Tuesday, May 31, 2011

25 Years Ago This Month: June 1986

Four of the year's top ten films opened in June.

Let's start with Ferris Bueller's Day Off, an absolute favorite of mine (along with all things John Hughes) when I was growing up. It doesn't matter what Matthew Broderick does with his career, he will always be Ferris Bueller singing "Twist and Shout" on a Chicago parade float. When Alan Ruck turned up in Speed in 1994 and then on the comedy series "Spin City" I could only see Cameron Frye. I don't care how much soft porn Mia Sara does, she will forever be embedded in my psyche as Sloane Petersen. And no matter how many teenage boys Jeffrey Jones coerces into posing nude for photos, he will remain, always and forever, Principal Edward Rooney.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Nuclear Disaster Makes World's Sissies Run for the Hills

This story is an Onion article waiting to happen.

Germany has announced that it will phase out all of its nuclear reactors by 2022. This is a direct response to anti-nuclear protests in the wake of the Fukushima power plant disaster in Japan which was itself the result of a massive earthquake and tsunami, which are two things that don't occur Germany!

What I find so particularly piquant about this decision is, where the hell do they expect to get their energy from in ten years? Sorry, but wind and solar are far from being efficient enough to power an entire industrialized nation. I don't see those two sources being the answer in ten years. And the price of oil is not going to drop significantly in the next decade as it becomes scarcer and scarcer. Not to mention, you know, that everyone's supposed to be in a tizzy about carbon emissions and global warming, right?

Also, the panic over the (un)safety of nuclear power is unfounded. How many deaths have there been as a direct result of nuclear power production? Far far fewer than deaths resulting from coal mining and oil production, I would say.

Yes, nuclear power presents its problems. What do we do with the spent fuel rods, for one? But does the Germany government really think closing its nuclear plants isn't a giant step backwards?

Classic Film Review: Roland Joffe's The Mission

As a staunch non-believer I’ve only ever encountered two films that gave me a sense of what religious fulfillment is. Not that I was spiritually awakened or felt a desire to convert – nothing of the kind – but that the film was so skilled at conveying the significance of faith in God’s love without being preachy, that I understood through character development and acting what it is to find redemption and peace. And isn’t that what the vast majority of narrative cinema is about? It’s meant to provide you a glimpse into other people’s lives for a couple of hours and make you believe in their beliefs.

The first of these was The Mission, directed by Roland Joffe, and winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. I first watched it many years ago while I was in high school or college and I wasn’t sure if a second viewing so many years later would still produce the same effect in me. The difference this time was that I had greater appreciation for the craft of the film, which most likely subconsciously influenced my original belief that it was a great film.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Nueve reinas [Nine Queens] Movie Review: Argentine Mamet

One of my favorite sub-genres is the heist film. A common subset of that is the grifter film, which holds a place dear to my heart. Often the two are intertwined as in Ocean’s 11 or Heist by David Mamet, the master of the grifter genre. The Argentine film Nueve Reinas is a well-studied knock-off of Mamet’s films.

I’m beginning to develop a great appreciation for Argentine cinema, which continues an output of competently crafted and entertaining genre films (somehow always starring Ricardo Darín), the kind of well-made, well-written and popular fare Hollywood used to do regularly before scripts became a clothesline for special effects.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Biutiful Movie Review

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fourth feature film, Biutiful, is a structural, though not a thematic, departure from his earlier films. In drafting a story (with a screenplay co-written by Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone) centered on one main character in a single city, he has wisely eschewed the thematically heavy convention of interconnecting stories that have a common focal point. As much as I admire his other films, there is artificiality in the way he tries to illustrate the ways in which all humanity are inextricably tied to one another. With Babel it became a bit too preachy for my taste.

However, in Biutiful he presents a portrait of a man, Uxbal (played by Javier Bardem in one of his best performances) – a father, husband, underworld criminal and spiritual visionary – who learns he’s dying of cancer. Everything in his life is called into question as he has only a matter of weeks or months to reconcile his morality and life to find inner peace.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cult Classic Movie Review: Army of Darkness

This is my BOOMstick!
This review is based on the Director's Cut DVD I own, a disappointingly poor transfer with additional and alternate scenes, most of which don't match film grade, spliced in.

Army of Darkness is the end result of what happens when a group of friends makes a marginally successful cult film and then a major studio gives them a serious budget for a sequel. It is the sequel to Evil Dead II, itself more a remake than a sequel of Evil Dead. It is what happens when a series of sight gags mostly inspired by "The Three Stooges" get stretched too thin until it lies gasping for air on the floor. Okay, I'm exaggerating to an extent, but I found myself a little bit bored through most of the final half hour.

It more or less follows on from where the previous film left off – with Ash (still portrayed by the dashing, self flagellating Bruce Campbell) being thrown back to the Middle Ages where he is prophesied to deliver the kingdom from evil.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Midnight in Paris Movie Review: City of Lights After Dark

 “It is one of the paradoxes of American literature that our writers are forever looking back with love and nostalgia at lives they couldn’t wait to leave.” – Anatole Broyard

Is there no time as good as the present? Is nostalgia the exclusive purview of fools? How does remembering fondly grow out of proportion until it becomes reliving? Gil Pender is stuck in a rut, hamstrung by pervasive thoughts that Paris in the Roaring Twenties was the absolute pinnacle of living. Because Gil is a character in Woody Allen’s latest addition to his perennially expanding oeuvre, he is a writer (of successful, but empty Hollywood screenplays) working on his first novel and saddled with sarcastic wit, passion for the arts, and a healthy dose of self-doubt and insecurity.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Seven Pounds Movie Review: 118 Minutes of Incoherence

First published on American Madness on 19 December 2008.
Republished here with a minor editorial adjustment that does not affect content.

Scene: Ben Thomas (played with unending weepiness by Will Smith), despondent, in close-up makes a 911 call to report his own impending suicide.

Cut to: Ben swimming in the blue Pacific. His voiceover, in pressing sadness, informs us, “In seven days God created the world. And in seven seconds I shattered mine.” Yet I recall God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. And what about those seven seconds? No explanation is ever offered.

Cut to: Ben making a phone call to the customer service center of a mail-order meat company. The employee handling his call is Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson), a blind man without an angry bone in his body, as evidenced by his unwillingness to strike back when Ben released a tirade of insults over the phone. This will prove to be Ben’s test of Ezra to discover if he is worthy - worthy of what is the mystery that unravels over the course of 118 difficult minutes.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Movie List: Best and Worst of Woody Allen

I just caught this list at Jim Emerson's blog, Scanners, in which he chooses his picks for the 5 best and 5 worst Woody Allen features from the 41 features he's directed since the start of his directing career. Another Woman, one of Emerson's choices for 5 best, is the only Allen film I've not seen. I plan to have my review for his latest, Midnight in Paris, posted before its USA opening this Friday.

This is an off-the-cuff list, without much thought put into it. I'm not going to bother with explanations at the moment. If I find the time later, perhaps I will update and expand it.

The 5 Worst (so many to choose from in the last 10 or 12 years):
1. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
2. Hollywood Ending
3. Scoop
4. Small Time Crooks

Three of my worst choices coincide with Emerson's. I remember really disliking both Husbands and Wives and Manhattan Murder Mystery when I saw them oh so long ago. I now have little memory of them (except that the handheld camera work in the former made me a bit sick) and feel they deserve a second look at some point before I commit them to the worst list.

The 5 Best:
1. Annie Hall
2. Manhattan
3. Hannah and Her Sisters
4. Crimes and Misdemeanors

That last spot was a tough call because I'm very fond of Radio Days and I think Vicky Christina Barcelona deserves a mention, and I really thoroughly enjoy Bullets Over Broadway and of course it's the one damn Allen film I can't get my hands on in Spain for some reason! But I think Deconstructing Harry is truly the better film.

City of Angels Movie Review

First published in The Connecticut College Voice on 17 April 1998.
Republished here with minor editorial adjustments that do not affect content.

Try and imagine a remake of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Except you take away the poetic language, the depiction of Berlin as a city divided, and the discussion of the meaning of giving up immortality as a celestial being in order to experience love and you have City of Angels. It is a watered down remake of the 1987 film. It mainly extracts the love story aspect of the original, but still manages to hold onto a bit of the rest. This version of the story can barely stand on its own, and as a remake doesn’t even come close to measuring up.

One major difference between the two is in the dialogue. It lacks the subtlety and imagination of the original. For example, the angel Seth (Nicolas Cage) tells his friend and fellow angel Cassiel (Andre Braugher), “I would rather have had one breath of her hair, one kiss from her mouth one touch of her hand than eternity without it – one.” In Wings of Desire the angel says, “I learned amazement last night.” The latter is much simpler, allowing the viewer to imagine for himself what the amazement was rather than spelling it out. In all honesty, to compare the two films is almost pointless. Wings of Desire exists as a wholly original and visionary piece of work while City of Angels is pop culture for the masses.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Revolutionary Road Movie Review: Portrait of a Decaying Marriage

First published on American Madness on 23 January 2009.
Republished here with a typo correction.

Emotional abuse and marital discord have not been this explicitly depicted on screen since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton devastated each other and another young couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The barbs slung in that older film were exchanged between a husband and wife, long-married and bitter. Edward Albee’s play on which it is based poked holes in the mythology of the American dream, part of which necessitates being a happily married couple.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Milk Movie Review

First published on American Madness on 20 December 2008.
Republished here with a typo correction.

Director Gus Van Sant has taken a break from his often inaccessible forays into (almost) experimental film to make Milk, a very typical Hollywood biopic about Harvey Milk, the nation’s first openly gay man to win major elected office and then assassinated shortly thereafter. I don’t use ‘typical’ pejoratively, rather as an observation of how Van Sant’s film follows most of the conventions of the genre and as a contrast to his other recent work. Van Sant also directed Good Will Hunting – a formulaic Hollywood film that I love.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Gran Torino Movie Review: Growl and Scowl, Grrrrr

First published on American Madness on 19 December 2008.
Republished here with minor editorial adjustments that do not affect content.

The last few years have brought Clint Eastwood a great deal of critical success as a director. He’s recently had a four film streak beginning with Mystic River in 2003 that have brought three Best Picture Oscar nods, including a winner in Million Dollar Baby, and renewed praise for the aging movie star. This year Eastwood has given us another two films, each of which has the scent of awards season contenders, but ultimately fail to deliver on the promise of greatness that we may have unfairly come to expect from him.

Changeling, which opened in October, rides high mostly on the backs of the performances of Angelina Jolie and a refreshingly understated John Malkovich. Unfortunately the film, which tells the true story of a Los Angeles woman whose young son went missing in 1929, veers off into the wilderness of courtroom drama. It wears out its welcome after about ninety minutes of what could have been a taut drama, but instead becomes an outsized spectacle.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Defiance Movie Review: A Tale of Jewish Vengeance

First published on American Madness on 11 January 2009.
Republished here unaltered.

Defiance, one of several Third Reich-themed films arriving in cinemas this awards season, is a marginally enthralling Hollywood entertainment. Director Edward Zwick has proven a capable hand over the years at making solidly entertaining action films (The Last Samurai; Glory) that also strive at a message of slightly greater importance. Written by Zwick and Clayton Frohman based on a book by Nechama Tec, it tells the true story of the Bielski partisans – a group of Jews led by the Bielski Brothers (Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aron) who resisted the Nazi occupation of Poland and survived in the forest for 4 years until the war’s end.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Pirate Radio Movie Review: The Boat that Rocked

First published at American Madness on 18 November 2009.
Republished here a punctuation alteration.

*This review is based on the European release of this film which runs 2 hours and 15 minutes. The film was re-edited and shortened by about 20 minutes for the American release following criticism of its length in the UK.

Don’t be fooled by the way Pirate Radio has been advertised in the US. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character is not the focus of the film. To be sure, he is the lone American in a sea of British characters, which seems to be a theme writer-director Richard Curtis has developed (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love, Actually), but he is just one of many radio DJs living on and broadcasting from a ship in the North Sea to get around the government rules regarding rock music on the airwaves.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fair Game Movie Review

I'm sort of torn about how to approach Doug Liman's Fair Game, a political thriller based on the real-life events surrounding the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame in the time period in and around the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. It's undeniably a well-constructed slow burning thriller and a great deal of the information in the film appears to be mostly accurate, based on several independent journalistic reports. But then it tries to represent itself as a bold and daring exercise in filmmaking that exposes the truth, while at the same time being a completely conventional film.

While I certainly preferred Liman as a director of smaller films like Swingers and Go, his action films, including the first in the Bourne series, although with the exception of Jumper (from what I've read and the bits I've seen it's an unmitigated disaster), demonstrate a slick vision and controlled hand at presenting fast-paced action sequences with sharp visual and staccato, but cohesive editing. Fair Game mercifully doesn't ever find the need to toss in gratuitous chase sequences or to distort what is essentially a mild-mannered, though complex, story into a trove of action movie cliches and trumped up tension.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Pleasantville Movie Review: Splashing the World with Color

First published in The Connecticut College Voice on 30 October 1998.
Republished here with some minor editorial adjustments that do not affect content.

Gary Ross’s directorial debut, Pleasantville is a masterpiece of enormous relevance.  Like Big and Dave (both written by Ross), Pleasantville presents a fantasy world from which we have a lot to learn.

Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon play David and Jennifer, twins who each cope with their broken home in different ways. She is an adolescent rebel while he escapes to the fantastical world of “Pleasantville,” a 50’s sitcom in the style of “Father Knows Best,” as his parents argue over the phone. One night, a creepy TV repairman (Don Knotts) shows up at the door and offers them a special remote with a little more “oomph.” With the push of a button, David and Jennifer are pulled into the black and white world of “Pleasantville” where they fill in for Bud and Mary Sue, the children of Betty (Joan Allen) and George Parker (William H. Macy).

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Object of My Affection Movie Review

First published in The Connecticut College Voice on 24 April 1998.
Republished here with some editorial adjustments that don't affect content.

One’s first thoughts on a movie about a girl who falls in love with a gay man might be, “Another bland romantic comedy,” or “A trite revision of Chasing Amy.” Coming from a person who hasn’t seen a decent new movie in about a month, The Object of My Affection was a pleasant surprise.

The movie centers on Nina (Jennifer Aniston), a social worker in Brooklyn, and George (Paul Rudd), a 1st grade school teacher. They meet at a cocktail party being held by Nina’s stepsister. George and Nina immediately form a bond laughing at the rest of the guests who engage in name dropping as if it were a competition. In a somewhat unbelievably fast pace, Nina invites George to be her new roommate and they very quickly discover they are nearly soul mates for each other. All gets complicated when Nina finds out she is pregnant by her boyfriend Vince (John Pankow). She asks George to be the live-in dad as opposed to Vince. This is when the true grit of the movie comes out: the exploration into relationships. Can it survive without sex? Is a wonderful friendship enough to make it last?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Wanted Movie Review: Matrix Lite - Not the Same Great Taste, Less Fulfilling

First published on American Madness on 30 January 2009.
Republished here unaltered.

A young man works day in and day out in a soul-crushing office job. He’s thoroughly dissatisfied with his life, which he views as devoid of any meaning. One day he’s visited by a mysterious stranger in the form of a beautiful woman. He is saved from someone who seems to be after him and brought to meet a ragtag team led by a wizened black man who will give him spiritual guidance while training him to free his mind and become a highly skilled fighter and assassin.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Wedding Singer Movie Review

First published in The Connecticut College Voice on 20 February 1998.
Republished here with minor editorial adjustments that do not affect content.

A Rubik’s Cube, a Freddy Krueger mask, a red Michael Jackson leather jacket and plenty of classic tunes are some of the icons that inhabit the romantic comedy The Wedding Singer starring Adam Sandler. This movie is one of the first in what will probably be a series of 80’s nostalgia flicks. Last year’s Grosse Pointe Blank may have paved the way but we will probably be seeing more films set in the 80’s rather than those which remember the 80’s the way GPB did.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Big Hit Movie Review

First published in The Connecticut College Voice on 1 May 1998.
Republished here with minor editorial adjustments that do no affect content.

At first I wonder how one knows that The Big Hit is an action comedy functioning almost as a satire. It was not billed that way in advertisements and certainly the people associated with the film have never delved into comedy. Director Kirk Wong is best known for a Jackie Chan vehicle, Crime Story, which is considered one of Chan’s only serious films. Executive producer John Woo takes his action very seriously with such films as last year’s Face/Off and the internationally acclaimed The Killer. The actors, Mark Wahlberg, Lou Diamond Phillips and Bokeem Woodbine are generally billed as ‘serious’ actors. Maybe the only evidence is the fact that the film is so campy, so cheesy and so lame that it could only be a satire. Contrary to that argument, the same cannot be said for Waterworld.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Gus Van Sant's Psycho Movie Review: If It Ain't Broken, Don't Fix It

First published in The Connecticut College Voice on 11 December 1998.
Republished here unaltered.

As things generally go, you may want to avoid those rare films which aren’t screened for critics. They are usually extraordinarily bad and the filmmakers would rather have a chance at opening weekend box office and not kill those chances with bad reviews on opening day. But the case for Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, a shot-for-shot re-creation of the original is not the same. Hitchcock did not screen his 1960 masterpiece for critics and Van Sant does the same as a way to take one more step toward his carbon copy.

I watched the original twice in the week preceding my viewing of the new version so that I could get a feel for the movement of the camera and take a handle on the dialogue. So little is changed in Van Sant’s that what is changed is hardly worth mentioning; even the license plate on Marion’s car is the same.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

25 Years Ago This Month: May 1986

Anyone remember a movie called Sweet Liberty? It's about a guy who writes a book on the American Revolution, sells the film rights and then the film crew comes to town to make the movie and throws his life into upheaval. It was directed by and stars Alan Alda. Also with Michael Caine and Michelle Pfeiffer. It was also Lillian Gish's second to last movie. I have vague recollections of catching bits of it on cable TV when I was a kid and skipping right past it. Well, it opened 25 years ago this month.

There were several more memorable films opening that month, so it's no surprise that in the lead-up to the summer box office bonanza, Sweet Liberty only pulled $14 million.

After all, Top Gun went on to be the top grossing film of the year, raking in a whopping $177 million (Hey! That was a lot of money back then). This film really needs no introduction, right? Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer and Rick Rossovich playing beach volleyball shirtless? Ring a bell? Cruise and Kelly McGillis enjoying passion with soft blue backlighting to the tune of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away."