30 December 2009

Sherlock Holmes

I grew up on Sherlock, quite literally.  I grabbed my dad's heavy volumes and looked at the original Strand etchings even before I could read the complicated stories.  And Jeremy Brett IS Sherlock Holmes.  Doyle himself couldn't have a qualm with that casting.  So I was initially thrilled when I heard of the pairing of Robert Downey, Jr and Jude Law as the storied sleuths.  Then I saw a trailer and felt betrayed.  Since when was Sherlock an action hero?  And Watson a slimy-looking ingrate?  I even get annoyed at the Basil Rathbone films when Watson is portrayed as a bumbling fool.  He is an doctor!  It was explained to me that this film was being based on graphic novel, not the stories, but I wasn't satisfied.  Sherlock is great - why mess with it? 
Then post-Christmas ennui set in and as the family sat around eating leftovers for dinner we contemplated our entertainment options (As funny as the word "squeakquel" is, we weren't going to sit through a story about hip-hop rodents).  We agreed (amazingly enough) on seeing Sherlock Holmes, all with the understanding that it not be compared to any other adaptations, or even the writings, really.  I chose to think of it as a guy in Victorian London who gets involved in sci-fi adventures.  
I am not an easy convert, but Sherlock ended up being a fun film and much more literary than I anticipated.  The "case" was not taken from any story I am aware of, but had elements of Holmesian problems.  Indeed, the consequences for not solving it in time were much more monumental than anything that Sherlock faced, except maybe the Naval Treaty.
It employed an interesting device, that was thankfully not overused, of letting us in on Holmes' thoughts and reasoning before seeing him carry it out.  It works, particularly by being introduced in a boxing match, that no Guy Ritchie movie can be without.
Downey, Jr. brings a nice levity to the character, and clearly was inspired by Brett's facial tics and idiosyncrasies.  Jude Law does well as Watson, but the character itself doesn't quite find its footing.  I don't blame Law, but rather the storyline.  It uses him as a soundboard for Holmes, which he often is, but it falters when it tries to give him his own backbone.  

The heroine, if she can be called that, is played by Rachel McAdams.  She too is passable, has a few scenes in which to shine, but her talent is underutilized.  Her character is also the only one that   drops the ball in terms of production design.  Her frocks are ridiculous and hot pink.  Not a good idea.  The rest of the set design was superb.  221b is a fabulous mess, one can almost smell the stench of the Thames, and the villain's lairs reek of turn-of-the-century nostalgia  (I am fairly certain they used the same prison yard and warehouse in Nolan's The Prestige.  And I think Watson wears the same jacket as Branagh's Hamlet).  

This jacket.

And this prison yard.

The face off with the bad guy got a bit long, and the "girl" isn't all that, but overall, the movie was very enjoyable, even for a stalwart Holmes fan. There is plenty to make a fan smile, and enough to keep a general viewer engaged.  The clues were dropped is a smart way, something not often seen anymore.  They weren't overt and obvious.  There is nothing more annoying than knowing the answer to the mystery but having to wait 2 hours for everyone around you to figure it out.  Not the case here.  Ideas were subtle enough to be mysterious yet visible enough to avoid the cliche it-was-the-guy-you-never-saw-who-did-it-the-whole-time (i.e. Bone Collector).
In short, go see Sherlock Holmes, even if you think you won't like it.  It won't be like any Sherlock you've seen before - but it won't be unrecognizable.

28 November 2009

Up in the Air

I truly wish the TV commercial for this movie did not tout it as being the "from director of Juno."  That is selling it short.  Or worse.  Juno was self-conscious in almost every aspect.  Up In The Air, however, is anything but that.  It is fresh, funny and touching -- and probably marks (I hope) a new epoch in George Clooney's somewhat uneven career (What was Leatherheads, anyway?)
Clooney's character, Ryan Bingham, acts as the narrator for a simple tale of a man who finds contentment in what others would consider drudgery.  He spends as much of his time in planes, airports, hotels and rental cars as work will allow.  He is precise and committed (as we are shown this through Wright/Pegg-like editing as he packs his suitcase, goes through security, etc.).  If he were a hue, he would be a comfortable, unoffending grey.  He uses this muted personality to deliver pink slips to employees at companies around the country.  It becomes clear that while he doesn't enjoy the job, he knows that he is good at it, or as good as anyone can be, and finds comfort in the idea that he is at least trying to lessen the blow.  
Young whippersnapper Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) joins the firing firm and announces that the company could save significant funds by laying off employees via teleconference.  Horrified at the insincerity of this change, and what it means for his own way of life, he convinces boss Jason Bateman to let him go on one last trip to show Keener the tricks.  
Now confronted with a loneliness he has not experienced, and the possibility that he may never meet up again with his airport fling, Alex (Vera Farmiga), he returns to the job with a new intensity.  

The movie is very witty, sharp, wry and funny.  It is also genuine and touching.  The punches are not pulled, even if they are somewhat expected.  The setups are not so overwhelming obvious that the audience is just waiting for their fulfillment.  The ride is actually interesting and enjoyable.  Clooney is channeling someone from his father's era with Cary Grant-like goofy expressions (see Charade, 1963), and he is comfortable in it.  Kendrick plays an overeager overachiever well.  She brings enough naivete to the role to make her vulnerable and therefore sympathetic.  Farmiga's range in this role is stunning.  She and Clooney have an unmistakable chemistry that is a joy to watch.  So much so that when she displays a coolness, it makes the audience squirm.  It is convincing and unnerving at once.  
Aside from the nauseatingly obvious and repetitive product placement of one of the major airlines, Up In The Air has much to recommend it.  Finally, someone decided to just tell a good story.  And they made it very enjoyable. 

12 November 2009

Youth in Revolt

Like most of America, I first became aware of Michael Cera with the all-too-short-lived comedy Arrested Development. Since his stint as the awkward George Michael Bluth, he has branched out to playing a slightly older but still awkward teenager looking to find his way in the adult world. 
Youth in Revolt is a similar picture. Sweet and shy, Nick Twisp narrates the pitfalls of his first romance (ostensibly, passages from his "diary" , which is really the book that the film is based on).  Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) is the young woman whose affection he pines for.  Like a knight on a quest, he traverses rickety mobile homes, stoned older brothers (Justin Long), a set of trailer-trash parents AND a set of Bible thumping parents to win the love of his lady.  And typical, predictable humor ensues. 
The more interesting twist to the tale is the inclusion of "Francois", a devil-may-care French alter ego who Nick seems to have no control over.  It is Francois who has the courage to say daring things and commit felonious acts.  And Cera gets this part to a tee.

  There is reference made to the Godard classic "Breathless" - Sheeni's posters on the wall, the mention of running away together like outlaws - but for film geeks it never pans out.  There easily could have been a shot of Francois, leaning up against a lamppost with a newspaper, planning to rob a bank just before the accidental arson, to give those who get it a chance to exercise their now sleeping braincells.  
And what ever happened to his friend who helped him sneak into the dorm?  We don't see him again until the end credits.  In fact, there was an audible "oh yeah..." from the crowd when he popped up.
Youth in Revolt is amusing.  If you like this kind of film.  Think Superbad with less weed, or fewer cops.  And no Seth Rogen (thank goodness).  Sheeni is wholly unlikable, to the point that you don't really want him to get the girl.  There are admirable appearances by Jean Smart, Steve Buscemi, and Zach Galifinakis.  
Overall, it just feels unfinished.  Or confused.  It could have been a truly unique version of the genre.  Instead, it is of the genre, with a minor gimmick.

04 November 2009

The Men Who Stare At Goats

Seriously. They actually do. This title is not a metaphor.
Like The Informant!, though less subtle, the film is adapted from a book by Jon Ronson, which is supposedly a collection of mostly true stories, and instead of saying "Based on a True Story" the opening credit leads with "More of this is true than you would believe." And they are probably right, but it is a fun romp for all of that.
Ewan MacGregor acts as the narrator and guide on this strange journey. He is a troubled reporter in Ann Arbor Michigan who decides to prove himself by following up on a story of ridiculousness of enormous proportions. His initial source claims to be part of an elite unit that was trained to use various psychic powers against the enemy. He travels to Kuwait, waiting for a chance to cross the border into Iraq to find more trainees. As luck would have it, he finds Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) in the hotel lobby and the story only gets weirder.
The movie is full of Family Guy-esque flashbacks (some almost non sequitur) featuring Jeff Bridges as the progenitor of the movement (in tripping Lebowski style), Kevin Spacey as the unamused and mediocre physic, now private contractor and Stephen Lang as a goofy, grinning BG Hopgood.

Clooney's character seems to span all the slices of time we are privy to, and as such he vacillates between looking like Dennis Farina, Tom Selleck and James Taylor circa 1971. He brings back a bit of the goofy seen in O, Brother but seems to have aged into this role a bit more thoughtfully. There is a sincerity underlying the crazy. We are sucked into believing him, like the reporter, even though what he describes is utterly nuts. It is a fun ride, like letting go on a roller coaster.
In the end, the film isn't about much. The only truthful moment is when Cassady and an Iraqi national assure one another that not everyone from their country is not a terrorist, or an idiot. If there is anything to take away from it, it is that it ok to laugh at the inanity of war sometimes.

The Young Victoria

The Brits have a love/hate obsession with their royals that is still somewhat a mystery to Americans. We have our celebrities that we love to hate but rarely, if ever, do we follow their story from birth to death. The young princes William and Harry have been speculated about since before they were born. For England, it has been true since the monarchy was installed. And as Americans, we have a limited, cursory view of the woman whose name inspired an era synonymous with propriety and staid relationships.
Seeing Academy Award winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes tender dramatization of Queen Victoria's early years was refreshing, lovely and often amusing. He interpreted a time in her life before she had become comfortable with power. Having been groomed to be nothing but a figurehead, she defied numerous pressures to take her place as the longest reigning English monarch to date.

Emily Blunt (who looks more than a little like HRH) brings an understated, light honesty to the role. She manages to show Victoria's humor, stubbornness, strength, compassion and uncertainty. Rupert Friend takes on the awkward but sweet and sincere Prince Albert of Saxon-Coburg. Their onscreen chemistry enhances the flirtatious nature of their courtship.
Most striking about the film's presentation is how accessible it is. Despite the depictions of excessive wealth, power, inane protocol, the audience is constantly aware that these are just people. It is more than a costume drama. It makes one of history's most notable love affairs as simple as a college sweetheart romance. They are nervous, excited, and have fights, just like any couple. The audience was actually cheering when the two finally become engaged -- even though we all knew the Victoria and Albert were a couple.
Additionally, Jim Broadbent's boisterous King William is very funny, and again underscores that everyone has an ungrateful aunt, a difficult uncle or an annoying cousin. Families will be families, no matter how blue their blood.

The Young Victoria bases itself on true events, including Sir John's vehement wish for a Regency, the attempt on Victoria's life and Victoria and Albert's adjoining desks. Of course, much of the dialogue is speculation, but Fellowes embeds so much that we cannot help but fall in love with the royals, just like any Brit.

22 September 2009

The Informant!

Based on a memoir/novel/autobiography of a whistleblower at a large chemical company, The Informant! is a quirky comedy that avoids the pitfalls of most similarly-tilted films. Matt Damon plays the protagonist, Mark Whitacre, an uncomfortable chemist at Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM). He is working to solve a problem with one of their components when he stumbles upon evidence of a price-fixing scheme. He reports his suspicions to the FBI and agrees to spy in order to gather actionable proof.
The casting of this movie is impeccable. Damon draws on the awkwardness (and frightening intelligence) of Tom Ripley, the paranoia of Jason Bourne and the deadpan comedy of the Ocean's franchise to sketch this absurdly funny character. Melanie Lynskey is his sweet, trusting and naive wife with a cutesy voice and perky smile. The combination is so saccharine that if it weren't tongue-in-cheek it would be sickening. There are several character actors and recognizable-but-not-too-famous faces in the group, but the most brilliant piece of casting is Scott Bakula. He plays the (un)lucky FBI agent who picks up case. His portrayal of an overworked, under-appreciated g-man who hates wearing a suit but loves catching bad guys is spot-on. Additionally, the very funny Joel McCale, as Bakula's partner, makes a great foil to the disillusioned agent.
In fact helmer Steven Soderberg manages to make a style out of the hideous Federal office buildings that cropped up in the late 60s and early 70s. Indeed, the film, at times, seems set in the 70s rather than the mid-90s. Decorative cinder blocks, translucent window inserts, floor tiles that look like pebbles were rolled into cement and then cut flush, and molded plastic chairs with uneven feet create an atmosphere of alternate reality in these government buildings. For an Illinoian, one of the most incredible details was the inclusion of Abraham Lincoln in every office interior of the movie. As any native knows, Illinois calls itself the Land of Lincoln and touts this honor with great pride.
This movie is fresh, funny, and quirky - without being full of self-referential insider humor that is too busy being proud of itself to tell a good story.

06 September 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino's most recent outing is, well, Tarantino. He was both writer and director for this one and it is entirely referential of something else, but never anything original. Some think this makes him genius. Most find this to be proof that he is actually incapable of entirely creative thought and devoid of the ability to bring anything new to cinema. And, as if that weren't bad enough, he is now selling his film as something other than what it is. Anyone who saw a trailer, clip or poster would think this film was going to be a bloodbath of vigilante Nazi killings, complete with gore and sound effects to make an audience squirm (think Grindhouse and the jar of eyeballs). Instead, there is very little Nazi scalping to be found. The film is more of a spy drama, with two plots set to converge at a small movie house.

We are introduced to Brad Pitt's crew of cutthroats, but then the plot veers away and follows a young woman (who narrowly escaped the clutches of the Holocaust) who now runs a theatre in Paris. When the Germans hire the hall to show their latest propaganda film, Melanie Laurent sets about to bring down the Third Reich. Sadly, although her character looks the part, she has little passion to back it up. Her acting does not carry the coldness well. Cold should not come across as bored.

Simultaneously, Pitt's men go undercover to make contract with an Ufa actress turned British spy in a ratskeller. Unfortunately, this scene, like most scenes, drags on interminably. It seems like it was supposed to heighten tension, but it was ineffectual. And Diane Kruger, accomplished though she is, could not carry the scene either. It was simply too long and too dry for anyone to save.

Brad Pitt is a caricature of a staunch American that thinks the bad guys get what they deserve. He has no qualms and no reserve. The annoying part is his accent and carriage. It doesn't fit. He looks awkward and stilted -- much like John Wayne in an old Western. Unless Tarantino was referencing that too.

The best thing about the film by far is the superb performance by Christoph Waltz, as Col. Hans Landa. He is extraordinarily frightening as the Nazi operative who finds hiding Jews. The opening scene, which could easily be too long, is held together quite adeptly by his metered portrayal of a patient and exacting hunter. He manages to be cold, without being bored, or boring. He is so believable and scary. The very sound of the creaking of his leather jacket sends up chills.

If Tarantino wanted to make a nazi slasher movie, he should have done that. If he wanted to make a taut spy drama, he should have done that. Instead, he tried to put the two together and both halves suffered for it. To be fair, no matter what he might have done to pare it down would have only helped in the slightest, because what you are left with is still trite, annoying, transparent and vain.

04 September 2009

The Goods: Live Hard. Sell Hard

This silly movie is pretty much what you expect from it. James Brolin owns a used car lot but is having trouble moving the merchandise. He brings in a team of ringers to help his clear the stock. Jeremy Piven, Ving Rhames, David Koechner, and Kathryn Hahn round out the cast of itinerant hucksters.
There is very little surprising from this comedy. Each character is crass in their own way. They elicit chuckles and a bit of pity for their sad lives but not much happens in their lives. Even the subplot of Piven and the love interest is terribly predictable. What it does have going for it, is a quick pace that rarely lets up. Probably the most brilliant thing the film did was jump into the comedy immediately out of the gate. Within the first 90 seconds, the tone and pace are set before the audience can catch its breath. By keeping the audience in its toes, we aren't able to notice the rather loose plot or details.
The other rather fun surprise were the cameos that appeared out of the blue. Will Ferrell (who also produced) and Alan Thicke being the most funny.
The Goods is amusing and good for a few laughs. There are a couple of good "take home" lines, and make sure you stay through the credits for a odd but laughable detail. But it is not something you will want to watch over and over. Enjoy it for what it is, but don't expect more. I have a feeling they weren't trying to make anything more either.

06 July 2009

Public Enemies

What was Michael Mann thinking? He had a great story, good actors, a budget and the interest of the audience -- but he squandered it with confusing storytelling, an underused cast, and strange cinematography. It all added up to a jolty, disjunct, and uncomfortable film.
Johnny Depp plays the charming bank robber John Dillinger who knocked over financial institutions in the midwest, got arrested, broke out, and did it all over again. Along the way, he picks up the affections of Billie Frechette, the adorable coat check girl played by Marion Cotillard, and the attentions of the overeager J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and hungry bloodhound agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale).
If it was attempting to tap into the gangster drama of the early 30s (which we know people in a recession go for), it fell short. If it was trying to remake the genre for a modern audience, it was more annoying that fruitful. We like Dillinger, but only because we know we are supposed to. His character is not particularly likable or despicable. His motives are largely unknown or understood. Boredom, perhaps? Dillinger was loved by the public for his ability to stick it to "the man." He did what they couldn't. There is one scene, the prison transfer, that shows this charm, but surely that was not enough to win over the sympathies of a nation? His wily nature is only sometimes evident, as in the squad room scene.
Cotillard did the best she could with what she was given. She shines in her main scene, when she protects Dillinger. Elsewhere she is almost annoyingly ditzy. Bale, too, has little to recommend him. His best scene is when we first meet him, hunting down Pretty Boy Floyd. He is stoic, assured and cold.
Overall, the best scene may be the ending, when a Myrna Loy montage peppers an intense sequence.
Lastly, and most annoyingly, was the camera work. It is almost all handheld, shaky, and tightly zoomed. When it isn't that, it is some sort of digital HD that makes it look like a History Channel re-enacted special on mobsters. Here's the thing -- "old-timey" movies don't work with a high-tech look (See: Beowulf by Robert Zemeckis). Public Enemies would have benefitted greatly from a least one Panavision with breathing 35mm film. That and another re-write to smooth out the bumps between video-game violence and a director who could have brought out the best in his actors.

25 June 2009

The Brothers Bloom

I saw this film by accident. I hadn't seen a poster, a commercial or a trailer. I didn't see an ad or a review. My boyfriend and I were looking to see what was out and saw it listed on one screen in the entire city. We looked it up, watched the preview and thought it seemed like great fun and far better than any of the other offerings.
The film opens with the brothers as children. It sets up their dynamic wonderfully, and we are off on the adventures with them. They have perfected the art of the con, able to weasel just about anything out of anyone. The older brother, played by Mark Ruffalo, is obsessed with the perfection of the scheme, while the younger, Adrian Brody, is growing tired of the game. He wants something in his life to be real, rather than arranged.
With the promise that it will be the last, they embark on a con of international proportions, with the help of explosives expert "Bang Bang" (Rinko Kikuchi) The mark is Penelope, Rachel Weisz, a spoiled, sheltered very wealthy girl, who shares the same desire for a "real" experience.
Convinced that she is in on the scheme, the set out to purchase a rare book on the black market to resell it to a collector in Mexico. They traipse through Greece, Prague, New Jersey, Russia and the Atlantic before all is said and done.
It is a charming movie. The characters are cheeky and endearing, if eccentric. The romp is fun, and often funny. It uses its quick pace to its advantage, for the most part. The production design is divine, for the most part, but it can be confusing. Most of the costuming and sets would suggest the tale is set in the 20s or 30s, yet there is modern technology and cars. Although Rian Johnson (director and producer) is astute in thinking that the style should fit the "old-timey" look of the turn-of-the-century, it can be a bit jarring at time. Still, it is mostly well-integrated. Wit and dialogue abound, but for a film about perfection, it fails to hold itself to the same standard. Some plot details are missing, or unexplained, and it is not clear that it was done on purpose or if it was the casualty of the cutting room.
Overall, it film is well-acted, and enjoyable. It is a shame it didn't have more publicity behind it. It is fun to watch, and I want to see it again. Perhaps the disappointment I felt lay in the fact that it could have been a stunningly excellent film, and it was instead a very good movie.

19 May 2009

Angels and Demons

A follow-up to The DaVinci Code, Ron Howard's latest outing features fun locations and gritty violence. This installment (which mentions Langdon's past run-ins) pits science against religion, or more precisely, religious tradition. The Cern collider has managed to capture anti-matter, which was quickly stolen by an evildoer. Meanwhile, the Pope has died and the college of cardinals is about to go into conclave and choose a new leader. On the eve of the conclave, the preferiti, the favorite four choices, are kidnapped and the bad guy threatens to blow up the Vatican -- in prose, of course. His communications are "dense" and so a Vatican police officer swoops in and grabs Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) for help. His sometimes-sidekick is revealed to be the lovely Italian scientist who headed up the physics experiment gone haywire.
The two run around Rome, trailed by various levels of police/guards/henchmen, with time ticking away. They have to beat the assassin to the punch, by following clues left by Galileo and his ilk -- aka the "Illuminati." Langdon uses this to get into the Vatican archives (access that has so far been denied) by gaining the confidence of the Camerlengo (aptly played by Ewan MacGregor).
My problems with this movie are more to do with the story, than the filmmaking. I didn't read this book (I read The DaVinci Code before that film came out) but it doesn't hang together nearly as well as the first movie. There are too many lucky happenstances and not enough mystery-solving. It's too bad, because the premise was interesting. Even if it were "legend" versus "real" history, it can still be fun to immerse yourself in. But the Bourne Identity-like camerawork and sometimes-graphic violence overtake the heart of the story-telling details. It seems too preoccupied with pulling the wool over the eyes of its audience. We are supposed to suspect one person, then another, then look away and miss the truth but it doesn't really work. And the poor CGI boom shots of various locations do not help. I can't believe Ron Howard couldn't get permits to shoot in Rome. The shell game distracts from what could be a fun quest movie. It has a great cast -- including Armin Mueller-Stahl and Stellan Skarsgard -- and they are all admirable but they can only lift it to a certain point. If you ever needed the definition of the difference between a "movie" and a "film," Angels and Demons is the perfect example.

23 April 2009

Changeling (2008)

I was conflicted about seeing this film. I almost always like Clint Eastwood's directing style, but I almost never like Angelina Jolie. Eastwood's view through the camera lens is clean and pure. It is like looking up from a book when you have been reading all day, and suddenly all the words that have been swimming in front of your eyes are gone. Jolie, in most of her films it seems, is either a caricature or empty (See my review of Wanted). But Eastwood manages to sand down the rough edges. In fact, even-handedness is the word of the day with the film.
Changeling begins in 1920s Los Angeles, an idyllic, bygone existence. Mrs. Collins is a single mother of a nine-year old boy, Walter. The two have carved out a simple, if predictable, life together. It then chronicles the horrific serial killer that is uncovered while investigating the child's disappearance. His mother (Jolie) is adamant that they boy returned to her by the insistent LAPD is not her son. Afraid to be further reviled and embarrassed the force seeks to subvert Mrs. Collins' protestations -- first by threat, then by committing her to an insane asylum. Using the excuse of her delicate femininity and the stress of losing her only son as an excuse, they inflict rigorous physical and emotional torture. Their object is either to break her will, or keep her in the sanitarium -- either way, she is prevented from speaking to the press or being believed. Finally, an astute (and not corrupt) detective takes an interest in the case and the pieces start to make sense.
Eastwood's steady direction makes this film work. It easily could have become a vehement, man-hating manifesto. Instead it lands as an anti-corruption treatise and interesting historical chronicle of a story lost to time. It encourages the spectator to rethink what is "crazy", what we believe in ourselves and of others. It encourages the audience not to give up. Although she is "saved" by a man, it is not because he is a male figure that he helps. He is a character who believes in fairness. And, in fact, she was just as tormented by women in her stay at the asylum. It is the detective's fairness, and Eastwood's attempt at fairness, that allows the film to stand as a fully-explored tale. It also deftly handles what is an awful series of murders. Eastwood puts across the terror of his victims and the helplessness of their situation without making a gory mess of things.
As usual, Eastwood's art direction brings to life a Los Angeles of the past -- one that is so important to understanding the context of the story (the color choices alone warrants an article). It also features a typically-simple musical motif. Changeling is not ground-breaking, or even surprising, but it is solid filmmaking with an interesting story to tell -- which is hard enough to achieve anymore.
Also starring Jeffery Donovan, John Malkovich, and Michael Kelly.

07 April 2009

Lured (1947)

This fascinating, well-paced and superbly-acted film has somehow managed to slip away unnoticed in the annals of classic film. It stars a young and cheeky Lucille Ball as an American chorus girl/hoofer in 1940s London. Her best friend disappears after answering an ad in the personal section. While questioning the spunky Sandra, Scotland Yard enlists her help to find the poetic killer who lures young girls with his unusual writing. She answers the ads, under the watchful eye of the detectives, and tries to ferret out the murderer. Her adventures lead her to meetings both frightful and funny.
Along the way, she bumps into the ever-charming George Sanders, man-about-town. They find romance but as the net closes in around the culprit, she begins to suspect her fiance may be out to get her.
Ball is gorgeous, stunning and is wielding her own brand of sass in this film. It is a brilliant example of what she could do, without the pratfalls and slapstick of 1950s television. Sanders is as devastatingly suave as ever. He gleefully combines the sophistication of his role in Dorian Gray, the stoic mind of his doctor in Village of the Damned and his slightly sleazy charm from Rebecca to create his most well-rounded character to date. Charles Coburn is delightful as the reliable chief inspector at Scotland Yard. There is a lovely, funny and slightly off-balance small role for Boris Karloff, as a mad fashion designer. He seems to be thoroughly enjoying the chance to be completely off-the-wall. Also enjoyable is the slow character arc displayed by Cedric Hardwicke as Sander's secretary. This cast is perhaps so vibrant due to the even-handed direction by Douglas Sirk.
Fans of Sirk may feel a bit uneasy about seeing a film of his in black and white, and a suspenseful noir to boot. But only his touch could have made this what it is. It is beautifully shot, taking full advantage of light and shadow, black and white, and all the greys inbetween. The dark, sinister London nights are crooked and winding, to be sure, but we are led there by a shining, innocent (but hardly naive) red-head. There we meet interesting characters and almost forget we are on the trail of a killer.
Luckily, this film was recently released on DVD by Kino Video - no excuse in waiting until it comes on TCM again to check it out.

28 February 2009


William Castle took over (unofficially) for Curt Siodmak in the campy horror genre in the late 1950s. Castle directed such pictures as 13 Ghosts, Mr. Sardonicus, and The Tingler. All his films of this type were alike in that they featured some sort of audience participation gimmick. 13 Ghosts was shown in something called "Illusion-O", a sister to 3-D, that required flimsy glasses to create the desired effect. Patrons of The Tingler no doubt remember being "pinched" by the specially installed seats, made to make the audience yelp during the film.
Strait-Jacket seems to be an attempt to make legitimate fare out of clearly gory thriller elements (although patrons were given cardboard axes to swing during the movie). Joan Crawford, having just come off of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, signed on to work with Castle on this picture. She retained most of the control, however, getting final cast and script approval, and bringing her own light crew and hair and makeup department.
The story revolves around Lucy (Crawford) who finds her no-good husband (Lee Majors, uncredited) in bed with another woman. Overcome with anger, she grabs a wood axe and chops them to pieces while they sleep. Her daughter Carol (Diane Baker), about age 7, witnesses the gruesome scene. After her mother is sent to an asylum, she goes to live with her aunt and uncle in the country. 20 years later, Lucy is released and goes to live with the happy three on the farm. Not surprisingly, Lucy has trouble adjusting to society, particularly to her daughter's soon-to-be fiance, Michael, and his family. Then, people start dying and disappearing and Lucy is suspected.
Anyone who has seen Hitchcock's Psycho will recognize this contains similar tropes -- because it shares the screenwriter. Dr. Anderson (Mitchell Cox, president of Pepsi at the time), her rehabilitation specialist, is just like Detective Arbogast. Michael is similar to Janet Leigh's boyfriend. Even Carol resembles Vera Miles in her gentle, sweet demeanor. Down to the last moment, with the tacked-on clumsy, expositional ending, it echoes of Psycho. But the quietness of Hitchcock's film is nowhere to be found. Strait-Jacket is choppy, brazen and ragged. Out of place theramin music punctuates at odd moments - as if the sight of Crawford's falling face, starkly lit, wielding an axe needed accentuating.
As much as this film pretends to be a gore fest, it is really about people desperately clinging to something that is slipping away. Carol is holding onto the idea of a lost mother, adn her chance of happiness with her finace. The aunt and uncle want to see life continue as it was before Lucy arrived. Michael's parents are determined to keep their son away from such a low-brow family. Lucy is trying to cling to her last bit of sanity, and hope for a normal life.
Most of all, it is clear that Joan Crawford is clinging to a level of stardomthat began to crumble as her age began to creep across her face. She is desperate to prove her staying power as an A-list actress in a B movie. She brings the same gravity that she showed in Mildred Pierce and Harriet Craig. But in her eyes, the fraility is not just her character's. Her struggle and determination are evident. Strait-Jacket is an enjoyable, is not perfect, picture -- for its campiness and to see Crawford fighting to stay on top.

26 February 2009

Gran Torino

It seems every year the Oscars get further and further from the most deserving movies.  
Clint Eastwood directed, starred, and co-wrote the theme song in this quietly growling, gritty film.  He plays the grumpy old widower Walt who is a hold out for his way of life.  
Often seen sitting on his porch, cracking a beer and petting his dog, he simply wants to be left alone.  He still takes immaculate care of his home and yard, while the neighborhood disintegrates around him.  He owns a mint Gran Torino, that sits in his garage while he drives a beat-up old truck.  He is a contradiction to himself.  Yet, his own strict moral code prevents him from standing by when he witnesses neighborhood violence.   Despite himself, he gets involved -- and begins to care.  He finds purpose, even with the recent death of his wife and the distance of his children.
Eastwood could have easily made this character gruff and uninteresting.  Instead he found the layers embedded in the script, and pieced together a complicated patchwork of elements.  Walt is gruff, but he is more than that.  He is tender, stubborn, frustrated, tired, soulful, exacting, and determined.  One can't help thinking of it as a bit of an elegy for Eastwood himself - marrying his own sentiments with the rough and tumble characters he has portrayed.
The otherwise rookie cast holds their own, particularly the neighbors.  In fact their relative anonymity is essential to the palpable realism they create.
Eastwood has mentioned this will be his last acting gig, but let's hope this is not his last outing as a director.  He delicate touch, even with violent topics, is a welcome sight in a glut of flashy Hollywood products.

19 February 2009


This Edward Zwick film bases its main details on the true stories of the Bielski brothers. The Jewish family lived in Poland in the late 1930s and was terrorized by the SS. This particular chapter chronicles their decision to live in the forest (again) but this time as a community. They take in stragglers, older folks, and children. The struggle comes not just in their survival, but the difference of philosophies among the brothers. Tuvia (Daniel Craig), is the oldest and clearly demands the most respect. This films portrays him as a general who must make difficult decisions that may mean hardship, but also means the best chance for enduring. They building homes and defenses, and learn to shoot. Just one of the many such images that stands out is Craig, slumped with illness and hunger, atop of a white horse in the snowy woods. No presence is more commanding, except perhaps Washington at Valley Forge.
In addition to his responsibility to his wards, he must also look after his younger brothers, both more hot-headed (and idealistic) than he. Zus (Liev Schreiber) has a more hardened approach to dealing with the strenuous circumstances. Never thinking they do enough to make the Germans hurt, Zus leaves the forest and goes to fight with the Russian resistance. Schreiber portrays this ambivalence well. He is caught between his family and his principles (which makes it all the more stunning when he makes a final stand).
The most implusive of all is Asael (Jamie Bell). Seeing this youngest brother and parents get killed, he is the most angry. From his anger, and naivete, comes courage that proves invaluable.
Defiance does a very fine job of displaying a portrait of life. Of being forced to live in the woods or face certain death, Tuvia says, “We may live like animals, but we will not become animals.” The film, brilliantly acted, certainly shows this to be true, despite the many hardships. The brothers, and other characters are constantly tested. Their morals, their convictions, and their humanity are always being tried.
Ultimately, the film is about balance. When do you stay, and when do you go? When to you risk all for the temporary safety of the few? When do you run and when do you fight back? When do you cross your own line and how do you come home?

15 January 2009


This bumbling feature barely qualifies to be called a "film".  It is an animated tale about lizard-like people whose two races (one with wings and one without) have declared war on one another.  It's kinda like Pocahontas & John Smith meets Star Wars, with a little Lord of the Rings mythology mixed in.  (And if you are going to yank from Star Wars, why do you include Jar-Jar Binks?) But for all its liberal borrowing (some might say stealing) it shows none of the heart, depth or even interest of any of these classic stories.  The plot is Saran Wrap -- transparent and disposable -- but less reliable.   It would seem that since there was no effort spent on dialogue or character development, someone would have had time to notice the giant holes.
Perhaps it was due to the several years (I've heard anywhere between 6-15) in production but the animation is well behind the times, worse than films made 10 or 15 years ago.  It makes Betty Boop cartoons look ground-breaking.  It would be barely be a passable video game. If only the animators had opted for hand drawing style featured in the final credits.
There are two things that make Delgo of note, however.  One - how they ever managed to get such a long list of notable voice actors is a miracle.  The cast includes Freddie Prinze, Jr., Jennifer Love Hewitt, Anne Bancroft, Chris Kattan, Val Kilmer, Malcolm McDowell, Louis Gossett, Jr., Michael Clarke Duncan, Eric Idle, Kelly Ripa, and Burt Reynolds. I wonder how many of them even got the entire script, or saw a frame of the finished animation.  
Secondly, Delgo has the distinction of being the worst-performing wide release ever.  Opening in 2160 screens, is barely broke half a million dollars.  Since the next-worst opening record was $2 mil, they should have this record in the bag for a long, long time.

02 January 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

If you've read the classic short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, be warned.  The wit and charm (and the major plot points) are missing from this melodramatic adaptation.  The story was inspired by Mark Twain's comment that youth is wasted on the young.  Fitzgerald took the idea and ran with it, and the film shares the same central idea.  A baby is born as an old man, then grows younger as time passes, until dying as a baby.  
The film explores the idea that the certain advantages of having the wisdom of age in your youthful years are far outweighed by disadvantage of never being headed the same direction as those you love.  A somber Brad Pitt plays the mysterious Benjamin Button.  He trips and stumbles through hardships, outlined by major historic events, like a Forrest Gump tag-along, if more effectively.  Crossing his path is the beautiful (as always) Cate Blanchett, a snobbish, vapid ballet dancer whose siren red hair awkwardly harkens back to Moira Shearer's The Red Shoes.  The two attempt, in fits and starts, to form a relationship despite their different lives.  
The film uses small details fairly well, like the evolution of the retirement home where Button grows up and the ballet revue of Carousel.  But where it matters, it doesn't quite rise to the occasion.  Pitt and Blanchett show some sparks of natural chemistry at times, but it is inconsistent.  Pitt's character is flat, and nearly opaque.  We are given little to go on in terms of his feelings, or the knowledge and experience he is gaining.  Blanchett's character is so selfish through most of the film that it is hard to imagine Button being so head over heels.  Mostly, it seems impossible that their relationship would have taken the arc it did -- if we all want to find the love of our lives, how could we possibly let it go when we do?  There is little to redeem their selfish actions.
The minor helps, like the senile man who likes to tell stories about getting hit by lightning, the nod of the scars of WWI's need for a useable past, and the sly appearance of Tilda Swinton, attempt to level out this overall heavy-handed film -- all the more disappointing because of the enormous potential.