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.


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)


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)

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