday by the enormous beauty of young Katharine Hepburn, whom I had never viewed as anything but an aging thespian. (Her loveliness in Little Women caused me to acquire and watch several other Hepburn films from this time period.) The story, and the movie, is simple but absorbing. (8)

HOW DO YOU KNOW? (2010)—A trifle of a comedy featuring Paul Rudd, Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson. A waste of time for all concerned, and all of the good bits were in the trailer. (5)

HOLIDAY (1938)—Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, those two "dahling chahmuhs" with Mid-Atlantic accents, star in a movie about virtually nothing. Cute but totally forgettable. (7)

MAO'S LAST DANCER (2009)—My third movie this month to be based on a real story. This one is about a young male ballet dancer from China who makes a splash in the U.S. Although hindered by a few narrative shortcuts, it's a mostly interesting story about a fellow caught between two nations. (8)

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940)—Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn reunite after Holiday for another romantic comedy; this one also stars James Stewart in what is essentially a love pentagon. Lots of funny lines, and Hepburn is sassy and adorable. (8)

DR. ZHIVAGO (1965)—This was my friend Anna's pick. I've never been a fan of the "sweeping epic" films typified by Lawrence of Arabia, and this one didn't do much to bring me around. Not completely uninteresting, but not really my cup of tea. (6)

SUSAN SLADE (1961)—How fitting that this obscure soaper (recommended by my friend Kathy Hansen) should prove so much more entertaining than the Oscar-winning Dr. Zhivago! Troy Donahue and Grant Williams have eyes for Connie Stevens, who spends a lot of the movie knocked up and heartbroken...but at least there's a happy ending. I liked the pretty scenery and the engaging performance of Lloyd Nolan as Connie's hard-working dad. I predict that this film will inspire me to watch A Summer Place very soon. (8)

THE SUSPECT (1944)—Charles Laughton as a truly decent guy who finds he's not above bumping off his bloodsucking wife and a smarmy blackmailer. A fun turn-of-the-century murder picture starring the always watchable Laughton and Stanley Ridges as the inspector he plays cat-and-mouse with. (8)

BARNEY'S VERSION (2010)—I remember first seeing the trailer for this movie quite a while before it was eventually released. My expectations were rather low, which may have contributed to my liking it as much as I did. The idea of a guy falling in love with another woman right after getting married has been done in movies before (The Heartbreak Kid), and Barney (Paul Giamatti) isn't a fraction as likable as Charles Grodin's character was—he drinks and smokes too much, and he's a bit of a curmudgeon. And yet we still root for him. At least I did, because heavenly Rosamund Pike (Made in Dagenham) is worth fighting for—I don't care who you just married! As Barney's papa, Dustin Hoffman is around to give his son some sage advice. One of the funniest and saddest pictures I'll see all year. (9)

SOMEWHERE (2010)—Sofia Coppola's film opens with a fast car zooming around a racetrack. Around and around and around it goes, while we watch helplessly, hoping something else will happen. Unfortunately, precious little does. The driver of the car is action-movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a cipher of a human who fritters away his free time in between pictures by lounging, eating, watching TV, sunbathing, bathing and having sex with random women. He is sloth personified—there doesn't seem to be a person inside. At length, he is persuaded to spend some time with his young daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), and for a moment, he has a brief fling with being a responsible parent. Dorff's scenes with Fanning are the heart of the movie, but too much of the film seems padded with interminable scenes of people doing nothing. (5)

BEDLAM (1946)—Boris Karloff plays the evil head of Bedlam, an insane asylum, and when a young woman tries to do something about the miserable conditions there, he has her committed. I have been curious about this horror-drama since my tween years; I had hoped it would be a bit more horrifying—or horrifying at all. (6)

FRIENDS WITH MONEY (2006)—Nicole Holofcener is a gifted writer/director who manages to coax excellent performances from her cast. Jennifer Aniston is an actress who manages to suck the life out of every movie she appears in. What happens when this performer who specializes in bad comedies appears in a movie by a director who specializes in sharp, well-written comedies? Who will win? The answer, in this case, is Holofcener. Aniston shows she can inhabit an actual character instead of being the equivalent of a two-dimensional cartoon, and it sure doesn't hurt that her co-stars are great actresses like Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack and Frances McDormand. The film is about four friends, their significant others and their various limitations, issues and jealousies. It's occasionally very witty. (8)

NO STRINGS ATTACHED (2011)—Here's the first new film of the new calendar year I'm seeing, an extremely corny and predictable romcom that's made watchable by a very capable cast that includes Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Mindy Kaling, Lake Bell and Greta Gerwig. The movie draws many of its laughs by giving its female main character (Portman) the kind of commitment-phobic personality that a guy would normally have, while the guy just wants to snuggle. In another notable switch-up, a lot of the bits they used in the trailer are not in the actual film! (7)

THE SILENT PARTNER (1978)—This was the most exciting cinematic surprise of the month—at least, from the archives. Elliott Gould, one of my favorite actors from the 1970s, stars in this Canadian-made crime-suspense thriller as a bank employee who realizes he's about to be robbed...and turns the caper around to his advantage. Unfortunately, things don't go exactly as smoothly as he hoped, as an exciting game of cat and mouse (with heavy Christopher Plummer) unfolds. The movie had me enthralled from beginning to end—an IMDB user called it "one of the best films you've probably never heard of." I agree! Sadly, co-star Susannah York died of cancer only days before my viewing of the DVD. (10)

NOTHING SACRED (1937)—I kept reading great reviews of this comedy oldie, but I guess I'm just not a big fan of the so-called "screwball comedy" genre. Some of the laughs have to do with watching a guy punch a woman, which has definitely lost a lot of its "hilarious" impact over the years. Carole Lombard stars as a woman incorrectly diagnosed with a fatal disease; when she learns she's perfectly healthy, she starts to enjoy the sympathetic media blitz that envelops her. Not bad, but not exactly my style. (7)

BROKEN FLOWERS (2005)—Bill Murray plays as an aging "Don Juan" who receives an anonymous letter from a jilted lover informing him that he has a grown son by a long-discarded lover. He then reluctantly sets out to learn the truth in a protracted road trip to visit a variety of his exes. It starts out well enough but slowly falls apart (for both Murray and for the viewer) as each successive reunion is a bigger disaster than the one before. The film has a couple of funny lines, a great deal of awkwardness and a wholly unsatisfying resolution. (6)

CASH ON DEMAND (1961)—This was the second great movie I saw this month that was a crime thriller involving a bank robbery, made outside the U.S., and largely unheard of. Peter Cushing is a super-mean bank manager who finds himself an unwilling pawn in an elaborate robbery scheme. It's actually a variation of the old "Scrooge" story, but it's flawlessly acted and directed. (9)

THE WOMEN (1939)—Recommended by Jay Steele and viewed on my weekend trip to Palo Alto at the end of January. It's a comedy-drama jam-packed with dialogue and featuring an all-woman cast—not a male to be seen in a single frame. Infidelity and divorce are the themes; Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard and Rosalind Russell head the perfect cast. Consistently funny and rewarding; repeat viewings would undoubtedly help to catch some of the missed dialogue. (9)

PRIVATE LIVES (1931)—A somewhat younger Norma Shearer stars in this adaptation of the famous Noel Coward play, yet another variation on the story of people who lose their hearts to others immediately following the wedding. In this case, two exes rekindle their love on their respective honeymoons. Shearer and Robert Montgomery leave their spouses, flirt, kiss, hurl insults and ultimately tear the joint apart. I selected this film on the strength of having seen the truly awesome This Happy Breed, another Coward production, last year. (8)

THE PAWNBROKER (1964)—Here's another film I'm very happy to cross of the list; I've been wanting to see it since high school. Universally lauded by critics, it's been called the first American movie to address the Holocaust (as well as the first American movie featuring bare breasts to receive Production Code approval). Rod Steiger stars as a Holocaust survivor whose loved ones didn't make it; now working in Harlem, he has become an empty shell of a man, divorced of emotions and rejecting those who try to bring him around. It's quite well done, but watching it is a profoundly sad experience. (8)


H A R R Y G O A Z said...

Thank you for writing the truth about, "Somewhere".

Your blog is a treasure trove.

Diamond R said...

amazing person. like your blog kind of no recent update since Jan