December 30, 2011

The Year in Review: 2011

Dear readers,

Well, here we are again, closing out the movie year. It wasn't a great year overall, but there were some good movies, which I would like to point out and up, here. Hopefully, you will be able to check some of them out. As usual, there were a lot of movies I missed for various reasons, so you can expect forthcoming reviews of: Carnage, The Iron Lady, We Need to Talk About Kevin, A Dangerous Method and The Guard.

This year impressed upon me the fact that comedies are under-appreciated when it comes to winning awards. Bridesmaids was probably the funniest movie I've seen in years, and Kristen Wiig's performance was perfection. But she will likely not be recognized (although the Golden Globes may award her in the comedy section) because so many awards are reserved for the serious, "important" films.

As usual, we had an onslaught of biopics. Sitting through the insufferable, agonizing J. Edgar made me frustrated that Hollywood keeps churning these movies out. And there's no end in sight, because we aren't going to run out of public figures to portray on the screen. Moreover, I fear that Leonard DiCaprio and Meryl Streep will play all of them. They will be cryogenically frozen in a few decades, or maybe cloned, so that they can do biopics into perpetuity. I am, however, interested to see Julianne Moore play Sarah Palin in HBO's upcoming movie Game Change.

George Clooney twice proved my expectations wrong. The Descendants was a really fine piece of entertainment. And The Ides of March was not. In fact, this was the year of expectations being thrown out the window. I dragged my feet to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It's probably the best movie I've seen all year. That good. I also thought that Bad Teacher would be good. Wrong again. I didn't expect The Beaver to be as good as it was. It's really worth seeing (despite what you may think of Mel Gibson). And Horrible Bosses was better than I expected, though not as good as the two best comedies of 2011 (Paul and Bridesmaids). Jennifer Aniston's performance was the highlight of the movie. (Kevin Spacey was good too.) Watching her play the aggressive dentist, tormenting the affable Charlie Day, was hysterical. You could tell she was having a good time playing against type.

Favorites of 2011
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Drive
Bridesmaids
Paul
The Beaver
The Descendants 
Super 8
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Margin Call
Submarine
The Tree of Life (the parts where the director, Terrence Malick, wasn't being a pretentious boob)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Standout performances:
Kristen Wiig, Kristen Wiig in Paul and Bridesmaids
Kenneth Branagh in My Week With Marilyn
Shailene Woodley in The Descendants
Kevin Spacey in Margin Call
Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids
Craig Roberts in Submarine
Mel Gibson in The Beaver
Jennifer Aniston in Horrible Bosses
Sally Hawkins in Submarine


To 2012!




 

Margin Call

Margin Call takes place over about a 24-hour period in which a New York investment bank foresees the impending financial crisis of 2008 and tries to save itself, effectively screwing over everyone else in the process. Kevin Spacey heads the cast as a middle man who grapples with the morality of selling out at the cost of so many other companies' very existence.  

It's a grimly keen assessment of Capitalism; a lovely little tragic-comedy full of lonely figures in business suits trying to hold on to as much of their money as possible. All the business-world jargon that confuses most of us in real life sputters out of the lips of the characters in this movie with irony: half the time no one knows exactly what is meant by "volatility index" and the like. You keep waiting for the movie to translate it for you. Even the big boss (Jeremy Irons) asks for plain English when a meeting is called to discuss how to deal with the storm that's brewing.

This movie humanizes the business world and dehumanizes it at the same time. It placates the idea of class warfare by suggesting how infinitely culpable every one was in the economic downturn that continues to problematize our money matters here and abroad.

It's a tight, compelling little economics thriller with capable performers in front of the screen. There's no maudlin sympathizing with the Wall Street types. Director J.C. Chandor apparently prefers to appear objective. While that's seemingly impossible to do, in the process, he keeps the movie's subject from lending it a sense of self-importance. The fact that it takes place in one brief period (virtually a day and a night and the following morning), gives the movie a sense of urgency. It's a slick move, like something out of a bad Western, and you can only appreciate the fact that Chandor wasn't trying to make this the Godfather of Wall Street movies.

As a result, what we've got here is a pretty damn good movie. Spacey is wonderfully good. Zachary Quinto, as an intelligent young employee who has a mind for numbers (he's got a doctorate from MIT to boot), shows promise. He was a good Spock in Star Trek and here he demonstrates his ability to play other types of characters. Demi Moore is restrained, and therefore pretty good, as one of the higher-ups. Simon Baker too plays his character--one of the bosses--with a sleazy passive confidence. With Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci (showing a remarkable screen presence in his brief but important role), Penn Badgley, and Mary McDonnell.




December 29, 2011

Night of the Living Dead

When I was a kid, I became obsessed with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its sequels. While other kids were watching Star Wars, I was watching zombie movies with relish. I'm not sure what attracted me to the horror genre, and to zombies in particular, except for the normal morbid curiosities we all possess, especially as children. 

Night of the Living Dead is a genuinely creepy movie, shot in black-in-white, about a sudden epidemic in which the dead start coming back to life. A handful of people trapped inside an abandoned farmhouse attempt to stave off an increasing army of the walking dead, but internal conflicts (which seem more than a bit arbitrary) prevent them from cooperating with each other.

George Romero, a child of the 50s, may have been taking his cues from some of those cheesy (but worthwhile) alien-invasion chillers like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing From Another World. Romero and his team of filmmaking friends make clever use of news broadcasts (both radio and television), which provide a level of production value otherwise unavailable to this movie. You feel the apocalyptic urgency of the zombie crisis even though the setting is focused at the microscopic level.

Using those mostly non-threatening B monster flicks to lure us into a false sense of security, Night of the Living Dead turns the whole things-will-be-resolved-at-the-end promise on its head, and because of its gritty realism, it became the quintessential modern horror film, despite its shoestring budget and its flaws. It has the quality of a vividly remembered nightmare come to life: The ghouls surrounding the house, lurking in the shadows, are indeed the stuff of our most terrifying dreams. And the hammy acting and contrived conflicts between the living characters somehow elevate the material into another realm of B movie horror. 

With Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Keith Wayne, and Marilyn Eastman. 96 min.

December 28, 2011

J. Edgar

Clint Eastwood's lumbering biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the founding director of the FBI. Leonardo DiCaprio, whose mission is apparently to play every major public figure in the last 100 years (he played Howard Hughes, now Hoover, next year he may be playing Sinatra, and on top of all that he's going to play Fitzgerald's iconic literary figure Jay Gatsby in the upcoming Great Gatsby project), is not right for the part. In the scenes where he plays the old Hoover, it's pure camp. DiCaprio, resembling a doughy lollypop under piles of make-up, unsuccessfully tries to look old and withered but determined.

The alleged love affair between Hoover and his right-hand-man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is explored with an amazing lack of finesse, and what could have been electric turns out to be limp and unsatisfyingly bad drama. Eastwood seems to be pleased with how important he's (allegedly) become as a filmmaker, but he should remember his chief duty: to entertain. J. Edgar is nothing if not bloated and boring. Shall we tally up the Oscar nominations now?

Naomi Watts plays Hoover's dedicated secretary. A less interesting part I couldn't imagine for such a talented actress. Judi Dench plays Hoover's domineering mother. The film dithers on whether or not to portray their relationship as creepy or sentimental. Josh Lucas plays Charles Lindbergh in the most interesting part of the movie: the investigation of the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh, Jr. It's a pity the rest of the movie is so tediously unsustained. With Ken Howard, Lea Thompson, Stephen Root, Ed Westwick, and Jeffrey Donovan.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson's posthumously popular novel brought to the screen by writer Steven Zaillian and director David Fincher. I haven't read the book or its sequels, nor have I seen the 2009 Swedish filmization of the novel. But this American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was sheer exuberance. Fincher seems to be getting better and better. His 2007 Zodiac is just about the best film of that decade, and he seems to have found a way to further explore the themes of obsession, murder, and the inevitability of the past, with his latest movie.

Daniel Craig plays a reporter in Stockholm who's being sued for malice by a sleazy businessman. He's left broke and discredited as a journalist, so he accepts an unexpected job offer from an ailing Swedish tycoon (Christopher Plummer): to uncover the mystery of his niece Harriet's disappearance in 1966. He enlists the help of a resourceful girl named Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) who's obtained a surprising level of street-smartness at 23. She knows how to carry herself, but not before being mistreated by many, including the pervy social worker who doles out her allowance at the expense of her dignity more than once.

The movie is absolutely smashing entertainment, delivered with such panache and skill that you hardly notice its near three-hour running time, except for at the end a bit. The setting is perfect material for a tingling mystery. Indeed, the makers of this (and of course we must also credit the late author, Larsson) know what ingredients to put into a movie to make it exciting and suspenseful, and yet nothing seems carelessly inserted. Everything is well layered. You soon realize that what you're getting with this movie is good old-fashioned thrills merged with modern sensibilities.

It engages with the technological innovations that have so reshaped our world in the last fifteen years, without seeming too clumsy about it. On the other hand, the product placement is like a minefield. Apple products and Google searches pop up around every corner. (How do you get around Google and Macbooks these days without seeming like commercializing your entertainment?) I can give the movie a pass for that because it was so damn good.

Daniel Craig, who may also be our best Bond yet, carries the movie successfully: he's the kind of actor you're willing to believe because he's in good shape. He cares about himself and so you care about him. Mara, who had a bit part in Fincher's The Social Network, gets her turn at the wheel here, and she doesn't disappoint. She has enough brass to topple a Swedish magnate.

This movie doesn't hold back. It's refreshing to see something really vital and unbridled for a change, but it would be foolish to bring younger viewers to this, considering some of the content. (Lisbeth is raped by her disgusting case worker. He gets his in a scene that's a sort of revenge fantasy that feels morally justified but equally disturbing.)

With Robin Wright, Stellan Skarsgard, Steven Berkoff, Joely Richardson, and Embeth Davidtz. ½

December 26, 2011

My Week With Marilyn

It has a certain surface charm to it, particularly if you're interested in old movies and movie stars. But like Marilyn Monroe herself, My Week With Marilyn isn't that deep or that interesting. Nor is Michelle Williams's performance something to write home about. She's not embarrassing or inept, just unaffecting. She merely rustles up images of the real thing, who, we're reminded, was actually dull. Her inner circle may have sucked up to her like she was a brilliantly innovative and intellectual devotee to the craft of acting, but the bottom line is that people were fascinated with Monroe because they wanted to have sex with her or because they wanted to be like her, and that was why she was famous and adored (and hated, too, I imagine). The film offers up the classic "I'm-beautiful-so-no-one-thinks-I-can-act" portrait of Marilyn but declines to comment on it. This movie tries to make an awards grab without any fingers.

The "my" in the title is Colin Clive (Eddie Redmayne), a British film buff of a privileged family background who lands himself a job as third assistant director on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), which was directed by and co-starring Laurence Olivier. Redmayne's performance failed to win me over to his character, who just seemed like a spectator throughout the movie. His clunky narration at the beginning tries to rush us through his efforts to ingratiate himself with the British movie studio operated by Olivier. But his character doesn't at all appear to be fleshed out properly. He's just a kid with a wide-eyed love of movies, and his love never really comes across on the screen. He can smile and look entranced, but his movie love isn't infectious the way it ought to be.

Playing Olivier, Kenneth Branagh nails the voice and even manages to convince you that he looks like Olivier, midway through the production. Julia Ormond doesn't fare as well portraying Vivien Leigh. I just couldn't buy it. Maybe I'm not familiar enough with what Leigh looked like and sounded like off the screen (since most of us know her from her performances as deluded Southern belles).

The problem with My Week With Marilyn is that it's too bowled over by its subject matter, and expects us to feel the same without trying to win us over. The closest it gets to achieving this is during the brief moments where Williams performs two songs. The movie is momentarily transformed into something with real movement and passion and fun. But it doesn't last, and for most of the time, we're just supposed to sit back and adore Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe. I don't think anybody took into account the possibility that some of us don't care about people's bizarre nostalgic obsession with a Hollywood bombshell. There are much more interesting actresses from that era. And Branagh's performance as Olivier, which is probably the most interesting aspect of the movie, will likely be ignored.

With Judi Dench as the actress Sybil Thorndyke, Emma Watson (who needs to stick to playing kids until she actually starts to resemble an adult) as a wardrobe assistant, Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller, Dominic Cooper as Milton Greene, Marilyn's assistant, and Zoe Wanamaker, as Paula Strasberg, daughter of Lee and acting coach of Marilyn. Directed by Simon Curtis.

High Anxiety

With High Anxiety (1977), Mel Brooks spoofs Hitchcock, with mixed results. He plays a psychiatrist with a fear of heights who takes over a prestigious mental institution. The previous head of the institute died under mysterious circumstances, and the other staff members embody a variety of bizarre and suspicious qualities.

The gags are non-stop, but most of them seem hastily assembled and forced, and instead of inventing his own unique storyline that finds ways to make fun of the genre (like he and Gene Wilder did in Young Frankenstein), Brooks just slaps together a handful of plots from various Hitchcock movies, and relies on the mugging of his usual band of performers to fill in the gaps.

Some worthwhile moments make it in: Mel sings an amusing little number in an attempt to woo the lovely Madeline Kahn (who doesn't look right in a blonde wig--her natural red hair is gorgeous), and it's fun watching Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman ham it up. But the material is beneath them. It's beyond juvenile at times. 

With Howard Morris, Ron Carey, Dick Van Patten, and Rudy De Luca.

December 25, 2011

The Late Show

The Late Show (1977) is a lovely, tattered valentine to the golden age of Hollywood film noirs. Art Carney plays Ira Wells, an aging private eye whose best days are behind him. A flaky ex-actress named Margo (played with daffy energy by Lily Tomlin) hires him to track down her cat, which is being held for ransom by a low-life to whom Margo owes 500 dollars.

Things get more complicated, as they usually do in this sort of flick. It's full of lurid characters and memorable set pieces. The scene where Ira and Margo are skulking around a sleazy apartment complex is pure gold: the lighted pool casts a glittery reflection on the stucco facades, and you realize how unappealing L.A. really must be.  

The Late Show de-mythologizes the allure of Hollywood, and of the private eye, just like Robert Altman's 1973 film The Long Goodbye: Ira has a bad ulcer and he's out of shape and not as quick on his feet as he used to be, and he sees his era and all its players fading before his eyes. (Robert Altman, incidentally, produced this film, which was written and directed by Robert Benton). With Eugene Roche, Bill Macy, Joanna Cassidy, and John Considine, all playing grimy, rotten heels.

L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential (1997) is the definitive modern pulp noir. Set in 1950s Los Angeles, it's about the decaying power of corruption in the police department. This is the kind of movie you experience with sheer glee, because it taps into the very base, gritty, sensual pleasures and fascinations that make movies such fun: murder, sex, blackmail, corruption, and ambiguous characters who simultaneously defy and embody the good guys vs. bad guys theme. In fact, L.A. Confidential is so gritty and seedy, that by the end you feel dazed. The movie punches you in the gut. But what elevates the material, transcending the whole genre of pulpy thrillers of which it is very much an homage, is the humanizing of the main characters.

Russell Crowe, as the brute force member of the LAPD, Bud White, is astonishingly good. He seems to be all macho energy--an invaluable asset when it comes to intimidating suspects--but he's vulnerable too. Crowe looks like someone who would throw people through windows and take a girl out to the movies in the same day, and he's well cast in the role. It was one of the movies that made him a star. He thrives in parts like these.

Kevin Spacey seems to be having a wonderful time as the cop who courts Hollywood. He's a creative consultant for a hokey TV cop show, and it's where he lives. Spacey is so effortlessly good that he's probably overlooked amidst the more dramatic roles. When he and Guy Pearce are having a heart to heart and Pearce asks him why he became a cop, he doesn't give a long speech about some traumatic childhood experience that imparted within him a lifelong desire to see justice served. Instead, all he says is, "I can't remember." It's delightfully antithetical to the cliched soliloquys so many movies (even this one at times) resort to, the kind that generally end up in little blurbs for the Oscars, to showcase a performance. It's impossible to characterize an entire performance in one 30-second clip, and Spacey is living proof of this.

What strikes me about L.A. Confidential is how creepy it is. The corruption is so believable, and flies so squarely in the face of the mythology about Hollywood and the 1950s, that you find yourself feeling genuinely at uneasy. The movie taps into our underlying fear and distrust of authority figures. It asks: How do we know that they have our best interests at heart? More frightening--what if they do, but are willing to break the law to carry out their own brand of justice? Like the corrupt police chief played by Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, playing God with a badge becomes an intoxicating drug. Sooner or later it's uncontrollable, and it never remains untainted by corruption, greed, and vanity.

L.A. Confidential recalls real murder cases that have fascinated us for decades. It's based on the book by James Ellroy, who in part became a mystery writer because he was so affected by the gruesome, still-unsolved, murder of his own mother. The story inadvertently conjures up images of the Black Dahlia case of 1947, which of course happened in L.A. only a few years before the events of this movie. Most closely connected to that story of a would-be actresses' brutal murder is the thread in L.A. Confidential about a call-girl agency, run by a sleazy millionaire (David Strathairn). He fixes up girls to look like movie stars. He has a 'Rita Hayworth' and a 'Lana Turner' and a 'Veronica Lake' (played by Kim Basinger, the only actor in the movie to win an Oscar, and probably the least deserving person in the movie of all, even though she's not bad). Veronica Lake, it should be noted, is best remembered for playing dames in grimy B movies. It's pure enjoyable trash, and one of the great films of the 1990s.

With Danny DeVito as a smut-peddling journalist who writes for a Hollywood gossip magazine called Hush Hush, Simon Baker, and James Cromwell as the police chief, Dudley Smith, an almost mythological creature. He seems to see through a person's soul, and he's a sly, dark mastermind with a hacky Irish accent. He's absolutely terrifying.

December 23, 2011

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) is a Southern-fried family drama, adapted from the Tennessee Williams play and directed by Richard Brooks (James Poe co-wrote the script). It's one of the better films to come from Tennessee Williams, despite the fact that MGM completely removed the play's most controversial subject matter in the adaptation.

Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor play a not-so-happily-married couple. Taylor is electric, even when she climbs into histrionics, as the sexually frustrated Maggie. She's stunning in this, and Brooks frames her in doorways to heighten her allure. Newman is intense but vulnerable as Brick, the alcoholic ex-football hero who claims Maggie slept with his now dead BFF, Skipper. Brick's repugnance with his wife is half-hearted at best. In one scene, after he pushes Maggie away, only to be confronted with her nightgown hanging on the bathroom door, he lets down his guard, drinking in her aroma. You know he wishes he could stop playing the offended husband. He's at his best when he's laughing--his sense of humor humanizes him. Newman was always at his most appealing when he was clearly having a good time with his performance, even if he was playing a heel like in Hud (1963).

As with any Tennessee Williams story, the room is always thick with raw emotion, and skeletons are lining up behind the closet door waiting to tumble out. But you can forgive it for being over the top. It's lusciously entertaining, full of self-loathing and big revelations, like nine months of therapy condensed into 100 minutes with a glossy MGM sheen over it and beautiful people on the screen. When I first saw it years ago, I was so stunned that I immediatately rewound the VHS and watched it straight through again. Almost every character has a moment of self-awareness that is actually quite touching. The veneer is lifted even if only momentarily, and a kind of inner-truth is revealed--one that's deeply broken and human.

With Burl Ives as Brick's father, Big Daddy (yes, really), the booming-voiced Southern tycoon who likes controlling everything from his plantation to his sons, and is confronting his own mortality when he learns that he has inoperable cancer. Judith Anderson plays Big Mama, the stereotypical Southern matriarch with a big voice and a short fuse. Jack Carson plays Brick's brother, Gooper, the dutiful firstborn who's doing everything he can to please Big Daddy and assume control of the family fortune when the inevitable happens. He's got an obnoxious, conniving wife (Madeleine Sherwood) and a litter of plump, rude, ruddy-faced little imp-children.

All About Eve

All About Eve (1950) is just about the bitchiest movie ever made. It's chock full of delicious dialogue (including the famous "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night.") and features Bette Davis in top form. She plays an aging Broadway star named Margo Channing. Anne Baxter plays Eve Herrington, an adoring young fan who cons her way into Margo's inner-circle in order to foster her own acting ambitions. She wants to be the new Margo. It's smashing good fun: overdramatic to the point of self-parody, but also a clever critique of Hollywood culture and the double-edged sword that is Fame.

Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve's impact on pop culture cannot be underestimated. Countless movies and television shows have borrowed its theme of the star being manipulated by a young and devious imposter, but none of these has ever come close to equaling it. 

Bette Davis had been the Queen of Warner Bros. in the 30s and early 40s, but in the years following Now Voyager (1942) her career sagged, and she had just about been written off as a performer. Her performance as the volatile, vicious and vulnerable Margo is perfection, and it briefly revitalized her career. And it's the performance you think of when you think of Bette Davis (unless it's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, but that role moves beyond self-parody into something positively uncanny and even undignified).

With George Sanders, who won an Oscar for his performance as a witty, acerbic drama critic, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter, and, in a small role, Marilyn Monroe. Based on the short story "The Wisdom of Eve" by Mary Orr.

Fletch

In Fletch (1985), Chevy Chase gives his best comic performance. His brand of humor was never put to better use than as the wise-cracking investigative reporter Irwin M. Fletcher. Set in L.A., the movie is based on Gregory McDonald's 1974 mystery novel of the same name. While I haven't read the book, just skimming a summary of its plot makes me wonder if screenwriter Andrew Bergman oversimplified the story, weakening it in the process. The two separate mysteries are woven together with clumsy indiscretion. What could have been a fine, richly layered and exciting comic-mystery is rendered something less: it's a superficial and transparent middle-finger-valentine. Fletch is nevertheless an entertaining lightweight comedy. You find yourself enjoying it with ease, and the flaws are somehow mitigated by Chase's mugging and the movie's laid-back tone. Harold Faltermeyer's music score adds a wonderful campiness to the production. The cast is quite a good one, but their characters are never fleshed out. Everyone takes a back seat to Fletch. Followed by Fletch Lives in 1989. Directed by Michael Ritchie. With Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Richard Libertini, Joe Don Baker, Tim Matheson, and Geena Davis.

December 21, 2011

Meek's Cutoff

Meek's Cutoff (2010) is about a harrowing journey along the Oregon Trail. The party of eight is lost, and their supposed guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), doesn't have a clue where they're going (although he tries to maintain the illusion that he's leading them to the promised land). It's a demystified Western. The cowboy isn't the hero, the Indian doesn't miraculously know English or save the day, and most of the characters are impotent.

As impressive and admirable a picture as this may be with its sparseness and economy and gritty realism, it's more a test of endurance than a piece of entertainment. It works out like a short story you read without feeling anything. Michelle Williams's performance comes through but only because her character is written to be the strong one. Everyone else is practically mute.

With Will Patton, Paul Dano, and Rod Rondeaux. Written by Jon Raymond. Directed by Kelly Reichardt.

The Spy Who Loved Me

James Bond falls in love with a rival, a Soviet spy played by Barbara Bach. Meanwhile, he battles yet another megalomaniac Russian billionaire with world domination on his mind (Curd Jurgens), and we are introduced to 007's cartoonish nemesis, Jaws (Richard Kiel), who's indestructible, and takes the Bond series to a new level of camp, perhaps retroactively mocking the wave of movies about killers who can't be killed.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) has two great things going for it: a smashing thirty-minute-long section of the story takes place in Egypt, and it's one of the most memorable and exciting sections of any Bond film. The sets, the action sequences, the Bernard Herrmann-esque musical accents, and the allure of Egyptian culture (the latter may be the thing I like best about this part of the movie) make that section stand out.

The other is the song, "Nobody Does It Better" (sung by Carly Simon), which bookends the film. It's easily one of the best songs to come out of a Bond picture, and Simon's folky American bell of a voice clashes--beautifully--with the British camp that's happening on screen. (I had forgotten how naughty those 007 opening titles were--and I'm wondering if they were never more so than in The Spy Who Loved Me).

Otherwise, what you have here is an overlong action movie with predictable outcomes and a bumbling sense of camp that doesn't really work for it. During the chase scenes there's a very dated 70s disco sound to the music that ruins them, deflating their suspense. Sure, the sets are still pretty astonishing (much of the movie takes place in a submarine).

Roger Moore may be part of the problem. While I appreciate that he doesn't take himself too seriously, he also seems anachronistic to a 007 movie, particularly one from the 70s. He doesn't mesh with the bad disco-infused score or the trashiness of Bond movies. The reason they're fun, after all, is because they're expensive trash: shiny and high-tech (for their time) and glistening with delicious bad taste. It's certainly not the worst Bond movie (not even then worst Roger Moore Bond movie). It would have been better (and it could have been shorter), if the movie had stayed in Egypt.

Directed by Lewis Gilbert. With Caroline Munro, Walter Gotell, Bernard Lee, Michael Billington (a two-time Bond candidate himself), and Desmond Llewelyn.

Absence of Malice

A semi-bland newspaper story set in Miami about a scrappy young reporter (Sally Field) who's set up by her boss (Bob Balaban) to leak a story about Paul Newman's alleged involvement in organized crime. Newman is the entire movie here. Twenty-five years into his career he hadn't lost the ability to carry a picture. Field is moderately successful at playing a woman who's too focused on getting a story to care about how it might affect the lives of ordinary people. Balaban plays with a rubber band incessantly. It's supposed to make his character seem more real but it serves as a distraction. Melinda Dillon plays Newman's best friend, who is deeply affected by the story put out about Newman (She can provide an alibi, but it would cost her her job and her sense of community as a good Catholic girl: she was getting an abortion.)

At its best, Absence of Malice is a fairly absorbing drama, but somehow it's never as compelling as you'd like it to be. The stakes never seem high enough. Directed by Sydney Pollack. The script is by Kurt Luedtke. With Wilford Brimley, Luther Adler, Barry Primus, and Josef Sommer.

December 20, 2011

Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) marked a turning point in American movies, ushering in a decade-long proliferation of sophisticated, grown-up, realistic Hollywood films that culminated in The Godfather (1972). Many people were put off by the movie's humanizing portrayal of the infamous partners in crime, played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. But Bonnie and Clyde was not about glorifying the crimes of two Texas youths with an insane sense of immortality coursing through their veins. Their brutally depicted death scene may lionize them a bit, but it also demonstrates the brutality of the time period, the 1930s, in which the movie is set, as well as the brutality of the time period in which it was made. Like a handful of other movies from the 1960s (notably, The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, The Wild Bunch, and Easy Rider), Bonnie and Clyde is an essential remnant of that turbulent time period. It's about the corruption of youth and beauty by materialism and by the system in which we live. As a film, Bonnie and Clyde has a remarkable energy to it, even forty-five years later. It sizzles with life, and Faye Dunaway's performance is a big part of the movie's appeal.

Directed by Arthur Penn. With Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, and Gene Wilder.

December 18, 2011

Young Adult

Young Adult is like a reunion of Fast Times at Ridgemont High entwined with a comedic reworking of Fatal Attraction. Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a semi-visible ghost writer of a popular teen fiction series. She decides to return to her hometown ostensibly to write what will be the final book in the series, but in reality she's returning to woo her high school sweetheart, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). 

The movie is funny in the first half, and amusing in an aimless way. For a while, Mavis is an appealing anti-heroine because she's quirky, irreverent, and a drunk. Theron's acting is much more interesting after her character has tossed back a few shots of Maker's Mark. But as she descends more and more into her obsession with getting back her now married ex, who's just become a father, the movie derails, making you realize that there isn't much of a movie to begin with. Just a thin veneer of a story, hatched seemingly fifteen minutes before the director, Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno), yelled, "Action."

One bright spot is the performance of Patton Oswalt, playing Matt, a former high school classmate of Mavis, whom she ignored during their adolescent years but who now assumes the role of a sarcastic sidekick, pouring sour grapes over Mavis's quixotic quest to rekindle an ideal that probably isn't as great as she remembers it.

What I can't understand is why Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody couldn't figure out some more interesting things for Patrick Wilson to do. He's got a great comic streak and he's commanding enough to be a strong presence in any story, but here he is wasted. In fact, a lot of this movie seems to be lost in a sea of missed opportunities for the actors. Theron's performance is okay, but she could have been better. She's drunk in most of the movie, and while (as mentioned earlier), the booze makes Mavis more interesting, it also makes her less appealing as a lead.

Young Adult seems like a movie made for Cameron Diaz. Theron is too other-worldly. She's cold and distant. It's very difficult to care about her. She's crazy and self-destructive, and Wilson's character seems so content with his new domestic life that Mavis's plan as would-be homewrecker has no guts: it's an empty bag which she's left holding at the end of the movie. And Cameron Diaz could have pulled off the girl-next-door turned career-girl with ease. (And it might have made up for Bad Teacher).

With Elizabeth Reaser, Collette Wolfe, and Mary Beth Hurt.

December 17, 2011

The Descendants


Are modern filmmakers afraid of emotion?

Hip as we audience members might like to think we are, we go to movies for catharsis. We spend our lives so glazed over and blitzed out that we turn to movies to help us reconnect with the emotions that we've buried deep inside, and then we learn how to express them on cinematic terms: we stage, we enact high drama using the minutiae of our daily living as its impetus, ignoring the fact that the intensity of the performance doesn't match the very undramatic qualities of our lives. And so when December rolls around, in metronomic timing with the holiday season, the "important" movies are released: the ones about Big Serious Life Problems: family dramas and poignant biographies of famous people who made Big Choices and "changed the world." We flock to these movies like geese to bread crumbs.

Movies often used to be histrionic in terms of expressing emotion. Perhaps filmmakers and studio executives were keenly aware of what audiences wanted: big emotions for the big screen. (This might have come about during Hollywood's ill-fated attempt to compete with TV in the 1950s.)  But then the march toward realism reshaped what people thought went into a good story, so the trick became this: A filmmaker had to convey great emotions without making it obvious or overwrought. Soon this obligation was taken up by the smaller movies as the gulf began to widen between the mindless big-budget Hollywood fodder and the self-important indie movies.

Now we have The Descendants, which is being heralded by many and is already up for major awards. George Clooney, playing a lawyer and family man named Matt King, is receiving high praise for his performance as the husband who must face certain cold realities after his wife Elizabeth goes into a coma: she was cheating on him, and he wasn't exactly Husband-- or father-- of the Year.

The title of the movie refers partly to a land deal between Matt's relatives and a commercial developer. The land, some of the most beautiful untapped oceanfront property in Hawaii, has been part of their family for generations, but the money from the sale would pull many of Matt's relatives out of debt and into permanent financial security. Matt must prove to us that he's with it enough to resist the financial lure of selling out and patch things up with his comatose wife and "troubled" teenage daughter in two hours or less.

But the title also refers, inadvertently but most definitively, to us, and to movies. This movie is a descendant not only of the bloated, emotionally overcharged family dramas, but of the slight, we-can't-be-cheesy-if-want-to-be-hip indie films. The director, Alexander Payne, has made some of these before (About Schmidt and Sideways). Payne somehow manages both: he cuts away whenever he's afraid of the movie being too serious, and when the wife of Elizabeth's other man comes to visit, erupting in tears and platitudes about forgiving her, Matt nudges her out of the room. "That's enough. That's enough." I think this movie wants to have it both ways. The moment with Clooney's character trying to silence the gushing spouse was to me representative of the director's desire not to be too emotional. But emotional enough for the movie to feel important and to be a major contender for some Oscars.

Nevertheless, This movie is quite good. It has a funny side to it that punctuates the scenes, keeping them from being maudlin. And as much as Payne seems unsure of expressing the dramatic emotions of the story, he manages to do it, to let the characters and the audience feel for what's going on in the movie.

I was impressed by the performance of Shailene Woodley, as Matt's teenage daughter. She gave such a strong performance that I found myself more interested in her story than in her father's. People will assume George Clooney is giving a good performance because he's George Clooney, and while he's certainly better than say a Kevin Costner or a Tom Cruise, he's not always as believable as you'd like him to be; maybe he's too identifiable, the way Tom Hanks is. You always know you're watching George Clooney play a lawyer whose wife is dying. Apparently this works with most people. Some may even believe that Tom Hanks himself served in World War II.

The Descendants is entertaining, and affecting, and I really liked it. But why does the seriousness of the subject matter predetermine a movie's chances at being considered great or important or award-worthy? And moreover, why do all these movies have to come in December? (This question may be a no-brainer, but is worth uttering nonetheless.)

Gazing at the coming attractions, I couldn't help but wonder if filmmakers and studios and audiences have all gone soft in the head and hard in the heart. We're getting more crap than ever. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close purports to be about a child's emotional journey after the death of his father (played by Tom Hanks, the Father of Movie Audiences, apparently) in the World Trade Center. The bad title I will put aside to argue about another day, because the movie itself looks so preposterous. Now that we've established Tom Hanks as a WWII veteran, we can also place him in the WTC. Is there any American tragedy this man hasn't been through?

We are indeed the descendants of some very unfortunate choices in Hollywood that have made the state of movies so depressing (all money-related). Yes, good films continue to be made, but they tend to be overlooked when we can't brand them as good for us, or massive in their scope or their emotional appeal. The Descendants is an example of a good movie that suffers from wanting to pander and not wanting to at the same time. It's a miracle that something worthwhile and engrossing was able to register, as indeed it seems more and more a miraculous occurrence any time there's a good movie to be seen. I think The Descendants transcends all the self-seriousness and all the slightness that has been popping up on the screen over the last ten or fifteen years.

With Amara Miller, Judy Greer, Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Mary Birdsong, Rob Huebel, and Michael Ontkean. Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.

December 15, 2011

Jackie Brown

Pam Grier's belated tour de force. The tall, ravishingly beautiful Grier was the Queen of Blaxploitation in the 70s, appearing in such films as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1975), the latter of which I recently reviewed. Grier's acting has only gotten better over the years. She seemed wasted in Foxy Brown. Her acting wasn't forceful enough to grab the movie and take charge, but by 1997, and perhaps with the help of a director who respected her as an actress (Quentin Tarantino), she was ready to make her career performance.

As the title character in Jackie Brown, Grier is confident, strong, vulnerable, and always in control. Her character, Jackie, is an airline stewardess who works on the side for an illegal arms dealer named Ordell Robbie (played with relish by Samuel L. Jackson). Once she's pressed by the police to rat on Ordell, he decides it's time to silence her for good. But Jackie manages to take control of the police and Ordell with a "sting" operation she masterminds, somehow convincing both sides that she's working for them.

Jackie Brown is usually not the first movie people mention when citing their favorite Quentin Tarantino film. It's not as flashy as Pulp Fiction or as offbeat as Kill Bill. But in its controlled, sustained mission to tell a good story, Jackie Brown is a success. The characters who populate this movie's world are delightfully good at being bad. Jackie may be the least guilty, but her calculated mastery of circumstances seemingly designed to squash her, indicates a strong will and a genius for working situations to her advantage--it's something she's bottled up inside all her life, waiting to be let loose. The director sets all this into motion--these unstable characters and their greedy motivations--and we get to watch it unravel.

The reason people enjoy Tarantino's movies is that he enjoys ripping off the gritty, low-budget crime and action flicks that he grew up on. But because Tarantino seemingly started off as a filmmaking rock star, he's been able to get big money productions made (or at least, modestly big productions compared to the slapped-together-with-spit B-movies of the 1970s), with popular actors. Hollywood likes to think of him as their part of the effort to acknowledge low culture. But Tarantino improves on much of the material he seems to have canonized in his own mind. If you go back and watch Foxy Brown, you'll see a movie that's not very exciting for all its action: the fight scenes are staged ineptly, the acting is unimaginative (even Grier seemed like she couldn't find her footing), and it all boils down to a strangely unappealing revenge fantasy. Jackie Brown isn't really out to get even. She's just sick of being kicked around by a system that has nothing for her but condescension. (One of the cops implies that she ought to be grateful for her measly 16,000 dollar-a-year job).

Somehow, Tarantino takes the material he fell in love with and transcends it. His movies are a glossy imitation of something cheap and poorly done and generally available only in bootlegged form. There were movies like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. and the blaxploitation movies like Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones and Shaft, and car-chase movies like the energetic Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (which we see on a television in Jackie). All of this has been internalized by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, and the tropes of those genres have resurfaced in his movies and the movies of directors like him (such as Robert Rodriguez), and audiences are either re-experiencing something to which they attach a great deal of nostalgic value, or are simply getting a kick out of these "low" movies. (Jackie Brown cost 12 million dollars but made 72 million at the box office).

Jackie Brown emerges as Quentin Tarantino's best movie, I think, because of Pam Grier and what she brings to the film. Her performance is controlled but not robotic, and she knows how to be funny, and how to lubricate her sentences with profanity (and Tarantino the writer knows how to write juicy dialogue). Grier and Jackson make for a wonderful anti-duo. Jackson slips into his role with such ease. He's dangerous but appealing at the same time.

The supporting cast of Jackie Brown includes Robert De Niro, as a junkie who becomes Ordell's right-hand-man; Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen as two cops who are trying to nail Ordell; Robert Forster as a bail bondsman who becomes Jackie's partner and possible love interest, and Bridget Fonda, as Ordell's blonde live-in junky girlfriend, who revels in challenging his self-proclaimed authority.

December 12, 2011

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

Reading Brian Kellow's biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, which came out in October, was like visiting with an old friend. Pauline Kael is far and away my favorite movie critic. Her writing, perhaps more than any other writer's, continues to be an extension of herself even after her death ten years ago. Pauline's prose flickers with a ferocious, unstoppable tenacity played out in her love affair with the movies. She got people talking about the movies with passion and purpose, and indeed she became a star, a diva, an idol, in the world of movie criticism. And indeed, it's difficult to imagine anyone familiar with Pauline's work feeling indifferent toward her. You either love her or loathe her.

Kellow chronicles Pauline's life as the daughter of Jewish immigrants: growing up on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California, studying philosophy and English lit at Berkeley, being part of the creative renaissance in San Francisco in the 1940s, running a popular retrospective theater, hosting a radio show, about movies, for KPFA in the 50s, and eventually, writing legendary criticism for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991. Always, Kellow layers in a rich sense of what movies were shaping popular culture--and Pauline--during each period of her life. For lovers of movies, this book is consistently fascinating and challenging. The movies themselves are always at the forefront of the book. In a way, this is a biography of movies just as much as it is a biography of one of the movies' greatest champions.

Kellow makes a fairly solid effort not to mythologize Pauline too much. He covers her life and her temperament honestly, portraying her as a woman who could be immensely giving and supportive of others in the creative and writing worlds, but also a woman with a sharp stinger. She valued telling the truth about movies to the point that it often hurt people's feelings, ended friendships. On the other hand, she helped save movies, jumpstart careers, and encourage young writers. 

Pauline was a critic known for her towering expectations, her often brutal honesty, her masterful intelligence, and her sharp sense of humor (not to mention her marvelous ability to turn a phrase). She turned movie criticism into something you wanted to do not because you failed to get a novel published, but because you wanted first and foremost to be a movie critic, to engage the conversation, to throw in your own flashes of light and electricity, hopeful that it could generate a little heat, if only for a fleeting moment.

Check out a fantastic 1982 interview with Pauline (in 4 parts) courtesy of the National Screen Institute of Canada.

November 12, 2011

Best in Show

Best in Show is a mockumentary about a dog show and a handful of its eccentric contestants. They're all about their dogs. The obsession parallels the obsession parents have over their children. The only difference is that you have pity on the dogs. It opens with the most neurotic dog show entrants, played by Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey. Their obsession with their dog Beatrice's psychological health is hysterically funny, but also grimly depressing. They play their parts so convincingly that you find yourself cringing on their behalf, feeling sorry for them on their behalf, and believing that people like this exist, for real. Director Christopher Guest appears as a Bloodhound owner from the Deep South. This was Guest's third mockumentary as actor (preceded by This Is Spinal Tap and Waiting For Guffman) and his second as director. The usual assortment of wonderfully sharp performers, who frequently improvised their dialogue--includes Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard, John Michael Higgins, Michael McKean, Jennifer Coolidge, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley, Jr., and Larry Miller. Watch it with a group of people that appreciates this kind of humor.

October 30, 2011

The Fog

John Carpenter's The Fog (1980) may be ludicrous as a thriller, but as an exercise in creepiness, it's wonderful fun. Carpenter and co-conspirator Debra Hill had just come off the phenomenal success of their low-budget thriller Halloween (1978), so by comparison The Fog seemed tame to audiences who were by now growing accustomed to more shocks and splatter, and less patient with an atmospheric, deliberately paced ghost story.

The plot involves a cadre of vengeful spirits bent on doling out vengeance (and murky weather) to a small California town on its 100th anniversary. The founding fathers of the community apparently betrayed a group of lepers, leading them to their deaths at the bottom of the sea. Now the lepers have come back to celebrate.

Carpenter relies too much on plodding slasher-film death sequences as the film progresses, but overall it's still one of his best mood-pieces. You find yourself enjoying all the little stories being weaved together throughout the film.

Carpenter imitates two masters in The Fog: Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. The movie feels like a noirish, supernatural re-imagining of The Birds (the setting reminds you of that film's coastal locale, Bodega Bay, and the fog serves as a stand-in for the birds, creating a similar feeling of apocalyptic doom). Simultaneously, Carpenter invests his scenes with a Hawks-esque film noir feel. That feel is best developed in the scenes of the main character, a local deejay named Stevie Wayne (played by Adrienne Barbeau). Stevie sits solitarily perched in a lighthouse, from which she runs a radio station that plays old jazz standards. From the lighthouse, she has a bird's-eye-view of the whole town. As she observes the fog and begins linking it to a series of deaths, Stevie becomes a voice of warning to the community. Barbeau is perfectly cast as the heroine: she's gutsy and smart, and carries the film well, especially since she's hardly on screen with any other actors.

The Fog deflates a little at the end. The whole movie is a big buildup, layering the scary atmosphere with relish, but there's not a whole lot beneath the atmosphere. Evidently, there were attempts to punch things up by adding a little more violence to the movie after the first cut was finished, but the movie's problem isn't lack of violence but lack of a genuinely scary threat. Fog almost always adds to a horror film, but when the things in the fog are only moderately scary, fog ceases to be effective.

Most of the cast members compensate for the movie's lack of follow-through. Janet Leigh makes a good impression as a local busybody who's spearheading the town's centennial anniversary gala. Jamie Lee Curtis (Leigh's daughter in real life) returns to Carpenter-land, this time not quite as helpless as Laurie Strode was in Halloween. However, she's not memorable in this movie. Her part feels unnecessary to the story, and because there are stronger female characters around her, she fails to stand out. She's even overshadowed by fellow Halloween co-star Nancy Loomis, who plays Leigh's droll assistant in this. The two have an endearingly irritated-with-each-other relationship. With Tom Atkins, Hal Holbrook as an alcoholic priest, Charles Cyphers, and John Houseman, in a creepy bit at the beginning, giving us the town's dark secret in perfect ghost-story fashion.

It might be thinking too deeply to call The Fog an indictment of colonialism, but it certainly points out the irony of celebrating people who murdered and stole to get what they wanted.

Young Frankenstein

The line between horror and comedy is tenuous, which is why so many horror films unintentionally enter into the domain of comedy. The straight horror film's mission of terrifying the audience frequently fails because the audience proffers a new, reverse-mission onto the film: to engender heckling and laughter. This is, perhaps, why Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974) is still so funny. It tells the straight horror story, but allows its over-the-top nature to reign freely.

Gene Wilder, whose performance would be criticized as too much in a serious film, suddenly becomes nothing short of magnificent. He possesses an energy that few actors can summon, and turns Victor Frankenstein into a live wire: a mad genius obsessively devoted to science and to his "creation," a reanimated corpse. He becomes endearing within seconds of that first scene, in the lecture room, where he corrects a taunting medical student on the pronunciation of his name, which he has changed to "Fronk-en-steen." He doesn't want to be linked to his famous ancestor, the original Dr. Frankenstein.

What's interesting about that scene--and indeed, the entire movie--is how much effort the director, Mel Brooks, and Wilder himself (who co-wrote the screenplay with Brooks) invest into recreating the look and feel of a 1930s Universal monster classic. The black-and-white cinematography, the antiquated sets--many borrowed from the original movies themselves, John Morris's beautiful music score, all work toward creating a legitimate representation of those films. It's in the process of carefully reconstructing the elements of the classics that Brooks and company turn every convention into a gag, pointing up (and out) the humorous side of horror. The humor has always been there, but was de-emphasized by the "serious" movies.

Marty Feldman is one of Young Frankenstein's greatest assets. As the hunchbacked assistant, Igor, Feldman never gave a funnier performance. He's a foil to Wilder's unflinching devotion to the art of science. Cloris Leachman, who has always been game when it comes to being made-up in nightmarishly unattractive make-up and costume schemes, plays the creepy Frau Blucher. Madeline Kahn turns in a small but memorable part as Frankenstein's neurotic, repressed fiance who becomes a love interest for the Monster (Peter Boyle), Teri Garr plays Frankenstein's naive East European assistant, Kenneth Mars plays an eccentric local inspector with a fake arm, and Gene Hackman has a fun cameo as a blind man who's visited by the monster.

Young Frankenstein may be Mel Brooks' best overall film. It does "spoof" right--telling its own story and letting the humor find its way to the surface. (Even still, Brooks and Wilder and the supporting cast have taken care to drench the movie in gags of every kind, in case things weren't funny enough). It's a classic, one that I always like to watch around Halloween.

October 22, 2011

The Ides of March

The Ides of March is, at its most obvious, about how corruption is unavoidable in politics. It can be inadvertently bumped into, but regardless, it sticks like glue, leaving an indelible impression. The impression is either on the public, when they are made aware of the corruption, or on the corrupt person who chooses to keep one improper act a secret by committing more improper acts: corruption begets corruption.

Beneath the moralistic, cynical representation of the inherent corruptibility of politics and politicians, George Clooney's latest picture is an attempt to burst the balloon of the Idealist, the one who believes that it's possible for a politician to change the world for the better. It's done with a kind of effortless, winsome skill, because Clooney plays the kind of politician, at the surface level, that you know Clooney wishes could really exist; the kind of politician (again, only at the surface) that Clooney wishes he could be, were he to ever step into the political realm himself. As the hip young(ish) presidential candidate, Clooney's Governor Mike Morris is progressive, answers the questions he's asked, and isn't afraid to say what he really thinks, regardless of how it will be received by the media or the public. He plays the ultimate white liberal--stylish, sophisticated, and dedicated to principle. (Of course, we find out pretty soon what his true colors are.)

Ryan Gosling plays Morris's junior campaign adviser, a rising hot shot who seems to be incapable of making a wrong move or a bad judgment. He believes fully in the cause of his boss, who is trying to win the Democratic primary election against a more traditional, less viable candidate who still has a shot of winning because he's willing to play dirty. Morris refuses do get into the mud. This ultimately becomes a test of wills: how long can a politician afford not to play dirty?

The Ides of March has a conspiracy thriller-esque aura about it, but it's just an aura. The film is deliberately paced, which is fine, but after a while you realize it's not really moving toward anything. There aren't any really pulse-pounding moments, the kind of tingling excitement you expect from a political thriller. Even though the title suggests something dramatic on a Shakespearean scale, The Ides of March is tame. You begin to realize that the lack of pulse-pounding is symptomatic of the lack of a pulse. It's a characterological analysis, not a thriller, which would be fine if it added up to more at the end. It's only intermittently compelling, and ultimately forgettable.

The actors make up for the movie. Ryan Gosling's performance is strong: he demonstrates his capability as a leading man. His character undergoes a major moral and idealistic shift in the film, and he adapts to this shift with masterful control of himself. That's the whole point of the movie, that the real political players will make dramatic, character-changing shifts in the blink of an eye without blinking an eye. But The Ides of March leaves you feeling unaffected by its story and its sobering message, probably because it's telling you something you already knew. It's a moderately entertaining reminder of why we are so disenchanted with politics on both sides of the aisle.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Jennifer Ehle, and Max Minghella co-star.

Zombie

The Five Points Horror Fest is back, with another film by Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci. Last year I had the immense pleasure of reviewing Fulci's masterpiece of incomprehensibility, The Beyond (1980), and this year I got to see Zombie (1979), which many consider to be Fulci's piece de resistance. It's certainly a piece of something.

In the poster you will notice that the title is Zombi 2. That's because when George Romero's Dawn of the Dead premiered in Italy, it was titled Zombi, so this is an unofficial sequel to that film. The two have nothing in common other than zombies. The difference between Italian and American horror movies is one of humor. Romero's Dawn of the Dead has a sharp sense of humor throughout, while Zombie is, within itself, utterly lacking in intentional humor. But the unintentional comedy is plentiful enough, because Zombie is such a painfully stupid splatter film.

Fulci sets most of the movie on a small Caribbean island where the dead are returning to life--attributed to voodoo. A reporter and a woman whose father died on the island go looking for answers, and when they arrive, they meet a doctor (Richard Johnson), who's trying to locate a scientific explanation for the zombie problem that's quickly turning all the island's inhabitants into flesh-eating ghouls. Unfortunately, the humans are just too idiotic to adequately defend themselves from creatures that, if they moved any slower, wouldn't be moving at all. And how on earth is the human body so sensitive, so permeable, that with a quick peck a zombie can rip out a hunk of flesh from an arm or a leg? It's madness, I tell you. Madness.

Tisa Farrow, a poor-man's Mia Farrow, plays the girl with a banal seriousness, and Ian McCulloch, a poor-man's Roger Moore, plays the reporter. There's oodles of blood and gore, a fight between a zombie and a shark, and plenty of bad dubbing to make the bad-movie-lover giggle with glee. And of course, being an Italian film, it's well-shot, punctuating the film with little artistic moments that are above the subject matter but somehow lift it out of the muck, if only momentarily. Pretty soon you feel numb from the gory parts, and you laugh at them, not because you're a sadist, but because it's all so dumb, so dumb indeed.

October 15, 2011

Psycho

Psycho may be Alfred Hitchcock's most famous thriller, because of its two notorious scenes of violence. Aesthetically and thematically, Psycho stands apart from the other films generally cited as among the director's best (Rebecca, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, and North By Northwest). It was independently financed by Hitchcock, and shot with the same crew that worked on his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And so it lacks the silky glamour of his 50s films, and is a decidedly more American Gothic than Rebecca, even though both films are about powerful women who manage to maintain control of people and places from beyond the grave.

Because of its filming conditions, Psycho resembles television more than the movies, and its dramatics are corny the way 1950s television dramas were. (It's also economical the way TV has to be.) The story is straightforward, less sophisticated than a lot of Hitchcock's movies (e.g. Rear Window) and less darkly humorous (e.g. Strangers on a Train), but it has all the tantalizingly delicious Freudian psychology of Oedipus and Vertigo, fashioned compactly into a thriller that reshaped the way people made thrillers, and the way people saw them and talked about them and wrote about them. And somehow, its corniness, its simplicity, its one-track direction toward the big reveal, all work for it. Psycho wouldn't have been as memorable, I don't think, if Hitchcock had made it like his other movies.

Hitchcock can never be accused of putting on airs in his movies: he's at his best when he revels in the low arts. His apparently instinctive approach to movies as low art has made his work deliciously entertaining, much like Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep (1946), Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958), and Stanley Donen's Charade (1963) (three of the great American thrillers). I think most if not all good thrillers are inherently comfortable with their vulgarity. These movies deal with seedy people whose complicated lives are far from glamorous or tidy. Norman Bates is a genuine lunatic with the most dangerous facade of them all: the facade of a sweet, friendly, handsome boy-next-door. He's a villain who's sympathetic, dominated by the even more villainous presence of his mother. And Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) isn't the pure heroine: she's a thief (a one-time thief, but still a thief).

Hitchcock's previous films were certainly suspenseful, but they weren't so centered around the big reveal at the end. People didn't expect the movie's only star, Janet Leigh, to be slashed to death midway through the film, and they didn't expect the movie to then shift gears and be about Norman Bates and the secrets lurking in his creepy old house. I would imagine that even those who had read Robert Bloch's 1959 novel--on which Psycho was based--were expecting some Hollywood-style changes to protect the heroine from the grisly fate of being butchered in the shower. That simply couldn't happen.


With Vera Miles, John Gavin, and Martin Balsam.

October 02, 2011

Salem's Lot

Salem's Lot (1979) is from a novel by Stephen King, adapted for television by Paul Monash and directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). I already reviewed it a couple years ago, but after watching it again last night I want to revisit it. It's probably the most memorable adaptation of a Stephen King novel with the exceptions of Carrie and The Shining. However, it's more interesting than The Shining and more restrained than Carrie.  

Salem's Lot, because it was shot for television, is limited by the constraints of cable. There's no gore and really no violence, which makes the job of the writer and director significantly more difficult in terms of amping up the horror. They were forced to build the atmosphere in a way that would give us the creeps. If you look at Hooper's directorial debut, Texas Chain Saw, you'll see an altogether different movie. Chain Saw is frenetic, unrelenting and grueling. In terms of plot, it's an episode of Scooby Doo, except the villain is a maniac with a chainsaw, not a local farmer trying to cover up his counterfeiting racket in the basement. Meanwhile, Paul Monash wrote the screenplay for Carrie, a movie that seems stylistically as diametrically opposed to Salem's Lot as you could get. My question is: how did two people whose previous work was so hyperbolic and garish manage to come up with this slow-paced, straight-forward vampires-in-New-England chiller?

You do start to miss the violence, because Salem's Lot might be a banal sitcom about small-town America if not for the vampire element. It's rather tame, but intermittently Hooper and cinematographer Jules Brenner have constructed some of the best vampire movie set-pieces ever. The King vampire, Barlow, is a direct nod to Count Orlock in Murnau's silent-era classic Nosferatu (1922). Barlow was quite different in the novel, but the change lends a sense of unspeakable horror and dread to the adaptation. Salem's Lot's banality is only ever at the surface: beneath it, there is the dreadful sense of doom that we felt in Carrie and Texas Chain Saw. The work of Monash and Hooper is very much a part of the subtext. Very little is overt. Hooper seems to be imitating Hitchcock more than ever. He did it a little bit in Chain Saw, when one of the kids unsuspectingly walks into the layer of Leatherface and meets an unexpectedly quick demise. We knew something was going to happen, but we didn't know when because there was no immediate warning.


Salem's Lot is chock full of warnings--musical cues, telegraphed shots that tell us, "someone's about to get it." And yet, there are still shudders. When we finally see Barlow's ghastly purple face with his beady, piercing eyes and yellow fangs, it's truly horrifying: one of the most nightmarish images I can recall in movies. There's no denying the film's power, and I think in the case of Salem's Lot the fun and the excitement lie in the hours of restraint that give way to the minutes, even seconds, of chilling horror that pop up unexpectedly, more and more as the film progresses. Perhaps this is simply the psychological explanation for why we like horror movies in general.


The cast is fairly convincing: David Soul plays Ben Mears, a writer who grew up in Salem's Lot and has returned to write a book about the Marston house, an iconic den of evil now presided over by the vampire and his human guardian; James Mason plays that guardian, and he utters every line with delightfully cryptic arrogance; Lance Kerwin plays Mark, Ben's teenage muse by proxy: he's into writing (as well as monsters and horror make-up). He and Ben develop a predictable but unlikely kinship (unlikely because their characters have almost no interaction until the end); Bonnie Bedelia plays the love interest, Susan, a character from the Old School of Wimpy Horror Movie Heroines, except she poses as a "partially-liberated feminist." In fact, Susan's character is mostly reactionary. She tows the line. Thankfully, Bedelia plays the part with an understated, intelligent grace. She lets the subtlety of her performance do the work, rather than jamming the meaning of her lines and her motivations into the "foreground" of her performance. Indeed, Susan would have been as bad as she was written if played by a lesser actress.


With Lew Ayres, Ed Flanders, Fred Willard, Geoffrey Lewis, Reggie Nalder (as Barlow), and George Dzundza, as a fat, drunk New England truck driver (a combination you would never want in a human being if you can help it).


Followed by the dismal A Return to Salem's Lot and a 2004 remake (also made for TV).

September 04, 2011

Breaking Away

Breaking Away is a sleeper hit from 1979 about four high school graduates in Bloomington, Indiana, who have no clue what they want to do with their lives, and feel out-of-place in their own hometown in the presence of the preppie coeds at Bloomington's Indiana University campus.

Breaking Away is one of smartest, funniest, most endearing crowd-pleasers I've ever seen. It portrays life in a small town honestly, not looking down but rather looking in. The relationships in the movie are deeply layered, so much so that every time I watch this movie I discover new qualities, new facets. The main character, Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), is an avid cyclist who idolizes a group of Italian racers, to the point that he's become a sort of trans-ethnic-- an Italian trapped in an American's body. He speaks with a cheesy Italian accent and wears Italian aftershave, and has transformed the walls of his bedroom into a virtual shrine to Italy.

Dave's father (Paul Dooley) is baffled by his son's bizarre behavior, but won't do anything about it other than complain. Dave's mom (Barbara Barrie) doesn't mind--she gets a kick out of his active imagination because it runs against the routine of small-town blue-collar culture. She sees in Dave a sense of passion for living that she once had, a fire that died down but remains inside her if ever so faintly.

Even though the parents have aspects of caricature--the complaining, ultra-conservative father and the deferential, quiet, mother--the actors manage to turn these caricatures into human beings with depth to them. The caricatures become enhanced, fleshed out, made loveable, made credible, made acceptable and forgivable, and at the same time they end up surprising us in many ways.

Likewise, the development of the four guys--Dave (Christopher), Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern), and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley)--is a richly delightful experience to watch. Quaid is a former high school quarterback who sees a dim and unfulfilling life ahead of him, Stern is the gangly eccentric, whose weird personality alienates him but also endears him to the group: At the end of the movie, after the climactic Little 500 race (which actually exists to this day in Bloomington), Cyril is the only one without someone at his side. He seems to walk through the movie slightly alone. Moocher is experiencing new romance and trying to act like an adult, even though he's short and still looks like a kid.

Breaking Away was written by Indiana University graduate Steve Tesich, who received an Academy Award for his screenplay. It was directed by Peter Yates. Also starring Robyn Douglass, Hart Bochner, Amy Wright, and in a cameo appearance, P.J. Soles.

August 26, 2011

Carrie

Poor Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is the scapegoat at school because she's awkward and quiet and plain. She lives with her raving lunatic of a mother (Piper Laurie), who's such an avid fundamentalist she makes up her own damning scripture verses and then utters them with gospel fervor. On top of all Carrie's problems, she's noticing some strange behavior: she can move objects with her mind if she concentrates hard enough. It's telekinesis, and director Brian De Palma has never had so much fun with it than here. (He takes the theme and runs--in too many directions--again in The Fury).

It's interesting to note that Carrie was Stephen King's first novel, but that we really don't think of Stephen King as much as we think of Brian De Palma when we think of Carrie. De Palma had begun making Hitchcock-influenced thrillers with 1973's Sisters, and some consider Carrie to be his ultimate thriller (that or 1980's Dressed to Kill). More than any of his other thrillers, Carrie has become part of pop culture. There's something sleazy and irresistible about it.  

Carrie is the outcast who simply snaps after she's been pushed too far. She's hated because she's stuck in a shell of social ignorance and otherness. But no one can really blame her for her ignorance, given her home life. In the opening scene, she panics when she experiences--rather late, biologically--the first signs of menstruation, and then pays for it when the other girls in the locker room begin hurling tampons at her. When Carrie gets home, her mother treats her like she's a harlot. Femininity is the enemy in Carrie's house, a sign of weakness and uncontrollable appetites that must be hemmed in by a rigidly dogmatic denial of pleasure.

Despite whatever it's saying about repression and fundamentalism, the movie is really just a big buildup to its grand finale, where the pig's blood prank turns Cinderella into the Medusa, and the Love Under the Stars dance into the prom from hell. De Palma uses a lot of European techniques to endow Carrie with a certain artful trashiness. It's visually very entertaining. Even in its most disturbing moments you find yourself laughing--it's all too histrionic to take seriously, unless you want to view it as a morality tale about the dangers of sexual repression.

Pino Dinaggio's score, which frequently rips off Bernard Herrmann's staccato violin from the Psycho shower scene, is very elegant but also over-the-top. It echoes De Palma's sensibility as a director all the way: violent, chaotic, and sensual, driving yet richly beautiful. Except for the Hermann imitations it's good.

The revenge element--the reason I'm including Carrie in my series on revenge in high school--points, partially, to the movie's endurance in popular culture. Sissy Spacek is so pathetic in the lead that it's hard to really see Carrie as the monster. She's been spit on by everyone, and stifled by her mother, who comes off as the movie's true villain. This might explain why Sissy Spacek did not become typecast as a horror movie star the way Anthony Perkins did for playing Norman Bates in Psycho. People seem to view Carrie as a validation of their wretched high school experiences, and they take comfort that they weren't alone. Carrie's always having a worse day than you, and her telekinetic meltdown elevates high school into the Shakespearean tragedy that everyone falsely makes it out to be in real life. She validates the stupid drama by sending the school up in flames. At least they had the guts to in Carrie what they ultimately couldn't do in Heathers.

With Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, Betty Buckley, John Travolta, and P.J. Soles.

August 21, 2011

Heathers

In Heathers (1989), Winona Ryder plays Veronica, a member of the most popular, and powerful, clique in her suburban Ohio high school. The other three girls are all named Heather, and one of them in particular, Heather Chandler (played by Kim Walker), rules the social circles of the school with an iron fist. She's an elevated stereotype, a bitchy promzilla with really bad taste in clothes. (I'm not sure how the girls' wardrobes looked good even at the time this movie was made. Oh, the 80s.) Veronica feels torn--she wanted to be popular, but now she's paying the price as a social prisoner, bound by the rules of the Heathers and all their heathering ways. The she meets J.D. (Christian Slater), the new kid in town, who's a cocky rebel with a violent streak. The film is about Veronica's descent into a hellish world of violence and murder--murder made to look like suicide--as she tries to rearrange the social hierarchy of high school.

Heathers wasn't a box office hit, but it has acquired a cult following, probably because of its bizarre story. It explores death and violence and the cruelty of high school in a way I've never seen in the movies, except maybe in Brian De Palma's Carrie (which will be Part Two of this series). The thing that makes Heathers rather distasteful--its unapologetic look at teenagers and violence--is what makes it more truthful than the myriad of teen comedies that portray high school life with a safety line. In most movies in the genre, nothing's ever really as serious as life or death--everything stays on a sitcom level where you know things will be okay in the end. In Heathers, the problem is that you want things to stay the same, but they refuse to. The characters themselves are time bombs, ticking away at a feverish pace.

With the "suicide" of the first Heather, the school becomes a media circus, and the school administration unintentionally elevates the topic of teen suicide to a sort of cult status. It's suddenly "hip" to kill yourself, or something like that. If you think Heathers is trying to glorify all this, you're mistaken. It's showing the stupidity of people who try to gloss over it, who try to patronize the young by acting as though they don't have the power or the will to take their own lives.

Winona Ryder gives a solid lead performance. She plays Veronica as smart, affected, a girl who's aware of her merciless friends and her unhappy existence, but who lacks the nerve to stand up for herself. She finds relief in J.D., who's willing to go there--to express the violence she's been bottling up inside herself for so long. He's letting her do more than live vicariously through him. He's helping her to unearth feelings and desires in herself the existence of which she'd rather deny. And when she looks and sees what she's capable of, she panics.

Heathers is like Dante's Inferno Inferno mixed with Bonnie and Clyde and set in the 1980s. As a black comedy, it's never as funny as you'd like it to be. As a hyper-real portrait of high school life, it captures marvelously the social hierarchies and the shame and deception that occurs between people, and these hierarchies do not start, or end, with adolescence, as the movie is so apt to point out.

It was the first feature directing effort by Michael Lehmann, one which garnered him much acclaim. He's done very little work of note since. And even Heathers, which is not great but has moments of greatness, is itself too muddled and nasty to be fun. Maybe that's my fault for wanting the sitcom level offered by a Sixteen Candles or an Easy A. I think those movies capture the truth of high school to a degree. Heathers takes that truth and turns it inward--you are the vicious social tyrant you despise.

With Shannen Doherty and Lisanne Falk as the two other Heathers, and Penelope Milford, Glenn Shadix, Lance Fenton, and Patrick Layorteaux.