Tuesday, June 02, 2015

May 2015

Highlights of this month included the creation of a work-related vlog and a trip to San Jose to see Jay Steele's production of Hairspray. I haven't settled on binge-watching a specific TV series at this time, but still shopping around. Here are the films I saw in May:

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (2015)—The latest adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s famous 1874 novel (published less than a decade after Lincoln was assassinated) features Carey Mulligan as the strong, independent farm woman who is courted by three different men over the course of a year or two. Although chunks of Hardy’s novel have reportedly been truncated, it’s still a beautifully filmed and totally absorbing drama. (9)

WOMAN IN GOLD (2015)—In the first of two consecutively viewed movies starring Ryan Reynolds, this one is the better and more rewarding—but it contains the inferior performance by Reynolds. Woman in Gold tells the true story of Maria Altmann, an elderly Jewish refugee from Austria whose family paintings were stolen by the Nazis in WWII and are now illegally owned by the Austrian government. Reynolds is an inexperienced attorney who sues Austria on her behalf in an attempt to return them to her. It’s an absorbing and sometimes even suspenseful film that uses flashbacks to maximum effect; the end is enormously moving. Film’s only debit is a wooden performance by Reynolds. (9)

THE VOICES (2015)—This is quite a 180-degree turn for Ryan Reynolds, who is in much better form playing an emotionally disturbed guy who, off his medications, can transform from shy charmer to murderous psychopath. The voices in his head are embodied by his real pets, a cat and a dog, who order him to commit his horrible deeds. The movie was described by one critic as a cross between Psycho, Dexter and Dr. Doolittle. Macabre but very entertaining. (8)

THE AGE OF ADELINE (2015)—This was recommended by my mother Tina, who had wisely touted Woman in Gold as a must-see. In a rare turn of events, Joan and I were split on Adeline (she liked it much more than I did). As Connie Ogle observed in her review, this creaky fable about how usually fatal contrivances serve to turn a woman immortal is filled with so many preposterous (and dumb) plot devices that it had me squirming in my seat for two hours while being bombarded by characters behaving moronically and illogically. Harrison Ford makes a very welcome appearance, along with Kathy Baker, but it’s not enough to save the picture. Includes some voice-over narration that, especially at the unbelievably predictable ending, is so heavy-handed and cringeworthy that it made me laugh out loud. (If you remember the old TV show conceit about a guy who suffers amnesia by getting hit on the head, only to be cured of it by getting hit on the head again, this is that TV show all over again.) At least the movie wasn’t boring. (6)

THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940)—I have been overlooking the classics lately, so I opened the vaults first to a pair of John Steinbeck adaptations that have always prickled my interest. The first was this famous Henry Fonda movie, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel published only a year before this was made. The film deals with the struggles of a family during the Great Depression; they lose their Oklahoma farm and head to California looking for crop-picking work and find only corruption, destitution, car trouble and hunger at every turn. It is an incredibly sad and depressing—but highly educational—experience. While it’s difficult to say you really “enjoy” such a profound downer, there’s no denying the power and effectiveness in this narrative. (8)

EAST OF EDEN (1955)—Where Grapes of Wrath was presented in stark, morose black and white, this second Steinbeck offering is distinguished by having been filmed in brilliant, colorful CinemaScope. It’s another California saga, based on Steinbeck’s novel from three years earlier. Directed by Elia Kazan, East of Eden chronicles only a fragment of the novel’s sweeping story, ignoring the first half completely and focusing on the character of Caleb Trask and his family. (A lot of “mature themes” were watered down for this movie.) Cal is played by James Dean in his starring film debut—it was the only one of his three movies released during his lifetime. This is the second of his movies that I have seen, the first being Rebel Without a Cause, which I disliked. Dean does his brooding, troubled-teen bit here again, and it strikes me that playing this kind of character was likely the only one in his bag of tricks. Despite his annoying performance (he often behaves in an unrealistic and cartoonish manner), the movie is watchable enough, settling for a love story and brother vs. brother plot. One of my gripes about this film is that a great deal of the dialogue was obviously re-dubbed in the studio, and very poorly. I would greatly love to see a longer version of this book done as a protracted miniseries, with more of Steinbeck’s rich backstory intact. (7)

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)—Despite loving writer-director Joss Whedon and all three of the Iron Man movies, the first Avengers film left me cold. I’d hoped that Whedon could muster up a bit more excitement with the sequel, and for the most part, it’s an OK popcorn movie; it contained way too many fight scenes where entire cities are decimated and thousands of innocent citizens are almost certainly annihilated. (James Spader does a terrific job voicing the artificially intelligent evil robot villain, Ultron.) At this point, I need to confess that my viewing of the second Avengers was one of the most fun and memorable moviegoing experiences of my life, as it happened to take place at the AMC dine-in theater in Marina Del Rey—a daytime excursion that saw only two other patrons, an incredibly comfy reclining chair, outstanding wait service and mouth-watering Brett-type food (buffalo wings, spicy shrimp poppers, burgers, etc.). The movie itself was very low on the list of enjoyable items, but you can’t have everything. My rating reflects only the film—the theater gets a perfect 10. (7)

THE LIVING (2015)—Tense, occasionally gripping movie about a young man hiring a hit man to bump off his brother-in-law is saddled with a predictable and unsatisfying ending. But the movie features some good performances by its largely no-name cast; veteran character actor Chris Mulkey (Hank from Twin Peaks) plays one scary, sociopathic sumbitch. (7)

OUTRAGE! (1986)—Lately I have had a hankering to watch some of the many TV movies in my archive; this one was purchased as a VHS copy through eBay. It stars Robert "The Music Man” Preston in his very last role, as the father of a girl raped and murdered by a man who has confessed to the crime—and is released on a stupid technicality. Beau Bridges is given the task of defending Preston in court. It’s a TV movie all the way, but reasonably well-done, and it features pretty Linda Purl and Burgess “The Penguin” Meredith as a grizzled judge (the movie was released the same year as the original Rocky, in which Meredith played manager Mickey. (8)

BURNT OFFERINGS (1976)—Two Burgess Meredith films in a row! This mid-Seventies horror flick has such a great cast, including Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Bette Davis and Meredith, whose appearance is essentially a cameo, so I was curious about the movie despite its so-so reputation. I was really stupefied by how many plot details echoed The Shining, released four years after this: A guy takes his wife and kid to take care of a new residence much larger than their previous one; then he becomes increasingly delusional as he is haunted by a procession of ghosts. It even ends the same way, with his photo prominently displayed in the place after his gruesome death. Hell, The Shining is practically a remake of this (although admittedly far superior). This one dragged a bit and didn’t have nearly as much suspense. It’s always fun to watch Karen Black and Burgess Meredith, though. (6)