August 22, 2009

Last Chance Harvey

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson are two of the best actors around today. Their pairing in Last Chance Harvey (2008)--if unexpected--is perfect. Their unlikely romance is kindled in London where he's visiting for his daughter's wedding.

Kate Walker (Thompson) works at Heathrow Airport (don't blink and miss a brief exchange between the pair in the beginning of the film, before they know each other), and is lonely and introverted. She lets her mother badger her with constant phone calls because she has no other close relationships, except a couple co-workers who are always trying to fix her up with guys.

Harvey Shine (Hoffman) is equally lonely. His dream of being a jazz pianist deferred, he's a self-described composer of jingles (for television commercials) being forced into retirement by the changing industry. The London trip is low on the priority scale. He and his daughter Susan (Liane Balaban) maintain a stilted relationship, and he feels slighted by his ex-wife (Kathy Baker) and her new husband (James Brolin), who has stepped up in many ways as Susan's more involved father figure (to the point that he's been asked to give her away, much to Harvey's chagrin).

It's in the midst of all these circumstances--be they self-imposed or the product of outside forces--that Harvey and Kate meet, at a bar. She's trying to read while he attempts small talk.

In the hands of less capable performances, Last Chance Harvey might have lapsed into the cliched. It's not an overly original tale. It's a character study--thus relying most importantly on strong acting, which it gets in stoves. You feel for both these lost souls, even if their plight is of their own doing. And there's a beautifully redemptive side to it all, something brought about by the relationship the two form over just a weekend. Set against the surprisingly romantic and appropriate London backdrop, Last Chance Harvey distinguishes itself as a poignant comedy for adults when most of today's movies fail to grasp things like the nuances of a character or the emotional importance of every line and facial expression, every passing glance, and every note.

Which leads me to my final note on the film, the lovely, piano-driven score by Dickon Hinchliffe. It perfectly accents the film both in its dramatic lows and its comedic highs. Written and directed by Joel Hopkins.

August 12, 2009

Bottle Shock

I've decided that one day, when I have a career and money, I am going to travel California's wine country for a couple of weeks. Drinking in the beautiful scenery--spitting out the wine samples--and who knows what else. It sounds like an ideal vacation to me. A friend of mine recommended the movie Bottle Shock, which I guess will have to suffice as a means of vicariously experiencing wine country. Along with Sideways, Bottle Shock is part of a distinct sub-genre of wine-lovers' movies. I was intrigued by Sideways for its eccentric fascination with wine, but turned off by the two douche bag characters in the movie. So I liked Bottle Shock much more because it offered the same eccentric love of viniculture and characters who were far more likable and just as human.

Chris Pine, who we all know from Star Trek, plays an aimless young man who works on his father's Napa vineyard. His dad (Bill Pullman) is tired, disappointed with himself for leaving a law firm to make his own wine, and facing insurmountable piles of debt. Meanwhile, a condescending British wine connoisseur (Alan Rickman) is facing problems of his own in France, where he runs a school for wine studies. Rickman reluctantly ventures to California's wine country, a term he acknowledges with not a little disdain, and tries to discern whether or not those unsophisticated Americans are actually making anything worth spitting into a tin cup after you sample it and describe the taste with phrases like "firm, robust, full of body, and a hint of tangerine." Essentially, it's Amadeus all over again, and Chris Pine is the delightfully mad genius to Rickman's taciturn, irretrievably jealous Salieri.

At first Bottle Shock appears a meandering tale of some folks who love wine. However, the more I got into the movie, I began to really enjoy its idiosyncratic subject matter. Combining Alan Rickman's tasteful Britishness and Chris Pine's whole "I thought showering was optional" persona is just eccentric enough to suit a movie which finds its roots in both French haute culture and 1970s Western Americana. Even Bill Pullman is good--and usually I find him to be somewhat subdued. Freddy Rodriguez co-stars as Pine's buddy, a natural-born vintner who's got his own dreams about making wine. Rodriguez is sort of the James Dean of the cast. He gets taunted with but never gets the glory or the girl.

I think my favorite scene was of Pullman popping a wine cork with a sword at his old law firm. I'm pretty sure Jesus turned water into wine with as much alacrity.

Directed by Randall Miller. With Dennis Farina, Rachael Taylor, Eliza Dushku.

August 06, 2009


Harper (1966) is a self-consciously chic, sophisticated and cool detective thriller starring Paul Newman as a private eye named Lew Harper. Adapted by William Goldman from Ross Macdonald's novel The Moving Target, Harper is probably the best pure-detective-thriller of the 1960s (although Bullitt starring Steve McQueen is up there, too).

I have written before about film noir, which is possibly my favorite genre. Harper was part of the shift in detective movies and noir that took place in the 60's and 70's where a sort of deconstruction of the genre emerged. While film noir has always been cynical, I think the films became increasingly a comment on themselves. These men eat, drink and sleep their work. Somehow the glamour has been lost amidst the unkempt studio apartment and the worn-out convertible, a relic of the glory days but still a relic. Newman's character is a typical Hollywood private eye: a loner, compelled to figure out the case before him. He's hired to track down cold-hearted Lauren Bacall's missing millionaire-husband.

Bacall, of course, starred as Humphrey Bogart's cunning, brassy love interest in 1946's The Big Sleep. She comes full circle with the genre in Harper, fulfilling the part of the catalyst, the one who hires the detective, giving us the backstory on the case. Bacall's character is hardly at her wit's end with grief about her missing husband. "I only intend to outlive him," she assures Harper. "I only want to see him in his grave." And then, trying to narrate Harper's thoughts for him, she concludes: "What a terrible thing to say." Harper responds, "People in love will say anything."
That's how Harper addresses the world. He has a quip for every circumstance, taking his punches with a grin and a stubborn--sometimes futile--inability to quit. This of course mirrors several of Newman's other movie roles, most notably the title character in 1967's Cool Hand Luke and Fast Eddie Felson in 1961's The Hustler.

The look and feel of Harper is vital to the film's success. Conrad Hall--one of the most respected American cinematographers--does an impressive job of capturing the grandeur of the film's beautiful external California locations.

He also manages to capture the feel of 1960's swing culture. A good portion of the film takes place in bars and night clubs, where the movie's noirish roots meld with the zeitgeist of free love and aimlessness that pervaded the movies during the 60s.

Amidst all the offhand comments and the shootings and the innuendos you will find a somewhat distant but incredibly sad love story between Lew and his estranged wife, Susan (Janet Leigh).

Early in the film, Lew and Susan share an exchange by telephone where Lew tries to once again stall their divorce procedures, though it's unclear why exactly. Susan ends the conversation assuring Lew "I don't love you anymore. And you can get shot in some stinking alley and I'll be a little sorry, sure, but that's it. Just a little sorry." Later on, Lew comes knocking on Susan's door after a particularly rough fight with one of the bad guys, looking for someone to take care of him. There is a moment of hope that their relationship will not end. But Lew's compulsion soon returns--to finish the case. A compulsion that seems to drive a wedge between him and the rest of the world. A moral mission that excludes real human interaction.

Directed by Jack Smight. Also starring Julie Harris, Pamela Tiffin, Robert Wagner, Arthur Hill, Shelley Winters, Robert Webber, Strother Martin and Harold Gould. Followed by The Drowning Pool (1975), which paired Newman with his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, in a lesser but still entertaining sequel.