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)

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