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Monthly Archives: March 2010

Ten Word or Less Review: An unheralded classic rediscovered.

I can think of no better example of a forgotten classic than Leo McCarey’s “Make Way For Tomorrow.”  Made in 1937, this towering work of touching realism has been off the cinematic radar for the last 70+ years.  The good folks at Criterion have been kind enough to remind the world of this great movie’s existence by giving it a nicely restored DVD release.  It’s a kind of rare, timeless tale that’s as relevant today as it was in 1937.

“Tomorrow” follows the lives of the elderly Cooper couple.  Well into their golden years, hard times are forcing them out of their family home right at their lives twilight moment.  Though they have grown 5 children, most of the lot aren’t able, or anxious, to take in Mom and Dad together.  It’s eventually decided to split the couple apart, Mom living with the oldest son in Manhattan as Dad goes to live one of their daughters in a small town 300 miles away.  Though 77 years old, “Tomorrow” is a portrait of how modern American life, then and now, has rendered youth insensitive to their elders.  The Cooper’s children aren’t an evil or sneering lot of bastards, but they are people trying to live lives in which no space for an elder parent exists.  Though both parents try to stay out of their children’s way, they’re a dotting couple trying to be useful and they inevitably mess up the family routine.  At worst they can be seen as selfish, but their actions aren’t lost on them.  The ending is by turns charming, rousing and eventually crushing.  Those not openly saddened by “Tomorrow” need to consult an MD because you’re heart may be missing.

“Tomorrow” doesn’t provide maudlin moments of cheap emotion or simple answers to impossible problems.  It’s largely about the powerlessness that comes with aging and the inability to make our children better people, despite all the decency we try to instill in them.  That great, tear jerker ending is as open ended as much as it is heartbreaking.  In short, it’s the kind of sad, honest, non-declarative movie people didn’t flock to then or now.  It’s a Hollywood movie of rare insight into what hard times can really be like for aging people and those tasked to take care of them.  Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi may have been 20+ years younger than the characters they portrayed, but both turn in top tier work as the aging couple in despair.  Both instill a sense of life lived and deep humanity into their characters that makes them feel genuine.  Moore and Bondi had long careers in film but neither seems to have a role as sharp or as lasting as the one here.  Well known character actor Thomas Mitchell is the only actor in the piece who might be recognizable to most viewers because of his work in “Gone With the Wind”, “Stagecoach” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Director Leo McCarey would win the directing Oscar the same year as “Tomorrow” but for another classic, the Cary Grant vehicle “The Awful Truth.”  Legend has it that as he accepted his award from the Academy he said he had won for the wrong movie.  If time can show how blind the Academy can be to some movies them “Tomorrow” is a prime example that their vision was way off.  “Tomorrow” received absolutely zero nominations but is probably a more relevant and lasting movie than any of the other nominees from that year.  Any fan of classic cinema would do well to see it.

Ten Word or Less Review: Two touted animated films with lots of pros and cons.

Ponyo – The legendary works of Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki have grown steadily in appreciation for several decades now.  Once a complete unknown in this country, Miyazaki is now largely acknowledged as one of the best animators in the history of cinema in this U.S. as well as his native Japan.  His meticulous and sometimes insane hand drawn animation style has few betters.  Though he has few vocal detractors on the whole, some do acknowledge that his stories can be either difficult to follow or overtly simplistic.  “Ponyo” continues his unwavering tradition of top tier animation but saddles it to a story for 5 year olds.  The animation is mind boggling and phantasmagoric in places.  Truly sweeping stuff that will dazzle even the hardest nosed fan of animation.  But “Ponyo” is strictly a movie for the 5 to 7 year old crowd.

Miyazaki loosely reworks Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” fable into contemporary tale.  There are parts of the story that would seem to suggest a terrifying or suspenseful story is playing out, but the movie is never stressful or dangerous for any of its character.  In one of the most sweeping sequences of the film Ponyo, while chasing after the boy she wants to be friends with, floods an entire coastal town, an act that would logically kill everyone.  The next morning the entire town citizenship is floating by on little boats, happy and as unworried as anyone can be about anything.  It’s this kind of tension free storytelling that makes “Ponyo” a bore.  Stripped of its amazing visuals it’s little more than a story about two little kids trying to be friends, one just happens to be a fish.  The consistently simplistic dialogue, often taking place as pedantic every day events unfold, should make it clear for most that the youngest of children are the target this time.  There’s nothing really wrong with any of this, but unless you intend to watch the movie with small children, or you’re just a Miyazaki worshiper, “Ponyo’s” simplicity probably won’t engage older viewers.

The Princess and the Frog – The much heralded return of Disney movies to hand drawn animation comes in the overstuffed form of “The Princess and the Frog.”  It’s a movie bursting at its seams with everything, and that’s of what trips it up.  In their attempt to hearken back to the style of movie which made Disney animation great again in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the film’s creators have shoved in every type of gimmick, character and plot device that made those pictures work.  There’s the princess who wants a better life, the prince who will steal her heart only after he’s antagonized her for most of the story, grandiose, Broadway ready musical numbers, cute animal sidekicks, a dead parent to serve as character motivation, an evil sorcerer on a power trip, a kiss at story’s end and so on.

All of this is dressed up in spiffy Cajun clothes and mild bayou accents but at its heart, “Frog” isn’t any different from all the pictures of Disney’s respected past.  Now under the guiding hand of Pixar, a studio which routinely shows the world that animated movies can be so much more than princess stories, why it was decided to regurgitate all of this stuff is debatable.  The thinking ‘one more for old times sake’ seems likely.  Or perhaps, “We never had a black princess, did we?”  All this curmudgeonly gripping aside “Frog” is not a bad film or an unentertaining one.  It’s lively and fast and energetic almost to a fault.  The goofy sidekicks are cute and the main characters are mostly a likable lot if a bit generic.  The animation style fits right in line with Disney heyday work from two decades ago.  If you admired those works then this will hold your attention.  But when it’s all said and done this feels like a creation more in line with “Mulan” than “Beauty and the Beast.”

Ten Word or Less Review: The Blah Conspiracy

Most great directors have a great screw up on their resume.  A movie that wrecks all notions about the talent and skill they are believed to possess and causes all parties to rethink the praise that has been heaped on them until this point.  Whatever that screw up is for Paul Greengrass will be much more fascinating than “The Green Zone”, because this is merely a repetitious and boring misfire.   A colossal waste of effort it may be, but uniquely terrible and destructive it’s not.  It’s merely a thunderous exercise in instantly outdated political observations and tired action beats that take the audience nowhere that the nightly news didn’t already years ago.

The pairing of Greengrass and star Matt Damon has to date provided viewers with two classic action vehicles in the Bourne franchise, “Supremacy” and “Ultimatum”.  Their first outing away from those tales of amnesia and espionage leaves both star and director fishing for a purpose and not finding one.  Damon plays Sgt. Miller, part of a WMD investigation team in the opening weeks of the Iraqi war campaign.  Miller is growing frustrated with the lack of results as he and his team follow intel which lead them to nothing but dead ends.  Signs start to point to questionable sources and a chain of command with dubious agendas.  In short, the movie regurgitates the well documented intelligence failures pertaining to Saddam and his non-existent WMD programs.  “Green Zone” doesn’t expand or elaborate on any points of these lightly disputed issues, thus it leaves itself, and the audience, nowhere to go that isn’t already abundantly clear.  Instead of using these already well mined talking points as a precipice for leaping off into something else, “Green Zone” does little more than fan the same flame of political outrage waved back in 2003.  There are no mysteries or revelations forthcoming to draw in the audience further, just Greengrass and his hammering bombast which beat the viewer to a tired pulp.

The abrasive and edgy editorial styles of director Greengrass have occasionally proved to be too much for some viewers.  His insistence on stress inducing, shaky cam points of view have often toyed with visual overkill, i.e. your eyes flirt with falling out of your head, but he’s never failed to make the style work with the material until now.  “Green Zone” feels one dimensional and dull on all sides.  The groundbreaking action notes he helped define with his Bourne movies, and “United 93”, feel repetitive, lacking initiative and rote here. His style losses all finesse as his screenplay mechanically turns from one page to the next, lacking any moments of pathos or character worth noting.  “Green Zone” becomes an increasingly frustrating, thunderous chore to sit through as it plods along to its ending of forgone conclusions.  As the first hour wound down a certain amount of navel gazing and shoe staring over took this viewer and by the time the film ended a sensation of mercy felt bestowed.

More than any viewer can be, Matt Damon looks trapped most of all.  I don’t doubt his commitment to the material or to his director, but he has no character to play.  Miller is just another in Hollywood’s long line of righteous do-gooders who lack real characteristics beyond superficial nobility.  He’s a man who wants to do right in a wrong situation, but the movie’s lack of imaginative scope renders his journey pointless from the first step.  We know how this story ends regardless of what he does.  So what does it matter what he does?  A stable full of very able supporting actors, Brendon Gleseon, Greg Kinnear, deliver their routine dialog for their routine roles with as much skill and gusto as they can, but like Damon, no contribution on their part can lift this sluggish material off the floor.

In an age where information can be disseminated and analyzed within minutes of its exposure, floundering away effort on years old talking points while bringing no new opinion or thoughts to light seems exceptionally short sighted and wasteful.  “The Green Zone” turns out to be just one more unfortunate strike against Iraqi War films.  Instead of a political firecracker that explodes the film is merely a smelly smoke bomb that makes your eyes water.  Why Greengrass and Damon choose to expend this kind of effort on such a tired subject is anyone’s guess.

Related To: Just about every other movie about the Iraqi war.

Ten Word or Less Review: Sneaky movie that seems benign, but isn’t.

“The Informant” is a funny movie you’ll never laugh at.  When it’s over you’ll find yourself highly amused at much of what’s transpired, but you may not recall audibly chuckling at any of it.  It’s a film that quietly walks a tight rope between realism and absurdity like few others.  On some level it feels like a Coen Brothers movie, but minus that strong desire to reach in and strangle all the characters that’s come to plague their recent output.

This is another idiosyncratic achievement from director Stephen Soderbergh.  His third film in a year’s time, “The Informant” may be his best since his career renaissance of the late 90’s and early 2000’s.  Part “American Psycho”, part “The Insider”, it tells the true story of corporate whistle blower Mark Whitaker, a biochemist and VP who spent 3 years working with the FBI to expose price fixing in the billion dollar industry of lysine production, lysine being a cornerstone ingredient in almost every manufactured good people eat.  But as he was working as a whistle blower for the FBI, Whitaker was embezzling millions of dollars for himself.  “The Informant” doesn’t eschew straight ahead representation of the facts in this case, but instead presents them in a bent light.  With his golden hued, “Oceans 11” influenced cinematography; Soderbergh gives us the compelling story of a man who can’t be classified like most.  Good or bad are irrelevant details here because the subject himself, despite being something of a genius, doesn’t grasp their meaning beyond a rudimentary nature.

Matt Damon’s Whitaker is portrayed as a kind of pathological liar obsessed with proper portrayals of good and bad.  He sees himself as a hero who should be congratulated for his brave efforts to right the crooked ship that is his company, the fact that he’s a rampant thief and deceiver himself seems out of his field of view and ultimately irrelevant in his own mind.  It’s a performance that could have easily tipped into flashy, cartoon antics, but Damon never pushes it too far into absurdity.  His surreal bits of narration are the strongest indicators that the film wants to show Whitaker as a man off by numerous degrees.  But though these observations are odd, they’re truthful and never wrong.  It’s the kind of skilled, pointed, low key work that gets oft overlooked by critics and audiences for its peculiar exactitude.  It’s not showy, bombastic or pointed with moments of high drama.  It’s a performance rooted in the cards being held close to the chest that could be seen as brilliant, if it didn’t shoot right over everyone’s head.  There’s a large and capable supporting cast but this is Damon’s show and his alone.  His Oscar nomination for his one dimensional sports movie role in “Invictus” is even more baffling after watching this.

If one thing may push viewers into a corner it’s that the movie never gives us a definitive view of what exactly is wrong with Whitaker.  There’s no doctor monologue or therapist speech to clear the air.   The truth being an ultimately unknowable thing appeals to Soderbergh so he leaves Whitaker in audience hands to decide for themselves who this man is and what his issues were.  Viewers are left with implications that Whitaker could be anything from nothing more than a caught conman to a delusion head case with deeply rooted mental issues.  The film points more towards the later but doesn’t rule out the former.  This aspect of ambiguity may drive some nuts.  But it’s the fact that the movie leaves you in this uncommon place that makes it so much more fun.

Though it failed to make much impression critically or financially, something quietly tells me that “The Informant” could find a devoted fan base with time.  Damon’s Whitaker isn’t at the status of clearly lovable of anti-hero that Jeff Lebowski achieved, but Damon gives him something so hard to peg or ignore that time could greatly appreciate the value of his work here and the film overall.  If you decide to see it, don’t worry that you’re not laughing.  Nothing’s wrong.  You’re merely enjoying yourself on the inside.

Related to: The Insider, American Psycho, The Big Lebowski,

The Last of Sheila (1973): A better than average, Agatha Christie styled who-done-it featuring James Coburn, James Mason, Raquel Welsh and a hand full of other notable heads.  Eccentric and madly egotistical movie producer Coburn assembles a group of movie business friends onto his boat for a week of elaborate games on the anniversary of his girlfriend’s unsolved hit and run murder.  His machinations unfold while curiosity and suspicion begin to settle in between the guests.  Director Herbert Ross keeps things pretty fleet of foot, while the screen play by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins (Psycho’s Norman Bates) cleverly skips along, juggling its priorities with ease.  Its fashion and attitudes may date it a bit, but the skill at work here is still apparent and easy to admire.  Fun for those who enjoy not easily solved mystery cinema.

Downhill Racer (1969):  A snow covered piece of tedium.  Robert Redford plays an up and coming skier out to make Olympic gold, whether his teammates and coach (Gene Hackman) like him or not.  Director Michael Ritchie got a lot of kudos for the unconventional, European way he assembled “Racer”, so much so that DVD boutique king Criterion decided to throw its prestigious name behind a release.  A few interesting beats here and there but on the whole, nothing at all to warrant such fuss.  Boring.

Marooned (1969): A snore, a chore and a bore.  An absolutely bone dry, deadly dull astronauts in peril flick with Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman and Richard Crenna.  Three astronauts are stranded in a space craft with a malfunctioning engine which can’t return them to Earth.  NASA mounts a rescue mission.  Watching the movie is kind of like being one of the astronauts trapped in space.  You feel stuck in a small tin can from which escape is impossible, you’re powerless do anything and and the air is slowly running out while you wait and wait and wait for anything to happen.  Someone told me MST3K lampooned this.  Don’t know how they stayed awake for it all.  Awful.

The Last American Hero (1973): Newly anointed Oscar winner Jeff Bridges starred in this decent little piece about moonshine running hillbillies and redneck car racing.  And no, it’s all played completely straight which works.  If you want the same material done silly seek out Burt Reynolds.  The movie doesn’t condescend or judge, it just tells the story.  Gets a little bogged down in unimaginative race footage in places, but as far as white trash cinema goes, it’s pretty decent.

Ten Word or Less Review: Not too twisty, not too dumb, just right.

There’s a simple way to summarize “The Ghost Writer.”  It’s a tenacious piece of Hitchcockian styled storytelling that would normally get positive kudos, a nice pat on the back, a friendly hand shake and then you’d walk away from it having enjoyed its company.  Needing to relish the experience with long, thought out pontificating isn’t really necessary.  It’s good enough by a fold, not quite on par with classic Alfred, but well done, and that in and of itself is kind of a rarity in these days of CGI overkill and emotionally retarded bombast.  But because Roman Polanski directed it, everything tends to get overblown by multiples.  The controversial director incites film lovers to wild acts of over praising, as well as provokes detractors to tear down anything he does as the act of a wretched, scum sucking monster that deserves to die.  If you put all those feverish opinions aside, you’ll find a good piece of mystery/suspense film making with a curious but good cast and enough shows of personality to mask the slightly generic machinery under its hood.

Ewan McGregor plays an unnamed character only referred to as Ghost.  He’s a professional ghost writer of celebrity memoirs called in to help put together a book for a former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) surrounded in controversy.  He’s landed the job after the last writer turns up drowned.  Ghost isn’t on the job long before the situation begins to build into an out of control political firestorm.  Brosnan’s minister is accused of war crimes and facing a trial in the Hague, The P.M.s beautiful wife (Olivia Williams) keeps implying her husband is a cheat and as things usually go in these types of films, Ghost slowly comes to realize that his own life is on shaky ground as the situation puts him in over his head.  On paper it all sounds routine, and to some extent it is, but an able cast and a strong screenplay by Polanski and author Robert Harris circumvent the routine nature of the story.

After spending much of the previous decade either swinging his lightsaber or just doing one film after another that simply stunk, Ewan McGregor has finally managed to land in something that works for his hard to peg demeanor.  He’s always looked a little too rough around the edges to be an old fashioned leading man, but he has a light quality to him that puts more serious roles out of his range.  His inherently odd presence is a good fit here because it’s easy to get weary with leads in films like “Ghost Writer”.  The atypical character of films like this always ends up being in the dark to things most of the audience has already figured out.  If the audience gets too far ahead of main character then the film playing out is dead in the water.  McGregor’s Ghost has enough know how and initiative to follow along and not get short with or sick of.  He’s a respectable wiseass instead of a character vacuum there for the audience to project themselves onto.  The part lacks challenge but has enough pluck to be a good anchor for the rest of the story.  Pierce Brosnan continues his erratic post-Bond career with a sturdy but shorter than expected part.  The showy, scene stealer from “Tailor of Panama” and “Thomas Crown” isn’t in full force here.  Olivia Williams and Kim Catrall, a long way from “Sex in the City”, do really good supporting work.  Williams as Brosnan’s edgy and pissed off wife and Catrall as his Assistant/mistress.

Of course, what a lot of people will want to talk about is the man behind the camera.  To get it out in the open, I have no love for Polanski or the 6 or 7 of his movies I’ve seen.  “Chinatown” aside I usually want to turn his movies off before they’re over.  Posturing, full of shit and dull are the descriptors I think of when I think of pieces of his resume I’m privy to.  “The Ghost Writer” is just his 8th film of the past 30 years and the only one that seems noteworthy or likely to be carried on.  With this work Polanski shows that a capable crafter of entertaining thrillers was buried under all the bullshit.  It feels like a better constructed, less derivative relative of his own film from 1999, “The Ninth Gate.”  That too was an ‘everyman in over his head’ mystery but it felt like it was made and assembled by an unimaginative dipshit.  This time out there’s nothing showy, attention getting or dunderheaded about the assembly.  It’s straight forward and on the occasion when rules do get toyed with, the effect is comical.

Polanski supporters will tell you “The Ghost Writer” is the craftiest thing since they invented craft.  It’s not.  But it’s good enough in all the right ways and it has one of the best last scenes of any movie in recent memory.

Related To: The Tailor of Panama, The Ninth Gate, The Conversation, Hitchcock films

With the Oscars on tomorrow I figure I should finally do a 2009 in review piece.  I generally don’t like big sprawling pieces like this so I’ll make it as concise as I can.  There are still films from last year I haven’t seen but they’re mostly curiosities that won’t affect this list much.  There are a few big gun movies I didn’t see and likely won’t due to genuine lack of interest.  I’ll list those at the bottom.  I would say that on the whole that this year was not a great one.  Only a few times did I really feel enthralled or elated by a movie.  A found a lot of the sci-fi stuff getting major marks to underwhelming.  It was an unusually good year for kids movies.  Anyway, here’s everything.

Best Movies the Year Had to Offer:

INGLORIOUS BASTARDS

WHERE THE WID THINGS ARE

THE ROAD

ADVENTURELAND

CORALINE

UP

THE COVE

A SINGLE MAN

None to Bad.  That Which Was Entertaining and/or Well Made:

CAPITALISM

STAR TREK

CRAZY HEART

THE HURT LOCKER

TRICK ‘R TREAT

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE

FANTASTIC MR. FOX

ZOMBIELAND

500 DAYS OF SUMMER

UP IN THE AIR

BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS

THE BROTHERS BLOOM

Stuff That Almost Worked For Me But Thought Was Off By Too Much:

PUBLIC ENEMIES

BLACK DYNAMITE

THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS

AVATAR

DISTRICT 9

Some Interesting Bits but Didn’t Work For Me:

A SERIOUS MAN

LAND OF THE LOST

IN THE LOOP

TAKEN

IT MIGHT GET LOUD

WATCHMEN

FUNNY PEOPLE

DUPLICITY

INVICTUS

MOON

A Really Bad Year For Action, All Stinkers Through And Through:

2012

SHERLOCK HOLMES

SURROGATES

TERMINATOR: SALVATION

CRANK 2

GI JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA

WOLVERINE

TRANSFORMERS 2

A Uniquely Horrible Creation:

OBSERVE AND REPORT

Can’t Decide If It’s Brilliant Or Shit:

DRAG ME TO HELL

Meant To See It And Still Might:

AN EDUCATION

THIRST

INFORMANT

PRINCESS AND THE FROG

LOVELY BONES

RED CLIFF

WORLDS GREATEST DAD

THE BOX

NINJA ASSASSIN

Meant To See It But Likely Won’t:

PRECIOUS

EXTRACT

BRUNO

I watched this movie last night and tried to write something about it.  Blathered out a few paragraphs and called it quits.  Thought about it again today and quickly realized something.  There’s nothing to say about this movie.  There’s no bitchy angel or comedic ribbing to give it that’s worth the effort.  It’s exactly the giant piece of shit it was advertised as and promised to be.  Tons of special effects that cost more than cancer research with a brain dead, run of the mill disaster movie scenario driving the entire predictable machine.  You can slam Roland Emmerich with negativity all day long and it makes no difference.  The man and the film are not about credibility.  This is what he does and he’s not changing for me or anyone else.  If you get off on his brand of apocalyptic horseshit that routinely involves world monuments being obliterated while non-headlining actors get paid much too well for gawking at his increasingly fancy CGI, then “2012” will entertain you to no end.  The rest of us will just stare at it in a bored stupor that sets in much too easily.