Saturday, December 28, 2013

Nebraska Movie Review

No one is currently making movies about small town middle Americans quite like Alexander Payne. He’s like the Frank Capra of Nebraska, but with a drier sense of humor. It takes a special kind of disposition to tell stories about people in flyover states without playing down to the erudite and occasionally superior attitudes of the self-described educated people of New York and Los Angeles. Nebraska tells the story of simple people in a rather simple situation. There’s none of that common-man-in-extraordinary-circumstances here, although Woody Grant is treated like a hero or a celebrity for reportedly being named the lucky winner of a million dollars.

Short Cut Movie Review: Blackfish

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

In response to the popularity and Oscar win for the documentary film The Cove, comes another version of a marine mammals in distress call to action documentary in Blackfish. The subject here is killer whales in captivity and specifically those used at sea amusement parks like the famous Seaworld in Orlando, Florida.

Saving Mr. Banks Movie Review

The Walt Disney Company truly exists now to perpetuate its own myths. They include, but are not limited to, the idea that Walt Disney was the greatest human being who ever lived and was devoted exclusively to making people smile, and that a good wholesome family entertainment can solve most of life’s problems, often with a saccharine song and dance number. Saving Mr. Banks proposes some mythology of its own about the origins of P.L. Travers’ series of Mary Poppins books and the way Uncle Walt convinced her to sign over the rights.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Stories We Tell Movie Review

Actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley turns the camera on her family’s history and, by extension, herself in her documentary Stories We Tell. She starts by asking, in a series of on camera interviews with various family members and friends of her mother’s, to tell their version of the story to her as if she didn’t already know it. They all have an initial hesitation and some of her brothers and sisters even suggest that they don’t really see their family’s story as particularly unique or worth presenting to the world.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Movie Review

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire does just about everything a studio wants from its sequels. It basically repeats the successful formula of The Hunger Games, but adds a new bevy of recognizable Hollywood faces. The one thing it mercifully resists is ramping up the action. The Hunger Games was an exercise in Gary Ross’s control and his successor Francis Lawrence follows in his footsteps, keeping the majority of the action within the centerpiece installment of the “games” themselves even while the stakes have been greatly increased.

Short Cut Movie Review: Dirty Wars

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

Anyone who is not, at the very least, deeply troubled by the American government’s sanctioning of targeted killings of people classified as enemy combatants, especially when some on the kill list are American citizens, does not have a very deep appreciation of or respect for the Constitution. Night time assassination squads of the recent past or drone attacks of the present don’t cause me to lose a great deal of sleep. I see them as part of a continuum of a new way of waging war. This is even while I do understand and recognize why some people have very serious objections. But when those targeted are citizens of this country and when there is no public evidence that the target has committed any crime, we’re essentially looking at a death sentence without due process, without any evidence brought to light, and without a jury finding him guilty.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review: Pacific Rim

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.
I’m really having a tough time figuring out if Guillermo del Toro’s wild, CGI-packed, global-minded mindless summer action flick Pacific Rim is a serious movie that is as badly written as the worst of the Transformers films or a half-clever (and only half, really) satire and sort of send up of big, dumb, and loud Hollywood action films. The fact that it’s not entirely obvious is a sign of either a brilliant scheme to attract both fanboys and cinema enthusiasts alike or a complete failure to signal exactly what it’s trying to do.

Given del Toro’s record as a filmmaker, I’d like to think he’s up to something interesting here, but even if he is, I didn’t really enjoy most of the film. Written by del Toro and Travis Beacham, Pacific Rim is an amalgam of so many different films of recent Hollywood history that it’s hard to keep track of the references. It combines elements of Transformers, Alien, Top Gun, Star Wars, Starship Troopers, Godzilla, and countless old WWII films. The sum of all these disparate parts suggest a comment on the direction of summer tent pole action cinema as nothing more than further extensions of what has come before without regard for originality, even if Pacific Rim is ostensibly an “original” screenplay, it remains a largely derivative work.

The time is the near future and earth is under regular attack by alien creatures called Kaiju entering from another dimension at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The creatures take the form of enormous dinosaur-looking creatures that have caused the world to band together and pool resources to construct giant robots to battle them. The robots, known as Jaegers, are so complex they require dual pilots who pass through “neural drift” (really like a longer version of the Vulcan mind-meld) and work in synchronicity. One of these crack pilots if Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam). Idris Elba plays his superior officer and leader of the Jaeger program. There are a couple of mad scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) with crazy theories and even crazier behavior. Rinko Kikuchi plays a budding Jaeger pilot with a traumatic history.

The dialogue is so over-the-top bad and the behaviors of every character so clichéd and hackneyed that I ultimately have to believe it was done intentionally. Still, apart from some pretty well-choreographed fights involving gigantic CGI creatures, there was little I found thoroughly enjoyable. Except the scenes with Ron Perlman (a del Toro regular) as a Hong Kong black market dealer in Kaiju body parts. He’s fantastic and his dialogue was actually well-written and delivered.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

25 Years Ago This Month: December 1988

Typical of December, the final month of 1988 was full of releases vying desperately for awards consideration, especially Oscars. Eight films released in this month received Academy Award nominations, including all five of the Best Picture nominees.

As always, we start with what I've seen...

Barry Levinson's Rain Man was the box office behemoth of the year and winner of the Best Picture Oscar the following year. It embodies everything a typical "best picture" is, but mostly it's a rather simplistic portrait of autism produced at a time when virtually no one knew anything about the disorder. A quarter century later, many people can probably tell you something about it, most mistakenly that it's caused by childhood vaccinations. Dustin Hoffman's autistic savant is the very rare exception among people on the spectrum, but in 1988 it led most people to believe that being autistic meant being able to count cards and take the house in a Las Vegas casino.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review: Frozen

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

Disney’s Frozen is a loose (very loose) adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale The Snow Queen. As an example of classic Disney animation, it succeeds wonderfully. This is gorgeously rendered computer animation. The palette is beautiful icy blues blended with crystalline whites with lots of shine and sparkle. The story, by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, and Shane Morris is at least more contemporary in theme than Disney’s princess movies have typically been, by which I mean this isn’t strictly about a young woman desperate to meet a man to marry. Buck and Lee directed the film.

Elsa is the young woman with the often uncontrollable power to turn the world around her to ice. She’s spent the majority of her youth and first years of adulthood locked away from the world. Her sister Anna has no memory of what she can do. Both women want the best for each other and their primary goals are, in the case of Elsa, to avoid hurting her sister, and for Anna, to have a normal life with access to and a relationship with Elsa.

Unable to resist the temptation to include adorable non-human characters, there is a snowman come to life named Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad), who has the best musical number in the movie in which he sings about his desire to experience summer and warm sunshine. There’s also an interesting colony of little trolls with the film’s second best number. Unfortunately, the rest of the songs are close to dreadful. They capture little of the classical style Disney used to do best. The music by Robert Lopez sounds like contemporary pop rock: the same spiritless, over-produced music for mass consumption that we get from any of the TV talent contest shows. Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s lyrics often don’t help, performing the function that too many modern musicals utilize which is to have dialogue and narration sung rather than spoken. Songs in musicals should express ideas and emotions rather than actions and instructions. Incidentally, the singing by Kristen Bell as Anna and Idina Menzel as Elsa veers into ear-splitting awfulness. When Menzel strikes the high notes in her big song, I literally cringed and winced at the piercing shriek. But this is what passes for good singing today – the tightly strained and forced cries that would never pass muster outside popular opinion. It would have been much better movie without the songs.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Philomena Movie Review

The trailer for Philomena is selling a very different movie than what Stephen Frears made. I admit to wanting to avoid this movie at all costs, but for my yearly goal of watching everything that gets an Oscar nomination (and it’s looking ever more likely now that I’ve seen it that Judi Dench will be nominated). But I should have given Frears more credit as a director. After all, he’s made some movies I really admire and one I love (as well as a couple of stinkers). The publicity campaign makes Philomena out to be a maudlin story about a woman trying to find her long lost son, who was taken from her and adopted fifty years earlier. It looks like the focus is on a daft old lady who says silly little things, the kind of simplistic humor that appeals to the lowest common denominator.

Shine a Light Movie Review

It’s only natural that Martin Scorsese would have made a Rolling Stones concert film. He was one of the first film directors to employ rock music on the soundtrack of his films and has continually returned to the Stones, even using “Gimme Shelter” three times, although it is sort of ironically absent from Shine a Light. But also Mick Jagger is a quintessential Scorsese protagonist. Watching him preen, gyrate, strut, and bounce on stage calls to mind Tom Cruise winning at pool in The Color of Money, the explosiveness of De Niro in Mean Streets, or his unpredictability in Taxi Driver, and the ferocious energy of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. At the risk of sounding grandiose, there’s even a comparison to be made to Willem Defoe in The Last Temptation of Christ in Jagger’s ability to lead the crowd in The Beacon Theater, a historic temple of performance. Archival interview footage even reveals Jagger’s self doubt prior to performance – feelings that Defoe’s Jesus would find familiar.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Counselor Movie Review

In general I try to avoid what other critics have to say about a film before I see it. Sometimes I have a general idea of the critical consensus, but in the case of The Counselor I knew nothing. I was shocked to find that the majority of critics had ripped it apart. It would have been surprising enough only for the fact that it was directed by Ridley Scott from an original screenplay by novelist Cormac McCarthy (his first produced). McCarthy is, after all, one of the greatest contemporary fiction writers in America. It also features a phenomenal cast of highly capable actors. Mostly my disbelief registered so high because I thought The Counselor was just wonderful, exemplifying the very best of what McCarthy accomplishes in his novels.

Man of Steel Movie Review

I’m not even sure there’s much point in having a critical view of a movie like Man of Steel. What exactly does it add to the conversation? When an indie or an arthouse film is bad, at least it’s bad in a way that still contributes something to cinema. When big, bloated action films are bad – and most of them are – they’re just plain bad. And anyway, they’re not made for people who actually try to put nuanced thought into their movie watching.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Prisoners Movie Review

Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners spends two hours being so good it comes as a bit of a disappointment that the resolution is so utterly conventional. For an investigative thriller it is almost unbelievably contemplative. It’s a movie that is more content to get into the minds of its characters than to dutifully land on action beats at the appropriate moments, although the action does arrive, often ferociously.

From My Collection: Eastern Promises Movie Review

I sort of remembered Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg’s film about a woman who gets mixed up in the dealings of the Russian mafia in London, as a much more significant movie the first time around. The stakes felt much higher when I saw it on its initial run in cinemas. Maybe this is a movie that really loses something once you know who is who and what their real motivations are. When you don’t know what’s coming, the film really feels dangerous because the Russian mafia might do anything to anyone at any time.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

25 Years Ago This Month: November 1988

What I've seen

Oliver & Company, inspired by Dickens' Oliver Twist, was Disney's predecessor to their animated musicals renaissance a year later. With songs by Billy Joel, it paved the way for The Little Mermaid and The Lion King

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown brought great international success, and a first Oscar nomination, to Pedro Almodóvar.

I always had a soft spot for the Bill Murray comedy Scrooged, a contemporary update of Dickens' A Christmas Carol with Murray as a cold-hearted TV executive who learns the meaning of Christmas through lessons delivered by a ghost played by Carol Kane, Bob Goldthwaite in the Bob Cratchit role. Also with Robert Mitchum, Karen Allen, and Alfre Woodard.

Blue Is the Warmest Color Movie Review

Is a three hour running time for a romantic drama a little indulgent? In general, I’d say it probably is, but there’s no one size fits all answer. If the story is suited to it and it’s compelling enough to carry you through, then why not? The French drama Blue Is the Warmest Color, winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, takes cinematic romantic love to rarely touched emotional depths. The epic length didn’t feel so long to me, which must be viewed as testament to the humane and sensitive direction by Abdellatif Kechiche and the incredible and brave performances by the two female leads, Adéle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club Movie Review

People make a big deal out of actors packing on or shedding the pounds for the sake of a role. Think about De Niro in Raging Bull, Christian Bale in The Machinist, or Tom Hanks in Cast Away and images immediately come to mind of an altered body paired with a great performance. It’s easy to conflate physical transformation and great acting or to think that the one causes the other. I suppose it helps the actor get into the mind of the character in some cases, but regardless, the actor still has to do the work in his head even after the physical aspect has taken root.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

All Is Lost Movie Review

The old man and the sea.
So the post-apocalyptic trend that started the year in cinema has given way to stories of survival – specifically a single survivor persevering against all odds. Gravity and Captain Phillips are now joined by All Is Lost, which sees Robert Redford as the sole cast member in a film about a man fighting against the elements and a damaged sailboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

When we first meet Our Man (he’s not credited with a name) he’s penning a message in a bottle, a letter to his children apologizing for not doing a better job. He has obviously reached a point where he believes all is lost. Eight days earlier he’s awakened by the crashing sound of a shipping container smashing a hole in the hull of his yacht. From here, the plot is simple: he fixes the hole; he attempts radio communication; he’s tossed about by a storm; loses the boat; sets adrift in a life raft hoping to be rescued in the main shipping lane. Talking about the particulars of what happens in All Is Lost is not nearly as interesting as how Our Man reacts to his increasingly despairing turns of events.

12 Years a Slave Movie Review

The terrible and embarrassing legacy of slavery is a dark mark on this country. It was a human atrocity that we have only just begun to understand. It remains, more than 150 years after its eradication, the defining factor in race relations. White people would not be where they are in terms of status and privilege without having held black people in bondage. And blacks continue to bear the burden of that time. I’m not sure any movie could possibly do perfect justice as a representation of the horrors of slavery, punishments, beatings, rapes, and other indignities that slaves suffered, but 12 Years a Slave comes closer than anything I’ve seen. This is possibly the least sanitized version ever put on film.

From My Collection: Boogie Nights Movie Review

On big happy dysfunctional family.
From the explosively charged opening tracking shot that introduces most of the major characters to the quietly triumphant closing, Boogie Nights never lets up. It flogs you with an emotional paddle again and again. The ups are sometimes as extreme in their euphoria as the downs are dismal. For me, it is still the most exciting film Paul Thomas Anderson has made. It was only his second feature, but his dialogue is truly second to none and he squeezes in a remarkable amount of character development. He can economize better than any other writer-director working.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

From My Collection: Sleepers Movie Review

Back in 1996 I was truly taken in by Barry Levinson’s Sleepers, adapted from Lorenzo Carcaterra’s allegedly autobiographical novel relating his experiences as a boy growing up in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, becoming the victim of terrible physical and sexual abuse at a boys’ reform school, and the revenge he and his friends exacted upon their tormentors as adults years later. When the book was published and then later when the film was released, there were many who questioned the validity of the story. There is no independent record of any of the events described. Of course juvenile records are expunged and Carcaterra claims he changed locations, which offers reasonable explanations as to why journalists were unable to unearth any court records similar to what takes place in the second half of the story. Just looking at it in terms of sheer believability, the first half involving Carcaterra (his character goes by the nickname Shakes) and his three best friends as adolescents is selling something so much easier to swallow than the revenge-filled latter half.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

From My Collection: The Hudsucker Proxy Movie Review

Full disclosure: I’m an almost shameless lover of the Coen brothers. There’s hardly a film they’ve made that I don’t like and with one exception, I own every one of their films on DVD. That doesn’t mean I’m blind to the things that don’t work and the films that fail in some very important aspects. With that said, The Hudsucker Proxy was always a film I liked for its quirky Coen-ness, but clearly I wasn’t crazy about it because it took me fourteen years after I got my first DVD player (and nineteen years after the film was released) to purchase a copy.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review: Behind the Candelabra

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

I didn't know much of anything about Liberace except that he was a flamboyant pianist with grand spectacle performances and outlandish costumes. I can't say after seeing Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra that I know much more about the man and his life overall because it's a biopic that steers clear of the wide scope vision to focus on a several years period of his late life and the effect he had on one individual in particular.

In fact, it's more the story of Scott Thorson, Liberace's secret lover for about six years in the late 70s and early 80s. After all, Richard LaGravenese adapted Thorson's book for the screenplay so while it spends its early moments sort of enamored with Liberace's fashion sense, warm and generous personality, and lavish lifestyle, it eventually reveals him to be narcissistic, grandiose, fickle, and self-serving. But he still doesn't come off as a bad guy! Whether or not it's an accurate portrayal of the man or not is beside the point. It's a study of how a larger-than-life force of fame can have such a strong effect on others, especially a young and vulnerable man like Scott, although he is certainly not without his faults as he gradually falls into jealousy and despair (spurred on by Liberace's waning affections and fleeting attention) and drug abuse.

Soderbergh took a long time to bring this story to the screen and in the end it took HBO, not a Hollywood studio, to take a chance on a romantic film involving two men that was unflinching in its depiction of physical affection. It was well worth the wait. It is a stylish film with two fantastically entertaining performances from Matt Damon as Scott and Michael Douglas as Liberace. These are two actors who took big risks with this production and it pays off because the result is an honest portrayal of love and jealousy.

Before Midnight Movie Review

Roger Ebert talked about coming back to Fellini's 8 1/2 about every decade and having a very different reaction to and feelings about Guido each time. Obviously the character hadn't changed, but Roger had. So as he matured, so did his perception of the film. It's in a somewhat similar vein that I have found myself approaching what Richard Linklater (and also Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who are equal collaborators in the story and screenplay process) has done with the Before Sunrise triolgy. That first film was a big deal for my high school friends when it came out, though I skipped it at the time. I caught up with it finally before its sequel Before Sunset was released. I admired Before Sunrise, but I was enamored with Before Sunset. Now that I've seen the most recent installment, Before Midnight, which is nine years after the last film and eighteen after Jesse and Celine first met on a Vienna train, I can say I love it even more. But then I wonder if my expanding admiration for this series has more to do with the way I've changed along with Jesse and Celine over the years.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review: Oblivion

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

Oblivion is a movie that looks almost perfect in terms of production design and visual effect. It deftly recalls and references several science fiction classics, but then fails to live up to the standards set by those that came before.

Tom Cruise is Jack Harper, a technician working to repair battle drones on earth that are in place to defend some big energy-producing machines from attack by Scavs, an alien race that lost a war with humans several decades ago. He explains everything in a narration that precedes the title. If you miss anything, don’t fret because it is all repeated almost verbatim later in the film as dialogue between Jack and Beech (Morgan Freeman), the leader of a band of humans found to still be living on earth.

Short Cut Movie Review: Only God Forgives

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

After the stylish and rather brilliant Drive, I had high hopes and anticipation for Nicholas Winding Refn’s follow up Only God Forgives. The same great look is there with the seedy underworld of Bangkok replacing Los Angeles. The film is bathed in neon lights and deep reds, but it lacks any heart.

Drive worked because we cared about the characters. This time Refn doesn’t give us a hero. Sure, Julian (Ryan Gosling), a drug smuggler in Thailand, has some redemption when he prevents the murder of an innocent child, but apart from that one act I couldn’t find anything to get behind.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Gravity Movie Review

Gravity is a beautiful and poetic movie. It is a technical marvel and one of the tensest 90 minutes of movie viewing I can recall. And it is about one of the little talked about, but ever present, dangers of space travel and orbiting earth.

There are so many satellites floating around up there and every now and then something comes apart, leaving space junk out there. This space junk sometimes travels at mind-boggling speeds. If it comes into contact with a shuttle or another satellite or an astronaut on a spacewalk, it could have devastating consequences. The particular event in Gravity, directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón, along with his son Jonás, is the destruction by missile of a Russian satellite. All those little pieces of debris are orbiting at a speed of 20,000 kilometers per hour. They rip through the space shuttle where mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are completing work on the Hubble. The two are left stranded in space, their only remaining hope being the escape pods on the International Space Station. And at the speed the debris is traveling, they have about 90 minutes before they’re in for another shit storm.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Fifth Estate Movie Review

We’ve set up our society in the midst of the digital information age in such a way that we want everything and we want it now and if you have the opportunity to provide something and make an impact, you’d better do it this instant before someone beats you to it. There’s no prize for the guy who sits on an idea and gets beaten to the punch by his competitor. There’s no recognition for having had the idea first. Action counts. News works this way. Because of the Internet and 24 hour cable news there is no longer as much emphasis placed on getting a breaking story right as there is on just getting it out. The result is new reporting that is often shoddy, under-sourced, and sometimes entirely inaccurate.

Don Jon Movie Review

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s acting career has been loaded with good choices. He has starred in unique twists on familiar genres with director Rian Johnson, appeared in mammoth event films for Christopher Nolan, and even his populist choices like the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer or the thriller Premium Rush have been pleasant exceptions to the rule. That’s why I had high hopes (perhaps a bit too lofty) for his writing and directing debut Don Jon. It looked like another great departure from the usual romantic film bullshit and that it might really have something to say, being about a man who can’t make an intimate connection with a woman because he’s far too enamored with Internet pornography.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Captain Phillips Movie Review

The difference between bad acting and good acting is fairly obvious to most people. It’s the difference between stiff mimicry and genuine imitation, or even expression, of emotion. But to distinguish between good and great acting is something else. There’s a much more subtle distinction. It comes down not only to how well the actor reads a line of dialogue or how convincingly he portrays an emotional moment, but to the choices he makes and the wholesale embodiment of the emotional dips and rises that the scene demands. I can understand how an actor depicts certain emotions. I can imagine working myself up to a frenzy for a manic scene or well up with anger to express rage. I can even imagine pushing myself to a dark place to show sadness or melancholy. But as Captain Richard Phillips, the cargo ship captain who was held hostage for several days by Somali pirates in 2009, Tom Hanks gives us one final scene that is so off-the-charts good, it mesmerizes and reveals exactly how brilliant his choices were for the first two hours.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

From My Collection: Leaving Las Vegas Movie Review

To understand a little about the kind of person I was in high school, I probably need only tell you that a movie I and my friends wanted to see was Leaving Las Vegas, Mike Figgis’s film about an alcoholic who decides to drink himself to death and strikes up an odd relationship with a prostitute. And believe me when I tell you it had nothing to do with seeing Elisabeth Shue’s (star of childhood favorite Adventures in Babysitting) breasts. A friend and I went to see it because it had challenging subject matter, because it was a reprieve from the usual populist fare. If I was like that at 17, then imagine how my taste runs today.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Enough Said Movie Review

I didn’t see any eulogies for James Gandolfini earlier this year that didn’t talk about how surprisingly good an actor he was and capable of real heart in spite of his tough-guy persona and sometime typecasting. Prior to “The Sopranos” he mostly portrayed heavies and after that he became indelibly linked to the role of Tony. But for a taste of just how incredible he could be even if you strip away the rough veneer and harsh language, take a look at the romantic comedy Enough Said, where he and co-star Julia Louis-Dreyfus are divorcees who start dating one another.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Elysium Movie Review

If Neill Blomkamp isn’t careful, he’s going to be forever remembered as a writer-director of allegorical science fiction. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but remember M. Night Shyamalan survived for a handful of films being known for doing something very specific and then became so hamstrung by a sense of his own greatness that his films became, one after another, more absurd and awful than the last. If District 9 was Blomkamp’s take on apartheid South Africa and immigration, Elysium is not just about a guy trying to illegally enter a forbidden and exclusive paradise to cure himself of fatal radiation exposure. Working on a larger scale and with a bigger budget, Blomkamp hasn’t lost sight of what makes a good movie work: namely good characters and story. He’s also made another technically sound piece of entertainment that puts most of the other big releases to shame. A coherently edited and structured movie? Who greenlit this thing? I’m almost shocked this sort of thing is allowed to pass muster.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

25 Years Ago This Month: October 1988

The biggest movie of October 1988 was The Accused with Jodie Foster as a woman who is gang raped in a bar and Kelly McGillis as prosecuting attorney. This was the first big movie to deal directly with the issue of rape and really helped create a conversation about the role of the victim in rape. Foster won her first Oscar for the film.

Michael Myers returned to Haddonfield in Halloween 4, which I've already covered before.

Mary Gross, who got her start through 4 seasons of "Saturday Night Live", starred alongside Rebecca De Mornay in Feds, a not-so-funny comedy about two women struggling through the rigors of FBI training. Gross is the brainy one and De Mornay is physically capable, and they help each other through a male-dominated program.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Classic Movie Review: Planet of the Apes

As I’m not in the habit of keeping the lid on a secret movie ending that’s 45 years old, I suggest you stop reading now if you’ve never seen and don’t know the ending of Planet of the Apes. If you also don’t know what Rosebud is or that Holly Martens faked his own death, then you need to go back to school. Also, Janet Leigh is killed in the first 40 minutes of Psycho. I mention these things because they are such well-known and deeply engrained plot points of famous movies that it’s virtually impossible to have a discussion about them while maintaining the secret.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Classic Movie Review From My Collection: Rear Window

I never fully realized before, but only just accepted it on face value, that Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is one hell of a movie. The two or three times I’d seen it previously I guess I sort of accepted its status as a classic great movie. This time I absorbed it fully and saw in it how its technical prowess supports a great story and ironic commentary on both marriage and on watching other people’s lives unfold on a screen from a darkened movie house.

Voyeurism as a theme runs throughout much of Hitchcock’s work, of course, but Rear Window is the one time he’s thumbing his nose at the audience for being so interested in the lives of others. The image that plays behind the opening titles is of the shades going upon on L.B. Jeffries’ windows onto the back courtyard, like the curtain rising on his personal theatrical stage or movie screen. Jeffries (James Stewart) spends the next 100 minutes or so observing his neighbors or thinking about their actions. But what begins as casual observing becomes obsessive watching and a paranoia about possible dirty deeds committed by Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) across the way. In the end Jeffries ceases to be a passive audience member and becomes what no member of a movie audience can be: an actor in the real life (to him) drama playing out.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler Movie Review

It’s not so much that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a bad movie, but that it’s completely toothless. Here’s a movie made by a black filmmaker whose audacious breakout was Precious, a film that doesn’t dare shy away from the hard circumstances of being black in America, specifically of being black and desperately poor in America. The brunt of the problem with the story is in Danny Strong’s screenplay, which drew on a Washington Post article about a black man who worked in the White House as a butler through eight Presidential administrations for inspiration. Still, Daniels chose the material to direct. And I’m not insisting that a black filmmaker must be consigned to telling black stories or that when he does, they always have to be gritty, but it seems to me there is some moral imperative to battle and to make audiences feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately, The Butler is so intent on being a moneymaker for the studio that it compromises pretty much all of its values so it can appealing to a mass audience.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Closed Circuit Movie Review

Closed Circuit is about as grim and pessimistic a view of governments and spy agencies as you’ll get at the movies, but don’t be fooled by the adverts that tout its having the same producers as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. That was a smart, taut, realistic, and pleasurable spy thriller. This is a derivative of every other spy thriller with the exception of an ending that doesn’t have us cheering star Eric Bana as the hero and champion of truth and righteousness.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review: Admission

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

Paul Weitz was very wise not to allow himself to get pigeonholed into making more movies like his debut feature, American Pie, which he co-directed with his brother. Audiences were lucky that American Pie wound up in the hands of directors who were sensitive to character issues. That film was notable for being outrageously hilarious while not losing sight of the fact that the audience still needs to connect with the characters on the screen. Weitz has continued to bring that human touch to all of the films he directs, especially as he has moved away from outright comedy to stretch himself with dramatic films.

Admission is his latest, released earlier this year and now available on home video. Like About a Boy (probably the best film he’s made), it is a drama, but with plenty of comedy born of the absurdities of everyday life. It is funny because its stars, Paul Rudd and Tina Fey, can’t be anything but hilarious in their delivery. Fey is a Princeton admissions officer and Rudd is the founder and director of an alternative school. He’s identified one of his graduating seniors as an exceptionally bright student who has nevertheless failed to excel academically. He thinks the kid deserves a chance to attend Princeton. Oh, and he believes Fey is the boy’s biological mother who gave him up for adoption back in college.

Karen Croner’s screenplay, based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, is part family comedy and part romantic comedy. But this isn’t your average rom-com with pratfalls and cheap plot points recycled over and over for the last 75 years. It mostly feels natural and honest. The film is greatly aided by some fantastic supporting cast members including Lily Tomlin as Fey’s hippie feminist mother; Michael Sheen as her feckless boyfriend; and Wallace Shawn as the Dean of Admissions.

25 Years Ago This Month: September 1988

Of course you can see in the September releases that the big summer blockbusters have finished and the studios are trotting out the stuff they think will contend for awards (at least the first of them anyway). So that's how you end up with...

Michael Apted's adaptation of Dian Fossey's story, Gorillas in the Mist, starring Sigourney Weaver as the doomed zoologist murdered in her cabin in the mountains of Rwanda.

Richard Dreyfuss starred alongside Raul Julia and Sonia Braga in Moon Over Parador, a comedy about an actor hired to play the part of a dictator of fictional Latin American country Parador after the death of the actual dictator. Obviously made to resemble Augusto Pinochet, he ended up looking like a cross between the Chilean dictator and Gaddafi.

25 Years Ago This Month: Eight Men Out Movie Review

John Sayles’ Eight Men Out, the story of the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” scandal, is, on the one hand, an odd outlier compared to the rest of his work, and on the other, somewhat right in line with his plight of the working man sensibility. I’ve always been a great admirer of Sayles’ films. I especially enjoy the fact that he can make films illustrating the challenges of capitalism for laborers without being preachy or overtly socialist. He’s the more toned down American version of Ken Loach. In that respect, Eight Men Out fits right in because his version of the story, which is based on the book by Eliot Asinof, focuses more on the accused players as put-upon contracted laborers in thrall to a greedy owner who exploits their talents for financial gain. But amid his full body of work as writer and director it stands out as one of only two films he adapted from source material. So while he’s chosen to focus on the aspects that do appeal to him as a storyteller, the crux of the film is that it’s a historical sports movie, standing very much apart from his other work.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

To the Wonder Movie Review

“Weak people never bring anything to an end themselves. They wait for others to do it.”

There’s a reason I have such trouble remembering details from any of Terrence Malick’s films. He composes them with fleeting touches. There are no traditional movie scenes involving events or actions coupled with dialogue. These are the things that are easy to recall: “Remember that scene when so and so says…?” With Malick the best you get are snapshots that almost float freeform from one to another. They are like memories of a life remembered, says star Ben Affleck in one of the DVD extras. Even the one Malick film I’ve seen more than once, The Thin Red Line, stands in my memory more as a series of images in no particular order, but because there’s no real A to Z plot there’s no glue to hold it together in my mind.

Friday, August 30, 2013

In a World Movie Review

We’re so accustomed to hearing those deep baritone voices intoning the details of the latest blockbuster that we hardly even think about the fact that there’s an actual person behind that voice. The trailer for Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedian called attention to this and movie trailer voiceover conventions about a decade ago. But then you realized you can’t ever recall hearing a female voice promotion a big Hollywood release. Lake Bell, who wrote, directed, produced, and stars in In a World must have taken note because she came up with an amusing take on a woman’s quest to break through that glass ceiling an swipe voiceover work from a the familiar male voices that have always dominated the industry.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Classic Movie Review From My Collection: Do the Right Thing

Spike Lee’s first two feature films clearly established him as a filmmaker concerned with issues within the African American community (She’s Gotta Have It showed him also being particularly sensitive to feminist issues), but his third time at bat proved to be the magnum opus – the film that would tie together race relations on Stuyvesant Avenue in Brooklyn, a microcosm perhaps for the entire borough or even the whole city of New York. Do the Right Thing remains to this day one of his greatest accomplishments for the skill in direction and writing to bring together good entertainment value, social issues, sound filmmaking techniques, and a clearly delineated personal vision into one concise film.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blue Jasmine Movie Review

Woody Allen is well known for writing excellent female characters. They are realistic, they delve into the feminine psyche in a way most male writers never even attempt let alone achieve, and they are great roles for actresses. I’m not sure any other single director has been responsible for directing more actresses to Oscar nominations, at least while also failing to equal the feat for male actors. When you think of the iconic female characters he’s written it’s like a treasure trove of great female roles: Annie Hall; Maria Elena (Vicky Cristina Barcelona); Linda Ash (Mighty Aphrodite). His titular character in Blue Jasmine might very well be his best creation since Annie Hall.

Classic Movie Review: Safety Last

The story goes that one day Harold Lloyd noticed a crowd of people gathered on the street looking up at what was then one of Los Angeles’s tallest buildings. When he looked up, he saw a man scaling the outside of the building with no net and no safety lines. The man was Bill Strothers, who would take the role of Lloyd’s pal in Safety Last, a movie written to satisfy Lloyd’s desire to feature a man climbing that building in a feature film.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review: Mama

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

In horror and monster movies it is generally understood that what remains unseen is far more frightening than what a director can show you. Jaws is one of the most famous examples of this. Steven Spielberg couldn’t use the expensive rubber shark through most of the shoot due to technical issues. The result is a terrifying film because our imaginations fill in the gaps, conjuring horrifying images of the terror in the water. Since then almost every monster movie has attempted to repeat the formula to some extent.

In Mama, a ghost story written and directed by Andrés Muschietti and co-written by Neil Cross and Barbara Muschietti, a spirit watches over two young girls whose father went off the deep end and was about to take their lives before the ghost whisked him away. The girls are discovered five years later living animal-like in a cabin deep in the forest. Put into the care of their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his wannabe rock star girlfriend (Jessica Chastain) their maternal spirit protector follows them, jealously guarding them from any outside influence.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review: Upstream Color

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

Upstream Color is another puzzler of a movie from writer-director Shane Carruth. In his first feature after the time-bending confusion of Primer, he tackles romance, animal treatment, and psychotropic drugs, although note in any straightforward manner. Any description of what takes place will fall far short of sufficient. Carruth makes films that need to be experienced and puzzled over. Suffice it to say there is a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) who becomes  akind of puppet victim at the hands of a thief who uses a plant extract and a parasitic worm to drug people and then exert ypnotic control over them until he gets thousands of dollars out of their bank accounts. Kris’s life falls apart after she’s unable to explain an extended absence from work or the loss of all equity in her house. Later she meets  Jeff (Carruth), a man who seems to have many share experience with her and they fall in love, or at least have some kind of affinity and connection to one another.

Parallel to the human action there is a pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig) who also performs sound experiments from esoteric recordings made using different found objects. The pigs that he sometimes lulls with the sound records seem to have some metaphysical connection to the humans who have been victimized by the thief.

I don’t want to pore too deeply into the mysteries of the movie or what all the symbolism may or may not mean. I have some theories, but to me it’s much more interesting to read the film as one of the best intersections of experimental and narrative filmmaking. Carruth’s style looks an awful lot like Terrence Malick’s and TheTree of Life especially appears to have been a major influence on the editing and movement of Upstream Color.

The moment I decided I wasn’t going to try to understand in a conventional sense what the film was about, the easier it became to be enveloped by its trance-like or dream-inducing qualities. The scenes transport you between moments that appear to be disconnected from one another, yet the film never feels disjointed. It’s elegant and beautiful and a fascinating experiment in using images to craft a story. The nearly complete lack of dialogue through the first half of the film is as close to pure cinema as anyone has come since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Primer Movie Review

“The permutations were endless.”

I saw it in cinemas nine years ago, but all I remembered was that I liked it and thought it was a unique and confident first feature from a man named Shane Carruth. When his second feature played Sundance and then received a small theatrical release earlier this year, I was reminded that I should take another look at Primer. This second viewing I’m sure I paid closer attention, especially knowing that the details, plot intricacies, and timelines are utterly confounding, but even having some idea of what was to come doesn’t really help you get a firm grasp on what’s happening.