Friday, March 01, 2013

February 2013

January was my "movie a day" month, but because of a week-long business/pleasure trip to South Florida, it proved impossible for me to continue that trend. Even so, I was able to work in another theme—February became my "Decades Month," in which I was able to screen at least one movie for every decade beginning with the 1930s onward. That meant an even more varied hodgepodge than usual, but aside from a handful of forgettable flicks, there were a few unexpectedly rewarding classics that I think may go on to become my favorites at the end of the year.

LES MISERABLES (2012)—The only musical I have seen three times on Broadway, Les Miserables finally arrived on the silver screen over Christmas as a 158-minute extravaganza. (Joan and I patiently waited for the free screening at Paramount.) It's big, it's lavish, it's got big-name movie stars, and a couple of them can actually sing! Unfortunately, the movie's villain, Javert, is played by Russell Crowe, who is a serious liability in the vocal department. It's tempting to imagine what a perfect movie musical this would have been had they cast somebody with the requisite pipes in the role...but Hollywood being Hollywood, they're more interested in putting asses in seats. Regrettably, those asses were being laughed off as Crowe struggled hopelessly with what is generally considered to be a very demanding singing chore. On the upside, Anne Hathaway put every talented molecule in her body into the role of Fantine, and deservedly walked away with a Best Supporting Actress statue. (Her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is already legendary.) Admittedly the film drags on and on—we really needed an intermission—but it does look wonderful and scores on many levels, especially with the costumes, makeup, cinematography, etc. It's a movie for fans; others (you know who you are) should stay far, far away. (8)

THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT (1996)—The first of two films to fulfill my '90s obligation, Long Kiss is a movie Jay Steele has always recommended, so during my weekend trip to see a stage production of Promises, Promises that he produced, I allowed him to pick a movie one night; this was it. I can't say I enjoyed it as much as he does, but it's always a treat to watch Samuel L. Jackson work. This is a crime drama about a amnesiac (Geena Davis) whose memories as a CIA operative come flooding back, shattering her new life as a schoolteacher. There are lots of guns, evil henchmen, double-crosses, exploding tankers and enough clichés and preposterous plot twists for five action movies; it's all watchable enough, but ultimately forgettable. (6)

BABY MAMA (2008)—The movie I picked for me and Jay is this comedy starring Tina Fey, whom we both enjoy enough to have sat for six hours straight watching the final season of 30 Rock together. Fey and her former Saturday Night Live co-star Amy Poehler team up as a single businesswoman (Fey) who hires Poehler to be a surrogate mother for her; Greg Kinnear and Dax Shepard are their respective love interests. There are laughs here and there, but the lightweight material is way beneath these talented comedians. (6)

THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951)—After enjoying the 1952 Alec Guinness movie The Card back in 2010, I made a mental note to take on as many Ealing classics as possible, especially the ones featuring Guinness (best known to modern audiences as Obi-Wan Kenobi from the original Star Wars). Here's the first of three such classics I selected for this month, about a scientist who creates a fabric that can't get soiled or ever wear out. Sounds pretty nifty, right? Except…what about all of those textile workers who will be out of a job when the miracle fabric goes on the market and nobody needs to buy new clothes? That's the basic setup, and the conflicts and resolution are all cleverly handled. As usual, Guinness is a master. One memorable aspect of this comedy is the rhythmic sound that the young scientist's simmering test tubes produce. (9)

BETSY'S WEDDING (1990)—The last film to have been written, directed and starring Alan Alda is forgettable, lightweight fluff about the wedding of one daughter (Molly Ringwald) and the romance of another (Ally Sheedy) to an underworld type (Anthony LaPaglia, in the movie's best performance). It tries hard to be charming, but misses the mark, demonstrating why Alda never made another movie after it. (7)

SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN (2011)—This romcom was officially released to theaters in the U.S. last year. When a mega-wealthy sheik expresses interest in bringing the sport of salmon fishing to a salmon-free desert, it's up to a laconic scientist (Ewan McGregor) and the sheik's Western representative (Emily Blunt) to study the feasibility of turning it into a reality. Naturally, sparks fly, and maybe (just maybe!) a romance will develop! A mild but watchable entertainment, mostly due to the charm of the film's stars…and I approve of the theme about no dream being too wild to pursue. (8)

KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949)—February's second Alec Guinness movie is my only entry from the Forties. This one stars Dennis Price as a shunned relative of a wealthy family who decides to go for an inheritance by bumping off everybody else in the family…all of whom (both men and women) are played by Alec Guinness! It's a tour-de-force that went a long way toward making him a star. It's a very dark but also very funny comedy. Actress Joan Greenwood astonished me by having the voice, looks and mannerisms of Felicity Kendal, another British comic actress I've always enjoyed. (10)

SIDE EFFECTS (2013)—Weirdly, this was one of only two current-release films I saw all month. Director Steven Soderbergh, whose work I have admired (Erin Brockovich, Haywire, Contagion), turns his attention to a mystery about prescription medication that's full of unexpected surprises. It stars Jude Law as a doctor whose life spins out of control as a result of a patient (an excellent Rooney Mara) and her unusual medical circumstances. To say much more would be giving away the nature of the story, which requires a healthy suspension of disbelief, but if you can do that, it's a movie well worth seeing. (9)

THE SECRET LIFE OF ZOEY (2002)—It's funny how certain things lead me to others. I was compelled to seek out this made-for-Lifetime-TV effort after listening to actress Julia Whelan (so perfect in the TV series Once and Again) perform the audio-CD version of last summer's bestselling novel Gone Girl. Mia Farrow is a single mom bringing up smart, beautiful daughter Whelan, who just happens to have gotten into illegal drugs. The movie strives to remind parents to always keep a watchful eye on their kids, because this kind of thing can happen to anyone. Except…Farrow plays such a great parent and Whelan is such a good girl that it's totally mystifying how she fell into the wrong crowd or how Farrow could have missed any of the clues. It's a well-meaning film, but fails to connect all of the dots. Decent performances by all, however. (7)

WARM BODIES (2013)—Connie's unexpectedly non-horrible review of this "zombie romcom" inspired Joan and I to take a look, and we agreed with her that it was a decent time-killer, enjoyable without being particularly memorable. I found the special effects in this futuristic adventure to be quite impressive, and the love story is performed with goofy affection. Female star Teresa Palmer is easy on the eyes, but even her great beauty is eclipsed by that of Damsels in Distress star Analeigh Tipton, whom I will henceforth strive to see in anything she appears in—including the forthcoming Two Night Stand. (8)

ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930)—As much as I idolize the Marx Brothers, I've not seen every one of their films—at least from beginning to end. It was high time I got this one out of the way. Following The Coconuts, it's their second film, and based on their stage success. It's the usual Marx Brothers lunacy; this one features the famous song "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" and involves a stolen painting. Attractive co-star Lillian Roth would be worth tracking down in other films from the same time period. (8)

THE DEAD GIRL (2006)—This was one of the months' most welcome surprises, a multiple-story film linked by the title character. There are five interconnected tales in this unique drama, written and directed by Karen Moncrieff and starring Toni Collette, Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Kerry Washington and Brittany Murphy. It is troubling, surprising, confounding, thought-provoking and superbly constructed. (10)

LÉON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994)—As a fan of Natalie Portman, I've been curious to see her screen debut for several years. There are at least three different versions of the movie; the one I saw is the most complete and inclusive version, which is more than 20 minutes longer than the U.S. release. Jean Reno plays a hit man who is at first compelled to provide protection to a 12-year-old (Portman), then gradually starts to make her a part of his professional. Gary Oldman appears as an unrelentingly slimy DEA investigator, an over-the-top villain who's a little bit too maniacal to be believed…but this is more of a fantasy movie than anything else, and somehow it all works…even the bizarro idea of Portman falling in love with a man decades her senior. Completely absorbing and entertaining; makes me want to catch up on every movie of Portman's that I have missed (not counting those later Star Wars sequels). (9)

THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (1951)—Third in the trilogy of Alec Guinness movies I enjoyed in February, this one is about a bank employee who connives to pull off an armored-car heist with some buddies. Funny, suspenseful and imaginative—you'll be rooting for the "bad" guys all the way to the end. Gotta watch more Guinness soon! (9)

THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS (1980)—Jamie-Alice mentioned how frightening this Disney chiller was when she was a kid, so I threw it into the mix, as I have dozens of unseen Disney movies in my archives and would like to continue chipping away at them. Bette Davis rents a large British mansion to an American family (including 22-year-old blonde beauty Lynn-Holly Johnson of Ice Castles), then supernatural forces in the woods nearby start to menace everybody. Do these ghostly goings-on have to do with Davis's own daughter, who went missing decades before? Well, duh! The movie is designed to creep out the small fry, but anybody over the age of 20 is bound to find themselves chuckling at the now-primitive special effects and especially the hilariously bad acting of Johnson—the worst acting I have ever seen in a major film release. (5)

LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972)—Alas, my eardrums have always been allergic to Billie Holliday's voice; she sings too high and sounds like a cartoon character. I do, however, enjoy listening to Diana Ross, so the idea of her starring in a biopic about Holliday interested me—especially because I've never really seen Ross act before. The movie is trashy fun from a soap-opera lover's point of view but is essentially a washout as a biography—to say they take "poetic license" is an outrageous understatement, since virtually all Billie does in the movie is sing and take drugs. It's a film that's loaded with movie-biography clichés, including the one where a character walks along with a moving train just to continue waving goodbye to a departing spouse. Still, Ross does turn in an acceptable performance, while Billy Dee Williams looks handsome and Richard Pryor sounds unintelligible most of the time. Also, you have to laugh at the idea of stunning Diana Ross portraying significantly less-than-stunning Holliday—it's as if they'd cast Zoe Saldana to play Nina Simone. Oh, wait—that one is already in production! (6)

THE SERVANT (1963)—Joseph Losey directed Harold Pinter's script that was based on a novella by Robin Maugham (a nephew of Somerset). In it, James Fox (sort of a cross between David Bowie and Bruce Davison) plays a rich upper-class twit who hires a manservant (dependable Dirk Bogarde) to run his house, cook, etc. Fox's girlfriend (Wendy Craig) takes an instant dislike to the vaguely sinister butler, then Sarah Miles enters the picture as a housekeeper and the real fun begins. For three-quarters of the movie, I was absolutely mesmerized by the tension between these four characters. But the intriguing premise—exploring how the master of the house and the hired help gradually swap places in a kind of power play—totally ceased to interest me when Fox became a mopey, boozy sycophant and Bogarde became a loud-mouthed bully. I just couldn't swallow it. Critics heaped praise on this film, but the last reel suffers greatly from a lack of realism. The movie vaguely reminded me of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. (6)