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.