Monday, August 30, 2010

Movie Review: Lebanon

Lebanon ***
Directed By:
Samuel Maoz.
Written By: Samuel Maoz.
Starring: Reymond Amsalem (Assna), Oshri Cohen (Herzel), Yoav Donat (Shmulik), Michael Moshonov (Yigal), Zohar Shtrauss (Gamil), Itay Tiran (Asi).

Watching Samuel Maoz Lebanon, I found it impossible not to think of Wolfgang Peterson’s Das Boot. That 1982 masterpiece was a war movie that took place almost entirely aboard a German U boat during WWII, and Peterson made the most of the claustrophobic atmosphere. Maoz film is about a different war, in a different decade in a different part of the world, but it reminded me of that film. Aside from the opening and closing shots of the movie, Lebanon takes place entirely inside an Israeli tank during the 1982 war with Lebanon. We only see the country the way the men in the tank see it – through their gun sights.

The movie begins when the new gunner assigned to the tank opens the hatch and drops in. He is joining a trio of men – an unsure commander officer, the constantly bitching loader who like Rodney Dangerfield feels he never gets any respect, and a driver who is just trying to keep the peace and survive his tour. For most of the movie, it is just these four men in the tank. Occasionally, the hatch opens and their commanding officer comes in to yell at them, or to drop in the body of a fallen solider before it can be airlifted out, or to store a prisoner, etc.

The movie is episodic in nature. There are long stretches of calmness, where the men just talk and bitch at each other, followed by intense war sequences where the gunner seems constantly frozen – he is finding out that shooting at people is a hell of a lot harder than shooting at barrels – and this doesn’t go away even after his inaction results in one of the men on the outside being killed. He finds he can only shoot with his eyes closed.

Lebanon must have been an extremely difficult movie for Maoz to make from a technical standpoint. After all, how can you make the interior of a dank, dark tank offset by shots through a gun sight cinematic enough to keep the audience’s attention? But somehow Maoz succeeds. The movie is a triumph of direction and the movie is not nearly as static or stagy than you expect it to be.

If there is a problem with the movie it’s that the characters never really rise above the level of clichés. Maoz, who also wrote the screenplay, establishes their basic outline early in the film, and they never really progress from there. On one hand, this is effective, because after all how much soul searching can you realistically expect during the numerous firefights in the film. On another, since the characters in the tank remain cookie cutters, and everyone outside not even that, it becomes somewhat hard to truly care about their fate.

Any movie about a war involving Israel is undoubtedly going to be political, but Maoz never beats you over the head with his message – in fact you never really get the sense that he has a message at all. He has the gunner be a sympathetic guy – a man who finds it hard to kill others, and in particular gets emotional when his firing could mean the loss of innocent lives. Yet the commander who drops in on them occasionally is much more of a hard liner – a man who says that this is war, and in war people die. And when we see members under his command die, it is hard not to see it from his point of view – even if at times, it is clear that what the Israelis are doing could constitute a war crime if anyone looked into that closely.

Lebanon is a fascinating movie – one that is political, but not overtly so, but rather one that simply wants to give the audience an idea of what it must be like to fight a war in a tank. There is not right or wrong, you do what you do to survive. On that level, the movie works.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

TIFF 2010 Preview

Yesterday represented one of my favorite days of the year – the day I get to pick up my pre order package from TIFF and select the 20 films I will be seeing at this year’s festival (this number will most likely increase to at least 22, perhaps as many as 25). This looks like a good year at TIFF, but I had several disappointments.

The first disappointment is that they seem to have pretty much done away with 9:00 am screenings. I liked starting my day early, and ending around 9:00pm, but it looks like this year, things will start around 11 each morning, and end around 11 at night. It means I will get home later – but also that I don’t have to get up so early.

Another is that the festival seems oddly frontloaded this year. It has always been such, with most of the major films wanting to get in the first half of the festival, but this year it seems even worse. So unfortunately films like Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu’s Bituful, Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist, Palme D’Or Winner Uncle Boonme Who Can See His Past Lives, Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, the 3-D documentary by Werner Herzog (whose name escapes me right now) among others will almost definitely have to wait until they get released.

Having said that, I did request tickets to a lot of hopefully great movies. If I get all of my number 1 choices (which I won’t, but I am hopeful) the 20 films I selected are: Trust (David Schimmer), Film Socialism (Jean Luc Godard), Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek), Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky), 127 Hours (Danny Boyle), Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell), What’s Wrong with Virginia (Dustin Lance Black), Poetry (Lee Chang Dong), Another Year (Mike Leigh), Incendies (Dennis Villeneuve), Let Me In (Matt Reeves), The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillent), Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt), The Debt (John Madden), Amigo (John Sayles), Blue Valentine (John Clanfrance), In a Better World (Susanne Bier), Three (Tom Tykwer), It’s Kind of a Funny Story (Ryan Fleck & Anne Boden), Casino Jack (George Hickenlooper) and Aftershock (Xiaogang). Among my second choices are Miral (Julien Schnabel, which if it hadn’t had to go against Black Swan would have easily been a number 1 choice), The Trip (Michael Winterbottom), Tamara Drewe (Stephen Frears), Essential Killing (Jerzy Skolminski) and Brighton Rock (Roland Joffe) – the rest of the number 2 choices were smaller film by lesser known directors that I picked because they sounded interesting).

I like this list. It isn’t as strong as some lists have been in the past (and for the first time in three years, it does not include a Coen Brothers movie). I will find out for sure what I am seeing next week – and when I do, I will make the list official. I am not sure if I’ll do my daily updates like last year (it was rather exhausting to write them after getting home that late), or if I’ll just do one big wrap up piece when it’s all over. What I do know is that TIFF is usually by favorite week of the year (although last year it trailed behind my honeymoon, and it will have to pretty great this year to top my time in NYC). Anyway, since this is a slow week on the blog, I thought I’d share.

Movie Review: Soul Kitchen

Soul Kitchen ***
Directed By:
Faith Akin.
Written By: Fatih Akin & Adam Bousdoukos.
Starring: Adam Bousdoukos, Moritz Bleibtreu, Birol Ünel, Anna Bederke, Lucas Gregorowicz, Udo Kier

Director Faith Akin is mainly known for his gritty, realistic social dramas like Head-On and The Edge of Heaven. His films are dark examinations of immigrant cultures in Germany that take an unflinching look at the problems in modern Europe – particularly that of Turkish immigrants living in Germany. It must be exhausting making such dark movies all the time, which is why I think Akin made Soul Kitchen – an exuberant, fun comedy about two Greek brothers in Hamburg running a restaurant. While this film may not be as wonderful as Akin’s more serious work, it sure is a lot of fun to watch.

Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos) runs Soul Kitchen, a dive of a restaurant that serves frozen food that he deep fries to a lowly clientele, who seems happy with the result. His restaurant always seems to have customers, but is never very busy. His girlfriend has decided to take a job in Shanghai, and although she wants him to go with her, he refuses. At her farewell dinner, in a fancy restaurant, Zinos meets the chef, who is dissatisfied with his job, and ends up being fired. This gives Zinos an idea – he’ll hire this chef to class up his restaurant. At first, the result is disaster, as his loyal customers do not like the change. But gradually, Soul Kitchen starts to come around. He allows a local band to start playing there, after the government takes his stereo, and with the band comes new clients – who love the food. Soon, the restaurant is thriving.

But things do are not as rosy as they seem. His brother is released from jail, and resumes his irresponsible ways. The health department is unimpressed with the state of the kitchen, and an old school friend wants to buy the restaurant as part as of his redevelopment plan for Hamburg. These elements, plus the fact that he thrown his back out and is in extreme pain all the time makes for a comedy that keeps getting stranger.

Soul Kitchen has nothing on its mind other than being a lightweight entertainment and in that it succeeds wonderfully. Akin is too good of a director to take the make too much of a lark of the movie. Even if this movie is lightweight, the movie still has a wonderful visual look, and it is paced terrifically for its first two acts. The movie does go on at least 20 minutes too long, as the plot twists at least one of two times too many. But that’s a minor complaint. Soul Kitchen is a fun movie pretty much from beginning to end. A real treat of a movie.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Reviews of Five Broadway Plays

In case anyone was wondering why the blog was slow last week, it is because my wife and I went to New York for five days last week. It seemed like a waste to see any movies while we were there, but she is a big fan of musicals, so we took in five plays on Broadway while we were there – four musicals and one play. It was a great time, and since I have no movie reviews to share, I thought I’d offer my take on the plays we saw instead.

Promises, Promises ***
Book By:
Neil Simon based on the film The Apartment.
Music By: Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
Directed By: Rob Ashford.
Starring: Sean Hayes (Chuck), Kristen Chenoweth (Fran), Tony Goldwyn (Sheldrake), Katie Finnerman (Marge).

We started our trip with this light and frothy revival of the famed 1968 musical by Neil Simon, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. My wife picked this one because she is a HUGE fan of Kristen Chenoweth, and on a previous trip to New York missed seeing her in The Apple Tree, so she wanted to ensure she didn’t miss her this time. Based on one of my favorite films, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, this musical has stripped away most of the cynicism in that movie in favor of light comedy – and for the most part it works. The plot involves mild mannered accountant Chuck, wanting to move up in his company, so he allows the executives to use his apartment as their own swinging bachelor pad. Sean Hayes, from TV’s Will and Grace, makes his Broadway debut as Chuck (the Jack Lemmon role in the film), and while Hayes is not the strongest singer I have seen, he is good enough to get the job done – and he absolutely excels in the plays comedic moments (a highlight involves him trying to sit on a weird looking chair). Chenoweth is fine in the role of Fran (the Shirley Maclaine role), but I have to wonder why she wanted to take the role on. Most critics seem to think she was miscast, and it’s true that she is too old to be playing someone this naïve. Having said that, no one can match her singing ability, and she rips into a series of Bacharach’s most famous numbers – I Say a Little Prayer for You, This House is Not a Home and I’ll Never Fall in Love Again among them – like no one else could. This doesn’t challenge Chenoweth, and isn’t a great role like she had in Wicked, but I still had a blast watching her perform, so I won’t complain. Tony Goldwyn has the role that Fred Macmurray played in the original – although much like the production itself, he seems to want to channel Mad Men instead. The best in the play though is easily Tony winner Katie Finnerman, who is an absolute blast in her scene and a half as Marge – a drunken woman Chuck meets in a bar while in the depths of his depression. She is a riot from start to finish. The set design and lighting is both top notch – as I mentioned this wants to be a shinier, happier Mad Men, and in terms of the visuals at least, it succeeds.. Promises, Promises certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to musicals – but it is fun from start to finish, and what more can you ask on Broadway?

Next to Normal ****
Book By: Brian Yorkey.
Music By: Brian Yorkey & Tom Kitt.
Directed By: Michael Grief.
Starring: Marrin Muzzin (Diana), Jason Daniely (Dan), Kyle Dean Massey (Gabe), Meghann Fahey (Natalie), Adam Chanler-Berat (Henry), Louis Hobson (Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden).

Next to Normal, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize from drama (marking only the 8th time in history a musical had won the prize, and the first time since Rent in 1996) was far and away the best theater experience we had this trip – and for me, who is not exactly well versed in live theater, perhaps the best I have ever seen. It is a daring, shocking rock infused musical about a dysfunctional family. Diana (Marrin Muzzin, who has the unenviable task of taking over a Tony winning role), is a middle aged wife and mother with a history of mental illness, which is just getting worse. Her husband Dan (Jason Daniely) is trying to hold it all together, but not doing a very good job. Their overachieving daughter Natalie (Meghann Fahey) is cracking under the pressure, despite the support of her pot addled boyfriend Henry (Adam Chanler Berat). Diana goes to see two different doctors (both played by Louis Hobson), to try and deal with her problems – most notably that she sees the son Gabe (Kyle Dean Massey) who died when he was a baby everywhere – now as a teenager. She knows that he is dead, but he is so insistent that he is alive. The musical is honest and open – isn’t afraid to become incredibly dark, but also adding bits of humor to the proceedings. Personally, I thought Muzzin was great in the lead role, and Meghann Fahey was equally brilliant as the daughter. The one weakness could have been Daniely as Dan, who I don’t think is strong enough dramatically to really get into Dan’s pain and make him a stronger character. But the set – a three level house, that the cast, especially Gabe, makes use of, is brilliant as is the lighting, which at times is almost blinding, but in a good way. Brian Yorkey, who wrote the lyrics and story, isn’t afraid to leave things unresolved, and that makes the musical all the more effecting. The songs are brilliant as well. After the show, I thought that I would love to see a movie made of this material – but it would take a great director to pull off all of the complexities. If you are in New York, I urge you to see this musical above all others.

A Little Night Music *** ½
Book By: Hugh Wheeler based on the film Smiles of a Summer Night.
Music By: Stephen Sondheim.
Directed By: Trevor Nunn.
Starring: Bernadette Peters (Desiree), Elaine Strich (Mrs. Armfeldt), Alexander Hanson (Frederick), Ramona Mallory (Anne), Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (Henrik), Leigh Ann Larkin (Petra), Erin Davie (Countess), Aaron Lazar (Count).

Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical was first on Broadway in the early 1970s, but was brought back, first to London and then Broadway, this past year. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, the musical is a witty, charming, hilarious sex comedy. We didn’t get there in time to see it with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, but Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch were so good, I find it hard to believe that the others were much better. The stage is sparsely decorated, but that doesn’t affect the emotional pull of the musical – which is about the various sexual partnerships that affect a group of adults. Frederick (Alexander Hanson) is a widowed lawyer, who has married a beautiful 18 year old, Anne (Ramona Mallory), who is still too nervous to allow herself to have sex with her husband. She flirts with Frederick’s adult son Henrik (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka), who is studying to be a Pastor, and condemns his own sexual desires – that the maid Petra (Leigh Ann Larkin) tries to use. Frederick used to be with the famous actress Desiree (Peters), who wants him back, despite being the current mistress of a count (Aaron Lazar), much to the chagrin of his wife (Erin Davie). All of this culminates over the course of one night at the home of Peters rich mother (Strich). When you are talking about Sondheim, you know the music is going to be great – and it surely is here – full of witty lyrics and swelling music. Peters makes great use of the most famed number – Send in the Clowns – a rare moment of serious self reflection in a musical dominated by witty banter and sex talk. Strich is hilarious as the aging woman who doesn’t seem to care about the crap going on around her – and makes no secret of it. She delivers her one liners with wit and skill. The musical is a little hollow – I’m not sure it really means anything at all – but it is a hell of a lot of fun.

American Idiot ****
Book By: Billie Joe Armstrong & Michael Mayer.
Music By: Billie Joe Armstrong & Green Day.
Directed By: Michael Mayer.
Starring: John Gallagher Jr. (Johnny), Tony Vincent (St. Jimmy), Stark Sands (Tunny), Michael Esper (Will), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Whatsername), Christina Sajous (The Extraordinary Girl), Mary Faber (Heather).

If nothing else, American Idiot proves what I have long since thought – that the Green Day album of the same name is the best album of the last decade. If there is another album that could support a musical, I sure as hell don’t know what it is. This musical is thin on plot and characters – but makes up for it with the far and away the best set design and lighting I saw in New York (no wonder both won Tonys earlier this year), and of course the great, pulsating Rock music sung with great passion by the large cast. The characters have been expanded from the album – with Johnny being the lead character who leaves his small town with two friends, only to fall into the haze of drug addiction as everyone abandons him – one because his girlfriend is pregnant and the other because he goes off to fight in Iraq. Desperately lonely, he creates an alter ego, St. Jimmy, who gets him more and more addicted to drugs, and drives away his girlfriend, Whatsername. The entire cast is great in their roles – and that includes the large ensemble cast brought into to fill out the melodies and dancing. The show is raw, pulsating musical about futile rage of youth during Bush era America. It is loud, awe inspiring and utterly brilliant. I loved every second of it.

Race ** ½
Written & Directed By: David Mamet.
Starring: Eddie Izzard (Jack Lawson), Dennis Haysbert (Henry Brown), Afton C. Williamson (Susan), Richard Thomas (Charles Strickland).

We finished our stay in New York with the only non-musical we saw – the latest from David Mamet called Race (the performance we saw was actually the last of its Broadway run, so if you want to see it, you’re out of luck). I have long since been a fan of Mamet, although I have never seen one of his plays performed live – having to live off of the film versions of his work like Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna and American Buffalo. Unfortunately Race doesn’t live up to Mamet’s best work – and while it would be tempting to say that perhaps the original cast that including James Spader, Kerry Washington and Tony nominee David Alan Grier, along with Richard Thomas who was the only original cast member left, would have made the play better – I doubt it would have made much difference. Besides Eddie Izzard, Dennis Haysbert and Afton C. Williamson are all great in their roles – it was the writing that didn’t meet Mamet’s usual standards. The play is about a rich white man (Thomas) who comes into the law offices of Izzard and Haysbest (and their junior associate Williamson) because he has been charged with raping a black girl, become a tabloid sensation and lost his previous lawyer. The play all takes place in that law office as the lawyers, and sometimes the client himself, debate the case, whether or not take it, and how they can win it. Of course, since this play is called Race, it also hinges on questions of race – brought to the fore because Izzard is white, and Haysbert and Williamson are black. Haysbert is probably the best one in the cast (and has the best role by the way), as the most wise cracking member of the firm, who doesn’t care about race, or at least pretends not to. Williamson also tries to not, but hers is just a façade. Izzard and Williams have many of the best scenes together when they stop talking about the cast entirely, and instead start debating race. I know Mamet must have thought now was the time to put on this play, with Barack Obama as American’s newly minted President, but the whole production had a slightly warmed over feel to it. For one thing, lawyer shows are all over TV, and other than all the swearing, this wouldn’t have appeared out of place on a show like The Practice. For another, his observations about race are a little out dated – had this play been written 25 years ago, it would have been considered daring, but in 2010 not so much. Considering Mamet already did a play about race – the brilliant Edmund – this felt kind of like a do over. Having spent most of this review complaining about the play, must say that I did enjoy it – no one writes such profane, witty dialogue like Mamet does – and the entire cast was excellent. But after the highs of what I had seen before, it was just a little bit of a letdown.

And so ends my brief stint as a theater critic. I will be back with movie reviews, and more year in reviews columns later this week.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Year in Review: 1952

Some years the foreign filmmakers just seem to be a step ahead of the American ones. Surprisingly, 1952 is a year like that for me, despite the fact that one of the most beloved Hollywood films of all time came out this year - and it is a masterpiece. But 1952 is just such a strong year.

10. The Quiet Man (John Ford)
John Ford was mainly known for his Westerns, but he made quite a few different kinds of films over the course of his career. The Quiet Man was certainly a passion project for himself, and his largely Irish American cast, and the result is one of Ford’s most entertaining, most endearing films. John Wayne plays a famous Irish American boxer, who was born in a small Irish town, but moved to America when he was young. Haunted by his past in the ring, he decides he wants to move back to that Irish town, and live a simpler life. Most of the town welcomes him back with open arms – but Victor McLagen is not so happy. Wayne convinces a wealthy widow to sell him his childhood home back – and its right where McLagen wanted to buy as well. Perhaps even worse, Wayne sets his sights on McLagen’s spirited sister – Maureen O’Hara – as a possible wife. The film is one of Ford’s most comedic, as Wayne has to negotiate an entirely foreign system of dating, and everything else in his life. The film has great supporting work, not just by McLagen, but also by Barry Fitzgerald as the old, drunken matchmaker in town. I don’t think The Quiet Man ranks among Ford’s best work – but it sure is an entertaining movie.

9. On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray)
Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground is one of his more underrated noirs. Robert Ryan delivers one his best performances as a tough as nails cop, who has trouble controlling his rage – often lashing out violently at suspects. Although he gets results, he also gets himself into trouble because of it. His boss thinks he needs to time to calm down, so he sends Ryan up North, to a rural area, to help with a murder investigation. While there, he meets the blind sister of the murder suspect (Ida Lupino, who apparently helped to direct this film). Through her goodness, she helps to calm him down, and deal with his rage better. The film is a cross between film noir – with a magnificent score by Bernard Hermann (which apparently he said was his favorite of all of his scores) – and a melodrama. Ray’s wonderful direction makes the film alive, and moves things along at a great pace. I love the contrast between the dirty streets of the city, and the clean, snow covered rural settings. This may not rank among the very best of Ray’s films – but it is magnificent nonetheless.

8. Angel Face (Otto Preminger)
Aside from his masterpiece Laura, this is Preminger’s best film noir. Robert Mitchum, perhaps the best noir hero, plays Frank, an ambulance driver, dating the nice Mona Freeman and saving up money to open a garage. Things turn South for Frank when he is called to a wealthy house, and meets Diane (Jean Simmons), who was in the house with her father and stepmother where an apparent accidental gas leak took place. Simmons is sexy and seductive, and gradually starts to manipulate Frank into doing precisely what she wants him to do. The film is pure noir – the flawed hero, the innocent girlfriend, the femme fatale – and is played terrifically by the leads. What makes Angel Face great though is Preminger’s direction. The story is simple – and had pretty much been used by countless noir films by then – but that only allows Preminger to pare it down to the essentials, brining out the psychology of his characters more, and experimenting with his visual style. The film is haunting noir masterwork.

7. The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli)
Vincente Minelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful knows an awful lot about Hollywood, and how movies get made, and puts it all on the screen, warts and all. Kirk Douglas plays a producer (who according to what I’ve read is a sort of blending in Orson Welles, Val Lewton and David O. Selznick), who does whatever he needs to do to get ahead. He starts small, making low budget horror films with his director friend Barry Sullivan – but when he gets big enough, he betrays Sullivan by taking his dream project to another director. Next he meets the beautiful actress Lana Turner (perhaps based on Minelli’s ex-wife – Judy Garland), who is struggling to make it Hollywood – and makes her star, leading her on into thinking that he loves her so he can get what needs from her. Later, he convinces a novelist (Dick Powell) to become a screenwriter, but when his nagging, vulgar wife (Gloria Grahame, excellent as always) keeps pestering him, he gets a low level star to seduce her, and get him to leave her husband alone – the result of which is her death. Now, desperate and broke again, he reaches out to the people he screwed over to help him. The film isn’t really a satire of Hollywood – although it is as merciless in its depiction as Altman’s The Player was, but really is more of a melodrama. The film is anchored by its great performances, and directed with Minnelli’s usual visual flair. It belongs on a very short list of the best films about movies ever made.

6. Viva Zapata (Elia Kazan)
Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata is a mediation on power and corruption, set against the backdrop of the Mexican revolution. Marlon Brando gives a great performance as Emiliano Zapata, who is horrified by the corrupt Mexican government, and alongside Pancho Villa, who led the revolution in the North, he leads the revolution in the South – all under the control of Francisco Madero. But when they win, and Madero takes over, Zapata finds that nothing has changed – the new regime is as bad as the old one. Worse still, his own brother (Anthony Quinn) sets himself as a dictator himself. Zapata it seems, is the only honorable man left – everyone else is out for themselves, and when power is in their grasp, they take it and refuse to let go. Kazan’s direction is among the best of his career – taking his inspiration from photos from the time, and the work of Roberto Rossellini, the film feels much more real than much of the director’s work. Anchored by Brando, at the height of his power as an actor and including one of the best death scenes ever filmed, Viva Zapata is an underrated film in both Kazan, and Brando’s career.

5. High Noon (Fred Zinneman)
High Noon is a classic Western, that many modern critics seem to turn their noses up at – and I’ve never quite been able to figure out why. True, I do prefer Rio Bravo, which is the film that John Wayne and Howard Hawks made to refute this one, because they were disgusted by the way the film portrayed most Americans as cowards, but that doesn’t mean that this film is any less of an achievement. Gary Cooper gives one of his best performances as Will Kane, town Marshall of a small Western town who has just married a Quaker (Grace Kelly), and has decided to leave town and open a shop elsewhere. But then he hears that a notorious criminal that he put away, and had been sentenced to death, has been released on a technicality, and is coming to hunt for him. Kane decides to stay in town to fight against him, and his henchmen, and tries to enlist help from the townspeople. But one by one, they turn him down – not because they do not like or admire him, but because they are scared of what will happen to themselves. Widely, and correctly, seen as an indictment of McCarthyism, High Noon doesn’t bog itself down in the politics, but remains an exciting, tense Western, all building to its epic gun battle climax. Fred Zinneman may not have been the best director in the world, but here he does a remarkable job of keeping the film moving, and quietly building the tension. This is a great Western, and I will argue against anyone who says otherwise.

4. Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen)
Singin’ in the Rain is often referred to as the greatest movie musical ever made – and while I’m not quite sure I would go that far, it certainly is one of the joyous films I have ever seen. If The Bad and the Beautiful was all about the dark, cynical side of Hollywood, then Singin’ in the Rain is about the joy of making movies – and of watching them. It is not possible to sit through Singin’ in the Rain and not be overjoyed with what you see on screen – the infamous title song with Gene Kelly stomping through puddles with pure, unadultered joy, Donald O’Connor’s exuberant acrobatics during Make’em Laugh, and Debbie Reynolds joining them for the wondrous Good Morning. Not to be outdone, Jean Hagen delivers one of the great comedic performances ever as the silent movie star who is going to make her talky debut next to Gene Kelly – until everyone realizes how irritating her voice really is. If I have a problem with Singin’ in the Rain, it’s that the huge musical set piece of the film, the “Broadway Ballet” grinds the movie to a halt about two thirds of the way through. Yes, it is full of great dancing and music, but it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, and the more I watch the film, the more I just want to get through that number so we can get to the grand finale. But that’s a small problem with a film that is just so much damned fun, so bursting with life and joy.

3. Forbidden Games (Rene Clement)
Forbidden Games is a wonderfully innocent film about childhood – a film that could not be made today. The stars of the film are two children, who perhaps give the best performances of any child actors in history. Brigitte Fossey is five years old, in 1940 France, leaving town with her parents and her beloved dog. The dog runs away, and she chases after it – Nazis open fire, killing the parents, and the dog, but leaving Fossey alive. She doesn’t really understand what is happening, but she is found by Georges Poujouly, a boy a few years older than her, and he takes her to the farmhouse his family owns, and insists they keep her. He helps her bury her dog, and soon they are burying dead animals of all kinds that they come across. The two are fascinated by death, but in the innocent way that only children can be. This is their way of processing the horror all around them – their way of dealing with it. Rene Clement does a masterful job at directing – not least of which because he was able to get such natural, unforced performances from two children in a film that horrifies adults, but seems innocent to them. The film doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the war – and that is what gives it the power that it has. It’s that transposition of the horror of the war, to the innocence of the children that makes Forbidden Games a masterpiece.

2. Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica)
The common opinion is that Bicycle Thieves is Vittorio De Sica’s best film – but for me, I have always preferred Umberto D – even more now that I have a dog of my own (named Scorsese by the way, and he is the cutest, sweetest puppy in the world). The movies are similar in a lot of ways – both are neorealist, both look at poverty in Italy after the war, and both are heartbreaking. In Umberto D. Carlo Battisi is the title character – an old man trying to survive on his state pension, which has decreased in the years since the war. He is going to lose his apartment soon, and will be out on the street. He decides to kill himself, but first, he needs to find a home for his dog Flicke. He takes him to a kennel, and plans on leaving him there, but sees what would happen to him when he doesn’t return. He goes other places and tries to find other solutions – even at one point putting Flicke on the street with a hat in his mouth in the hopes of getting some money. But he can’t do that either – if he is too proud to beg, he can’t make his dog do it either. The finale is heartbreaking, at first because we think that Umberto is simply going to abandon Flicke in a park – but Flicke refuses to go. There are only a few movies in history that truly understand what it is like to have a pet that you love. Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto comes to mind, but Umberto D. is even more heartbreaking and brilliant. A masterpiece.

1. Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa)
When most people think of Akira Kurosawa, they think of his magnificent samurai epics. But of all his films, I think Ikiru is probably my favorite – perhaps not his best film, but the one of those few films I turn to when I get depressed. It is a film about death, but it is hardly depressing. It is in fact, one of most life affirming films ever made. Takashi Shimura delivers his best performance as an old Japanese bureaucrat, whose job it seems is to ensure that nothing ever really gets accomplished, but all the paper work is filed correctly. He learns he has cancer, and about a year to live. He grows depressed, and tries to go out on the town and “live” the life he has been avoiding for years – but that brings him no joy. His son wants next to nothing to do with him – except to ensure that he doesn’t squander his inheritance before he dies. He makes friends with a young woman at his office though, and through his friendship with her he decides what he must do: before he dies, he wants to accomplish one good thing – in his case, building a children’s park in a place that desperately needs one. He becomes obsessed, walking the paperwork from one department to another to ensure it gets the proper approval, and that it will be built. All of this leads to the films devastating final shot – one of the most famous in cinema history. Shimura makes this seemingly pathetic old man into a everyman – almost a hero, but not a muscleman action hero, but someone we can all aspire to be like. Kurosawa’s direction in the film is simple, yet wonderful, capturing this man on his journey. Ikiru is a masterpiece pure and simple – one of all time favorite films.

Just Missed The Top 10: Bend of the River (Anthony Mann), Come Back Little Sheeba (Daniel Mann), Limelight (Charles Chaplin),The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleisher), Le Plasir (Max Ophuls), Othello (Orson Welles).

Notable Films Missed: Bienvenudo Mister Marshall (Luis Garcia Berlanga), Casque d’Or (Jacques Becker), El (Luis Bunuel),The Golden Coach (Jean Renoir),The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi), The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: The Greatest Show on Earth
The Best Picture Winners of the 1950s seemed to bounce back and forth from huge, color blockbusters to smaller, black and white dramas. Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth is obviously one of the former. It is a big, bloated would be epic extravaganza about life in a travelling circus. The problem with the film is that it so dramatically inert, and worse yet completely boring. The presence of a very stiff Charlton Heston is the lead as the circus manager doesn’t help either. The only cast members who show much life in the movie are James Stewart as a mysterious clown who never removes his makeup and Gloria Graheme as the woman in the elephant act. Everyone else just seems to be along for the ride. DeMille was capable of making great spectacles, but this surely wasn’t one of them. There really is nothing going on in this movie. I cannot believe that they actually thought it was the year’s best film. This is one of the very worst films ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

Oscar Winner – Director: John Ford, The Quiet Man
I obviously like John Ford’s The Quiet Man quite a lot – it is on my top 10 list after all – but I do somewhat wonder why the Academy felt the need to give Ford his fourth best director – making him the most rewarded director in Oscar history (although strangely, only one of the four films he won for also won Best Picture – How Green Was My Valley in 1941). Perhaps it was nothing more than not being 100% sold on the Best Picture winner, so the Academy decided to give it their old friend. This is a fine win – even if of the nominees I would have given it to Fred Zinneman for High Noon – whose work on that film is far better than on the two films he actually did win for – From Here to Eternity in 1953 and A Man For All Seasons in 1966.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Gary Cooper, High Noon
Gary Cooper had already won an Oscar by this point in his career – for 1941’s Sergeant York. By 1952 however enough time had passed, Cooper had proven to be a big enough star, and they loved High Noon so much that it felt safe to give him another Oscar. And Cooper does carry the movie as he is at the center of nearly every scene of it, and he becomes the quintessential Western hero – a man who stands up for what is right, no matter what the consequences. I think that two foreign actors gave better performances that year, but they never win, so Cooper is fine with me. One thing though – if John Wayne was so disgusted by High Noon and its depictions of Americans as cowards in the face of communism, why they hell did he agree to accept the award on Cooper’s behalf when he couldn’t make it on Oscar night?

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Shirley Booth, Come Back Little Sheeba
Shirley Booth was more of a stage star than a movie star, but recreating her Broadway role for this film was a good choice. The movie is about a loveless marriage between Booth and Burt Lancaster, and how a young woman who rents a room from them (Terry Moore) effects their relationship. Booth is great as the woman who hardly ever leaves the house, and pines for her runaway dog. In Moore, she sees herself at that age – and encourages her dating life. Lancaster is almost as good as Booth as well – as a recovering alcoholic who looks on Moore as an idealized version of the youth he gave up when he married Booth. The film is intelligent and well made, and Booth really is great. Out of the nominees, she was most likely the most deserving – even if I think 5 year old Brigitte Fossey gave the best performance by an actress this year.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Anthony Quinn, Viva Zapata!
Anthony Quinn is excellent as Marlon Brando’s brother in Viva Zapata! At first he seems as idealistic as his brother – he fights alongside him in the revolution. But after the revolution has been won, and Quinn gets a taste of what power can be like, he sets himself up as a despot. Quinn was a wonderful actor – playing all sorts of different roles (not to mention nationalities) over the course of his career – and in a somewhat weaker year for this category he was a worthy winner. Having said that, even though he appears only in one scene late in the film, I do love Buster Keaton in Limelight.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Gloria Grahame, The Bad and the Beautiful
Gloria Grahame was a great actress – often appearing in film noirs, but not really as either the good girl, or the femme fatale. Instead, she was often just as damaged as the men in those film (think of her work in In a Lonely Place or The Big Heat). The Bad and the Beautiful was not her best performance, but she is great as the wife of a screenwriter who wants to live the life of a star – and gets her wish, however briefly, when she takes up with a bit player. Grahame was a one of a kind talent – and I am happy that the Academy recognized that with this Oscar – even if I think that year, Jean Hagen’s work in Singin’ in the Rain was the best.

Year in Review: 1980

In some ways, 1980 really did mark a turning point in American film, as the last gasp of those personal films by great filmmakers was this year, before they turned to making blockbusters. But what a last gasp it was!

10. The Great Santini (Lewis John Carlino)
The Great Santini is about a military man who runs his family in pretty much the same way he commands his troops. He expects to be called sir and to be listened to at all times. He is harsh man at times, and one that is difficult to really know because he keeps seemingly everyone at arms length. It isn’t that he doesn’t love his family, but he too competitive and too driven to show any sort of weakness – like telling them that he loves them. The movie is anchored by a great performance by Robert Duvall as the patriarch. Some have said that he is playing a similar character to his infamous role in Apocalypse Now – and perhaps he is, although this movie allows him more humanity than that one did. The film is essentially about Duvall’s relationship with his oldest son – Michael O’Keefe – who he is constantly challenging in front of everyone (in the films most painful scene, Duvall mocks O’Keefe by bouncing a basketball off his head repeatedly). O’Keefe is trying to find his own way in the world – apart from his family as everyone must do at some point. And Duvall keeps right on pushing him. I do think that perhaps the key performance in the movie is by Blythe Danner as Duvall’s wife though. At first glance, she seems like a standard military wife, but she understands Duvall, and loves him, in a much deeper way than we at first expect. Duvall and O’Keefe received well deserved Oscar nominations for their performances – and Danner should have. For some reason, director Lewis John Carlino only directed three films, and from the this film we can see that perhaps we were robbed of a great career.

9. Tess (Roman Polanski)
Roman Polanski’s Tess is the tragic story a young girl who is headstrong and intelligent, but also naïve, whose life will eventually be destroyed because the men in her life view her as little more than a possession, and when they find out she is a real person, don’t really want her anymore. Natasha Kinski gives a remarkable debut performance in the title role. She is poor farm girl, whose father discovers that they are actually descendents of nobility – and in a nearby town, their wealthy relatives still live. So Tess is sent to see them, and almost immediately she is seduced by her cousin, and becomes pregnant. She flees his home back to her parents – and soon the child is born and dies. Later, she will meet another well off young man, and actually marries him. But when she tells him of her past, he flees to South America, and Tess is thrown back into poverty. Things will climax later when both of these, neither of whom wanted her when it would have done her any good, decide they both want her. In lesser hands, Tess would be a soap opera, or a ultra grim movie. But Kinski breathes life into her character – and Polanski’s direction is wonderful. It is sensitive when it needs to be, and makes us truly understand Tess – her position in life, and how few options she really had. The film is beautiful to behold.

8. Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme)
Melvin and Howard focuses its story on Melvin Dummar. He is poor, but smart, always thinking about ways to make money, yet never quite managing to make it work out for the long term. One day, Dummar (Paul Le Mat) is driving his pickup truck out in the desert, and comes across a seemingly crazy old man on the side of the road. He picks up the old-timer and gives him a ride, and along the way the talk, and sing. It isn’t until much later that Melvin realizes that the man was Howard Hughes (played brilliantly in that one scene by Jason Robards). He only realizes this when apparently Hughes leaves him $156 million in his will. But the movie is not about Hughes, and is not even about the court battle that ensues over the alleged will. It is about Melvin and his life. Mary Steenburgen gives an excellent performance as Dummar’s wife Lynda, a sympathetic woman who puts up with Dummar’s schemes for as long as she possibly can, before having to leave him – for the second time. Demme’s direction here is wonderful – sensitive and realistic. Most movies about poor people either depict their lives as none stop depressing, or as saints. But Melvin and Howard clearly sees Dummar for who he is – a dreamer who is out for his piece of the American dream. This is a thoughtful, funny, perceptive movie.

7. The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller)
Samuel Fuller waited almost his entire career to make The Big Red One. He could have made it earlier, but the studio wanted him to cast John Wayne in the lead – and Fuller decided he’d rather not make it if he couldn’t have his choice – Lee Marvin. Fuller was right to wait. Wayne was a fine actor in his range, but casting him in a war movie would have made the character instantly heroic. With Marvin, you do not get those heroics – just a portrait of a lifer in the army who leads his men into battle again and again. The Big Red One is an episodic movie – with scenes ranging for North Africa to Italy to Belgium, to D-Day to Germany. It centers on five men – Marvin is their leader, and although a host of kids come and go throughout the movie – usually because they are killed and need to be replaced. But these five men see everything. The Big Red One is different for a war movie. It is not about heroics and bravery, there is no line between good and evil. It is a movie where death hangs above these men in practically every scene. We learn nothing of Marvin’s background in the movie, but we don’t need to. Everything we need to know about him is in the movie. Fuller made a lot of films in his career – some even greater than this one – but this was his most personal film. He lived through the war and was tired of war movies he thought got everything wrong, and decided to set the record straight.

6. Ordinary People (Robert Redford)
Robert Redford’s Ordinary People’s impact has somewhat dimmed in the past 30 years – not because the film itself isn’t as strong as it once was, but because of how often is has been copied – both in films around the world, and in television. Yet if you watch the film today, it is still a strong piece of work – anchored by great performances from its cast, and the honesty in which it deals with the situation. Timothy Hutton gives a great performance as a teenager struggling with guilt after an accident that left his beloved older brother dead, but that he survived. His parents – Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore – have effectively shut themselves down. The movie is about this family in crisis – a family who cannot talk to each other. All three of them love each other, but cannot communicate that. Sutherland is too shy, too inarticulate to say what he really thinks until too late in the movie. Hutton believes that Moore doesn’t really love him; she just loved the older son – which is at least partially true. Both parents seemingly lost the ability to communicate with her surviving son who feels like he is drowning (an apt metaphor since the other son actually did drown. Hutton has already tried to kill himself, and failed, and is now reaching for something to hold onto. All the performances in the movie are great – I haven’t even mentioned Judd Hirsch as a kindly shrink – but of them all, I think Moore is the best. She hides behind pleasantries and a perfect suburban façade of happiness – but she is really cold underneath, unable to give anyone else what they need. Ordinary People reminds me of another Best Picture winner from years later – American Beauty. But I think Redford’s film is even better. It doesn’t rely on snarky cleverness, and it doesn’t reassure us that everything actually is okay. This family is broken – and probably always will be.

5. The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie)
The Long Good Friday is essentially a character study of an amoral man who has become the head of the London underworld. Played by Bob Hoskins, he is a brutal, cruel, violent man who wields a lot of power, and has garnered a lot of money and even some respect. He is proud of his criminal empire, proud that he has essentially held the peace in a place where it is nearly impossible to do so. But then everything seemingly starts to fall apart all around him. His car is blown up, and so his bar and another bomb is found in a casino he runs, but it doesn’t go off. Hoskins doesn’t understand what is happening, and who is behind all these bombings. He has no idea why anyone would want to kill him, and it is happening at precisely the wrong time. This was Hoskins big breakout role, and it perhaps remains his best performance (it is roughly equal to his work in Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa). The film is dark, violent and uncompromising – but also darkly funny at times. We eventually do find out what happened and why – but that really isn’t the point of the movie. This film is alive with energy and anchored by one hell of a performance by Hoskins.

4. Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa)
Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha is epic in its scope, yet intimate in its details. The film is about a man chosen to double for the powerful head of a samurai clan. When the real leader is killed, his top advisers persuade the double to stand in for him – for years on end. Their clan is at war, and they need their strong leader, even if it is only a fantasy. There are epic battle scenes involving thousands of warring people in this film, with impresses us with its depth and focus. There are also scenes where the double has to talk to the leader’s son, his mistresses and everyone else and convince them that he is who he says he is. Almost no one knows the truth. There is an irony in the scenes where people bow to the double because they think he is their leader – because we know the truth, and no one else does. As himself, he is nothing, as the leader, he can command thousands of men to their deaths, and they will go willingly. Kurosawa wanted to make Kagemusha for years, but couldn’t find the funding. He even tried to commit suicide in the decade leading up to this film – but he bounced back and felt he had to make this film. It is a film about the power of our delusions – whether real or imaginary people in war need to believe in their leader, and if they don’t all is lost. Kagemusha is a complex, thought provoking and absolutely beautiful film.

3. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner)
For my money, the best of the Star Wars films will always be The Empire Strikes Back. It is the most mature, darkest of all six Star Wars films – and also the most exciting, well acted and well directed of the series. This is the film that makes the Star Wars saga the great series that it was. The original film was made on a smaller budget (not small, but small for what it wanted to do), but with Empire, they had everything that they could have wanted – and the result is one of the most visually stunning and inventive space operas ever made. The film contains a number of memorable environments – the snow planet, the cloud city, Yoda’s junky little planet. There are also any number of other sights to wonder at – the colossal, staggering Imperial Walkers are among the most memorable vehicles the series ever created. This is also the chapter that introduced us to perhaps the greatest of all Star Wars characters – Yoda. The film also has the best light saber battle of the series – between Luke and Darth Vader, where Luke finally learns his dark secret. This battle is the best not only because it is the most exciting, but also because the battle is about more than just clashing swords. The Star Wars film will never go away – as long as people watch movies, they will watch these movies and The Empire Strikes Back is far and away the best of the series.

2. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is one of the most disturbing films about madness I have ever seen. It is a horror movie and perhaps a ghost story as well, but what it is really about is a family who goes to look after an isolated hotel over the winter, and all of them go made in their own ways. Jack Nicholson’s performance as the husband/father is one of his best – he is in practically every scene, and although he famously go crazy during the course of the movie, he never quite goes over the top. His performance is filled with a deep unease as he slips farther and farther down his own rabbit hole, and starts seeing the ghosts everywhere. His son Danny also sees ghosts – different ones, but ones all the same – on his journeys through the vast halls of the Overlook on his big wheel. He also may have physic powers. The wife, Shelley Duvall, also goes a little crazy, but it is much less pronounced. Kubrick’s attention to detail in the film is the stuff of legend – making the actors do each take upwards of 100 times – but the result is well worth it. The film is disturbing from beginning to end – from the false cheer Nicholson displays in the job interview, all the way through to the final, haunting shot – which calls into question everything we think we know about what happened in the movie – without explaining it in the least. Kubrick is playing with the audience here, and doing so brilliantly. The Shining is a masterpiece.

1. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese)
Roger Ebert has compared Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull to Othello – and the comparison is apt. Scorsese’s movie is perhaps the best film ever made about jealously. Robert DeNiro gives an amazing performance as Jake LaMotta, a middle weight boxer in the 1940s and 50s, who jealously and paranoia will drive everyone around him away. When we first meet him, he is already married, but that marriage will end in divorce when he meets and falls in lust with the young, beautiful Cathy Moriaty. Soon they are married, but LaMotta can never quite understand why she is with him. He figures that if she’ll let him touch her, then she will probably let anyone touch her. Joe Pesci is also brilliant as LaMotta’s brother who tries hard to stand by him, protect him and reassure him, but eventually Jake will drive even him away. In one of the greatest scenes in all of cinema history, Jake accuses Joey of sleeping with his wife, bluntly saying “You fuck my wife”, and Joey denies it, calls him crazy but Jake keeps persisting. Scorsese decided to shoot the film in black and white, and that was the right choice for this material. The fight scenes are easily the bloodiest, the most brutal of any boxing scenes ever filmed, but the real action in the film happens outside the ring. Raging Bull has gone onto to be considered the best film of the 1980s – and with good reason. It is quite simply stunning.

Just Missed the Top 10: American Gigolo (Paul Schrader), Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg), Coal Miner’s Daughter (Michael Apted), Scanners (David Cronenberg), Stardust Memories (Woody Allen), The Stunt Man (Richard Rush),The Ninth Configuration (William Peter Blatty), Spetters (Paul Verhoeven).

Notable Films Missed: The Blues Brothers (John Landis), Gregory’s Girl (Alan Forstyh), Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino), La Vie (Jean Luc Godard), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (Alain Resnais).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Ordinary People (Robert Redford).
Ordinary People, much like Dances with Wolves 10 years later, has become unfairly maligned in some circles as a bad Oscar winner – not because of the movie itself, but because of the film it beat. For Dances with Wolves, it was GoodFellas, and with Ordinary People with was Raging Bull – a film that has gone onto the become considered the greatest film of the 1980s. But the fact that Ordinary People won is not its fault – it’s the Academy’s. Ordinary People is still a wonderful movie about a very dysfunctional family. No, it is not as good as Raging Bull – but if that were the criteria for every movie to beat, than practically every film ever made would be considered a failure.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Robert DeNiro, Raging Bull
Robert DeNiro’s performance in Raging Bull has to rank among the best of all time. He is blunt, brutal and profane – often times he really does seem to be some sort of wild animal, all id, and no control over himself. The weight gain probably helped him win the Oscar – the Academy always loves physical transformations – but there is more to this performance than just the fact that he became a huge, whale type creature. His Jake LaMotta is the perfect personification of Scorsese’s continued fascination with the male ego, sexual obsession, guilt and jealously. This year had a lot of great performances by lead actors – Nicholson, Hoskins, Duvall, O’Toole, Marvin – but none of them come close to matching DeNiro in this film. He really is that good.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Sissy Spacek is excellent in Michael Apted’s country music biopic of Loretta Lynn. She does her own singing – and sounds great. The film is a rather standard issue showbiz biopic – humble beginnings, a bad marriage, overnight stardom, leading to drug use and finally the comeback story. Think of Coal Miner’s Daughter as its generation’s Ray or Walk the Line, and you have a pretty good idea of what the movie is like. What makes the film special though is Spacek’s performance. I never felt like she was simply going through the motions here – hitting the standard notes – but that she took her character seriously, and found Lynn’s humanity, and made her into a real person. By this point in her career she was already well established with great performances in Badlands, Carrie and Three Women to name just three of her films, so it was time for the Academy to give her an Oscar. Since I would have given her two by this point already, my choice would have been Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People – a breathtaking performance by the comedienne as a woman who just simply cannot give anything to anyone else. But while we’re here, why didn’t the Academy nominate Natasha Kinski for Tess? Her innocent face reveals her character perfectly. Spacek was an honorable choice, but I don’t think she would have been mine.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People
It seems to be a rule for the Academy that young people are always thrust into the supporting category no matter how big their role is. I think Hutton probably has more screen time than anyone else in Ordinary People, and the film really is more his journey than anyone else’s (another example is fellow nominee this year Michael O’Keefe in The Great Santini, who is really the focus of the movie, not Duvall). Having said that, it is hard to argue that Hutton deserved an Oscar for his honest, realistic work as a teenager struggling with survivor’s guilt, and parents he cannot talk to. It is a great performance. Personally, I think Joe Pesci deserved this hands down for his work in Raging Bull – and I have always loved Jason Robards’ wacky Howard Hughes cameo in Melvin and Howard, but Hutton was a good choice just the same.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Mary Steenburgen, Melvin & Howard.
Mary Steenburgen is tremendously sympathetic in Melvin and Howard. She is the type of woman who tells you what she is thinking, and then thoughtfully listens when you respond – not just waiting for her chance to speak. She agrees to all of her husband’s schemes – including humiliating herself on a TV show, but eventually cannot take it anymore. Most of the time, the ex-wife of the movies hero is portrayed as a bitch – but Melvin and Howard sidesteps that trap, and it is because of Steenburgen’s wonderful work. True, I would have voted for Cathy Moriaty in Raging Bull instead of Steenburgen, but this was still a fine choice.

Movie Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World *** ½
Directed By:
Edgar Wright.
Written By: Edgar Wright & Michael Bacall based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley.
Starring: Michael Cera (Scott Pilgrim), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ramona Flowers), Alison Pill (Kim Pine), Mark Webber (Stephen Stills), Johnny Simmons (Young Neil), Ellen Wong (Knives Chau), Kieran Culkin (Wallace Wells), Anna Kendrick (Stacey Pilgrim), Aubrey Plaza (Julie Powers), Brie Larson (Envy Adams), Satya Bhabha (Matthew Patel), Chris Evans (Lucas Lee), Mae Whitman (Roxy Richter), Brandon Routh (Todd Ingram), Jason Schwartzman (Gideon Gordon Graves), Keita Saitou (Kyle Katayanagi), Shota Saito (Ken Katayanagi).

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the perfect example of a movie that is style over substance. The film is pretty much all style from beginning to end – this is a movie that doesn’t slow down for a second. But the style somehow works for this movie, which is also consistently funny and clever all the way through. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a cult movie in the making – you are either going to get on its wavelength and love it, or absolutely despise it.

The title character is played by Michael Cera – and is yet another of his now trademarked characters. He is a hipster, living in Toronto, in a rundown, one room apartment with his gay roommate Wallace (Kiernan Culkin). He plays in a band, and does pretty much nothing else except impress girls with his cool, shy, awkwardness. He is still getting over his breakup from last year, and has started dating a high school student – Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). But then he meets Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) – and falls instantly in love. She is a little more hesitant, but cannot resist his awkward charm for long. The problem is this – she has seven evil exs that Scott has to fight and defeat in a series of videogame inspired madness.

And that’s pretty much the story, but doesn’t for a second describe what it is like to watch the film. Directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and based on the popular graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a tour de force of style – and not just in the fight sequences, where Wright really does take things to the next level. Even in the most seemingly quiet scenes, there are strange shots and pans, rapid fire editing and strange moments. Realism this ain’t, but neither is it boring. Unlike most of the movies that treat style with more reverence that substance, this movie worked for me. Most times, like in the films of Tony Scott or Michael Bay, I end up with a headache. But Scott Pilgrim vs. the World kept me involved and entertained. Perhaps it’s because as the film progressed, I really did get involved with the story and the characters, or perhaps because it moved so quickly that it didn’t give me the time to think. Whatever the reason, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was nonstop entertainment for me.

A key to a movie like this to work are the performances. You have to have a cast that is committed, and willing to go to all the strange places you want them to – and Wright found a great one. Yes, Michael Cera’s routine is getting a little stale now, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work in this movie. It still does. I am wondering when, or if, we are ever going to see him try something different (he should, and soon), but for now it works. Winstead is gorgeous with her multicolored hair and penetrating eyes, and she seems to except all this madness going on around her. The supporting players all hit the right notes – Culkin as the wise cracking sidekick, Anna Kendrick as Pilgrim’s little sister constantly bitching at him, Wong as the overly excitable teenage fan, Mark Weber and Alison Pill as Pilgrim’s bandmates – and all seven of Winstead’s exs. They take chances with their roles and mainly they work and pull it off.

A movie like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is different from most movies because it takes those chances. If this movie had failed, it would have been awful – but for me it succeeded. Yes at times, I did wish the movie would slow down just a bit, but that speed is part of its charm. The movie takes risk, and for the most part, it succeeds.

Movie Review: The Disapperance of Alice Creed

The Disappearance of Alice Creed *** ½
Directed By:
J Blakeson
Written By: J Blakeson.
Starring: Gemma Arterton (Alice Creed), Martin Compston (Danny), Eddie Marsan (Vic).

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a clever thriller that keeps throwing in twist after twist right up until the final minutes of the movie. On the outside, it looks like a fairly common thriller – two men, Danny (Martin Compston) and Vic (Eddie Marsan) kidnap the beautiful Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton) to try and get her rich father to pay them millions in ransom money. But what starts out as a seemingly kidnapping drama gets more and more complex as the movie rolls along – and more and more secrets are revealed that make us question what we have seen.

I don’t really want to reveal too much of the plot of the film – because the primary pleasure of watching the film is to see how it all unfolds. The opening montage, which shows Danny and Vic soundproofing the room, getting their supplies ready and finally taking Alice, tying her to the bed, stripping her clothes off and replacing them is brilliantly well executed, and gets you hanging off the edge of your seat right from the start. But I never really had any idea what to expect next.

Danny and Vic are a study in opposites. Danny is younger, kinder, more naïve and gullible, and really doesn’t know what he is in for. Vic is older, harsh, sometimes downright cruel, but professional. You get the feeling from both of them that they don’t want to hurt Alice – Danny because I don’t think he could if he wanted to, and Vic because there is no advantage in doing so. He’ll kill her if he has to, but he doesn’t want to. Compston and especially Marsan establish their characters early; have a wonderful chemistry together, which helps because of everything that will come next. For her part, we only gradually get to know Alice – partly because for much of her early scenes, all she is doing is being tied to a bed and stripped. But she has her own secrets to reveal. Gemma Arterton, who was pretty much wasted in Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia earlier this summer, proves that she really can act, as long as she is given an opportunity to do so. She makes a rather daring decision to play with our sympathy for her character. She is the victim, guiltless in what happens to her, and yet by the end, I felt sorrier for the other two – strangely even more so for Vic, then for her.

Written and Directed by J Blakeson, The Disapperance of Alice Creed starts with a fairly standard setup – one that could have degenerated into a routine kidnapping movie, or perhaps even torture porn. But Blakeson is more intelligent than that – he continues to twist and turn his story, continues to hold the audience in his narrative for the entire running time of the movie. If there is a flaw it’s that The Disappearance of Alice Creed is so densely plotted, with so many twists and turns, that somewhere along the way the characters start to seem more like pawns in his game than actual people. Yet none of this occurs to you while you watching the film. You are too busy trying to figure out what the hell is going to happen next.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Movie Review: Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom ****
Directed By:
David Michod.
Written By: David Michod.
Starring: James Frecheville (Joshua 'J' Cody), Ben Mendelsohn (Andrew 'Pope' Cody), Joel Edgerton (Barry Brown), Guy Pearce (Leckie), Luke Ford (Darren Cody), Jacki Weaver (Janine Cody), Sullivan Stapleton (Craig Cody), Laura Wheelwright (Nicky Henry), Dan Wyllie (Ezra White).

It’s hard to imagine a better debut film coming out this year than David Michod’s Animal Kingdom. The film is a well directed, well written extremely well acted crime drama about the most dysfunctional criminal family I have encountered in a movie in recent years. The film is set in an Australia where the difference between the cops and criminals is pretty much non existant. One unlucky teenager, essentially a good guy but with nowhere else to go, get sucked into this world and is in over his head before he even realizes what is happening.

The kid is Josh (played by newcomer James Frecheville). In the films opening scene, his mother ODs on heroin. With no where else to go, he calls his long lost grandma Janine (Jacki Weaver), who shows up at his door and takes him back to her place to take care of him. Given what happens next, Josh would have been better off fending for himself.

Josh meets his uncles Darren (Luke Ford), barely older than Josh himself and too laid back to really fight against the tide of his family, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), more of an outgoing hardass and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), who is the “mastermind” of the group, although I use the term loosely. He seems to be charge because everyone else is scared of him. Along with their friend Barry (Joel Edgerton), these four guys are bank robberts. The problem is the bank robbery division of the police are after them – Pope in particular – and have no qualms about breaking the law to get them. If they cannot arrest them, they’d just as soon gun them down on the street. Their unit is being broken up soon, and they have plans to let these criminals walk away free.

This is a movie that could play out like a typical crime drama – and in many ways it does – but it is also much more intelligent and thoughtful than most of what this genre offers us. For one thing, while the plot may seem familiar, I can honestly say that from one moment to the next, I was never quite sure of what was going to happen. A sense of foreboding and death hangs over the entire movie, just waiting for those moments when it gets too heavy and breaks.

For another, the film is much more well observed than most films in the genre. In Frencheville, Michod found a newcomer capabale of carrying his film. He is quiet and morose – like many teenagers – and this makes him difficult to read. At first, he likes his new family – and is honored that his uncles except him, and approve of his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright, a real cutie with acting skills to match), and so he doesn’t question it when he gets more and more involved with what is happening around him. But with someone like Pope running things, it is only a matter of time before things blow up. Mendelsohn gives the best performance in the film, and one of the best so far this year, as Pope who is creepy, cruel, violent and pathetic in equal measures. You can never trust him, and there is something definitely off about him – even his mother suggests that “it may be time to start taking your medication again”. Pope talks a lot about loyalty, and his pathetic attempts at empathy towards the other family members, trying to get them to open up, all fail because they’re all scared of him. It is a truly chilling performance. And Jacki Weaver is perfect as the boys mother. At first, she just seems like a kindly grandma, but as the movie progresses we start to feel that there’s something not quite right about her either – her kisses to her sons, always on the lips, last just a little too long to be considered purely motherly, and when she reveals the depths of her coldness and loyalty, it truly is chilling. Ma Barker has nothing on this woman.

Michod shows great skills behind the camera – from the wonderful opening montage, to his brilliant use of music (did you ever think that the cheesy pop song “I’m All Out of Love” could chill you to the bone? I didn’t, but it does here), his use of slow motion, and his ever roaming camera are all put to great use here. This is a stylish movie, but not one where the style overtakes what is happening. Animal Kingdom is a debut film of such power and skill that I am amazed that Michod had never directed a feature before. He is one of the most promising filmmakers out there right now. I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Movie Review: Step Up 3-D

Step Up 3-D **
Directed By:
John M. Chu.
Written By: Amy Andelson & Emily Meyer based on characters created by Duane Adler.
Starring: Rick Malambri (Luke), Adam G. Sevani (Moose), Sharni Vinson (Natalie), Alyson Stoner (Camille), Keith Stallworth (Jacob), Kendra Andrews (Anala), Stephen “Twitch” Boss (Jason), Martín Lombard (The Santiago Twins), Facundo Lombard (The Santiago Twins), Oren Michaeli (Carlos)

There is a bit of dance craze going on over the last few years - achored by popular shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars. Over the past few years we also seem to get two or three mainstream dance movies a year as well. They essentially all follow the same formula - a ragtag group of dancers get together to take part in some huge dance competition in order to save themselves from their own impoverished background, or save a community center or something similar. The best of these movies, and I use the term loosely because I don’t think I’ve seen one that I would call a legitimately good movie, have been the Step Up movies. Sure, they follow the same formula, the writing is lackluster and the acting is usually subpar - but the dancing on display really is quite great. Step Up 3-D is more of the same from this series.

Like Step Up 2, there is very little to connect this movie with the previous ones in the series. Yet again, the main characters are jettisoned to tell an entirely different story. In this case, Moose (Adam G. Sevani) from the second movie, and Camille (Alyson Stoner) who had a small role in the first film, are all grown up and headed to NYU for their freshman year. They have been best friends for years - are seemingly able to complete each others sentences and it is obvious to everyone except for them that they should be together. On their introductory tour through New York, Moose accidentally gets involved in a dance battle in Washington Square Park, and catches the attention of Luke (Rick Malambri). Luke owns a building that he uses as a club, and also his as own personal commune for dancers that he likes. They live in this huge, dilapidated building together, but they are getting behind on the mortage. There is a huge dance battle competition coming up, and while their team, known as the Pirates, are good another team - led by a trust fund baby - is perhaps even better. But Luke thinks that with the addition of Moose, as well as the gorgeous, yet mysterious Natalie (Sharni Vinson) they may have a chance to win - and use the prize money to save their way of life.

There are secrets to be revealed, conflicts to be resolved, etc. None of it really matters though and is really just an excuse to string together a bunch of dance sequences. And I must admit, that the dancing in the movie is amazing at times. And although I have been hard on 3-D in the past, I have to say that in this case it actually worked fairly well. For the first time in an non animated movie since Avatar, the 3-D did not look dirty and blurry to me - but actually does pop out the way it is supposed to. Does it really add much to the movie? No, but it doesn’t hurt either.

The problem with the movie, as with all of the Step Up films, is in the scenes where there is no dancing. Perhaps because they need to find actors who are great dancers as well as actors, most of the performances here aren’t very good. The exceptions are Sevani, who is charming in a geeky way, and Stoner who really is quite engaging. They aren’t really given much to do, but they make the most of what they are given. Malambri is another one of those faceless pretty boys who are a dime of dozen. He doesn’t really show any discernable acting talent here - and I also have to say that as a dancer, he is miles behind the best in this movie. Vinson is better - beautiful in a slightly offbeat way, and a better dancer, but only a little more natural. I don’t see either one really going much farther in the acting career.

Step Up 3-D does have some great dance numbers - but I do have to say that after a while they started to blend together, so by the time we get to what should be the high point - the epic battle between the Pirates and the Samurai, I felt under whelmed. By far the best dance number in the film is between Sevani and Stoner to a slightly remixed version of Fred Astaire’s “I Won’t Dance” on the streets of New York which is fun in that old school Hollywood kind of way.

I find it impossible to really recommend Step Up 3-D because so much of the movie doesn’t work. Yet I also have to admit that if you enjoyed the first two films, you probably will enjoy this one as well. It is better than most of the other dance movies out there - but I am still waiting for one of these films to truly step up (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and work not just in the dance numbers but in all scenes. Step Up 3-D only gets half of that right.

Movie Review: The Expendables

The Expendables ***
Directed By:
Sylvestor Stallone.
Written By: David Callahan & Sylvestor Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone (Barney Ross), Jason Statham (Lee Christmas), Jet Li (Ying Yang), Dolph Lundgren (Gunner Jensen), Eric Roberts (James Munroe), Randy Couture (Toll Road), Steve Austin (Paine), Terry Crews (Hale Caesar), Mickey Rourke (Tool), David Zayas (General Garza), Giselle Itié (Sandra), Charisma Carpenter (Lacy), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Trench), Bruce Willis (Mr. Church).

The Expendables is without a doubt the biggest, loudest, dumbest action movie of the year. It is also one of the most entertaining. It is a film with no delusions of grandeur, but does precisely what it sets out to do - gather a bunch of action stars from the 1980s and 90s and spend two hours blowing shit up really good. And if you’re like me, and were practically raised on the action movies of that era, there is a nice sense of nostalgia to go along with all the explosions. I’m not going to claim that The Expendables is a great movie, but it does what it does well.

Sylvestor Stallone, who also co-wrote and directed the film, stars as Barney Ross the head of a mercenary group who will pretty much take any job offered to them. Also on his team is Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Ying Yang (Jet Li), Gunner (Dolph Lingren), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) (by the way, when did action movies stop giving their characters names as gloriously cheesy as these?). There latest assignment is to assassinate the military President of a small Latin American island. Ross and Christmas go down to scope it out before the job actually happens. They meet with their contact - Sandra (Giselle Itie) - but don’t like the lay of the land. It seems that the President is just a figurehead, and the real guy running the show is James Munroe (Eric Roberts - gloriously slimy). But Ross has developed a conscience - brought out during a recent conversation with Tool (Mickey Rourke), who used to be on the team, but now runs a tattoo palour, and simply puts Ross in contact with people who need his help. Tool is haunted by all the lives lost during his years of service, and Ross realizes that if he doesn’t go back, than Sandra will haunt him as well.

That is essentially the story of the film - but the movie not about its story, but about the action. And here is where Stallone really excels. The film opens with a bloody shootout in Africa before the main action of the film begins. When it does there are multiple shootouts, car chases and more explosions than any other movie that I can recall seeing. Stallone, who is never going to be considered a great director, knows how to stage an action scene. And even better, he doesn’t do the rapid fire editing so popular among action filmmakers these days. I could actually tell what the hell was happening during the almost none stop action sequences.

Perhaps even better to me is the way Stallone presents violence in the film. Like the latest Rambo movie (which is my mind was the best of the series), this is a movie that doesn’t skimp on the violence. When people get shot in this movie, they bleed, their arms fly off, their heads explode. The bloodshed is extreme, and to be this helps to make the movie better. Unlike most action movies, when people die in a Stallone film, it ends messy and in pain. You get the sense that they are actually dead. Rambo, with its massive half hour ending sequence that is among the bloodiest shootouts in cinema history, did this better, but it still works in The Expendables.

In a movie like this, performances are really secondary, but most of them here are pretty good. Stallone is still able to pull off the He Man like performance as the almost unstoppable man of violence. Statham is fine - better than normal actually - and Jet Li has some fun lines. The rest of the performances - by Crews, Coutre, Lundgren along with Steve Austin - are all fine, but nothing remotely special. Far and away the two best performances in the film belong to Mickey Rourke, who brings more gravity to his role as the depressed Tool than I would have thought possible, and Eric Roberts who goes way over the top, but creates a memorable screen villain.

The Expendables is by no means a great movie. It really isn’t that well written. But it is a movie that I have to admit I had fun watching pretty much from beginning to end. It does what it does with no pretensions. It doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is - an entertaining action movie where a bunch of shit gets blown up. If that’s enough for you - it was for me - than you will probably have as much fun as I did. If not, well, you’ve been warned.