Friday, December 30, 2011

So Much To Do...

You know how it goes.

I started this blog while my wife was pregnant with our first child. Some form of movie website had been in the recesses of my mind for many years and I always intended to get it going once I moved back to The States. Knowing that it would be unlikely after my son was born that I would ever find the time to start this project, I decided to get into the habit early.

My goal was to write a review for every movie I watched whether it be in the cinema, on DVD, illegal download or in-flight movie (I've reviewed all such examples) and whether it was a film with which I was intimately familiar, a classic I was revisiting or coming to for the first time or an altogether new movie. In all this time, after 221 posted reviews, the number of films I've watched without reviewing is probably about a dozen. I'm proud of that.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Young Adult Movie Review

What happens to the prom queen and most popular girl in school 20 years after graduation? Does she become successful, remain confident, popular and beautiful? The truth is they go on to lead varied lives just like anyone else. Like the vast majority of humanity I’m sure they turn out ordinary. It may be comforting for those of us who were on the outside looking in to that level of popularity to think that the gorgeous girl who never gave a moment’s notice is now alone and wallowing in self pity. To a certain extent, that’s what Young Adult is about.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Descendants Movie Review

As a writer and director, Alexander Payne is out to show that Hollywood studios can produce small character-driven dramas that are also successful. As a screenwriter he’s one of the great contemporary satirists, having given the great social commentary pieces Citizen Ruth and Election followed up by the equally impressive, though less satirical, more dramatic About Schmidt and Sideways. He comes back to us now after a lengthy break from feature film directing with The Descendants.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Love Actually Movie Review: A New Perennial Christmas Classic

Released in the United States one week after Elf, a film I think should become a holiday classic, Love Actually warmed audiences' hearts and for many has become perennial viewing at this time of year. It’s easy to see why as I found it thoroughly enjoyable in the cinema in November, 2003, and still find it emotionally fulfilling eight years later. At the time I might have written it off as high-end fluff that I fell for at a time when I was returning from the emotional high of three months backpacking Europe, a trip during which I saw London for the first time. So watching the movie, I experienced nostalgic excitement over seeing that skyline again, for recognizing Heathrow airport, for hearing those London accents. It turns out, however, that the film has a lot more to offer. It has staying power built on a witty script by Richard Curtis, who also directs with a light touch, keeping more than a dozen major characters suspended over two hours bringing everyone’s story into resolve in the final scenes and brief coda.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Elf Movie Review: A Modern Christmas Classic

Jon Favreau wanted his Christmas comedy Elf to become a Christmas classic. Actually I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t yet. It has all the elements needed to establish it firmly in the canon. The reason I say Favreau wanted that is because it looks like he went out of his way to give it the look and feel of other classic holiday fare from both film and television. In this unusual and often uproarious story of a human raised by North Pole elves who goes to New York City seeking out his real father, Favreau’s direction keeps the comedy coming at consistent intervals while also injecting the right amount of sentiment. He never pushes the sappy stuff too hard, but it’s strong enough to give you a good feeling. David Berenbaum’s screenplay deserves credit for the straightforward plotting, some damn good jokes and an appropriate level of holiday spiritedness.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Moulin Rouge! Movie Review: Ten Years Later, It Still Does It

“Love Is Like Oxygen.” “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.” Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong.” “All You Need Is Love.” At least that’s what pop music tells us as well as Christian, the young penniless Bohemian writer looking for truth, beauty, freedom and love in turn of the twentieth century Paris in Baz Luhrmann’s kinetic marvel Moulin Rouge! It’s ten years ago this month I first saw this movie on DVD and shortly thereafter I sought it out in the one Manhattan theater that was still showing it. It simply astounded me even though I fully expected to be repelled by it. I’m not a fan of musicals in general, but it quickly became, along with West Side Story, one of only two examples of the genre I truly adore and landed on my list of favorite films of the first decade of the 21st century.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Hugo Movie Review

This review is based on the 3D version of the film. As this is only the second film I’ve seen in the contemporary 3D style I don’t feel I’m familiar enough with its uses and implementations to 100% accurately judge whether it’s any good or not. However, I have taken the liberty of commenting on my reaction to the 3D as I believe it is the critic’s duty to report his response to a film as completely as possible.

When I read that Martin Scorsese was going to make his next film in 3D and it was also going to be an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s picture novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, my first reaction was to be simply dumbfounded. Why would the director of so many dark and violent films that deeply explore the human condition venture into such new territory? And why would the man who still insists on using film stock, a man who supremely values film history, shoot in 3D? Surely this must have been some kind of total commercial sellout. Well, the final judgment is yet to be determined as it often takes years for the critical and audience response to render a final verdict on a piece of pop culture’s place in the canon, but after seeing it I can say it makes a lot more sense now that Scorsese was drawn to this particular story and this particular use of 3D technology to make Hugo.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

25 Years Ago This Month: December 1986

In December 1986 I was heavy into my obsession with G.I. Joe action figures and the cartoon series used to promote the Kenner line of toys, so with the approach of my ninth Christmas I was eagerly anticipating the arrival of several new figures and vehicles to complement my growing collection. As such I was hardly aware of, let alone interested in, any of the films released to cinemas that month, although three would become staple viewing on cable television during the following two years and one later became a preferred film during my young adolescence.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bridesmaids Movie Review

Bridesmaids tries desperately to be the female answer to the glut of bromance comedies in recent years that have generated laughs through scatological humor and over-the-top situational comedy. Just so you know it’s in the same vein, Bridesmaids is even produced by Judd Apatow, the father of the bromance comedy. Where this sub-genre trades in male stereotypes of masculinity and fear of commitment, Bridesmaids goes just as far with equivalent female stereotypes: backstabbing; jealousy; in-fighting; insecurity. Perhaps it’s my male perspective, but I just didn’t find this to be fertile ground for great comedy.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Melancholia Movie Review

Leave it Lars von Trier to start a film with the apocalypse. As a mysterious planet roughly the size of Jupiter hurtles towards Earth in the opening montage of Melancholia, scenes on the ground involving Justine and Claire are almost frozen in time using super slow motion photography to create an otherworldly effect as if we’re watching paintings in motion. Then we see our beautiful blue planet swallowed up by the massive celestial object looming over it. The world ceases to exist in that moment.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

My Week With Marilyn Movie Review

Has there ever been a movie star like Marilyn Monroe? My lifetime doesn’t come anywhere close to any time that she was alive so it’s hard to fully understand the attention that she drew and the madness of her celebrity. All I know is what’s been written about those times and what little I’ve seen of documentary footage of her in crowds. Is it anything like the fervor exhibited over a sighting of Leo, George or Brad? I think there’s a great difference between the way we viewed celebrities then and now. The rarity of bearing witness to something in the private life of a celebrity then is nothing compared to the ubiquity of celebrity gossip, sightings, paparazzi photos and such today. We didn’t know (or feel like we know) celebrities then like we do now. Marilyn’s popularity, however, was about much more than public interest in a movie star. She had qualities most women would have died for: she was beautiful, voluptuous, dazzling, sexy and sultry. She was a true classic star, a fact that Simon Curtis’s debut feature My Week With Marilyn is acutely aware of.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

J. Edgar Movie Review

Earlier this year I wrote a review of Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter that complained of my weariness with his recent lazy filmmaking. I almost began this review of his latest film, J. Edgar, the same way until I went back and read that one. But the fact remains that his biopic of the man who was director of the old Bureau of Investigations and then first Director of the FBI for a total of 48 years is tired, boring and absurd. This is lazy storytelling at its worst.

J. Edgar Hoover always was and remains to this day something of an enigma. We know him as the paranoid director who supposedly investigated his enemies and people he believed to be subversives and radicals. He’s widely suspected of illegally wiretapping and of keeping secret files that were ultimately never recovered (at least in full). There is strong suspicion he was a deeply closeted homosexual and may have maintained a long-term relationship with his number two man Clyde Tolson. There’s even some silly speculation that he was a cross-dresser. But we don’t know much about the man and his motivations for his paranoia and his jealousy when it came to FBI agents who absorbed more of the spotlight than he could stand.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Miracle Movie Review: A Defining Sports Moment on the Big Screen

You may ask yourself what inspired me to revisit a not entirely memorable, though worth seeing at the time, sports movie about a great sports moment from 31 years ago. It was actually seeing Warrior several weeks ago. Both films are directed by Gavin O’Connor and I was curious to see how his nearly excellent sports film from this year compares to one from 7 years ago.

It is perhaps the greatest moment in the history of sports. It at least makes the top five. The United States Olympic Men’s Hockey team did the unfathomable by defeating the Soviet Union in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. There is hardly a more galvanizing moment in American sports history than that one, as 20 college-age amateur hockey players took to the ice and brought down the behemoths, those mythical beasts of the USSR who were regarded as the best hockey team in the world by far and had won the gold in the previous four Olympic games. What most people forget or treat as an afterthought just as Gavin O’Connor’s 2004 film Miracle does is that the US had to play and win a game against Finland to take the gold medal. Beating the Soviets was a great moment, but it would have fallen into the recesses of bittersweet memories of almost-made-its had our boys not won that next game.

Classic Movie Review: The Godfather Part II

At the time it was made, could anyone have imagined that a sequel to The Godfather would possibly be anything near to the quality and sophistication of the first film? And yet Francis Ford Coppola surpassed his own film in many ways with The Godfather Part II. It is wider and more epic in scope, covering both the rise of a young Vito Corleone in 1920s Little Italy and the decline of his youngest son Michael 30-odd years later. It covers the ground both before and after the time period in which the first film is set.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In) Movie Review

With The Skin I Live In, director Pedro Almodóvar has crafted what might be described as an almost perfect mixture of Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock. Those two classic directors have long been big influences on Almodóvar’s films, but I don’t think he has before now drawn the two together and created such a perversion of their work – and I mean that as a compliment.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"I Believe in America": Godfather Analysis Part I

Go to introduction.

That is the line that opens the film over a black frame before a fade in on a close-up of Bonasera. That line sets the tone for the rest of the film and possibly the entire trilogy. In many ways, the film is a celebration of the idea of America and the American dream: an immigrant family settles in New York and builds itself up from having nothing to having everything. America, the land of opportunity, has been very good to the Corleone family.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene Movie Review

Marth Marcy May Marlene is a grim, almost nihilistic portrait of a young woman indoctrinated by a cult with a powerfully coercive leader. The title refers to the woman’s three names she goes by. Her real name, used only by her sister and brother-in-law, is Martha. Marcy May is the name given to her by Patrick, just one of many ways in which he establishes a paternalistic stronghold over the young women on his farm and a method of stripping their old identity from them to mold them into his personal harem. Marlene is the name they all use when answering the phone.

Take Shelter Movie Review: Truly Mad, Deeply

The gathering storm.
Madness, true madness, is a terrible thing. I’m talking about clinical disorders, the kind that most people know little about, even if they talk a great deal about them. Even scientists would probably admit they’re only now scratching the surface of psychological disorders, their causes and their treatments. As laypeople we tend to think of madness as the prototypical depictions we see in movies or even occasionally in real life on the street. We see a man muttering to himself in a park, or maybe he’s even shouting at no one, or everyone, and we point to him and say, “That guy’s crazy.” Movies have given us the lunatic cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the depraved insanity of sociopathic killers in countless thrillers. But the truth is that very few people are afflicted the way pop culture would have us believe, and many more suffer quietly through conditions that might be benign to outsiders or as debilitating and difficult to witness as schizophrenia.

Michael Shannon shot to mid-level stardom with an Oscar nomination for playing the emotionally disturbed neighbor in Revolutionary Road, a performance that, while very good, was still based on a conventional approach to mental illness. Now take his latest movie, Take Shelter, which is a character study painting a portrait of a man named Curtis who slowly unravels before his family and friends. Curtis is a kind of blue collar everyman. He lives in Ohio, works for a mining company, has a lovely wife and dutifully learns sign language to communicate with his deaf daughter. But something is not quite right in his world, signaled by the first image in the film of Curtis staring toward distant gathering clouds and then hanging around while the rain soaks him.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Miami Vice Movie Review

If there’s been a common theme running through the films of Michael Mann it’s been the presence of hard-working men determined and expert in their professions. Think about Russell Crow and Al Pacino in The Insider, Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat – the cop and the criminal – two sides of the same coin facing off against one another. “Miami  Vice,” the hit TV series for which Mann served as executive producer, though a bit lighter and more freewheeling than his feature films, contains the initial germinating seeds of the same theme. These seeds are brought to fruition in Mann’s feature film update of that same series, this time with a hot new cast including Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Jack and Jill Follow-Up

Just to follow up on this because I've just discovered that Jack and Jill is directed by Dennis Dugan and that Dugan, in addition to making his feature directorial debut with Problem Child, has been responsible for 6 Adam Sandler debacles prior to this latest outing.

Looking at his list of director credits at IMDb I began to wonder if any other director with more than, say, 5 films to his name has had such low-rated films. Ed Wood is probably a close competitor.

But let's take a look at Dugan's oeuvre: 12 feature films directed. The lowest rated by IMDb users is Problem Child at 4.6/10. The highest is Happy Gilmore at 6.9. The average for the 12 is a pathetic 5.75. That maybe makes it sound better than average if you know nothing about the ratings at IMDb, but the way people tend to vote, anything less than a 6 is pretty close to unwatchable.

Because I know that people are sheep and will not only keep paying to see Adam Sandler vehicles, but will like them each time, I decided to check out the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, where Problem Child gets a 7% rating based on 15 reviews and Happy Gilmore just misses out on a "fresh" rating by scoring 59% from 51 reviews. He hasn't even had a film that rates over 6.0 since Big Daddy in 1999 and that's the only film of his in 12 years to rank at 40% or better.

According to Rotten Tomatoes, Dugan's films have received 239 positive notices based on 1070 reviews. That's 22% on a scale that counts anything less than 60% as "rotten."

So what are the chances that Jack and Jill is 1) funny; 2) competent; 3) well-received by critics; or 4) well-received by audiences?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

John Cusack focus concludes with Review of Identity

It can be a really effective premise to confine your characters to a single location fort eh duration of the drama. The ancient Greeks were certainly aware of this as a narrative device. It can work best in a thriller and there are many that throw a bunch of people together for a single night and then dispatch them one by one.

James Mangold’s Identity starts eerily and mysteriously with newspaper clippings of a motel murder and voiceover recordings of a psychiatrist (Alfred Molina) talking to the alleged perpetrator. Then suddenly we’re thrust into a motel office as a man bursts in holding his bleeding wife shouting at the clerk to call an ambulance. Then in overlapping flashbacks we see the sequence of events, involving a young call girl, a limousine driver and an aging movie star, and a young boy who never speaks, that led to the accident. Because of a terrible rain storm that has washed out the road in both directions, all these characters and more wind up at the motel together.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

25 Years Ago This Month: November 1986

The fourth Star Trek feature film, Dennis Hopper's only Oscar-nominated role, Mike Tyson wins his first pro boxing title, a large chemical spill turns the Rhine red, the Iran-Contra scandal gets its first exposure, and the loss of a Hollywood legend, all 25 years ago this month.

50/50 Movie Review: Laughing Our Way Through Cancer

50/50 might be one of the smartest films about living with cancer that I’ve seen. That it’s a comedy makes it all the more interesting to me. It’s not a cancer comedy the way The Bucket List is, with two old geezers having adventures that the conditions of their bodies would never permit in real life. 50/50, directed by Jonathan Levine from a script by real-life cancer survivor Will Reiser, is about a man in his late-20s who is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer and how he faces what could be his last days on earth.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Ides of March Movie Review

The Ides of March, a political drama written and directed by George Clooney arrives just as many people in the country are beginning to wonder if President Obama is capable of sticking to the principals he lauded in his campaign or if he is no different than any other politician, making compromise after compromise for political expediency without regard for the values he claims to uphold. That the movie’s subject matter fits snugly into the current political landscape is a bit serendipitous, being based on a play originally produced before Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency.

Drive Movie Review: Ryan Gosling as Swarthy Thug

At one point in Drive a character makes a snide comment about the movies he used to produce being “European,” as if that’s automatically understood to mean pseudo-intellectual garbage. It’s an ironic comment and one of the myriad ways director Nicolas Winding Refn thumbs his nose at Hollywood. Drive may flaunt its gorgeous matinee idol of a lead (Ryan Gosling), its car chases and violent action (all hallmarks of popular American cinema) but everything else about it screams European, from its 80s retro tone and soundtrack to the abundance of slow-motion and dearth of talk.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Just when you thought he couldn't sink any lower...

Here's a trailer for what looks like one of the worst movies in recent memory. It looks awful even by awful Adam Sandler standards. And the trailer drags on for more than 2 full minutes as if it's necessary to reveal every crude, retarded, and humorless joke to the hopeless people who will lay down money to see this garbage. Someone should tell Columbia Pictures that the crowd who are interested in this will be sold the moment they see that Adam Sandler plays not just one, but TWO (!!), roles in the movie. And one of them is a woman!! ROTFLMFAO hilarity is sure to ensue.

John Cusack Focus: Bullets Over Broadway Movie Review

This may be less a John Cusack film than a Woody Allen film, but it's far enough against type for Cusack that I think it's interesting to include it in this short compendium. I could just as easily file this review under my "Modern Classics" heading. This film almost made my list of the top 5 Woody Allen films. So close!

Of all of Woody Allen’s films, Bullets Over Broadway might be the most underrated. And though John Cusack is just one in a long line of actors to basically perform the Woody role on screen, his is probably the best. Not only does he get the mannerisms, the rhythms of speech, and the mania one hundred percent right, but somehow he makes the role his own. It’s less straight imitation than internal adaptation.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Godfather Film Analysis: Introduction

This is the first introduction to a complete film analysis of The Godfather from 1972. It is still a work in progress and I hope to get it completed with all parts posted by the end of November. This is not meant as a full academic study, but the beginnings of exploring how sequencing, lighting, shot composition and music contribute to cinematic storytelling in great movies.

Unfortunately I am too young to have had the opportunity to see The Godfather when it first opened in 1972. I can recall seeing it in bits and pieces throughout my childhood on television, cable and probably on video. Certain images resonated and stuck in my mind: the garroting of Carlo and his kicking out the windshield; Sonny’s violent death at the tollbooth; Sonny’s beating of Carlo on the street; Jack Woltz waking to find himself covered in blood and the head of his prized racehorse under the sheets; Michael’s killing of McCluskey and Sollozzo; the final montage of the baptism inter-cut with the killings of the heads of the five families. It is certainly no coincidence that the most violent scenes are what stayed with me all my life. I never had any awareness of the plot of the film until I watched the film in its entirety sometime when I was a teenager.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Classic Movie Review: The Godfather (Special 200th Posted Review Edition)

This reviews marks the 200th full length movie review I've posted to this blog since I began it in April 2010. When I hit my 100th earlier this year, I marked the occasion with a review for Pulp Fiction, followed by a scene-by-scene analysis of the film. Starting next week, I will begin posting a similar analysis for The Godfather.

Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is regarded as such an important cinematic classic that it’s easy to forget what a bold undertaking it was and how unconventional Coppola decided to make it. Here is  adramatic and violent story, epic in scope, that begins with a thirty minute wedding celebration that has very little plot advancement, no action, and introduces about twenty key characters. The payoff comes later when we feel like we know these people like our own family.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

MLS's Charlie Davies Takes Advantage of Stupid American Law

This story is an interesting bit of serendipity because it was just yesterday that I attended a course for my job that is designed to educate and inform workers in the hospitality industry who are responsible for serving alcohol.

In the course we learn about Dram Shop Laws. This is the law that allows a third party to bring a civil suit against an establishment for serving alcohol to a person who caused injury to said person. If I am hit by a drunk driver, I can sue the restaurant, bar, or party host that served him, regardless of whether I was at the same establishment or venue.

What this does is put the onus on servers, bartenders, and proprietors to responsibly serve alcohol. It does NOT put much responsibility on the person drinking.

This is one of the most absurd aspects of United States laws related to alcohol consumption and points to a larger problem we have in this country - namely, that when someone is injured or does something wrong, the blame is rarely placed on the person himself, but rather on some other individual or company (usually the one with the deepest pockets).

That is what seems to be happening with Charlie Davies. Davies was a hot young soccer prospect two years ago. He was making waves with the US National Team and was poised to be picked for the World Cup squad when a fatal accident the night before the final US qualifying match changed his life. Davies was severely injured and didn't return to soccer for nearly a year. At this point he's playing in MLS, but not at quite the same level he was before the accident.

He was hit by a drunk driver. According to the article linked above, he is suing the restaurant that served the drunk driver as well as Red Bull, the company that hosted the party where the woman drank to the point of intoxication.

It's a difficult balance to strike because I think there is a point at which a person serving an intoxicated customer is pushing things too far and intoxicated people (the ones who've had 12 drinks on the night, not 5 or 6) are incapable of making rational decisions. But I resent that in my job I can be held both criminally and civilly responsible for what one of my guests does when he leaves the restaurant. It puts me in the position of having to be the world's police. You know what? I'm just a waiter.

Monday, October 17, 2011

John Cusack Focus: Better Off Dead Movie Review

Revisiting favorite old films from your childhood can go one of two ways. In most cases you can be fairly certain that it’s not nearly as good, interesting, clever, or funny as you remember. But you can be sure that you’ll either be supremely disappointed to discover there’s little redemption to be found within its frames or that there’s actually a lot more to discover than your innocent and immature brain was capable of comprehending at the time.

Better Off Dead… is one of two bizarre comedies (along with One Crazy Summer) from the mid-80s written and directed by Savage Steve Holland and starring John Cusack. What was Holland thinking? Can you imagine a film being made today whose main character is a depressive teen who tries to kill himself several times over the course of the film’s 90 minutes – and oh yeah, it’s a comedy?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Joy Ride Movie Review: Revisiting an Old Non-Classic

The director John Dahl had a fantastic start in feature films, making the neo-noirs Red Rock West and The Last Seduction back-to-back and then Rounders later. After a big-budget commercial fiasco in The Great Raid, Dahl has stuck mainly to television since 2005. He has directed several episodes each of “True Blood,” “Dexter” and “Californication,” all centered on subject matter that Dahl has been drawn to and executed quite well in his film career. It was mainly on the strength of his early work that drew me initially to Joy Ride, a fairly standard genre film that Dahl elevates slightly above the average thriller. Coming back to the film about a decade later, I’m somewhat disappointed, though not particularly surprised, to find it doesn’t hold up as well as I remember.

John Cusack Focus Continues: The Grifters Movie Review

The Grifters is a brilliant little hidden treasure of neo-noir. It’s a film that doesn’t find its way onto anyone’s ‘best of…’ lists, but it is worthy. I knew of its reputation and I’d seen it once before many years ago, but had almost no memory of it. Now I can’t believe what I was missing. If you’re a lover of film noir, The Grifters is a beautifully rendered cross between old-style noir and modern renditions of the genre.

That it takes place in Los Angeles is not only par for the course within the genre, but also integral to the specific thematic elements of the film. L.A. is a mixed bag of old and new. There’s neo-classical architecture juxtaposed with garish modernity. It’s a young city within the context of America, but with a storied history made to seem even older because of the presence of Hollywood, which is able to recreate any time period it wants. How many of the great noir pictures have taken place in southern California? From Double Indemnity to Chinatown and Blade Runner, the genre has plumbed the depths of the city.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Moneyball Movie Review

I’ve never really had any great love for the game of baseball. But the one time I remember really getting into it was the post 9/11 playoff season when it seemed like a Yankees victory in the World Series would magically heal the emotional wounds left over from that tragic day; when, in spite of the still-smoldering Ground Zero, we were able to focus on something that is otherwise meaningless in the grand scheme of things, whose very meaninglessness was all the more reason to assign more significance than it would otherwise merit.

We watched together at work as the Yankees took the ALDS against the Oakland A’s after dropping the first two games at home. Then they went on to defeat Seattle in the ALCS, but lost the Series to Arizona in 7 games. Nothing has brought back memories of that season more than Moneyball, Bennett Miller’s first feature since 2005’s Capote. Moneyball forced my perspective on the Division series to change, positioning the audience into empathizing with Oakland, three times on the brink of knocking down the mighty Yankees, but unable to make their $40M payroll compete with the Yanks’ eleventy billion. Who on the east coast knew that 3000 miles away, there were legions of fans immensely disappointed by the result of that Game 5? In the wake of disaster, New Yorkers certainly didn’t care. Watching the opening scenes, instead of reliving the joy of seeing the Yankees win, I felt the frustration and defeat of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), General Manager of the A’s, as he sits alone contemplating how he can possibly manage a team with less than one third the payroll of the biggest behemoth in professional sports.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

John Cusack Week Continues with High Fidelity Movie Review

I’ve rarely had as strong a personal connection to a movie or a character as I had to John Cusack’s Rob Gordon in High Fidelity. At the time it was as if Rob was speaking directly to me. In fact, he regularly breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to camera, a wonderful little touch by the screenwriting team (J.V. DeVincentis, Cusack, Steve Pink, and Scott Rosenberg) in adapting the Nick Hornby novel and deftly handled by Stephen Frears so that it never feels forced or gimmicky. However, it wasn’t only the direct connection to Rob that Cusack and Frears made me feel as an audience member, but a story that was, quite frankly, what I imagined I would write at the time if I were to write a screenplay.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

R.I.P. Charles Napier

Character actor Charles Napier died yesterday at age 75. He had a recognizable face, often playing military officials or cops. He was Hannibal Lecter's unfortunate victim when Lecter escapes his cell in The Silence of the Lambs and also the recipient of John Rambo's threat, "Murdock, I'm comin' to get you," in Rambo: First Blood Part II.

But I've seen him most recently in a small role in The Grifters, which will be featured as part of my John Cusack focus this fortnight. Check back for a review in the next few days.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Our Idiot Brother Movie Review

Paul Rudd is simply wonderful at playing the easy-going  supporting characters. He’s been dramatic, forlorn, hilarious, and steady in films ranging from The Object of My Affection to The 40 Year Old Virgin. Remember what a perfect foil he was for the flaky Phoebe on “Friends”? Years of playing second fiddle in a variety of comedies has finally paid off for him with a recent series of leading roles, most recently as the bearded hippie peacenik Ned in Our Idiot Brother.

Monday, October 3, 2011

25 Years Ago This Month: October 1986

25 Years Ago I was probably just beginning to learn my multiplication table in Mrs. Hansen's third grade class. I don't remember much else about what I learned that year. I remember studying European geography, learning the countries and possibly their capitals. Yugoslavia was still a unified country and I remember, even at age 8, that my classmates were immature in laughing at the name because it was like, "You go slav." The things that stick in our memories.

I certainly wasn't going to the movies so much, but I've seen a half dozen or so of the films that opened in October of 1986. There's little that's particularly notable. The list of releases contains the usual mix of prestige projects aiming for the awards season and popular fluff (action and comedy, mainly) to keep the investors happy.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Grosse Pointe Blank Movie Review

Martin Blank’s biggest problem is that he’s far too intelligent, introspective and philosophical for his profession. Sure, it’s served him well for a few years after a stint in the army and a government job, but now that he’s been invited to his ten year high school reunion, he’s beginning to question his path in life. Was he right when he stood up his high school girlfriend on prom night and disappeared without a trace? Does he want more from life than simply to be a professional killer?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Films of John Cusack

He's not a megastar. He doesn't have the classic good looks of a George Clooney or the only megastar of his generation - Tom Cruise. When you think of him, you don't think of the acting talents of his contemporaries Nicolas Cage and Forest Whitaker. John Cusack is a movie star who came to prominence in the 80s and is, in many ways, defined by that decade. He's one of the few actors of his generation whose star shone brightly twenty-five years ago and continues to have success today. In addition to Cruise, Cage and Whitaker (who was mostly a utility player and not a star until his Oscar win a few years back) there's Matt Dillon and Matthew Broderick who date from that period. Neither of them works as often in feature films as Cusack continues to.

I've always admired Cusack. Maybe because as a kid I used to love watching Better Off Dead whenever it was on TV. Maybe it's because I identified with certain aspects of Lloyd Dobbler in Say Anything.... I don't think much of it now (nor did I then really), but One Crazy Summer was a staple of my lazy Sunday repeat viewing as a young lad.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Warrior Movie Review

I might describe Warrior as equal parts Rocky and Miracle. In fact, during the final contest we even hear the sports commentator shout something akin to the famous, “Do you believe in miracles?” spoken by Al Michaels at the close of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” when the USA defeated the Soviet Union in ice hockey in the Lake Placid Olympics. Miracle, based on that event, was also directed by Gavin O’Connor, the helmsman of Warrior.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Contagion Movie Review: Sanitize Your Hands, Cover Your Mouth

How disease can spread without your knowing it.
Leave it to director Steven Soderbergh to take a worn out movie premise and zap us with a unique take. How many iterations of the global pandemic film can we take? That’s what I thought when I saw the ads for Contagion, which rather unfortunately make the film look much more like an action thriller than it really is. Soderbergh, working from an original screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, guts the genre of just about everything we expect. There are no chases. There’s no government cover up, though one particularly repugnant character hints at one. There’s no thumping and pounding musical score. There’s no child in danger (actually, a young child is dispatched early on with very little fanfare and no time for reflection) and no last minute rescue or rush to manufacture a vaccine to save the world.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Guard Movie Review: Irish Garda Meets FBI

“I’m not sure if you’re really dumb or really smart.” So says the FBI man played by Don Cheadle to Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleason), a sergeant in the Irish Garda stationed in Galway on the west coast of Ireland where the people have surly attitudes toward outsiders (particularly Dubliners) and sometimes they insist on speaking only Irish. Gleeson, a bulky bear of a man, is just the right actor to pull off the delicate balance between stupid and clever. His character might be equal parts ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody from the Harry Potter films and Martin Cahill, his character in The General.

The Guard, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, has a darkly sinister comic sensibility akin to In Bruges, also starring Gleeson and written and directed by McDonagh’s brother Martin. The film opens with a car careering along the country roads of Galway, going just off camera as we see Gerry in his patrol car and then hear the screeching tires and crash of metal on the soundtrack. Gerry’s expression doesn’t change as he witnesses and then approaches the scene to find an overturned car and several bodies strewn about the road. He then rummages through a dead man’s pockets for the drugs he knows he’ll find – not as evidence but for personal recreational use. This scene plays as black comedy, setting the tone for the rest of the film, mainly because of the complete absence of blood and gore that should be present on the road.

Monday, September 12, 2011

25 Years Ago This Month: September 1986

I have been remiss in keeping regular posts going and I completely forgot to get this entry together for the start of the month. Nevertheless, it is still September, so I haven't really missed my deadline.

Sort of oddly, the source I use for finding movie release dates has only a small handful of movies that opened in September 1986.

The most significant release of the month must have been David Lynch's weird and wild Blue Velvet, a story which begins by showing us a nice normal suburban American neighborhood with white picket fences, and then has our hero discover a severed ear in a grassy field. That ear only hints at the thematic darkness beneath the surface that would become a hallmark of Lynch's work. It contains one of the late Dennis Hopper's greatest performances, as well as excellent work from Isabella Rossellini, Laura Dern and Kyle MacLachlan.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Modern Classic Movie Review: The Matrix

There are those moments when going to see a new movie in the cinema can allow you to be a witness to a sea change in filmmaking. When The Matrix was released in March 1999 I don’t recall thinking much about it beforehand in the way of anticipation. But when the movie finished, I had but one thought in my head: “Tremendous!”

The Matrix utilized state of the art technology and equipment to employ special effects in ways that augmented the story rather than supplanting it like so much of the effects-driven tripe we see now. Beyond the fantastic look of the film, it’s also a movie that strives to say something interesting. It is philosophical in nature, asking the BIG questions about destiny, technological advancement, the nature of reality and the meanings of these things for humanity. Andy and Larry Wachowski, who wrote and directed the film, are clearly movie and comic book nerds (a term I use without derision) with a solid background knowledge of the classics.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Help Movie Review: Subtlety Is not its Strong Point

The Help, written and directed by Tate Taylor and based on the popular best seller by Kathryn Stockett, is a do-gooder drama that thinks it’s treating important subject matter with great care, but actually does a horrible disservice to history, the Civil Rights Movement, and all the people who played a role (many of whom game their lives) in it. That said, it’s worth noting that there is a huge disparity between the kind of film Dreamworks has chosen to advertise with the trailers and the actual film that Taylor made.

The adverts would have us think The Help is a comedy with some dramatic elements, treating Jackson, Mississippi, cerca 1963 as a hotbed of sassy black women and comical white racists. I was genuinely surprised to find that it’s not until the final 30 minutes or so of this overlong 140 minute film that it devolves into cheap laughs. As a matter of fact, the bulk of the film is built on a foundation of real drama, mostly provided by the astounding performances of Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, and Cicely Tyson.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Debt Movie Review: Questions on Jewish Justice and Vengeance

Vengeance is not Jewish. This is an idea that people throughout history have had difficulty reconciling with their own (at times) warped views of Jewish people. A sense of fairness and justice has primacy in Jewish intellectual and political history. From Shylock to Steven Spielberg’s Munich the question rages on: What is fair and just punishment for a crime and when do we cross the line in to pure revenge.

John Madden’s The Debt, based on the 2007 Israeli film Ha Hov (unseen by me), treads similar ground to Munich, although with far less cunning insight. And I’ve never viewed Steven Spielberg as a particularly insightful or challenging filmmaker. The Debt concerns a fictional Mossad mission to capture The Surgeon of Birkenau, a Nazi war criminal obviously modeled on Josef Mengele, who performed grotesque medical experiments on Jewish and Roma men, women, and children at Auschwitz.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Modern Classic Movie Review: Reservoir Dogs

The performances in Quentin Tarantino’s debut feature Reservoir Dogs are so good they may be the real glue that holds the film together. Tarantino’s writing, both structurally as well as dialogue, is fantastic, but I wonder where it would have taken him as a director without the phenomenally believable acting of his ensemble cast. The first step in the right direction was getting what might be the perfect cast. The principal leads are Harvey Keitel, who was instrumental in getting the film made after reading the screenplay, Michael Madsen, who has since gone on to a modestly successful Hollywood career, and Tim Roth, a virtual unknown before Reservoir Dogs. Reports suggest that James Woods fired his longtime agent for not bringing the project to his attention after learning that Tarantino wanted him for Roth’s role.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Flirting with Disaster Movie Review

One of the most criminally undervalued comedies of the 90s was written and directed by a man was an Oscar nominee this year for the critically acclaimed The Fighter. But back in 1996 he made a modest comedy, his follow-up to the indie hit Spanking the Monkey. Sporting a great cast and some fantastic comedy writing (combining situational comedy with great one-liners), Flirting with Disaster deserves a lot more notice than it has gotten over the years.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II Movie Review

It was fairly obviously a cynical ploy to maximize profits that led Warner Bros. executives to split Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two films. One film made from the seventh book in the popular series by J.K. Rowling would have had to top the four hour mark to have even a semblance of coherence, but that hasn’t really stopped the writers and directors of the previous films. Last year we were treated to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I and now this summer the final chapter concluded with Part II.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes Movie Review: You Blew It Up! Damn You to Hell!

For the life of me I can’t understand why critics have been heaping praise on Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Are our standards and expectations for big-budget studio productions so low that as long as it’s not a documentary about idiots falling down we think it’s good? Have we come this far and sunk so low? Really, I don’t see what there is to appreciate in this sub-par CGI-enhanced non-spectacle that completely fails to grasp any of the subtlety or even the humor of Planet of the Apes.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Horrible Bosses Movie Review

I thought for sure while watching Horrible Bosses that Charlie Day was the next Zach Galifianakis – a little-known actor who lands a breakthrough role in a smart comedy, stealing just about every scene. Then I learn he has starred in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” for six seasons and “Third Watch” before that. Okay, so I’ve been living out of the country for a long time and I’d never heard of the guy. But man is he fantastic as a wiry, fast-talking, high-pitched, manic dental assistant with a boss he hates.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens Movie Review: An Interesting Melding of Genre Films

What a fascinating concept, the mixing of genres in Cowboys & Aliens, director Jon Favreau’s latest action spectacular with enough brains to rise slightly above the usual mediocre dreck. Why must it be inevitable that every science fiction film about alien invasion has either a contemporary or a futuristic setting? If you’ve ever wondered how men on horseback with six-shooters and rifles would fend off technologically superior alien invaders, Cowboys & Aliens is a mash-up that might satisfy your thirst for knowledge. At any rate, all alien invaders are by definition technologically superior to humans.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love Movie Review

I think the Steve Carell sad-sack schtick is beginning to wear a little thin for me. In the new romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love he plays Cal, yet another lovable loser who needs outside help from someone much cooler than he is to redefine his style. Aided by the affably funny Paul Rudd in both The 40-Year Old Virgin and Dinner for Schmucks, this time it’s Ryan Gosling, whose inclusion is in the cast is little more than a desperate plea for the teenage girl demographic to show up, who helps with the makeover.