Tuesday, August 30, 2011

April 2011

Despite doing a lot of traveling—and also because of it—I saw a fair amount of movies in April. This month, I spent time in Las Vegas, Lake Havasu City (Arizona) and the Cayman Islands, but still managed to treat myself to several films, both on DVD and in the theaters. Let's start with the first-runs and move on the oldies.

TRUST (2011)—My kickoff April flick was an uneasy drama about how an adult man seduces a high-school freshman girl via the Internet. Although not really a great movie by any standards, it conveys with cold-blooded effectiveness how predators operate so successfully; the leads' instant messages are displayed onscreen, subtitle style, and we feel both the young girl's heart fluttering and our own revulsion simultaneously. When the parents discover the unholy affair, the father explodes with rage, causing even more damage to the family than the pedophile caused. Even if Trust is a trifle flawed, it bravely takes us to places few other movies dare to go. (8)

WIN WIN (2011)—Some of my favorite comedy-dramas are indie films like this one—recent examples include Please Give and City Island. Paul Giamatti stars as a struggling attorney who moonlights as a wrestling coach; his losing streak in both professions gets a shot in the arm with the arrival of a young man who changes both his personal and professional careers. Top-notch acting and a thoughtful script make this one the perfect "Brett movie." (9)

INSIDIOUS (2011)—The poster for this horror movie claims it's from "the makers of Paranormal Activity." I have no idea which makers they're talking about—neither the writer nor director had anything to do with that series; they're actually the team that created the Saw franchise. And Paranormal Activity was released by Paramount, while this one isn't. Weird. Anyway, this film definitely has more to do with actual paranormal activity, except the surveillance cameras of PA are forsaken for a more traditional haunted-house picture that's actually a close cousin to Poltergeist. Although there's very little about this movie that hasn't been done many times before, it delivers the requisite chills and thrills. (When I called the theater's showtime recording, the female voice announced this film as "Insidulous," which gave me a belly laugh.) Definitely recommended for horror-movie buffs. (8)

THE LINCOLN LAWYER (2011) I have exceptionally little interest in Matthew McConaughey, whom I still blame for being the only weak link in the otherwise solid Contact (1997); he has always struck me as a far more handsome, but much less talented version of Woody Harrelson. But Connie's thumbs-up review—combined with the fact that I was in a Las Vegas multiplex that featured this film at the most convenience showtime—gave my no-McConaughey rule a temporary reprieve. It helps that he's not supposed to be entirely likable in the Lincoln Lawyer, which, while being perfectly entertaining, is indistinguishable from hoards of crime/attorney films and TV shows I have seen in my life—the frame-ups, the double-crosses, the uncooperative witnesses, the courtroom speeches, etc. But I'm happy to watch anything that isn't boring, especially if William H. Macy is in the cast—and country singer Trace Adkins, in a three-minute part, is terrific as a motorcycle-riding bad boy. (8)

SUCKER PUNCH (2011)—I am not including this in the canon of Movies I Have Officially Seen; I am not rating it, but I do want to mention it, as I paid full price to get in and walked out of this silly mess halfway through. At the beginning of the year, I mentioned Sucker Punch as one of the movies I was most excited about in the forthcoming year, being a fan of director Zack Snyder's earlier films 300 and Watchmen. But he should have stayed in the director's chair and far, far away from his word processor, because his screenplay is an incoherent disaster. All of the usual dazzling visuals are on display, but the movie is incomprehensible on a scale that might puzzle even David Lynch. Bafflingly bad.

SOURCE CODE (2011)—It's hardly surprising that last year's Inception would inspire a spate of clones, including this preposterous sci-fi outing. Illogical though it may be, it's thoroughly enjoyable, with soldier Jake Gyllenhaal tapped by government scientists to try to thwart a terrorist bombing in Chicago—through the power of his subconscious mind. It's all completely ridiculous, but a diverting and fun ride. (8)

ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (2011)—Yet another imaginative (though preposterous) film made possible by the enduring popularity of Inception. In this one, Senatorial hopeful Matt Damon finds himself "unstuck in time" as he attempts to romance dancer Emily Blunt. Some of the story elements reminded me of the Stephen King novella The Langoliers, although it is actually based on a 1954 story by Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner, Total Recall). Like Source Code, it's an energetic and fun thrill ride that never gets boring. And incidentally, I enjoyed both movies much more than Inception. (8)

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS (2011)—Based on an acclaimed novel I never read, here's a Titanic-type story that, at least cinematically, borrows liberally from that sunken-ship flick. Like the famous James Cameron movie, it starts with a present-day old person telling the story of his life in flashback, which centers around a forbidden romance divided by class lines and climaxes with a famous disaster. There is also a heavy transportation theme—although Titanic's was a ship, while the entire cast of WFE travels around in a train. Although there are many parallels, WFE is a stylish, original work aided magnificently by the presence of Christoph Waltz (the nasty Nazi of Inglorious Basterds). (9)

TALL STORY (1960)—This popped up on my TiVo wish list recently because I'm a fan of actor Ray Walston—I've enjoyed everything I've ever seen him in, from My Favorite Martian to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. In this movie, directed by Joshua Logan, Jane Fonda takes her first starring role as a college student who sets her eyes on basketball player Anthony Perkins, while Walston dons a goatee as a professor. It's unbelievably lightweight fluff, but if you're in the mood for a slice of 1960s academia, Jane is incredibly lovely. It's interesting to watch this knowing that soon Perkins would be typecast as a Psycho and that Fonda would go on to play a hooker in Klute, as well as sex kitten Barbarella! (8)

A SUMMER PLACE (1959)—My viewing of this film—which spawned the famous theme song—was directly influenced by my having recently viewed Susan Slade, which it resembles in theme, style and stars (Dorothy McGuire and Troy Donohue were in both films). It's a slice of life from a more innocent time, when young people apparently did not realize that having sex led to getting pregnant. I enjoy soap operas, romance and easy-listening music, so this was a nice way to kill a couple of hours. (8)

THE WELL (1951)—A black child in a small town vanishes, which leads to false accusations and finally a race riot. In reality, the poor girl has fallen down an abandoned well in a field. Will she be discovered and rescued before everybody needlessly slaughters each other? Way ahead of its time in subject matter, The Well has a painfully low budget but lofty aspirations, and it creates terrific suspense with a largely unknown cast (although it was neat to see Harry "Colonel Potter" Morgan at the relatively young age of 36. Damn, he's still alive as I write this...96 years old!). This is an anti-racism movie every high-school kid should be forced to watch. (8)

THE HOLIDAY (2006)—A delightful surprise. I don't even remember this movie coming out in theaters. But last year, I very much enjoyed the Nancy Meyers comedy It's Complicated, and felt I should catch up on some of the earlier romcoms she has multi-hyphenated. The Holiday is even better, with Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet as two heartbroken women from the U.S. and England, respectively, who decide to swap homes (and lives) for a two-week holiday. Predictably, their lives are made richer and fuller in the trade. Jude Law and Jack Black round out the cast, and Eli Wallach is superb as an aging screenwriter who is befriended by Winslet's character. Interestingly, the phrase "It's complicated" are uttered a few times in this movie, whereas I don't think they are ever spoken in the movie of that name. (9)

PHFFFT! (1954)—No amount of mediocre comedies are going to make me dislike the great Jack Lemmon, but as I devote the rest of my life to watching the movies of his that I missed, it becomes clearer that I have already seen all his great ones. Phffft! serves as both the title of the movie and a decent review of same; this is a largely forgettable and toothless marital comedy that does, in all fairness, feature a lovely Kim Novak in a small role that prevents the movie from being completely unwatchable. Lemmon (in only his third film) and co-star Judy Holliday try their hardest, but the script just isn't very funny. Oh, well, I still have a few movies starring Jack left to see (including Mister Roberts, Days of Wine and Roses and Under the Yum Yum Tree). Let's hope they aren't all lemons. (6)

BLOW OUT (1981)—Cross one more famous movie off the list that everybody except for me has seen. Having officially dispensed with Chinatown, Clockwork Orange, Philadelphia Story, Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, among others, I now turn my attention to this noirish thriller from 1981. I have very much enjoyed some of Brian De Palma's movies (Carrie, Scarface and Body Double among them), but I have to rank Blow Out as one that blows. The film suffers from embarrassingly heavy-handed direction, too many characters smoking cigarettes, a lead (John Travolta) I could not begin to care about and a true bummer of an ending—it's very easy to see why this was a box-office disappointment. The only halfway likable character in the film is the hooker played by Nancy Allen. The story, a variation of Michelangelo Antonioni 1966 film Blow-Up, is about John Travolta's movie sound-technician character inadvertently recording an assassination, and the web of murder and intrigue he gets into as a result. At one point, Travolta actually manages to assemble several seconds of film footage culled from maybe a dozen photos (at most) he has discovered published in a magazine, which any person who is knowledgable about the mechanics of movies will tell you is a fraction of a fraction of the amount needed for even a couple of seconds' worth of film. Meanwhile, I found the film's story to be far short of mesmerizing. Despite this setback, I am still curious about other De Palma movies, including Obsession, Mission to Mars and Femme Fatale. And with Blow Out out of the way, I look forward to forcing myself to watch Raging Bull, Blade Runner, Meet Me in St. Louis, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Saturday Night Fever (another Travolta vehicle, groannnn). (5)

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