October 22, 2013


Giant (1956) is for some reason my favorite family epic. I'm no Texan, yet Giant makes me drink the Lone Star State-brand Kool-Aid every time. Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, it's about a wealthy Texas ranch family and spans a quarter-of-a-century, from about 1920 to about 1945. Rock Hudson, as the dashing cattle rancher Bick Benedict, falls in love with a beautiful raven-haired Virginia girl named Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) when he visits her family's farm to purchase a horse.

He takes both her and the horse back to Texas to his massive ranch, Reata (there's a famous dinner scene full of double entendres about the size of the ranch), and there she becomes part of the Texas cult herself, but never at the cost of her own strong-willed identity. (There's a great scene where the fiery, confident Liz Taylor scolds the men for trying to exclude her from their political discussion.) You'll fall prey to the cult too if you watch Giant, only you won't care by the time it's over.

Giant has its tender and touching and sad moments--the fate of Bick's Tomboy sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), the plight of the Mexican villagers that burdens Leslie Benedict's heart, especially when her husband and his people seem unwilling to acknowledge it, the puppy love between the young adult Benedict children and their respective beaus--but never does Giant sink into histrionics. It sinks into pro-Texas propaganda, to be sure, but it also manages to portray the subtle evils of racism, the hollowed-out fruits of the American dream drenched in oil, and the strange, beautiful resilience that some people (like the Benedicts) manage, while others around them self-destruct--like Jett Rink (James Dean, who steals the film, and who died before it was released), the ranch hand who inherits a small piece of land, strikes it rich with oil wells, then falls apart after becoming a zillionaire.

Director George Stevens turns Giant into the anti-Gone With the Wind epic. He doesn't bash you over the head with profundity. He smartly lets the profundity linger in the background. On the surface, Giant is a safe movie, lauding the glories of American life and the progress enabled by fossil fuels. But James Dean's character represents such a descent into desperation because of his wealth, that you can hardly call Giant a cheerleader for oil. (He's also been in love with Leslie from afar for like 25 years. That kind of unfulfilled devotion begins to wear at a body.)

If the movie lets anyone off too easy, it's possibly Bick, except he gets his face smashed by a big burly restaurant owner at the end, and because he's finally standing up to the anti-Mexican sentiment he's ignored for so long. It's both Bick's come-uppance and his redemption: he stands up for his Mexican daughter-in-law and mixed-race grandson, and finally, as Leslie tells it, "becomes her hero." It's not the money or the vast estate or the impressive private jet, but the principles, that are rewarded.

Giant covers a lot of ground, but it's not the grand scope of the film but the breezy, laid-back style that I find mesmerizing: Stevens truly produces a kind of mythic Texas tale. It's hard to think of many movies that are able to embody a specific place with such authenticity. Screenplay by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat. With Carroll Baker, Dennis Hopper, Jane Withers, Chill Wills, Fran Bennett, Earl Holliman, Elsa Cardenas, Paul Fix, Judith Evelyn, Rod Taylor, Carolyn Craig, and a young Sal Mineo. 201 minutes. ½

October 20, 2013

The Haunting

The Haunting (1963) is a somewhat labored but elegant ghost story, with the always annoying Julie Harris playing a nervous Nell type (and her name is really Nell) who's invited to participate in the research of a ghost specialist named Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) at Hill House, which is the site of a number of supernaturally tinged tragedies. It's a finely made film, directed by Robert Wise with fluid cinematography by Davis Boulton, engrossing music by Humphrey Searle, and an impressive set design by John Jarvis. But Nelson Gidding's script, which he adapted from Shirley Jackson's neo-gothic novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959), falls short. It's overly talky, and once you get past the self-consciously hip dialogue it becomes rather tiresome. What kept me going was the atmosphere, which is admittedly creepy yet beautiful.

Harris' character is unhinged from the beginning (like any good Shirley Jackson heroine), and you know right off the bat that her being drawn to Hill House is no mistake. But her pathetic, emotionally needy performance grates on the nerves. Her repetitive inner-monologue goes something like this: "This is the first thing that's ever happened to me. I'm wanted here. I'm going to stay here forever. I'm accepted here." Nell is such a shaky, dithering bore of a character, and I was far more interested in Theo, the chummy, sophisticated lesbian and fellow ghost hunter (played with skill by the lovely Claire Bloom) she meets at Hill House. Richard Johnson is perfect as Dr. Markway: he exudes that serious intellectual quality you need for an educated witch doctor like Markway, and it's interesting to note that he played a doctor in another horror film, the Lucio Fulci walking dead opus Zombie (1979). Russ Tamblyn, as a likable but goofy playboy whose elderly aunt owns Hill House and who attends the ghost party to keep tabs on everybody else, rounds out the principle cast. He looks as though he were plucked from one of those Frankie and Annette beach party movies. His lack of seriousness lifts the film out of its perpetually gloomy nature.

The most exciting thing about The Haunting are the ominous opening titles and the accompanying narration (by Richard Johnson), which features the wonderfully uncanny opening line (slightly edited) from Shirley Jackson's novel. I enclose it here for the reader: "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality... Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone." Such brilliant writing. And visually speaking, the film does Jackson's elegantly creepy prose justice.

But there's a feeling of being gypped: you never really know if the ghosts are real or imagined. Viewers looking to get their money's worth in terms of shocks might be left wanting. But if you're interested in a more ambiguous psychological thriller with the "smells and bells" of the gothic, you'll might enjoy The Haunting. It was remade--with ghastly results--in 1999. Also starring Lois Maxwell as Dr. Markway's skeptical wife. 112 minutes. ½

October 19, 2013

Enough Said

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener has a knack for creating vivid characters whose worlds feel bigger than the movie we're watching. In Enough Said, which is a finely crafted romantic comedy, the romance isn't the only thing going on in the movie. Holofcener wants us to see the myriad relationships of her characters, as well as the many problems, most of which are not clearly resolved, that exist in them.

As Eva, a masseuse whose daughter is about to go off to college, Julia Louis Dreyfus is wonderful. When I saw she was playing the lead in this movie, I thought: Why isn't she in more movies? I've always adored her performances in shows like Seinfeld, Arrested Development and Veep. She's great in Enough Said. Dreyfus has always been able to make use of the full range of her acting abilities, even in sitcoms, but here she's not obliged to be funny all the time. We get to see the vulnerable side to her.

And as her unexpected love interest, Albert, James Gandolfini has the coolness of a Robert De Niro mixed with his own brand of laid-back comedy. Albert's in the same boat as Eva, unhappily counting the days til his daughter moves to New York to study interior design. Their similar circumstances of course contribute to their romance, but (SPOILER), things are complicated by Eva's realization that her latest client, a poet named Marianne, played by the wonderful Catherine Keener, is Albert's ex-wife. And she hasn't exactly been silent about her negative opinion of him.

The writing in Enough Said is clever but wouldn't have worked with just anyone. It's remarkable how much the actors are able to do with it. Holofcener's is the kind of conversational dialogue that can either sound brilliant or puzzling, depending on how it's said. This cast--which also includes the wonderful Toni Collette (as Eva's best friend), and Ben Falcone--knows how to make the comedy effortlessly funny and natural.

As with all of Holofcener's films, the serious grows out of the funny in an organic way. You feel like you're watching something of real life, which is alternately refreshing and uncomfortable. Enough Said has its moments of "eww...is this really happening" cringe-worthiness. But I say this mostly as a compliment to Nicole Holofcener, who is perhaps the best writer of realistic comedy-dramas we have right now. She's an actor's writer (and director), always giving rich material to her performers.

With Tracey Fairaway, Eve Hewson, and Tavi Gevinson. 93 minutes.

October 18, 2013

The Fifth Estate

With The Social Network and now The Fifth Estate we're seeing the emergence of a new subgenre: the 21st century tech thriller. Of course, there were other techy thrillers before, like The Net. (Remember? Sandra Bullock's identity stolen via dial-up internet.) The Fifth Estate is about Julian Assange, the Australian creator of Wiki Leaks. In 2010, Assange became the source of great controversy when he leaked classified U.S. documents (including Afghan war logs and diplomatic communications). With all the hubbub about Edward Snowden's high-profile whistle-blowing this year, one can only imagine that he will soon get a techy thriller of his own, especially if The Fifth Estate does well at the box office (though we were an admittedly small audience in the theater tonight).

The Fifth Estate is an absorbing movie from start to finish: Benedict Cumberbatch possesses the necessary qualities to portray a high-strung mad genius. He's done it before as Sherlock, and his take on Assange isn't all that different from the opiom-charged London sleuth with more than a little contempt for the average citizen. Daniel Bruhl, as Assange's right hand man, and the moral conscience of the Wiki Leaks organization, is the Dr. Watson of the movie. He's also the film's best asset aside from Cumberbatch's wonderfully intense, electric personality: Bruhl's character is a serious but likable young man with a beard that makes him look like a German hipster teddy bear (that's supposed to be a compliment) and a valiant personal mission to maintain Assange's moral integrity. For those among us who find Cumberbatch's Assange fascinating but aloof, Bruhl gives us a hero to root for. Without him, this movie would not be as sympathetic, and without Cumberbatch, it wouldn't be as edgy.

We must credit the writer--Josh Singer, who based the script on two books, one of them by Daniel Berg (Bruhl's character)--with conjuring up a screenplay that's intelligent without being confusing. This is a (mostly) lucidly written film that gives us a good, dramatic story without all the jargon that often hinders movies about the Digital Age. Instead, both Singer and director Bill Condon focus on the moral imperatives at the heart of this story: freedom of speech and freedom of information.

But we're also privy to the moral mission of the U.S. government, which is understandably in a tizzy, concerned about not only the embarrassment of leaked diplomatic memos but also the potential harm that could come to various informants across the globe. (And of course, the allegations of improper military conduct look rather unflattering.) Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci play the State Department heads that are trying to clamp down on the information war, all the while aware that they're fighting a losing battle. Both of these actors carry the confidence of old pros, and they're fun to watch.

The Fifth Estate is a solid piece of Hollywood intrigue. I can't speak for the veracity of the film as far as the actual Assange story goes, but I hope none of us trusts in the absolutism of the movies when it comes to history. But who cares if Julian Assange himself has already criticized the film, for whatever reason? This is a fun, enthralling movie that has quickly tapped into the minefield of 21st century geopolitics. The world of The Fifth Estate is overwhelmingly immediate: we're left with the feeling that we've just watched two hours of a documentary, even if the film isn't totally accurate. It's a rousing champion of free speech, and a compelling portrait of how even the highest moral missions can be complicated by the egotistical delusions of grandeur of a passionate rebel.

With Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, and Alicia Vikander. 128 minutes.

October 06, 2013

Runner, Runner

For those of you who thought Ben Affleck's run of crappy movies was officially over, fear not. Runner, Runner is about as bad as they come. It's a series of implausible events that demand more of the viewer's patience and suspension of disbelief than is reasonable. The plot involves a Princeton student (Justin Timberlake) who gambles away his savings online in an attempt to pay for grad school. But when he learns that the online poker website cheated him, he flies to Costa Rica to confront the site's owner (Ben Affleck). That seems reasonable, right? (Am I only the one who found this in and of itself ridiculous?) He says, "I could have gone to the forums and accused you of cheating, but I didn't." Good logic so far. Affleck, who plays a sleazy super-millionaire with the right amount of arrogant faux-charm, thanks Timberlake for being so considerate and offers him a high-paying job, then proceeds to make him his patsy. Meanwhile, our easily duped hero encounters an ambitious FBI agent (Anthony Mackie) who wants him to assist the government in nailing Affleck. The plot is so obscure yet so familiar that there's nothing to hold one's interest. Written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who rely too much on bad poker lingo. (Their non-poker lingo is confusingly written too.) They have a real knack for creating cardboard characters whose names you won't be able to remember. Also, it's difficult to believe that Justin Timberlake could intimidate anyone when he goes about plotting his revenge. Run, run away from this movie. Directed by Brad Furman. With John Heard, Gemma Arterton, and Yul Vazquez.

October 05, 2013

Horror of Dracula

I love Peter Cushing. It seems a shame to me that most of my generation only knows him as one of the bad guys in the first Star Wars movie (he was Tarkin). Cushing is one of the reigning icons of the horror genre. He epitomizes the Professor Van Helsing role that has become a staple of modern horror films. (The old-timer who saves the clueless young people from the evil they would never have believed could exist.) Horror of Dracula (1958) was the first of the Hammer Horror Productions' Dracula films. It's a very loose adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel, but it's known more for its casting than its reverence for accuracy. Thanks to Cushing as the fearless Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as the sexy but fearsome Count, this admittedly dated chiller is still worth seeing. The ending is still a wonderful show-stopper, and you can certainly see how many other vampire movies have paid tribute to this one (including Francis Ford Coppola with his 1992 Dracula film, which perfectly imitates the scene where Lucy is branded by the cross). This modestly produced chiller (with blood that looks more like paint --oh how nostalgic it makes me!) was financially successful enough to warrant five sequels, starting with The Brides of Dracula in 1960. Directed by Terence Fisher. With Michael Gough (you may remember him as the crusty old butler in the 1989 Batman) as Arthur Holmwood; Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, and John Van Eyssen. ½


Gravity is a little, big outer-space movie with broad emotions and what may be strangely conflicting aspirations: it attempts to give us a tense, terrifying space movie without a big slimy alien or any other sensationalistic monster. It's just Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and outer space, with technology and the elements serving as the primary antagonists.

The opening scene of Gravity recreates the kind of enjoyably cornball banter (between the astronauts and 'Houston') you hear in those old space movies of the 1950s. That banter sets the tone for a movie that explores the traumatic jump from the (admittedly false) sense of security the astronauts feel to the utter helplessness they experience for the rest of the film. If nothing else, you can rest assured that at barely 90 minutes, Gravity is a mercifully short exercise in constant stress and anxiety.

Most of the time I was internally screaming at Sandra Bullock, who makes a desperate attempt to survive when she becomes detached from the security of the spacecraft during a routine repair mission. At the risk of spoiling a basic plot element, it's kind of like that movie Open Water, except in space. There's also a kind of Blair Witch Project element at work too: she's talking to herself much of the time, sometimes to a vague personage on the radio and sometimes not.

The movie has a big noble theme that it pounds away at, letting its Oscar aspirations show more than just a little: Sandra Bullock's character, who has endured a terrible personal tragedy back on earth, is faced with the choice of survival or surrender. She reckons with her own mortality and the value of truly living in spite of the risks involved. Then of course there's that scene where she barks like a dog, but I'll refrain from describing it in any more detail. I just hope that's the scene they play at Oscar time, if she's nominated.

One of the best things about Gravity is how the director--Alfonso Cuarón--builds a scene with deliberate pacing and allows something truly unsettling to develop. You don't generally see such movies anymore. (That same slow pacing is one of the things I like best about Alien.) The music (by Steven Price) casts a dreadful, ominous pall over the film, and the visuals overpower you as they're meant to do: you're lost in this vacuum with Sandra and George, wondering who is minding the store. It's the ultimate depiction of vulnerability.

Gravity is, in the end, about a kind of rebirth after being knocked down on a grand scale. It's the kind of obvious and easy lesson that most ambitious movies are reduced to in order to get a wide release from studios. Some will call this profound, and in a way, I suppose it is. Perhaps movies are trying to come out of their cynical phase, finally. Maybe I should be more receptive to this message. And yet, I can't help feeling that this is just Sandra Bullock's version of Robinson Crusoe (or Cast Away).

The admittedly spectacular visuals do give the film a sense of spellbinding grandeur (although seeing it in 3-D didn't seem that important to me), and Gravity is a successful movie in its own way. But it leaves you feeling excruciatingly tense. For me, it was often a matter of endurance rather than enjoyment. Clooney gives the film its only respite: his character is laid-back, philosophical in a very easy way, and clearly there to play off Bullock's tense, beaten-down tragic figure. The actors are both good. Written by the director and his son, Jonás Cuarón. ½