Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Review: A Face in the Crowd (1957)

* * * *

Director: Elia Kazan
Starring: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau

Sometimes films need to be seen from a distance in order to be properly appreciated. Though it seems to be accepted as a masterpiece now (as it should be; it's one of Elia Kazan's best films and Elia Kazan was no stranger to greatness), A Face in the Crowd was tepidly received on its initial release in 1957. How that could be, how critics could dismiss this film as anything less than a major work, seems like a mystery now, but maybe it was just too far ahead of its time, too caustic, too hard edged. Watching it I was reminded very much of Network, a somewhat similarly themed film but one which had the good fortune to be released at exactly the right time to be seen for what it is: a work of absolute brilliance. A Face in the Crowd is like a precursor to that film, both stories in which a nation becomes captivated by men with a certain amount of madness and then watch as he's destroyed by the very medium that made him.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Review: The Station Agent (2003)

* * * *

Director: Thomas McCarthy
Starring: Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale

I'd heard of The Station Agent. I knew it had been well-received, and I knew that it was from the writer/director of The Visitor, a film which made it into my Top 10 for 2008. Yet it took me 11 years to finally see The Station Agent, a film so delightful, so effortlessly charming and affecting that I feel as though I let myself down by not seeing it earlier. A finely realized character study propelled by a trio of great performances, The Station Agent is alternately funny and melancholy, but above all it's a wonderful film.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Let the Right One In (2008)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson
Country: Sweden

“I’m twelve. But I’ve been twelve for a long time.” Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, adapted and based on the novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist, is a vampire story, but more than that it’s a story of profound loneliness. The two characters at its center are outcasts, one self-isolated by necessity, the other rejected by his peers, who find each other and develop a bond – but it’s a dangerous bond, one created by a mutual fascination with and need for violence. Since this film’s release (if not before) vampires have become so de rigueur in pop culture that they’ve become mundane, but thanks to its almost poetic flourishes and the two deeply felt and compelling performances that drive the story forward, Let the Right One In remains a vital entry in the genre and an absolutely captivating film.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Female Buddy Comedies

#5: The Heat

Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy have both been on a roll, so it's no surprise that the film which brought them together is a comedic force to be reckoned with. Foul mouthed, action packed, and wildly funny, The Heat puts a new spin on the buddy cop subgenre.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

* * *

Director: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller

As funny as it is, you wouldn't expect the writer/director of a film as profoundly silly as Zoolander to later come out with a film as contemplative and ambitious as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. A film about living as big as you're capable of dreaming and dreaming as big as you can, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty settles for nothing less than a grand vision. It doesn't always reach the very high bar it sets for itself, but it never fails to be entertaining, alternately funny and touching, and always stunning to look at.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review: The Grandmaster (2013)

* * 1/2

Director: Wong Kar-wai
Starring: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang

As a visual work, Wong Kar-wai's action biopic The Grandmaster is nothing short of spectacular. Photographed by Philippe Le Sourd (Oscar nominated for his work here) the film is crisply, gorgeously rendered, capturing the sumptuousness of the more ornate sets and the brutal precision of the action sequences in equal measure. As a visual piece, it works splendidly. As a story it finds less success, following its characters over the course of twenty or so years and during a period of intense social and political flux and change, but never really finding its center. It's saved by strong performances and perfectly executed action pieces, but remains a film with a measurable disparity between its ambition and its execution.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Review: Modern Times (1936)

* * * *

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard

Even if you've never seen Modern Times, the image of Charlie Chaplin being worked through the giant gears of a machine is probably nevertheless familiar to you, and it's an image that effectively distills the essence of the film: the modern world is grinding the lower classes up. It's a perfectly rendered visual gag, pulled off with the grace and joy of performance that Chaplin brings to all his films. Even though Modern Times is an unmistakably political film (in tone, not affiliation) about society modernizing itself away from humanity, it's never heavy handed. Chaplin was a filmmaker who could make his point through comedy, trusting the audience not to stop thinking about the meaning behind what's happening on screen, even when what's happening is supremely silly; and even though the film is now 78 years old, it hasn't lost any of its spark.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: The Way Way Back (2013)

* * 1/2

Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Starring: Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Steve Carell

Sam Rockwell is a resource that Hollywood hasn't really used to its advantage. I can't think of any Rockwell movie I've seen which wasn't vastly improved merely by his presence and his ability to make the most out of every part he's given, no matter how small and regardless of genre. This is a blessing and a curse, however, because it means that borderline films seem to cross solidly into "good" when he's on screen, and then backslide when he's not. That's how I felt while watching The Way Way Back, a film with flaws that start to seem inconsequential whenever it drops in on Rockwell's character, but which become glaring whenever it moves on to other matters.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Cinematographers Turned Directors

#5: Ronald Neame

As a cinematographer, Ronald Neame helped bring to life such films as Blithe Spirit, In Which We Serve and Major Barbara. As a director, he would be responsible for such films as I Could Go On Singing, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Scrooge, The Poseidon Adventure and The Odessa File.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review: The Thin Blue Line (1988)

* * * *

Director: Errol Morris

It had probably been about 10 years since I last watched Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, and though I'd remembered that it was good, I'd forgotten just how good it is. I remembered some of the flashier elements, like the recreation of Robert Wood being shot multiple times and the shot of the milkshake flying through the air, but I'd forgotten just how chilling it is to listen to David Harris, whose relaxed and soft spoken demeanor only make him scarier. But it's not just Harris that makes the film so enduringly powerful, nor the fact the film actually had a measurable impact on the life of its subject by playing a role in Randall Adams' eventual release from prison. Rather, the film remains so powerful because of the craft of its construction and the fact that time and imitators have not in the least chipped away at that sense of craft.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

21st Century Essentials: A History of Violence (2005)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, William Hurt, Maria Bello, Ed Harris
Country: USA/Germany/Canada

On the surface, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is a film about a man whose past catches up with him, tearing his present-day life apart. Beneath the surface – and none too far – it is a film about our contradictory view of violence, how it is abhorred when used in the commission of a crime but glorified and celebrated when deployed in an act of self-defense. The film’s protagonist is at once a bad man who kills for bad reasons and a good man who kills for good reasons, and the question the film asks is not whether the man can be reconciled to these two sides of himself, but whether society can reconcile itself to the fact that the two sides can exist in one individual man and within the collective consciousness that makes up society itself.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Voice Performances in Animated Films

#5: Kathleen Turner, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

She's not bad, she's just drawn that way. Part Rita Hayworth, part Veronica Lake, but nothing without the sultry voice work by Kathleen Turner, which truly turns this animated character into a femme fatale who could compete with the best of the bad girls from film noir.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review: Safety Last! (1923)

* * * 1/2

Director: Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor
Starring: Harold Lloyd

Everyone knows Charlie Chaplin. Most people know Buster Keaton. But outside of film geeks, few know Harold Lloyd, even though he was one of the most popular and influential comedians of the silent era. You can maybe chalk that up to the fact that his personal life was far less volatile than that of either Chaplin or Keaton, unmarred by the sex scandals that plagued the former or the tragic alcoholism of the latter - by not being notorious, Lloyd is doomed to the fringes of remembrance. You could also, however, chalk it up to the fact that Lloyd's films are as nonthreatening as his persona, films that are good, sometimes close to great, but ultimately lacking that extra edge that separates the best from the rest. That said, Lloyd's films are worth seeking out whether you're a film buff or simply someone curious about silent comedy, and Safety Last! is the best place to start, featuring as it does one of Lloyd's best known stunt pieces (arguably one of the best known stunt pieces in all silent comedy).

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

* * 1/2

Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Will Farrell

While watching Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, it became increasingly clear that the first film captured lightning in a bottle. Both films are loose limbed and shaggy in their construction but, though Anchorman 2 arguably has a more concrete sense of thematic purpose, it's the original that emerges as the superior (by far) film, one which for all its silliness and sense of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks, existed for its own purpose. The sequel knows what sticks to the wall and exists primarily to repeat those motions. This isn't to say that Anchorman 2 isn't funny, because it is, it's just that it's funny in the way that a joke you've already heard can still be funny without having the impact that it had the first time.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Hollywood Book Club: Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob (and Sex)

While plenty of books (a few of them great ones) have been written about Hollywood in the late 60s/early 70s, a period of radical creative freedom and risk taking, few can claim to come from a perspective as deep inside as Peter Bart's Infamous Players. As Vice President of Paramount Pictures from 1965 to 1975, Bart had a front row seat to some of the major films of the period, including the first two Godfather films, Chinatown, and Don't Look Now, and was privy to some of the goings on behind the curtain involving Charles Bluhdorn, whose company owned Paramount during the period and whose sometimes "creative" business practices seemed to keep Paramount forever on the verge of being shut down; and given that Bart was a reporter before he became a film executive, he might be expected to have written an incisive portrait of that era. Unfortunately, Infamous Players, though very readable and entertaining, doesn't really contain much in the way of depth, and prefers to offer what mostly amounts to thin sketches of anecdotes that have already been related in more detail in other books.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori

To enter a Wes Anderson film is to enter a world that resembles our own in only the most superficial of ways, a hyperreality that plays by its own rules and is at once much flatter and much livelier than our own. You know a Wes Anderson film the second you lay eyes on it, because his visual style, the mathematical precision of his particular brand of whimsy, is so distinctly his own that it can belong to no one else. The director's latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is at once 100% in keeping with his work leading up to it, while at the same time being a significant departure. The Anderson hallmarks are all here, but despite the film's candy colored pallet, this is a much darker and more violent film than those that came before it. It's a film that's as mournful as it is funny, the pall of loss hanging over every scene but never dragging the film down.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Oscar Cursed... Halle Berry Edition

It had to come to this sooner or later. I think that Halle Berry's win in 2002 is one of the first that comes to mind when people think of the "Oscar Curse," yet when you examine the evidence, that notion seems to be less about Berry and her career specifically, and more about what Berry's win represented (and then failed to live up to). That's a lot for Berry to have to shoulder, and if her career has failed to build on her Oscar win, I don't think that's entirely her fault under the circumstances... but that doesn't mean that her career nosedive wasn't at least in part the result of some incredibly bad choices.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Review: Drinking Buddies (2013)

* * *

Director: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick

They'd probably be perfect for each other, if only they were a little less perfect for each other. As it is they're basically the same person, which means that when they get along, they get along extremely well, and when they aren't getting along, it's a disaster. Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies is a finely observed, if somewhat low stakes, romantic drama that hinges on the tension of possibility, and effectively uses genre conventions to pull that tension as far as it can go. When all is said and done the film doesn't entirely come together they way it should, but it has enough to recommend it to make it worth seeing.