March 25, 2014

Grand Piano

Grand Piano is a simple, elegant little thriller about a celebrated classical pianist named Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) who is terrorized by a madman (John Cusack) when he makes a comeback five years after freezing on stage. The hot young musician sits down at the piano before a packed house and unfolds his sheet music only to discover a threat: "Play one wrong note and you die." Soon there are more directions via an ear-piece that's been planted for Tom. The taunting would-be killer is after something (I won't reveal what), and is willing to murder Tom in front of the entire audience to get it. He also threatens the life of Tom's wife, herself a famous singer, who's sitting in one of the boxes during the show.

There's not much to Grand Piano, which is why I enjoyed it. The director, Eugenio Mira, exhibits the same kind of lush, sensationalistic style as Brian De Palma did in the 70s and 80s. Mira is obviously happy to show us a good time without any self-serious subtext. I don't want to suggest that we completely ditch character development and depth in movies, but it's certainly a welcome sight when a film comes along that just wants to be a simple thriller. And it's also true that the film is deceptively simple: Wood gives a credible performance, both as a brilliant musician and as a tormented one. But viewers may be disappointed with Grand Piano just because of its simplicity. We're so used to big plot twists and complicated explanations for the villain's motive that I began anticipating surprise endings myself. But thankfully, Grand Piano knows when to quit, and also knows not to pander to the expectations of the audience. It's much better than that.

Mira's camera--the cinematography is by Unax Mendía--makes this an exciting, visually fluid film, never jerky or ADD the way so many films are these days, but certainly not stagnant, as though this were a real concert being filmed for posterity. The camera swirls around the lavish concert hall, giving us a sense of tense, nail-biting pleasure as we watch poor Elijah Wood playing as though his life depended upon it. (And indeed it does.) The music is lovely and intensifies the film, and the voice of the increasingly hostile John Cusack pounds away at Selznick, quickly sounding like the inner-critic of any nervous performer, shouting myriad accusations of incompetence and prophesies of impending failure. It's in moments like these--where what's happening on screen becomes analogous with more internal artistic struggles--that Grand Piano really succeeds.

With Kerry Bishé as Tom's wife, Alex Winter as Cusack's henchman, and Tamsin Egerton and Allen Leech as a befuddled friend attending the concert.

March 24, 2014

Veronica Mars

Kristen Bell plays Veronica, a thirty-ish year-old woman who is about to sign on with a big law firm in New York City when she's unexpectedly pulled back to her hometown of Neptune, California, where an old love interest has been accused of murder. Veronica, it turns out, used to work for her father, a private eye, and she apparently was pretty good at solving mysteries. This modern-day Nancy Drew flick is kind of thin--it feels like an extended episode of a TV show more than a movie--but then again, it's more of a valentine to the many fans of the show, which was canceled in 2007 after three years.

The initiated should be pleased with seeing many of the recurring characters from the show reunited. There were some confusing moments for non-fans, but overall, Veronica Mars is pleasing fluff, bolstered by the always plucky Kristen Bell. Jason Dohring plays Logan, her ex-boyfriend who went on to marry another girl from their high school days. Said girl is also the murder victim, a troubled pop star whose downward spiral (and turbulent marriage) was fodder for the tabloids. It all feels very much like something that could only happen in Hollywood. Where else would you rekindle your relationship with your high school sweetheart while trying to prove that he didn't murder his pop star wife, with whom you also went to school? (All while avoiding persistent phone calls from a charming would-be fiance and a prestigious law firm.)

There are some amusing supporting performances, such as Ryan Hansen as Dick, another chum from high school, and Gaby Hoffman (where has she been?) as an obsessed fan who dresses like the murdered singer. Jamie Lee Curtis makes a brief appearance as Veronica's would-be employer, Chris Lowell plays Veronica's current boyfriend, Enrico Colantoni plays her dad, and Krysten Ritter plays Gia, another high school friend. With Tina Majorino, Francis Capra, Percy Draggs, Jerry O'Connell, Ken Marino, and James Franco as himself. Written by director Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero.

March 17, 2014

Star Wars

Star Wars (1977) is really a lot of fun to heckle. When Luke Skywalker whines, "I wanted to go into town and get power converters," I laughed hysterically and re-wound it to listen again. When Carrie Fisher's voice slips into that horrible English accent--slightly evocative of Julie Andrews--I couldn't help myself, even though I love Carrie Fisher. "Thah rebellion will slip through yoor feen-guhs." I recalled listening to the audiobook of Fisher's wonderful memoir Wishful Drinking, where she makes fun of her role in Star Wars and especially at that tyrannical madman George Lucas, the creator of this monstrous franchise. Fisher took acting lessons in England, where she learned elocution techniques that served her well in the first 30 minutes of Star Wars. But as soon as some real crisis emerges, the blowsier Carrie Fisher--with the less pretty, decidedly un-mid-Atlantic tongue-- emerges. That's the Carrie Fisher I love. The one who plays an alcoholic has-been sitcom writer that terrifies Liz Lemon in an early episode of 30 Rock. (I highly recommend Wishful Drinking. If you like Carrie Fisher, you'll like her even more. If you dislike George Lucas, you'll have even more reason to jeer at him after you hear about his strict no-underwear policy for Princess Leia's costume.) But don't let me catch you bashing Ms. Fisher. She always seems to be the butt of jokes because of her very public struggles with addiction and mental illness. But I find her honesty and her humor truly uplifting.

Instead, I want all of you haters to channel your rage at George Lucas, the man who destroyed American cinema, a man so full of himself that he has succeeded in coasting on the success of Star Wars for nearly 40 years. He made another "classic"--American Graffiti--before that. It's nothing more than a bland nostalgia trip to the America of the 50s and early 60s. Likewise, Star Wars is a kind of nostalgia trip too. A trip to boyhood adventure-land, where men battle each other and say, without irony, "it always helps to have a blaster at your side." Guys like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas turned cinema into their own personal childhood playgrounds.  

Star Wars grabs all the classic story archetypes and throws them into one big pot. There's plenty of corny dialogue too. What results is an admittedly compelling story of very, very big proportions. But most of the good stuff doesn't come until the sequel. One cannot deny George Lucas's vivid imagination. He obviously spent a lot of time thinking up side characters and names of planets and other aspects of this world. (Perhaps it was all part of the marketing plan. Why else would characters who got three seconds in the film get turned into action figures for sale to the kiddos?)

One can, however, deny Lucas's ability to do anything with actors. (See Portman, Natalie and McGregor, Ewan.) Pauline Kael said it most deliciously, that they were educated at the "Ricky Nelson School of Acting." The performances aren't embarrassing, and they do improve over time. But the first installment is pretty banal. Star Wars is still kind of exciting in a cheap way, and there are lots of colorful characters, like all the slimy creatures the farm boy Luke Skywalker meets in that sleazy bar. But this movie is essentially an empty-headed adventure tale. Mindless entertainment is certainly not a crime. There are a lot of wonderful examples of it. But Star Wars is a double sinner in this regard: it's mindless and cinematically pretty uninteresting. Nothing is ever really dangerous enough to keep you in suspense. It's the kind of bland, safe entertainment that parents think is good for their kids. (A good example of the opposite: the novels of Roald Dahl, whose young characters were never spared the horrors of life. Those stories are marvelously colorful and smart.)

As a child I resisted watching the Star Wars films for what I thought was a long time. It wasn't until 4th grade that I sat down and viewed them all. By then all my friends were well-versed in the lore. My brother (five-and-a-half years older) had the action figures. He was old enough to be taken to Return of the Jedi and then promptly removed from the theater after Jabba the Hut scared the living hell out of him. So I was certainly aware of Star Wars. I was just trying to hold out for as long as possible. (Does this make me one of those wretched hipsters?) When I finally watched them I was captivated. I spent a few years being a Star Wars nerd, even writing a Star Wars novel in 6th grade. But eventually I grew out of my Star Wars mania and went on to other kinds of mania. I'm so happy I did. I can't quite figure out why so many have chosen to linger behind. Come to us. It's wonderful over here where other movies besides Star Wars exist.

Of course, you already know who plays who, but here are a few notes on the cast: Harrison Ford's sarcastic mugging is weirdly reminiscent of Chevy Chase's. Ford has that same rugged, scruffy look but with a shorter face and of course a stronger on-screen persona. As the farm boy who gets caught up in galactic-sized political struggles, Mark Hamill is upstaged by just about everyone around him, but he's plucky enough to be likable, and likability is enough in this movie. Peter Cushing is great fun as the wicked general who's leading the dark empire against the small but feisty rebellion. The generals talk and look like Nazis, and the rebels act like Americans fighting the British for independence. James Earl Jones gives the most magnetic performance, providing the voice of Darth Vador. With Alec Guinness as an aging wizard who wants to pass his mystical religion onto Luke, Peter Mayhew as the endearing fuzzy giant Chewy, and Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker as the bickering robot couple.

March 14, 2014

From Here to Eternity

If you've never seen From Here to Eternity (1953), you've probably at least seen that image of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr pawing at each other on the beach (either the real thing or a parody of it). Their torrid love affair isn't really the most interesting thing about the film, however, and at times the movie seems to forget about that romance altogether. From Here to Eternity is essentially an army soap opera, set in Hawaii in 1941. I'm sure you can guess what major historical event the movie is leading up to. Until the big showdown at Pearl Harbor, Eternity--which was adapted from the James Jones novel by Daniel Taradash and directed by Fred Zinneman--is about two soldiers and their struggle against the machinery of the army and civilization: Lancaster plays a sergeant who's trying to move up in the military world by doing what's expected of him (and pulling the strings by proxy when he can). The trouble for him begins when he starts sleeping with the corruptible captain's wife. She's played with pouty sumptuousness by Deborah Kerr. Montgomery Clift is the other soldier, the loner-cum-rebel Robert E. Lee Prewitt, whose claims to fame in the army are his top notch bugle and boxing skills. (He shows off his bugle talents in an amusing scene in a night club, and then later when he plays "Taps" to try and tug at our patriotic heart-strings.)

Fortunately, there's no actual boxing in this movie, or I might have turned it off. But there are a few fight scenes, all of them involving Montgomery Clift, who seems too small to actually defeat any of the gorillas he's up against. Despite all the scuffles, Prewitt refuses to participate in any organized fighting, much to the chagrin of his superior, who proceeds to make his life a living hell. Prewitt befriends an amiable private played by Frank Sinatra and falls in love with a girl (Donna Reed) he meets at a gentleman's club. Even though Montgomery Clift's performance is striking, it's never completely clear why someone so fiercely independent as his character would want to join the army in the first place. One can accept Lancaster's rule-following sergeant much more easily.

Eternity juggles more stories than it seems able to, but the finale is exciting and the film still holds up: the actors are all generally interesting, and the presumably steamy aspects of the Jones novel seem to at least have gotten through here via dialogue (and that famous beach make-out scene), even if it's pretty tame by today's standards. The supporting cast includes Philip Ober (as the disreputable captain), Ernest Borgnine, and Jack Warden.

March 07, 2014

Prince of Darkness

Watching John Carpenter's deliciously horrible horror opus Prince of Darkness (1987) got me thinking about Christopher Nolan. Nolan, the director of such mammoth and overrated pictures as the Batman movies and Inception, has been called a great filmmaker by a lot of people who enjoy the confused rumblings of ideas going on in his films. They think that Inception is brilliant because it seems to be deep, although they may be confusing "deep" with "convoluted." They attribute their confusion to Nolan's strength as a "thinking man's director," who is so brilliant that we cannot possibly understand him. They also think he's a great storyteller whose films deserve accolades galore and all of our undivided adoration and reverence. But really, Christopher Nolan is like bad John Carpenter ramped up on an obscenely large budget.

The main difference is--and this is key--that Carpenter unashamedly loves trash, while Nolan continually tries to elevate his trash to the status of art. Carpenter's early films had a kind of rich composition to them that made them look more expensive than they were, but viewers were always conscious that his movies are what they are: well-made but simply conceived and pleasing on a somewhat juvenile level. That doesn't make them any less special, either. I adore Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween and The Fog and Escape From New York and Christine (a bigger production, but still good, and I think, underrated).

Prince of Darkness is utter hogwash: It's a silly movie that grabs at some ideas relating to quantum physics and some other ideas relating to Christianity and then jumbles them together into a sluggishly paced and witless thriller. The script is credited to a "Martin Quatermass," which is really just a pseudonym for Carpenter, who was presumably embarrassed enough to avoid crediting himself with thinking up this hacky movie, but not enough to relinquish his director credit. It's about a bunch of researchers who become trapped inside an abandoned L.A. church that houses an ancient canister of green ooze. That ooze, we discover eventually, is...Satan. Or the powers of darkness that Satan represents. Or something. Anyway, it's pure, liquified evil that the Catholic church has kept under lock and key for 2000 years. And Donald Pleasence, as a priest, uncovers it, this horrible "secret that can no longer be kept."

The film gathers a whole bunch of people together, but we spend so little time getting to know them--scientists, divinity students, tech people, and a prestigious professor of physics played by Victor Wong--that we don't really care when they're dispatched in gruesome ways. (Carpenter never got past the slasher genre in some ways: he almost always resorted to mindless killing after Halloween.) We're also not clear on why these people have been assembled. They repeatedly ask the priest and the professor, but are given cryptic answers basically meaning "you'll know when the time is right." You get the feeling that they don't know either, because John Carpenter didn't know when he was writing it. Perhaps he thought it was obvious. We are aware that these people are studying the green ooze, but beyond that, it's anybody's guess.

There are a lot of scenes at the beginning where characters talk but we can't hear what they're saying. The ominous rock score plays over their dialogue, and at first we might be tempted to call this good filmmaking technique. It was admittedly a relief not to have the story outlined in banal exposition, the way it probably would have if this movie were being made today. But then it occurred to me that I didn't know what the hell these characters had to say in the first place, and that it didn't matter anyway. They're mere plot devices, and Carpenter's only reason for having so many characters in one relatively confined setting is so that he can kill off a bunch of them and turn those victims into mindless killers themselves, preying on the rest of the group. (This same problem of overpopulating the movie plagued Aliens, by the way. And later Prometheus.)

Prince of Darkness always seems to be building up to something, but that something never crystallizes. The movie just lies there. It's probably the Carpenter movie with the most talking. Is it ironic then that it's also the one that has the least to say? Perhaps Carpenter was just getting tired of thinking things out, or, more likely, this was a misfired attempt at doing something deeper conceptually. While I can't dismiss the movie as being self-important (it's far too ridiculous to be so), I certainly think that Carpenter was excited about some new-fangled scientific conceits and then wanted to distill them for us. This thrilling prospect gets in the way of the movie and becomes a clunky mechanism that keeps Prince of Darkness from being a success. The pulpy Los Angeles horror of Halloween and Escape From New York worked, and the fact that those movies were conceptually very simple and straightforward worked too. John Carpenter proves that ideas can actually get in the way if you don't know how to make them work for you. Christopher Nolan should watch Prince of Darkness (which is still entertaining in its badness) and take the hint.

With Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, Dennis Dun, and Alice Cooper.

March 05, 2014

Do the Right Thing

In Do the Right Thing (1989), writer-director-star Spike Lee uncorks enough rage for five movies. It's about racial tensions in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn boiling over on a hot summer day. The local deejay (Samuel L. Jackson) proclaims that it's the hottest day of the year, and the relentless, sticky heat seems to bring out the inner-rage of every member of the neighborhood, except for a status-quo-loving Uncle Tom type (Ossie Davis) who fancies himself the moral compass of the local black community, but whom the rest of the community laughs at, when they aren't ignoring him completely.

Spike Lee plays Mookie, a pizza delivery boy whose boss Sal (Danny Aiello) is stubbornly proud of his Italian heritage. Giancarlo Esposito plays Buggin' Out, a ranting patron of the pizzeria who harps on the fact that Sal only decorates his restaurant with pictures of famous Italians. He argues that since Sal's clientele is predominantly black, Sal should put a few prominent black people on the walls too. There's also a guy named Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who wanders around the neighborhood with a boom box on his shoulder that plays Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" on a loop. Radio Raheem seems to be incapable of expressing his rage except in disturbing the peace with his loud music. Mookie, meanwhile, is always dawdling during his delivery runs, sometimes visiting his girlfriend for a little T&A. If these sound like stereotypes, well, that's because they are.

I found much of the movie grating: Lee seems to have one way of expressing anger, which is by having his characters shout at each other, often incoherently. And while there is one scene in which this technique is effective (where the men are shouting amidst Raheem's boom box, which he turns up louder and louder, escalating the tension), much of it feels too repetitive, too chaotic, and too unappealing. Perhaps it's a realistic depiction of life in the city. (I doubt it.) But realism isn't the only thing that matters in narrative, and the scenes of people screaming their heads off distance us from the characters and the film.

And yet Do the Right Thing is undeniably powerful. If ever a movie tapped into the pure emotion of racism, this is it. The film is all jagged angles, loud noises, jarring music, and intense people invading your space, forcing you to notice them. It has a kind of red-hot brashness to it, and this Spike Lee cultivates with masterful precision and intensity. He may not offer much in the way of solutions (even the ending, with conflicting quotes by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, fails to suggest a way around mindless in-fighting between races), but in terms of showing us just how ridiculous these conflicts can be, he succeeds. It's a shame that he had to do so by relying on so many stereotypes. Nobody in Do the Right Thing feels like a well-realized character. They're cartoonishly violent and excitable and stabby. This movie is the cinematic equivalent of the stereotypical loud black lady in the theater: it doesn't show us why thinking in stereotypes is flat-out wrong. It doesn't give us much of a reason to move beyond the limitations of such one-dimensional characters. (There is a kind of sweet exchange between Lee and Aiello at the end that feels a little more complex, but Lee doesn't do much with it. He uses it to sweeten what may already be too sour to begin with.)

March 02, 2014

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

How many movies has Martin Scorsese made that were about women? The only one that stands out is Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), starring Ellen Burstyn, whose performance is equal parts tender, histrionic, fraught, and courageous. She plays Alice Hyatt, a thirty-five year old housewife living in New Mexico. When Alice's husband dies in a work-related accident, she and her son Tommy (Alfred Lutter, who gives a delightfully cheeky performance) pack up and head for Monterrey, California. They're forced to make extended stops in Arizona in order for Alice to scrounge up enough money to get them to Monterrey, so she finds work as a lounge singer and a waitress.

There's a beautiful scene at the beginning of the movie where Alice sings and plays the Rodgers and Hart song "Where or When," and Scorsese lets us savor it. He cuts away as she's finishing, and we see her 12-year-old son pacing outside, feeling his own version of uncertainty while his mother dusts off her old talents. A few minutes later, another one: Alice and her neighbor/best friend Bea (Lelia Goldoni) tearfully part ways, and Bea cries, "Who's gonna make me laugh?" With very few words, this scene gets at the strong bond between these two women, whose feet have walked on virtually the same ground for all their lives. You feel a sense of compassion in this movie for its characters that just doesn't exist much anymore.

Alice has an easy, un-self-important quality to it. One of the problems with much of Martin Scorsese's work is that he's trying to top some other great film. Goodfellas was his attempt to top The Godfather, and most of Scorsese's recent efforts have seen the director once again striving for greatness in a very calculated way. But his earlier work doesn't have that quality. Even Taxi Driver, which I don't have any real affection for, is above that kind of posturing. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore works because it's about people and relationships. It's not "the women's lib picture," as though there could be only one and it had to be done by a man and it had to be great and it had to be Scorsese. These "women's lib pictures" represent a short-lived burst of activity on the subject. Nowadays, women have gone back to being the boring love interests and sub-important characters. But in the early to mid 70s, there were a few movies that were actually about women. And some of them may have been too generalized (as though there could only be one way to experience the world as a woman), but it was wonderful to see good movie roles for actresses.

When Alice moans, "I don't know how to live without a man," she's voicing the other side of the women's lib movement. She's spent much of the film crying herself into jobs and out of them, but her wise co-worker and chum (Diane Ladd) talks some sense into her. She's been in Alice's shoes already, and managed to walk her own path. Ladd makes a strong impression as the head waitress of a mom-and-pop restaurant where Alice finds a job. She's absolutely wonderful, embodying the brash personality of one of those blowsy talking flowers in Alice in Wonderland. Her big blonde beehive (which Jennifer Lawrence must have been imitating in American Hustle) looks like a giant dollop of cream: She's a tough, sweet gardenia with a strict no-bullshit policy.

Ellen Burstyn cries a lot in this movie, often in short but turbulent bursts. Sometimes it seems like Scorsese and screenwriter Robert Getchell thinking that's the only way a woman can accomplish anything: she must burst into tears to elicit a man's sympathy. And yet there's something real in her blubbering. It's messy and untempered. Burstyn has the looks of an accomplished actress, but she doesn't let herself rely too much on acting chops. She's all over the place in a good way, and she's got the look down pat: the scarves in her hair blowing in the wind as she and her son trek down the Arizona highway. Her son often seems unaffected by his mother's chaotic world, yet we see glimpses of their complex relationship that make it seem much more real than the garden variety sitcom-level familiarity present in most comedy-dramas. The chemistry between Burstyn and Lutter works: they play off each other nicely, and they switch from clownish pranks and smart-ass banter to genuine mother-son affection with surprising ease.

With Kris Kristofferson as Alice's laid-back, cowboyish boyfriend, Harvey Keitel as an early love interest with a scary temper, Jodie Foster, and Valerie Curtin.

March 01, 2014


For about seventy-five minutes, Non-Stop is a tense, pleasing thriller about an alcoholic, clearly unstable U.S. air marshal (Liam Neeson) who's being taunted via cell phone by an unknown passenger aboard a plane bound for London. The creeping texter claims that every twenty minutes someone aboard the plane is going to die until 150 million big ones are wired to some mysterious bank account with lots of numbers.

As the put-upon hero whom almost nobody on the plane trusts, Neeson is powerfully grim yet heartfelt. He has qualities reminiscent of George C. Scott: the same kind of subtle command tinged with pathos is present in Neeson's facial expressions, particularly in his eyes. In the movie, he's unable to get over a personal tragedy. (Always the impetus for this kind of character's motivation. Cue eye roll.) And of course this predictably becomes a way for the villain to goad him and a way for him to find what Hollywood thinks of as redemption. (I'll give you a hint: he feels guilty about being an uninvolved dad and there's an innocent little girl aboard the plane who reminds him of his daughter.)

But after operating like an exciting modern-day Agatha Christie movie--Murder on the Transatlantic Airways--that left me quite giddy with happiness, Non-Stop veers into the nether-regions of a truly craptacular plot twist from which it never rebounds fully. Yes, I was happy with the movie overall, but the twist is so lame that it's a huge let-down, because the movie has shown us such a good time until then. It feels like lazy writing on the part of the three people who hashed out this sky-thriller. And maybe it was the best they could do--I promise not to reveal any big spoilers--with a premise like this. But if Agatha Christie could churn out like 90 of these thriller type novels, couldn't they get one script right all the way? (Granted, hers weren't all great either, but she nailed enough of them in the right places.)

But I cherished those seventy-five solid minutes. And I still think if you go out and see Non-Stop (which, given what else is available this weekend, is not a bad choice), you'll agree that the movie delivers a lot of fun suspense, even after the big dumb reveal. One more quibble: the passengers begin communicating with loved ones with their phones, which causes the story to leak, and soon they're watching live news coverage of their own hijacking (some kind of weird thrill) on the screens in front of them. This is supposed to be a jab at the bad reporting that can come of a 24-hour-news cycle, but Non-Stop is such a conventional thriller (in many ways, and despite being likable) that such commentary hardly registers.

As always, it's really great to see the lovely Julianne Moore, even if she's relegated to playing the den mother, standing by Neeson's character and helping out in his feeble investigation of the suspicious and understandably rattled fellow passengers. She does get some good moments though, and the chemistry between the two of them is nice and easy. I wish there had been more.

The supporting cast, which does a fine job, includes Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, and Nate Parker. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.