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
The Beaver
The Descendants 
Super 8
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Margin Call
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.


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.