Tom Hooper (Oscar winner for The King's Speech) has lovingly adapted the musical theater phenomenon Les Miserables (which debuted on the stage in 1980) to the silver screen, using the medium of film to open up the streets of 19th century Paris and the 1832 uprising that is at the center of the movie's narrative while offering greater intimacy to the individual miseries of the story's principals. Hugh Jackman (a movie star who is also a richly talented theatrical performer) lends impressive gravitas to the thankless role of Jean Valjean, the fugitive bread thief who spends the film (and Victor Hugo's novel) bearing his soul and eluding Inspector Javert (an oddly inert Russell Crowe). Over the course of roughly two decades, Valjean, who hides his identity to avoid capture, goes from bitter malcontent to noble saint. Along the way he adopts an orphaned waif, Cosette (played as a young woman by Amanda Seyfried). Cosette's mother, Fantine, (a riveting Anne Hathaway) was run out of Valjean's garment factory by a lusty overseer, reduced to turning tricks on the docks and dies 30 minutes into the film. Yes, there's a lot going on here, which forces the film (like the stage version) to rely on familiar tropes and a few cliches to keep things moving. But the film's ultimate appeal lies not in the elegance of its plot lines but in the beauty of its score. Claude-Michel Schonberg (music) and Herbert Kretzmer (English adaptor of the French lyrics by Alain Boubill and Jean-Marc Natel) composed a half-dozen semi-operatic musical motifs that tie the action and the characters together. The songs seemingly were crafted to be overplayed (in the style of grand opera) and none of the principal actors holds anything back. Even the featured players like Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen (comic relief as the extortionist innkeepers, the Thenardiers) are given ample room to strut and preen. As others have noted, the standout in the film is young Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn) as the love-struck revolutionary Marius. He sings with a heartthrob's tenor and his character is featured on several of the film's loveliest songs. His trio A Heart Full of Love with Seyfried and newcomer Samantha Barks as Eponine is a high-point of Act One and his solo performance of Empty Chairs and Empty Tables will leave no one unmoved. On that note, the film is an unapologetic tearjerker but highly recommended nonetheless.
Friday, December 28, 2012
Quentin Tarantino may know the meaning of understatement but he certainly doesn't apply it to his films. The best of Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) are American Grand guignol -- intensely dramatic stories of bullets and blood, buckets and buckets of blood. His films are often structurally complex and frequently surreal and have drawn Hollywood's finest. Tarantino's latest typically incredible tale, Django Unchained, is the story of a runaway slave Django (Oscar winner Jamie Foxx) who is bought and freed by a German dentist / bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Oscar winner Christoph Waltz) so that Django can lead him to a trio of fugitives hiding on a Mississippi plantation. In the course of their getting acquainted, Django tells Schultz he would like help finding and freeing his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who, as luck would have it is at the same plantation. Before they set off, however, Django must learn how to handle a six-shooter and soon displays lightning reflexes and an eagle eye. Django dresses as The Blue Boy and poses as the doctor's valet, while he and Schultz winter out West -- gunning down bad guys without remorse. When spring arrives, they head south and that is where they encounter Calvin Candie (Leondard DiCaprio) the sadistic (is there any other kind) master of Candieland Plantation (go with it) and his slithering Uncle Tom of a butler Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Tarantino stages some terrifically tense and excruciatingly brutal scenes down in Dixie. The entire film is a vulgar and irreverent live action cartoon that has more than a few howlingly funny moments amidst all of the gore (as we've come to expect). Some viewers have raised questions about the use of the n-word in the film and, frankly, I'm amazed that the point has even been raised. The film is set pre-Civil War and so the word seems appropriate. What does seem anachronistic and pointless is the use of M-F by butler Stephen. The effect was way too ghetto for my taste. Highly recommended but it is an extremely violent affair.
Saturday, December 22, 2012
Friday, December 21, 2012
Joe Wright's Anna Karenina is a feast of cinematic elegance and motion. With a screenplay by Tom Stoppard (who won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love) this classic story of a virtuous Russian noblewoman (Keira Knightley) who abandons the love of her kind and patient husband (Jude Law) to answer the persistent entreaties of a dashing young count (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and eventually descends into fatal madness has been structured like a stage play that often bursts out from the proscenium onto snowscapes and verdant meadows. It's an intriguing concept; one I don't believe I've ever seen done quite like this. Stoppard's Shakespeare in Love (1998) blended action on the boards and in the streets, but not like this film. This is ingenious. By showing the audience the machinery behind the action, Wright and Stoppard appear to be saying quite literally that Tolstoy's tragic tale of facades is melodramatic by design. And what marvelous machinery. A long scene of a seasonal ball at which Anna and her illicit suitor Vronksy meet early in the film is a swirling human carousel of twisting arms and hands. It's brilliantly elegant and erotic, like foreplay in jodhpurs and bustles. Wright -- who is best known for his 2007 film Atonement which also starred Knightley -- has delivered a film that is resplendent and romantic and highly recommended.
Monday, December 17, 2012
A Jewish musical for a family holiday singalong? Why not? The holidays are not just about Christmas, after all. The Bock and Harnick score for Fiddler on the Roof (the eternal story about a devout and befuddled milkman, his wife and their five daughters during the Russian pogroms) is loaded with singable tunes -- Matchmaker, Matchmaker; Sunrise, Sunset; If I Were a Rich Man; Sabbath Prayer, among them. All wonderful. The seminal recording of this show from 1964 features Zero Mostel's Tevye. His duet with Maria Karnilova, Do You Love Me?, is lovely and sweet and sad and true.
Saturday, December 15, 2012
Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is loaded with the cinema auteur's trademark splendor -- breathtaking vistas, richly fantastic interiors, amazing creatures (this film's demonic orcs seem more three-dimensional), epic battles -- but the true payday for this first entry in another Jackson / Tolkien trilogy, at least for me, were the set pieces that feature some stellar cameos. Yes, yes, Ian McKellen is terrific as the cagey wizard Gandalf the Grey and Martin Freeman (Sherlock and The Office [original U.K. series]) is a beautifully realized Bilbo Baggins, the "burglar / hobbit" recruited by the 13 dwarves pictured here to help them reclaim from a loathsome dragon their mountain home and the mounds of treasure within. In contrast to the Lord of the Rings series, which balanced action and exposition pretty well, some sections of the nearly three-hour film drag but that's to cavil about relatively small matters when what Jackson has put on the screen is so wonderfully entertaining. I was especially delighted by the Troll brothers (William Kircher, Peter Hambleton and Mark Hadlow) as they bickered over the best seasoning for dwarf-on-a-spit, the riddle scene with Bilbo and Gollum (the ever amazing Andy Serkis) and the Great Goblin's gambol, which featured Barry Humphries (yes, he of Dame Edna Everidge) as the Goblin. The Hobbit has more humorous moments than the Ring trilogy and no romance, unless you count audience members falling under the spell of the dreamy dwarf prince Thorin, played by the towering (6'-2") Richard Armitage. The film is probably too intense for very young children. The orcs are frightening but the dwarves are fun, as is to be expected. Highly Recommended.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
The Golden Globe nominations were announced today, and, predictably, Lincoln appears to be the film to beat with nominations for best picture, director (Steven Spielberg), actor (Daniel Day-Lews), supporting actor (Tommy Lee Jones) and supporting actress (Sally Field) among its seven nods. I'm a bit behind in my viewing as I've not seen many of the other picture nominees -- Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, Lasse Hallstrom's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Quentin Tarantino's Django, David O. Russell's Silver Lining Playbook, Tom Hooper's Les Miserables or newcomer Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock. I've not seen a single one of the best actress performances but I have seen all five best actor performances (which might suggest that women are typically given stronger roles in smaller films) and would rank them Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington in Flight, John Hawkes in The Session, Joaquin Phoenix in The Master and Richard Gere in Arbitrage.The other lead performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's puzzling The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, a smart move as he and Phoenix would have cancelled each other out otherwise, even though neither stands a chance of taking the Globe from Daniel Day Lewis, IMO.
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Doug Liman's Go (1999) begins on Christmas Eve and ends the next morning and follows a rag tag band of supermarket clerks and a couple of their customers in a wild ride through the environs of L.A. and Las Vegas in search of drugs and / or sex. Liman, director of Swingers and The Bourne Identity, takes an intricate script by John August and weaves together three tales of woe and intrigue (to borrow from Car Talk) that star, principally, Sarah Polley as Ronna, a luckless checkout girl who wants to try her hand at drug dealing to stave off eviction from her apartment; Desmond Askew as Ronna's co-worker, a British horn dog named Simon who sets out for Vegas with his band of merry men and gets chased out by the mob; and Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf as a pair of a soap opera stars who are also lovers working off drug charges by helping a police sting bring down a major player named Todd Gaines (Timothy Olyphant). Nearly everyone ends up at a Mary Xmas warehouse rave where scores are settled. It's tons of irreverent late-night holiday fun. Recommended. P.S. A pre-Tom Cruise Katie Holmes is featured as Ronna's wary but willing best friend Clare.
Because Hettie Macdonald's first feature film, Beautiful Thing (1996), has so much genuine heart, a winning cast of characters, a fresh and respectful treatment of gay youth, and a soundtrack by Mama Cass, one will forgive it's achingly bad third reel. Based on Jonathan Harvey's play, which apparently is still routinely performed in Britain, the film tells the story of two teen-aged Londoners -- Jamie and Ste -- growing up next door to each other in the working class tenements of the Thamesmead district. Jamie is a the bookish loner who lives with his single Mum, Sandra, a barmaid with dreams of running her own pub. Ste is the affable jock who is routinely beaten by his abusive father and older brother. Jamie is smitten with Ste, who is oblivious (or so we are led to believe) until a particularly bad beat down finds the boy bunking next door at Jamie's. Macdonald's staging of the boys' "discovery" is handled smartly, respectfully and realistically, even though one could argue that having "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" from The Sound of Music playing in the background is a bit heavy-handed. The boys' friendships becomes a point of peculiar interest for their nosy neighbor Leah (Tameka Empson), who spends most of the film channeling Mama Cass. The inevitable panicked confrontation between a fearful Sandra and her tearful son, though overwrought, somehow rings true. After that scene, however, the movie careers into a ditch of implausibility following a drug-induced Leah. The final shot of the lads doing a box step in the tenement quad is pure fantasy. For those unaccustomed to London working class dialects, some of the dialogue (not counting universal vulgarisms) might be indecipherable but that won't keep you from enjoying a different kind of family film. FYI, for fans of Dr. Who, Macdonald went on to direct the highly celebrated Blink episode from 2007, which featured the weeping angels. Recommended.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Leave it to Alan Ball to kick off his terrifically involving (though maddeningly uneven) HBO series Six Feet Under with a fatal car wreck on Christmas Eve. The patriarch of a brittle and self-involved L.A. family, the Fishers, is a mortician who is killed when his funeral coach (a/k/a hearse) is T-boned by a city bus while he reaches for another smoke. (Ball has never met an irony he did not immediately fall in love with.) Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins) leaves behind his sexually and socially repressed wife, Ruth (Frances Conroy); his emotionally stunted libertine of an older son, Nate (Peter Krause); his closeted and repressed younger son, David (Michael C. Hall); a raging spitfire of a daughter, Clair (Lauren Ambrose) who was reputedly Ball's alter ego and all of their many loves and losses. Regular viewers of the series, which aired from 2001 to 2005, grew to know and love the Fishers and the series despite their pretty obvious flaws (both the Fishers' and the series'). I was devoted to it for the entirety of its run and occasionally reach back to re-watch favorite episodes, among them "Back to the Garden" from Season 2, which features the wonderful Patricia Clarkson as Ruth's airy sister Sarah who invites Clair out to Topanga Canyon for a visit and a little spiritual awakening.
Monday, December 10, 2012
Facebook Friends of a certain age might remember when old movies were shown on network television pretty routinely. Staples on Saturday and Sunday afternoons were the comedies of the '40s that featured Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, the Eastside Kids, and Abbott and Costello. Created more as diversions from the stresses of war and want than as art, these films were later broadcast on television because they were cheap and inoffensive family fare. I don't know that any of them has aged particularly well (although Seth McFarlane has gotten quite a lot of mileage out of the Crosby and Hope "Road to ..." movies on Family Guy) but I have a special fondness for Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. My favorite of the dozens of films they released during the '40s and '50s is probably not the best (technically) in their catalog but it's imaginative and a little magical, The Time of Their Lives (1946). The movie tells the story of a humble tinker and a young woman who meet on a colonial estate and are mistakenly killed as traitors by American Revolutionary War soldiers while trying to leave the estate to warn General Washington of Benedict Arnold's treachery. Their bodies are dumped in a well and cursed. For more than 150 years their ghosts are trapped on the property and may only be released to go to heaven if proof of their innocence is revealed. Costello plays the tinker, Marjorie Allen the young woman who was killed with him and Abbott plays both the tinker's rival and later a psychiatrist. The special effects (which were endlessly fascinating back in the day) will seem quaint to some but, unlike today's effects, they won't overwhelm the story. Recommended.
Christopher Guest's first feature film, The Big Picture, was about making a movie that is true to your individual vision ... and how impossible that is in Hollywood. Guest, who went on to direct other wonderfully oddball pictures -- Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind -- has crafted a clever and insightful tale about a film student (Kevin Bacon) who after winning a school competition accepts an offer to direct an actual movie at an actual studio. Despite some major red flags during his first meeting with a studio producer (J.T. Walsh), he descends deeper and deeper into the maw of the beast, compromising his vision, alienating his girlfriend (Emily Longstreth), dumping his friend and cameraman (Michael McKean) and coming close to forgetting why he got involved in the business in the first place. In short, he becomes a typical Tinsel Town D-bag. Guest, a terrific film satirist and chameleonic actor, has made an imaginative and ultimately uplifting film that is actually about more than movies -- as the title suggests.
Sunday, December 9, 2012
Diahann Carroll was not the first choice for the title role in John Berry's Claudine (1974), a single mom of six living in Harlem and trying to keep body and soul together on public assistance. The great Diana Sands (A Raisin in the Sun) was originally cast but bowed out when she was diagnosed with cancer. She asked Carroll (TV's Julia) to do the picture, a fresh and refreshing film of a woman caught in a familiar Catch 22 created by the "system" that penalizes welfare recipients for actually working. Unable to make enough to provide for her children, Claudine lies to social service workers about having a job as a maid. It's while working that she meets a kind and cheerful garbage collector Rupert, played by James Earl Jones. Claudine is cautious after being loved then abandoned before but not nearly as wary as her children, who dislike her friend immediately. Eventually, they warm up to him but, as so often happens in life and the movies, reversals and set backs are visited upon the couple and old wounds are exposed anew and no one manages the disappointment well, but none less well than Claudine's oldest, Charles, played by Lawrence Hilton-Jackson (later of Welcome Back, Kotter). The final reel is poignant and, yes, a little sentimental but it works. Both Carroll and Jones are wonderful in this lovingly charming film that wore its dignity like a crown. Carroll was nominated for an Oscar for her performance. She didn't take home the statue but the film is certainly a winner. Recommended..
While few would argue that Jerry Lewis's hefty filmography for Paramount back during the '50s and '60s amounts to great art, those movies are enduring curios of Cold War era American popular culture and often provide insight into human nature, warts and all. Lewis's most popular work might be his self-directed The Nutty Professor from 1963 (What'll it be, Hmmm?) and his performance in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy opposite Robert DeNiro. For me, his 1960 movie A Visit to a Small Planet has a more distinguished pedigree than most of his work, as it was based on a late '50s satirical Broadway play by Gore Vidal. A thinly veiled send-up of American paranoia, Planet tells the story of a naive alien lad named Kreton who comes to Earth to study the ways of humans. He ends up staying with a typical suburban family and discovers, often by way of his mind-reading capabilities, that humans are not always what they appear to be. Lewis plays Kreton with his signature vaudevillian broadness and the film is not nearly as cynical as one might expect considering its connection to Vidal. It does represent for me a model of what made Lewis such a staple in American cinema -- it illustrated that we should treat each other better and laugh at ourselves as we do it. Something to keep in mind during the holidays, yes? Recommended.
Saturday, December 8, 2012
I first watched this early Blake Edwards film (1960) the summer before I started university (1975). Its depiction of college life was quite unlike what I would encounter at USC and not just because the film was made 15 years before. The movie stars the inimitable Bing Crosby as a wealthy fast-food restaurant magnate who decides to earn his college degree. He moves into a dormitory on campus where one on his roommates is played by the then stud du jour Fabian. (Yes, there is singing.) Bing wears a frosh's beanie, gets the hots for and dates his French teacher (Nicole Maurey), pledges a fraternity and hangs out with a hippie free spirit played by Tuesday Weld, who I think is studying anthropology. (None of which I did.) And, predictably, he gives the commencement speech at the end of the film. (Ditto.) It's all harmless, colorful fun and for those of us whose college experience was quite different is a little like visiting another planet. (Which will be another of my holiday film recommendations later.) This film has only recently been available on disc. Recommended.
Friday, December 7, 2012
Inside Moves, directed by Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon), is not a great film but it's warm and affectionate. It's seasonal in that it's about a constructed family of disabled misfits who hang out at a bar in Oakland that's tended by everybody's best friend Jerry (David Morse). Jerry's actual best friend, Roary (John Savage) threw himself off a building but only permanently crippled himself. Jerry wants to return to the basketball courts but he has a bum leg. He is able to get the operation he needs when a professional ballplayer loans him the money. After healing, Jerry joins the Golden State Warriors and for a while, and to his shame, forgets about his old life, and his friends, at the bar. Diana Scarwid was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Roary's waitress girlfriend, Louise, who bears an entirely different sort of wounds. Yes, it's a movie about what's important in life, and I think that's what the holiday season is for.
Thursday, December 6, 2012
Last night, I enjoyed the first of several holiday meals planned with friends over the coming weeks. (I had the duck.) I was reminded last night of a marvelous film about family, friends and food from 1987, Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast. Sumptuous, elegant and atmospheric only begin to describe the wonder of this film set in the 1800s about a French refugee who seeks shelter in the home of two pious elderly sisters in a port town in Denmark and all three rediscover the vitality of life. Based on a Isak Dinesen story, Axel filmed the preparation of the titular banquet with nearly anthropological detail. It's a cinematic feast that's perfectly suited for the holidays. Highly recommended (but maybe not on an empty stomach).
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
I was thinking about "holiday movies" that aren't "Holiday Movies," that is, movies that don't have Christmas or Hanukkah as a theme or a backdrop but that have at their core a spirit of newness and hope. Billy Elliott is a splendid example of what I mean besides being a tremendously life-affirming movie overall. It's the story of young British lad growing up in a coal-mining town during Margaret Thatcher's "reign" as Prime Minister and her war against the miners' unions. Despite his father's coaxing to explore boxing after school, Billy discovers an interest in the ballet and therein lies a whole different sort of battle -- one that has a truly surprising conclusion. Director Stephen Daldry was nominated for an Oscar for this film, and the wonderful Julie Walters' performance as the stern but kindly ballet mistress was recognized as well. The film's enormous heart, however, is Jamie Bell, in his first feature film. And what a debut. Highly Recommended.
Sunday, December 2, 2012
The adult take-away from Disney's superb animated feature Wreck-it Ralph is that life is a precarious balancing act between what we do for a living and who we are. Kids will not want to take anything away because they will not want to leave the spangling / eye-popping terrain inside their favorite joy stick games. Ralph is the "bad guy" in the popular Fix-it Felix Jr. (a game I'd never heard of before this film, much less played), who after 30 years trashing an apartment building and being tossed in the mud by angry tenants starts feeling stifled and a little envious of the game's hero, Felix, who cleans up Ralph's mess with his magic hammer. Ralph is voiced by the ever-affable John C. Reilly and Felix by 30 Rock's Jack McBrayer. After being rebuffed by the other characters in Fix-it and attending a group therapy session for other alienated arcade villains, Ralph gets the notion to prove he has the right stuff by entering other games to fight alongside the good guys, most notably Sergeant Calhoun (Glee's Jane Lynch) from Hero's Duty. If he brings home a victory medal, the other Fix-it characters have promised to treat him better. Ralph eventually ends up in Sugar Rush, a mind-boggling confection of a racing game where he meets the amped-up King Candy (voiced by Alan Tudyk, who channels Ed Wynn) and the spunky but glitchy Vannellope (Sarah Silverman). It's all delightful and funny and smart and potentially lethal for diabetics both for the sticky sweet wonderland that is Sugar Rush and for the sticky sweet sentiment at the heart of the movie. Recommended in 3D.
Saturday, December 1, 2012
Early in Ben Lewin's wonderfully touching film The Sessions, sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene is undressing paralyzed poet / journalist Mark O'Brien when he shrieks and swears to heaven. The scene is startling because Cheryl's ministrations to that point had been tender and enticing. Soon it becomes clear that O'Brien's yelp was not from physical pain but fear of the intimacy he desired so badly. He's conflicted, trapped by polio in an inert body, only able to move his head. He hires the surrogate so that he might experience lovemaking because, as he says, at 38 he's past his "sell by" date. The terrific screenplay was written by Lewin and based on an essay "On Seeing A Sex Surrogate" written by the real O'Brien, who died in 1999 at the age of 49. As played by the luminescent Helen Hunt (Mad About You, As Good As It Gets) and the extraordinary character actor John Hawkes (Deadwood, Lincoln), these two people become much more to each other (and to the audience) than therapist and client. They are -- as O'Brien's priest and confessor (William H. Macy) says -- companions on a journey of discovery, one that is by turns illuminating, joyful, humbling and, in the end, truly and honestly painful. Enormously human, this is an adult film that deals frankly with sexuality. Highly recommended.
Andrew Dominik's "Killing Them Softly" is a briny and not entirely satisfying diversion that has the feel of a Guy Ritchie film but without the narrative complexity or humor. "Killing" bears some resemblance to Dominik's movie from 2007, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," a lugubrious nearly three hour study of the title characters and fatal event that features yards and yards of dense introspection. Killing, though not nearly as long as "Assassination," is also talky and stars Brad Pitt, who appeared in "Assassination" and Richie's "Snatch." In "Killing," Pitt is a wet worker hired by the Mob to clean up the mess created by an amateurish hit on one of the syndicate's many poker enterprises. He's told that the games are on hold until the culprits are dispatched. So, time is of the essence. Even so, Dominik is a patient director with a taste for lengthy set pieces, the most interesting in "Killing" are the tense initial poker house robbery, an excruciating pummeling of a witless mobster (Ray Liotta) during a downpour, and a riveting 15-minute cocktail conversation between Pitt's Jackie and a boozing, forlorn sociopath named Mickey, played to perfection by James Gandolfini. Dominik has crafted a manly film that is not altogether satisfying and, inexplicably, has as a backdrop the Wall Street collapse and presidential election of 2008. The movie's odd coda, despite being a surprisingly astute assessment of America's national obsession, doesn't quite fit Pitt's character or the film, for that matter. Bloody, explosive violence and unceasing use of the F-word makes this movie a decidedly adult affair.
Sunday, November 25, 2012
Ron Fricke's Samsara is a peculiar kind of documentary travelogue. Through truly spectacular 70 mm cinematography, Fricke appears to be taking viewers not on a dispassionate tour of 25 countries and exotic locales but rather on an exploration of authenticity of human existence on our planet. This authenticity -- and its antithesis, the synthetic -- is displayed in dozens and dozens of ways. The film is an extraordinary kaleidoscope of images; the camera's eye is unwavering whether trained on Egyptian sand dunes, the painted faces of African tribesmen or a poultry processing plant in the Philippines. Fricke, who took five years to assemble the images, has not crafted a conventional narrative and there is no dialogue, just a fascinating bed of world and new age music to underscore (not always subtly) what's on the screen. Samsara is the term used to describe the Buddhist belief of unending life and rebirth and often includes the notion of suffering as being man's natural state. Recommended.
Thursday, November 22, 2012
I hope everything is peace and joy for you today BUT if by this evening you're looking for a little perspective on familial dysfunction do consider renting Mildred Pierce. This 1945 murder mystery stars Joan Crawford and tells the story of a woman's pursuit of the American dream only to be dogged by her spoiled daughter, played by Ann Blyth. Crawford won the leading actress Oscar for her Mildred, and Blyth was nominated as best supporting actress. The orginal was remade by HBO last year and starred the redoutable Kate Winslet, who won the Golden Globe for her performance. Here's a spirited little clip from the orignal, which is a cinematic classic. http://youtu.be/5Hd15nSDZrM
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Like Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Steven Spielberg's Adventures of Tintin from last year, Ang Lee's Life of Pi is a cinematic masterpiece that pushes so many technical boundaries that its awesomeness nearly overwhelms the wonderful human story all of the wizardry should be supporting. Life of Pi, based on the novel by Yann Martel, tells the story of an Indian lad named Piscene (newcomer Suraj Sharma) who is the only member of his family to survive the capsizing of a freighter transporting them and the family's zoo to markets across the Pacific. Pi eventually finds himself alone in a lifeboat with a territorial Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (the name given to many literary shipwreck victims). I've not studied the trades to see how Lee was able to coax such a wonderful performance out of Sharma's co-star but the tiger is stunning and the two of them are worth the price of the ticket. Because the narrative is told in flashback, the film's mystery is not whether Pi survives but what he has to do to keep body and soul together. And speaking of soul, the film is steeped in Eastern spiritualism, which is refreshing, but its message of faith, loss and redemption is universal. Young children might be frightened by a couple of scenes of animal predation and the early 20 minutes of storm seas in a lifeboat might make some viewers quesy. Highly recommended -- especially in 3D.
Sunday, November 18, 2012
The real demon in Scott Derrickson's Sinister is the monomania of the lead character -- a real crime author named Ellison Oswalt (props to screenwriters Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill for a great name) looking for his next red meat bestseller. As played by Ethan Hawke, Oswalt is a bundle of unrealized potential, married to an affectionate British beauty (Juliet Rylance) and father to two fairly innocuous moppets -- the girl (Claire Foley) is a budding muralist and the boy (Michael Hall D'Addario) is an androgynous mess of pre-teen attitude prone to night terrors. As the film opens, Oswalt has moved his family to an unnamed town and into the house where a grisly family murder took place. Inexplicably, he keeps this important little detail from his wife, who when she's not cooing and pledging undying support is a whining scold. (So both hot and cold taps work.) Before long, as Oswalt settles into the investigation of the murders (8mm footage of which he finds in the attic along with home movies of other family murders dating back a few decades) he hears bumps in the night and discovers creepy occult connections between the current and previous unsolved murders, most importantly that in each case one of the children in the family went missing. With the help of a star-struck and nameless county deputy (The Wire's James Ransone) and a university professor (an uncredited Vincent D'Onofrio) he fits the pieces of the puzzle together. The film has a few solid jolts but otherwise is a mass of borrowed ideas. I do like that the lead character is a journalist on the hunt for the truth. I don't like that he's a self-involved, manipulative ass. See it if you like but leave the kids at home.
Saturday, November 17, 2012
When reflecting on Steven Spielberg's films, one doesn't have to consider if the movie was visually stunning, intelligently crafted or well-acted. Spielberg, who I consider along with Martin Scorsese to be the two greatest living Hollywood directors, attracts superior talent from among actors, cinematographers, set designers, etc. His movies are always put together marvelously, but that does not always translate into box office success. No, in appraising Spielberg's work, one asks what it is that sets his latest offering apart from the rest of his impressive catalog. In the case of Lincoln, it's Daniel Day-Lewis's towering performance as the 16th president during the weeks shortly after his re-election when he waged a historic war of politics and principles pushing for congressional passage of the 13th Amendment. In essence and effect, codifying his Emancipation Proclamation. Day-Lewis's rendering of Lincoln is near perfection -- or maybe it is ABSOLUTE perfection for I cannot imagine any other actor pulling on Lincoln's lanky shell without even a hint of self-consciousness or theatrics. His performance is uncanny and unaffected. The other extraordinary element is the Oscar-caliber screenplay by Tony Kushner, known best as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the Broadway stageplay Angels in America. Kushner, who also wrote the screenplay for Spielberg's Munich, has put such marvelous words in the mouths of his principal players -- Day-Lewis, Sally Fields as Lincoln's slowly unhinging wife Mary, Tommy Lee Jones as Lincoln ally Congressman and radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, among a host of others -- that I felt a little high from the loftiness of the oratory and humanity in its sentiments. Lincoln is a splendid motion picture from its totally disarming start to its (typically Spielbergian) tearful ending. Highly Recommended.
Thursday, November 15, 2012
My plans to see Lincoln (the movie not the capital of Nebraska) reminded me that this ridiculous Disney adventure starring Nicolas Cage opens with the assassination of the 16th president. Despite that the movie is wholesome family entertainment, blessedly free of profanity, vulgarity and bloody violence. The bad guys are vanquished, warring spouses are reunited and everybody ends up filthy rich. It also stars celebrity Republican Jon Voigt, a curiously unengaging Dame Helen Mirren, a snarky Ed Harris and the mysteriously asexual Justin Bartha. Feisty Diane Kruger also stars but along with most of the rest of the cast is horribly wasted. If you want to see her really act rent Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. She's marvelous.
Saturday, November 10, 2012
The directorial combination of filmmaking visionaries like The Wachowski sibs (The Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) held great promise for Cloud Atlas, and the sprawling, puzzling karmic film doesn't disappoint -- for the most part. The more cynical moviegoer might see casting the same actors in different stories about individual and societal battles against exploitation -- on the High Seas in the 1800s, in 1930s Cambridge, in a bombed-out post apocalyptic universe where people talk like Daufuskie islanders and in a futuristic Asian consumer capital called Neo Seoul -- as more of a gimmick than a bold new cinematic storytelling device. I can't entirely disagree. The idea that we're all connected is not exactly groundbreaking and having the same people crossing one another's paths (both for good and for ill) in so many different contexts might be more cleverness than is required to make the point. And yet I thought the casting worked, mostly, but in several instances I caught myself wondering which of the actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, among them) was under the prosthetics. But beyond the gimmickry and the new age mysticism the film is unquestionably an accomplishment, often breathtakingly beautiful and engaging, but I'm not sure its premise will sustain much cocktail conversation. Not because the movie lacks worthwhile ideas -- it actually may have too many -- it just seems to lack a meaningful payoff after all the musing. Still, it's worth seeing, even at its substantial length -- nearly 3 hours. Recommended.
Friday, November 9, 2012
Sam Mendes is known best for his idiosyncratic character studies (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road) so I was curious about how he would approach the latest entry in the 50-year-old Bond franchise, Skyfall. All of the requisite chases, gun play and extended battles are on wonderful display along with several simply gorgeous foreign locales -- Turkey, Shanghai, Macao -- but this time we also get a level of psychological complexity that few if any of the previous Bonds ever displayed. Daniel Craig's 007 is not only tireless and deadly, he's also deep. Who knew? The depths of his obsessions (martinis, women and country and not necessarily in that order) are plumbed a bit in this "episode" and his love/hate relationship with M (the heavenly Judi Dench) is of particular interest as a crazed former British agent (a creepily effete Javier Bardem) tries to take down MI6 and M herself. A failed assassination attempt during a Parliamentary hearing on an MI6 breach sends Bond and M on the run, in James's tricked out Aston Martin, to the Scottish highlands and his boyhood homestead, the eponymous Skyfall. It is there the film's bloody brilliant last battle is waged and much is revealed and resolved. See this film, you must.
Some films do an exceptional job helping folks get in touch with their humanity. Sydney Pollack's Tootsie is a terrific example of just such a movie and seems especially appropriate considering our country took some important steps toward more fully realizing our collective, undeniable humanity this week. (Oh, and Stepen Bishop's song, though dripping with sentiment, is for the ages. Peace.)
Sunday, November 4, 2012
Robert Zemeckis' Flight is an immaculate presentation of two wrecks -- the plane crash referred to in the title of the film and the absolute spiraling devastation of the life of the man piloting the aircraft. Denzel Washington, a true force of nature and as disciplined an actor as any when he's on (and even when he's off, most of the time) carries this film on his broad back from start to finish. He owns this picture of a man whose life is a disaster of the first magnitude but who's fighting tooth and nail to keep from acknowledging that it is. Washington's pitiable Whip Whitaker is paired with the lovely British actress Kelly Reilly, who plays the drug addicted photographer / "masseuse" Nicole, a woman Whitaker meets in the hospital after the plane crash. She's recovering from a heroin overdose, and they meet in the stairwell where fiending paitents meet to smoke. An intriguing monologue by an addling cancer patient (James Badge Dale) who wanders into the stairwell sets Whip and Nicole on paths of redemption and loss. In addition to Reilly and Dale, Washington's riveting performance is matched by Don Cheadle's as his attorney, Bruce Greenwood's as the pilot's union rep and John Goodman's as Whitaker's ponytailed dealer. Zemeckis' recreation of the crash is a marvel and his direction of the NTSB inquiry that closes the film is equally as mesmerizing. Highly recommended.
It's interesting that Hollywood decided to go with Silver Screen A-listers (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway) for the film version of the musical Les Miz, a tremendous show that features many roles with very difficult vocal parts. But of particular interest is the casting of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the lousy, slovenly, filthy and conniving Thenardiers (see below). I don't get it.
Friday, October 26, 2012
Chris Butler and Sam Fell's animated feature ParaNorman is in the class of recent "children's" films that aren't really for youngsters. They're actually for adults with unresolved Daddy or Mommy issues, memories of classroom bullying or the sudden death of a loved one that open up torrents of regret. Child actor Kodi Smith-McPhee (The Road and Let Me In) voices the title character Norman, a reclusive boy who sees and talks to ghosts (yes, he sees dead people). This gift -- and not his spiky hair or lugubrious manner -- has turned him into an outcast at home, at school and on the streets of his little New England town that was cursed after torching an innocent girl as a witch back in colonial times. The colonists' horrible deed comes back to haunt them every year as the disquieted spirit of the murdered girl comes to raise hell. Despite the spooky goings-on, the story is chockful of important stuff about intolerance, mob rule and familial dysfunction, most of which will fly over the heads of the young ones in the audience. Smartly, Fell and Butler, who wrote the screenplay, wrap the lessons in beautfiully construted scenes that pop even in tired old 2-D, which will delight the rugrats and not get in the way of their parents' appreciation of the film's wholesome message. Recommended.
Saturday, October 20, 2012
In celebration of S.C. Pride weekend I would like to recommend Paul Bogart's Torch Song Trilogy, the film version of Harvey Fierstein's Tony Award winning stage play. I hate this poster but think the 1988 film is pretty nifty though a bit dated. Fierstein is like caviar -- delectible in small portions but, unfortunately, he only comes in gallon-size drums. The film, which also stars Matthew Broderick, Brian Kerwin and Anne Bancroft, is froth and a little fury and includes some fun drag numbers featuring Harvey, Cats' Ken Page and the then ageless, now deceased, Charles Pierce. Oh, about the poster, everyone in it has been pinched and powdered from hell to breakfast and the marvelous Miss Bancroft looks all "good-googly-goo," like she's been goosed. In all it's pretty life-affirming but ham-fisted in places.
Sunday, October 14, 2012
Martin McDonagh's unsettling funny though dyspeptic second feature, Seven Psychopaths is a comedy despite the outrageous amount of blood spilled and spewed. Hundreds of gallons, it seems. Seven Psychos is the tale of a half dozen murderous head cases -- played with quizzical insouciance by A-list wackos Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Tom Waites among others -- who cross paths, leaving mounds of bodies at every intersection. It is often shockingly hilarious, that is, it often feel it shouldn't be. McDonagh, who also wrote the script, has set the proceedings in Los Angeles for the most part and Joshua Tree National Park for the final showdown. He gives his cast free rein to ring every drop of subtlety from the contentious encounters and the unspeakable events that follow. You can imagine McDonagh winking knowingly at the audience, even though his performers give absolutely nothing away. The work of the cast is overwrought and as broad as the Mojave Desert but I really enjoyed the film, as I did McDonagh's earlier feature In Bruge, which like Seven Psychos featured some inspired work by Colin Farrell. In the latest, Farrell plays a blocked screenwriter trying to finish the script for a film titled Seven Psychopaths. Yes, it's a wormy contrivance but in the end it works surprisingly well. Recommended.
Saturday, October 13, 2012
The beauty of Ben Affleck's Argo is not just in its stunning period perfect cinematography but in the tautness of the film's storyline. As the true tale of a CIA operative's plan to lead six American foreign service workers out of a revolting Iran in 1980, Argo lays out with crystal clarity what was at stake and builds the dramatic tension strategically until the picture's breathless finale. Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, the CIA Moses who is the brains behind the scheme to smuggle out the workers, who were hiding in the home of the Canadian ambassador. He plans to pull them out disguised as a Canadian crew for a sci-fi adventure movie. The idea is absurd but it's greenlighted by Langley and off we go to Tehran where the streets are overlfowing with hatred of all things U.S. Watching the whole affair would be nearly unbearable if Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio had not concocted a delightful parallel storyline about Hollywood finagling and Tinsel Town shenanigans. Brilliant. Argo (the name of the fake film and the real operation) was an incredible mission, sure to fail, and Affleck captures masterfully the confusion, fear and frustation of that operation and of that turbulent period in American history. Quite an achievement, I must say.
Monday, October 8, 2012
End of Watch follows LAPD patrol officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his partner Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) as they get drawn deeper and deeper into each other's lives and into the orbit of a brutal Mexican cartel. The heart of this film (and it has enormous heart) is the devotion these guys have for each other and for the women in their lives (Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez, both splendid). Gyllenhaal and Pena invest their characters with emotional intelligence and sincerity and deliver two wonderful performances for a story that isn't really that complicated. And maybe that's why it's so good.
Dreadful things are foreshadowed early on, but Ayer keeps the story locked down pretty tightly, so the last 10 minutes are unexpected and riveting. The film's epilogue is especially affecting, as well. Recommended.
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
My problem with Hayden Panettiere? She was orders of magnitude too slutty for Heroes, her relationship with her creepy, controlling murderous father in that series was waaaay beyond Electra complex, her fairly spectacular beauty seems to be matched by uncharted denseness as evidenced in this quote from her Heroes days: "I hate how people say I'm growing up fast." Honey, they were talking about your bust. And now she's starring as a slutty country singer in an ABC series named after my favorite film. WTF?
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Yes, Rian Johnson's Looper could easily be the new Blade Runner. It's kinetic and violent and prophetic and masterfully directed and acted. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as an assassin who conducts mob hits at the gate of a time portal through which the unfortunate victims are shoved from the year 2072 back to 2022 where Joe the Looper waits, blunderbuss in hand. This way, there's no body to connect the mob to the hit. It's an intriguing idea made even more so when Joe the Younger faces his future self (Bruce Willis) at the portal, kills him and then doesn't and thus begins the journey along the Moebius strip that is this film's twisting narrative. Johnson, who also wrote the screenplay, has crafted a world that borrows a bit of the yin yang / future-retro of Mad Max and the grimy dystopia of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. The film is arresting and absorbing in its imaginative detail, even down to Gordon-Levitt's uniquely Eurasian features being molded to reflect more of Willis's, except (spoiler alert!) Gordon-Levitt has attached earlobes and Willis does not. It's not enough to derail the story but for those fixated on continuity issues (like me) might find it a bit of a distraction.
Sunday, September 30, 2012
Leon Russell turned 70 in April, has a bit of a paunch and walks with an ebony cane but he has a stevedore's forearms, undoubtedly from years of piano pounding. Russell was at the Neighborhood Theatre, a boite off of North Davidson in Charlotte, where he and his four exuberant bandmates played a respectable assortment of his more rolicking tunes for a couple hundred appreciative fans. The set included fan favorites -- Out in the Woods and Tight Rope from Carney, Delta Lady and a smattering of others from his first solo album Leon Russell, Back to the Island from Will o' the Wisp, and a blistering Rolling Stones medley. In his signature Stetson and sunglasses, Russell sat at an electronic keyboard at stage left where he intoned and howled his classic tunes with no more audible articulation than a latter-day Dylan but it didn't matter. The songs were standards delivered with fresh, driving back beats that kept much of the audience on their feet. Dylan's own A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall was barely recognizable under the throbbing bassline and screeching guitar -- it rocked. The show was Leon's 90-minute dance party, and the Master of Space and Time was in great humor as he shared a rambling tale about George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh that featured a cameo from inventor / visionary Buckminster Fuller and a swipe at a certain Republican presidential candidate. A new album produced by Tommy Lipuma is on its way.
Sunday, September 23, 2012
It will be interesting to see which of the male leads in The Master will be nominated for the Oscar. Nominating both Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman would assure neither wins though both deliver astounding performance in a film that is as enigmatic as any I've ever seen. What's it about? It's about truth and lies and how they're absolutely essential to human life. At least that's my reading.
I must confess I don't think it's a GREAT film. Its core puzzlement about the complex relationship between the master (Hoffman) and his not so stellar, moonshining but loyal disciple (Phoenix) seems to be a notion without solid mooring. Or it could be I'm too dense to get Paul Thomas Anderson's meaning beneath the surface of the story of one manipulative fraud trying to "save" another manipulative fraud. Singular performances -- including Amy Adams and Laura Dern -- are wonderful, and Hoffman and Phoenix's "chemistry" -- in every sense of that overtaxed word -- is truly potent.
Sunday, September 16, 2012
Nicholas Jarecki's Arbitrage builds up a great deal of momentum but ultimately falls apart. Richard Gere, who delivers a mostly fine performance, stars as Robert Miller, a venture capitalist trying to sell his cash-strapped company, which looks great on paper, to a banking concern. His scheme begins to unravel when the buyer holds up the purchase for one more audit, Miller's daughter begins to suspect book cooking, his mistress dies in a fiery car wreck from which Miller walks away, and the son of his former driver is collared by the cops after helping Miller flee the accident scene. Jarecki, who also wrote the screenplay, piles the calamities high and, for the most part credibly, but they start to tumble in the last act showdown between Miller and his devoted and boozy wife, played to unimpressive effect by the usually captivating Susan Sarandon. Arbitrage contains many fine moments but it's cynical ending doesn't deliver a satisfying pay off.
Saturday, September 1, 2012
What is this sad, hopeful and totally wonderful world director Behn Zeitlin has created in Beasts of the Southern Wild? A young girl named Hushpuppy (an astounding and preternaturally gifted young actress Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her ailing father Wink (an affecting Dwight Henry) in separate mobile homes in a backwash region of a low-lying coastal city that is threatened by winds, water and wild boar. To say this film is surprising is such an understatement that I'm a bit embarraassed to use it. But it is such a refreshing cinematic experience, totally devoid of cliche and sentiment but absorbing, heartbreaking and uplifting. It's a revelation that walks the line between stark reality and magical realism. See it at once.
Friday, August 31, 2012
Lawless is the second John Hillcoat / Nick Cave feature film collaboration -- the first being the horribly overlooked but masterful The Proposition from 2005. I've enjoyed both immensely. Director Hillcoat has an impressive eye for detail (not unlike his countryman Peter Weir's period work -- Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli) and an implacable taste for violence. Cave, a fellow Aussie who is better known for his work with the rock band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, weaves a compelling tale that doesn't rely too heavily on narrative conventions but when it does the film is weakened a bit.
Lawless is the 'true" story of the Bondurant brothers of Franklin County, Virginia, who during Prohibition ran a large bootlegging business in the backwoods that drew the attention of conniving, greedy and sadistic lawmen. Led by the stalwart and seemingly invincible Forrest (Tom Hardy), the brothers try to grow their enterprise while takiing on an effete and heartless enforcer out of Chicago named Rakes (another Aussie Guy Pearce), which leads to a bloody shootout at a covered bridge in the final reel.
The youngest of the Bondruant brood, Jack (Shia LaBeouf, a personal favorite of mine), is itching to get a piece of both the bootlegging action and the local Mennonite preacher's daughter (Mia Wasikowska). Despite warnings from Forrest and eldest brother Howard (Jason Clarke, yet another Aussie), Jack disastrously tumbles into both, assisted by the gimpy young moonshiner Cricket (Dane Dehaan of Chronicle). The cast, which also includes Gary Oldman and Jessica Chastain, is first rate and their dedication to the film and Hillcoat's vision is undeniable and all over the screen.
Lawless is weakened a bit by conventional cinematic devices -- innocence must be sacrificed, carnality damned and evil must come with dyed hair and French cuffs -- but these are not fatal flaws. Bloody, terrifically violent but enjoyable.
Friday, August 24, 2012
David Koepp has made his name, and no doubt most of his money, as a screenwriter of many successful though unchallenging films -- Panic Room, Carlito's Way, The Paper, Death Becomes Her, Spider-Man. The films he's directed have been mainly good and interesting thrillers -- Secret Window, Stir of Echoes -- but nothing remarkable. So it is not a surprise to me that Premium Rush, written and directed by Koepp, is a generally entertaining but unremarkable movie. It stars the ever-reliable Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a New York bicycle messenger who is carting a mysterious ticket given to him by a young Asian woman with a big secret.The ticket is coveted by a maniacal cop with the cartoonish name of Bobby Monday, played by one of my favorite little know actors, Boardwalk Empire's Michael Shannon (rent Bug tonight!). Gordon-Levitt's Wilee (pronounced like the Coyote) sets off from Columbia University Law School to deliver the ticket to Chinatown while chased by Monday, another cop on a bike, his spunky and fairly clueless girlfriend (Dania Ramirez) and his boastful rival (Wole Parks). The film contains some thrilling footage of bike vs. vehicle maneuvering and a few scary spills but in the main is harmless.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
I've been watching the first season of this show at the recommendation of my friend Bertram Rantin (thanks) and find it endlessly fascinating. It's difficult to choose one reason why I'm so enthralled (it has many, many intriguing elements and characters and enormous charm) but I do know for certain its exploration of family and kinship (a golden thread woven through each of the episodes) is some of the smartest (cleverest?) writing I've encountered in quite some time. Even though it's based on Grimm fairy tales and has a young boy as one of the central players, this is a decidedly adult affair.
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