Tuesday, March 26, 2013

From My Collection: Kill Bill Volume 1 Movie Review

It always felt like Kill Bill needed to be taken as a single four hour movie rather than the two individual parts it was broken into. That seems obvious, right? It’s one story. It was conceived as one film and split up for marketing reasons. But not every multi-part film series necessarily has to be taken as one shot. As incomplete as any one of the Lord of the Rings films is, they can each be taken as films unto themselves individually. Kill Bill Volume 1 feels unfinished in a way that no other “first part” film has ever felt to me, and it all makes a lot more sense after seeing Kill Bill Volume 2.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review: The Intouchables

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 think there is great shame in the fact that The Intouchables didn’t even make the short-list of nine films vying for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. This was easily my favorite film of the year. Although it is a story so cliché-ridden it looks like it took several chapters out of the Hollywood Guide to Winning an Oscar and Scoring a Box Office Hit, it rises far above those clichés thanks to the directing team of Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache.

Just look at this: it’s based on a true story which gives it validation with audiences; it’s about a ridiculously wealthy quadriplegic looking for a full time caregiver; the second main character is an ex-convict from the housing projects of Paris who just wants to get his unemployment checks; and it’s about the changes both men experience by spending time with one another and learning to respect things outside their comfort zones. If this had been made in Hollywood, it would be cloying, sentimental, tacky, ham-handed, and trashy. It would fall somewhere on the spectrum between Patch Adams (insufferably awful in every sense) and A Beautiful Mind (well-intentioned and well-crafted pap).

Phillippe is the wealthy man (Francoise Cluzet), tired of receiving pity from his caregivers. When Driss breezes in and stirs the pot a little, he seizes on the opportunity and appeals to Driss’s competitive nature, telling him he won’t last two weeks in his employ. Phillippe is a refined consumer of high culture: he doesn’t blink at dropping 40,000 Euros on a painting; he loves classical music, but knows nothing of pop. Driss loves Earth, Wind and Fire and Kool and the Gang, those paragons of the disco era whose music can just light up a stuffy room full of tuxedoed tightwads enjoying a string orchestra.

Toledano and Nakache never force the emotion down your throat. The musical score remains loosely in the background and I can’t recall a single moment of feeling artificially manipulated. This is also due in large part to two wonderful lead performances in Cluzet and especially Omar Sy as Driss, who went on to win the Cesar Award for Best Actor (the French equivalent of the Oscar). The movie is simply full of soul and joy. Its lessons are worth learning and they exist within the film’s story, but they’re never driven home with a sledgehammer. This is just joyous filmmaking. 

25 Years Ago This Month: Biloxi Blues Short Cut Movie Review

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.

Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues picks up several years after his Brighton Beach Memoirs left off. Eugene Jerome (Matthew Broderick) is now finished with high school and headed for Army basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi, ahead of deployment to the War in the Pacific. His comrades in training include a muscle head and obnoxious jerk named Wykowski (Matt Mulhern); a New York intellectual, Arnold Epstein (Corey Parker); a dim-witted loud mouth, Selridge (Markus Flanagan); and a sort of nervous young soldier lacking in confidence (Casey Siemaszko).

Eugene goes through another coming-of-age tale, this time learning about the rigors of dealing with different personalities and backgrounds in a high stress environment, losing his virginity, and falling love (with the sweet and lovely Daisy, played by the equally sweet Penelope Ann Miller). Eugene, with his never-ending wisecracks, and Epstein, with his stubborn adherence to fairness, justice, and logic and refusal to go along with the army’s code of following orders, are foils for their drill instructor, Sgt. Toomey. In Christopher Walken, director Mike Nichols found the perfect actor to portray the soft-spoken, but menacing Toomey. He doesn’t get results by braying orders and insults a la Sgt Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, but by constantly undermining the appearance that humor and laughter will save these boys. His methods seem unorthodox from an outsider’s perspective, but barring a final act of madness he seems entirely reasonable as a man charged with training boys for war. I believe this was my first exposure to Walken and in a way it’s the quintessential Walken role and undertaken long before he became an object of parody and imitation.

Biloxi Blues works better as a movie than its predecessor thanks to Nichols’ direction. His vast experience in both film and stage means he’s able to make Simon’s screenplay more open while also working well with the actors to breathe fresh life into the dialogue. It never really feels like it was written with a live audience in mind.

The Basic Pleasures

This afternoon during my son's nap I watched The Social Network on Blu-Ray (which I bought 3 months ago). It was the first time in I don't know how long that I watched a movie for the pure pleasure of watching a movie I already know to be excellent and just want to see again (in this case for the, I think, third time). Basically everything I watch now falls under one of several categories:

- new movies in theaters that I see either to 1) keep up with current cinema or 2) see something I'm genuinely interested in
- new movies on DVD/Blu-Ray/streaming that I missed in the theater and I'm watching either to 1) keep up with current cinema or 2) see something I'm genuinely interested in
- movies from my collection that I just want to review (recent example: Mission: Impossible II)
- older movies not in my collection that I have some motivation to write about (recent examples: Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues)
- newer movies I saw in the cinema that I think my wife would like so we watch them at home. There's something special about watching a movie a second time alongside someone watching for the first time. It can sometimes recreate the sensation of seeing it for the first time.

This occurred to me after my wife asked why I watched The Social Network. When I told her it's just a good movie and that's reason enough, she was suspicious because I never watch anything without considering a writing project. Then it occurred to me that I should do this more often.

The unifying thread among most of my motivations for watching a movie is writing about it. I told myself that starting this month I was going to cut back on the amount of review writing I do. I thought I would let pass the opportunity to write reviews for films like Brighton Beach Memoirs so I could just focus on the pleasure of watching the movie. As it turns out, I've decided to write what I've dubbed "Short Cut Reviews" of less than 400 words (a single paragraph in some cases). It's really difficult to give up the writing.

Really I'd like to focus on more in depth and analytic writing about a director's body of work or classic films. I have a project in the works on one director in particular, but I've given myself no time frame for it. Whenever I manage to watch a movie from his body of work, I will take notes and do some writing. I will post when the project is finished - maybe 6 months from now, maybe a year from now.

But what I never do anymore is just sit down and watch something for the pure pleasure of it. I used to watch certain movies from my collection about once a year. I never find the time for that anymore because I'm always angling to get all the movies in my collection reviewed, or all the classics reviewed. Recognizing that this is a never ending project has the power to dull me to exhaustion.

Watching The Social Network reminded me of why I do this in the first place - because I love the movies. I only started writing in order to have some higher motivation for watching movies in the first place. I had opinions and in some cases big ideas about things and no place to share it. It's good to remember the basic reasons you got involved in something.

Short Cut Movie Review: Brighton Beach Memoirs

A 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.

Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical Brighton Beach Memoirs spoke to me in small ways as a pre-adolescent. It was hard not to identify in some small way with a Jewish kid struggling with puberty and curious about sex while dealing with a nagging mother. Okay, I was barely a Jewish kid and I’m not from Brooklyn and I didn’t grow up in a house where extended relatives lived and my older brother had to contribute his salary to support the family, but you get the point.

For the movie, Simon adapted his own play into a screenplay and Gene Saks directed (after also directing the original Broadway production). The movie hues too closely to the mannerisms of stage acting and blocking. I have to credit Saks a great deal with opening the story up and making it more cinematic than a stage play, at least enough that it’s difficult to imagine this as a play. I’ve never read nor seen the play so I can only guess that the majority of the action is set in the Jerome household. Saks takes us to the beach, a pool hall, the street, the grocer’s, a soda shop, and even the inside of an automobile.  You get a real sense for Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, as a place and not just an idyll in Simon’s head.

As Eugene Jerome, Simon’s alter-ego, Jonathan Silverman at nineteen or twenty was far too old to play the part of a nearly 15 year old boy. He gets the breaking voice down pat, however. It’s the grownups in the cast that stand out to me most now: Blythe Danner as Eugene’s mother Kate and Bob Dishy as his beleaguered father Jack are just about the most marvelous pair of actors you could ask for in these roles.

The laughs roll in quickly and it can be hard to keep up. It’s a beautiful portrait of Jewish family life in New York pre-WWII, and a lovely little coming-of-age tale, but I continually felt throughout that I could ‘see’ the theatricality of every gesture and spoken word. Simon’s dialogue doesn’t come off the page quite enough in this adaptation.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

sex, lies, and videotape Movie Review

Though this was the second time I’ve seen sex, lies, and videotape, it really felt like the first. The first time I saw it (probably in college or maybe even high school) I thought it was a little dull and unmemorable. I didn’t get what all the fuss was about. Sundance Audience Award winner? Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner? But then priorities and taste change and suddenly a character-driven drama filmed on a low budget about a man (Peter Gallagher) cheating on his wife (Andie MacDowell) with her sister (Laura San Giacomo) and the old friend (James Spader) who comes to visit and, with his eccentric personality, serves as a catalyst for change is a lot more interesting. Maybe when I was a teenager I was hoping for a lot more out of the sex part of the title. There’s plenty of sex talk, but not a lot of flesh. Like I said, priorities change.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review From My Collection - Mission: Impossible II

I was so crazy for John Woo at the time Mission: Impossible II came out that almost nothing could have deterred my enthusiasm for the film. I still love it today and see plenty to admire in it and it remains my favorite of the four films in the series, but there are some obvious flaws in it that I never quite saw 13 years ago.

People have been criticizing this film, as well as many other Woo films, for the use of slow motion, for the unbelievable drama, for the doves and pigeons. Okay, his use of birds floating around during climactic action scenes does get tiresome. But I think the heightened drama really plays well in most of his films, and especially well in the case of Mission: Impossible II. Woo loves to combine elements of Douglas Sirk level melodrama with totally unbridled action. Isn’t an action sequence more thrilling, doesn’t the lump in your throat or the hold on your breath grow more powerful if the dramatic tension is raised even beyond the level of realism? Why should we criticize a movie that employs ridiculous and unbelievable action stunts for coupling it with unbelievable drama?

Until Misson:Impossible – Ghost Protocol, this was easily some of Tom Cruise’s greatest stunt work as an actor. His love interest, played by Thandie Newton, is exquisitely beautiful. I never had any problem believing the two of them could fall so hard for each other so quickly. Dougray Scott isn’t exactly the greatest villain in action history and he does force it occasionally, but watching it now I’m more focused on his number two man, played by Richard Roxburgh. Compare Roxburgh’s performance here with his role in Moulin Rouge and you see what a fantastic actor he is.

The movie’s weakest link, I see now, is Robert Towne’s screenplay, which relies too heavily on cliché-ridden often lazy dialogue. It’s remarkable to think this is the same guy who wrote Chinatown. Also, some of the stunts don’t make physical sense when a man is flying through the air in one direction and he’s suddenly propelled in the opposite direction by a bullet. It’s poor in a disorienting way. But overall, the stunts are spectacular and the vast majority of the action expertly directed by master Woo.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review From My Collection: Ocean's 13

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.

Ocean’s 13, the second sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s successful remake of the Rat Pack feature, reaches critical mass with the number of characters piled onto the series. Soderbergh should be thankful that Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta Jones bowed out of the series. I don’t see where there’s room for them. You’ve got the original eleven; plus Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), their mark in the first film and a confederate this time; Roman Nagel (Eddie Izzard), a tech wizard who aided them in the last film; Toulour (Vincent Cassel) from the last film; Al Pacino as Willy Bank, their newest mark, a hotel magnate whose shady business antics put Reuben in the hospital; Ellen Barkin as Abigail Sponder, Bank’s right hand woman; and a small role for Julian Sands as the designer of the Bank Casino’s security shield; and David Paymer as the poor schmo of a hotel critic whose room is sabotaged by the crew.

The characterization should be spread too thin, but because the original crew has been so well-established in the first two films, Brian Koppelman and David Levien are able to leave out the usual montage of introductions. It’s just as funny as the second film, again at the expense of Linus (Matt Damon) most of the time. There’s also something about bringing the series back to Las Vegas that gives it a certain retro hipness – there’s a code between guys who’ve shook Sinatra’s hand – that the first sequel lacked. It’s tighter and better conceived than Ocean’s12, and quite thankfully doesn’t rely too heavily on such a dramatic bait and switch. Like the first film, of course there’s a twist in the reveal that you can’t really see coming, but at least it doesn’t bother setting us up for 30 minutes with a fake heist.

Ocean's 12 Movie Review

Where Ocean’s 11 had to rely on a montage to introduce all the members of the heist crew, Ocean’s 12 does something similar to show us where they are now, in several amusing little vignettes. The problem the second time around is that the pretense for it completely undermines the logic behind it. In each introduction we see Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) confronting them about the $160 million they stole from him. They are each, in turn, surprised to see him, despite the fact that he visits them in cities as disparate as Los Angeles and London. Wouldn’t the first guy have called all the others so they could run and hide before he got there? I suppose this is a minor logical quibble, but it always gave me an uneasy feeling just as this sequel sets itself in motion.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review From My Collection: Ocean's 11

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 a total sucker for heist films. I’ve said it here before. I love the group of thieves each with some specialized skill, the plan, the execution, and the hitch, even though these are all generally tired clichés in the subgenre. Steven Soderbergh’s updating of Ocean’s 11, from a screenplay by Ted Griffin, is a slickly produced genre film that is far better than it has any right to be.

The original featured the epitome of 1960s cool, the Rat Pack, with Frank and Dean at the fore. Forty years later, the update features contemporary Hollywood’s biggest male stars and embodiment of suavity: George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Clooney is Danny Ocean, the brains behind the caper and plan to rob three Las Vegas casinos of $160 million. His closest confidante is Pitt’s Rusty. They’re bankroll is supplied by a fading Vegas hotel magnate played by Elliott Gould and they put together an ensemble of crooks and villains that includes Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, and Carl Reiner.

Short Cut Movie Review From My Collection: Volver

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 Volver, Pedro Almodóvar takes on the ghosts of the past – literal in the case of his female protagonists; metaphorical in terms of his home country. He tackles so many subjects, plot elements, genres, and themes (many of which have formed the basis of his previous work) that the film should winde up crushed under the weight of its own indulgence. But Almodóvar, mixing elements of melodrama, Spanish telenovelas, magical realism, comedy, thriller, and mystery has a fleeting directorial hand, keeping everything so expertly balanced that the film remains equally light in spirit and severe in tone.

Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) is a working class mother, but like any good Almodóvar heroine, she fulfills several roles simultaneously: daughter; sister; wife. One night she is unexpectedly forced to cover up a horrific act in order to protect her teenage daughter. Meanwhile, all the women in her family go through their lives deceiving people in various ways. There’s the ghost of her mother (Carmen Maura) living unnoticed with her aunt; Raimunda’s sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas) covering up the eventual discovery of this strange phantasm (if that’s even what she is), and the long ago crimes committed and concealed that now begin to surface. The ghosts of our past will always come back to haunt us, Almodóvar seems to be saying with this movie that has little room for anything not directly related to the lives of women. Men are given short shrift in their minor roles before being disposed of, sometimes quite literally. Even a dashing young man who flirts with Raimunda, suggesting a romantic subplot, disappears as abruptly as he arrived.

Overall this is one of Almodóvar’s most purely entertaining films, eschewing all the weighty melodrama that made most of his films more difficult to sit through. It is wickedly funny at times and exhibits a beautiful and intimate understanding of Spanish life and superstition in los pueblos.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Identity Thief Movie Review

It seems like a road trip comedy with Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman in which he’s been the victim of identity theft by her hands should be comedy gold – or something close to it anyway. McCarthy was the Oscar-nominated breakout star in Bridesmaids and Bateman has had one of the longest and most successful career renaissances in modern Hollywood history. His sarcastic straight man to her wild and boisterous comedy – both uncomfortably physical and tyrannically verbal – should be a great match. However, something was glaringly absent if I sat through most of Identity Thief without cracking a smile more than a handful of times.

25 Years Ago This Month: March 1988

We'll start with the movies I've seen:

At the time Switching Channels was on repeat on cable TV, I was still too young to care about these kind of adult comedies, though I did see most of it, albeit in bits and pieces. It is at least the fourth iteration of Ben Hecht's play The Front Page, which was also the source material for the far superior and classic His Girl Friday. This 80s version is an updating which takes the story awy from print media and into the TV broadcast news station. Unfortunately, Broadcast News came out the previous year and was a much better movie on similar subject matter. How long before we get another updating focusing on Internet news?

I guess I liked Vice Versa for some reason back when I was a kid. It was one of several switcheroo films, in which two minds change places, around that time. With Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage playing father and son whose minds change bodies through some kind of voodoo magic, it's not much different from Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron in Like Father, Like Son the previous year.