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.