Sunday, December 13, 2009
With A Christmas Carol, director Robert Zemeckis shakes off the stilted wonderment of his recent pictures, casts off his cold reverence for technology and brings us a holiday film that is also a giddy tribute to good old-fashioned storytelling. There is scarcely a moment onscreen when we aren't aware that we are being manipulated, but the storytelling is so confident, disarming and ultimately satisfying that we gladly give ourselves to it. Jim Carrey's Scrooge effectively bridges the gap between old and new audiences (if there are any audiences who are new to the story), but the real star is Zemeckis. His agile camera twists and turns with a dizzying energy, counterbalanced nicely by a series of engrossing silences. From the very first image of Scrooge removing the pennies from the eyes of Jacob Marley's cadaverous face, it is clear that Zemeckis has found new inspiration in Dickens' over-produced perennial favorite. Having said that, if memory serves, I'm quite certain Dickens never had a chase sequence, nor did he ever intend for his story to inspire a chase sequence in his original text, but this is a 3-D movie and as such can be forgiven for occasionally pandering to the mainstream. Dickens was after all a showman in his day and prone to his own giddy indulgences. Who could blame him? He was paid by the word.
Friday, September 4, 2009
No doubt Lubitsch would not have approved of the title I've chosen for my review of his greatest masterpiece, but one needs to grab attention somehow. Usually, when I tell people in this day and age that Trouble In Paradise (1932) is arguably the most sophisticated, mannered, comedy ever produced, I draw glassy stares. The truth is: it is that and more. The screenplay, written by Samson Raphaelson, is the gold standard for grace and style in comedy. Every line rolls crisply off the tongue, and yet virtually every statement uttered is a lie or misdirection, calculated to put the rosiest veneer on the most reprehensible con artistry.
Friday, August 21, 2009
Attention all cinephiles: have no fear. The 2009 movie year has officially begun. If you're like me and you've been trying to "make do" or pretend to be satisfied with the summer's current offerings, Quentin Tarantino's audacious Inglourious Bastards will rescue you from your movie blues. The premise is essentially a fantasist's vision of the second world war.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Steve Kloves' screen adaptation of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the most streamlined film in the series yet. So streamlined, that much of the spectacle has been exorcised to make room for the complicated interrelationships of the central characters. Director David Yates demonstrates a fine grasp of nuance and tension but eventually the film begins to wear thin, culminating in a limp climax that is too little too late. Still, it's fun to witness the shifting politics of Hogwarts on the big screen. Equally fun are the scenes in which Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ron's sister Ginny get their "snog" on, wizard-style, but the real pleasure of reading the book was the central relationship between Harry and Dumbledore and to this end, unfortunately, the newest film does not deliver. In the book, Dumbledore assumes the role of a father to Harry, but we don't know why and the mystery behind his actions fills the story with a sense urgency. In the movie, they don't have enough screen time together to generate the same tension. As a result, the would-be harrowing climax (which I will not disclose) feels rushed and does not leave us with any of the lingering impact of the book. In the end the latest Potter is efficient, subtle and well-detailed, but more memorable for its smaller moments than its big ones.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Michael Mann is fascinated with the mythic nature of society and the power struggles between men. His Public Enemies bristles with the excitement of these myths, which he celebrates through style, texture and explosions, and yet the film does little to reveal meaning behind our myths. Mann is a brilliant craftsman and stylist. Students of film will appreciate his dizzying camera and terse editing. There is life to almost every frame, especially when the cops and robbers are shooting it out, using big, loud, guns, but there is also a gaping hole at the center of the movie where there could have been so much more.
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Saturday, June 27, 2009
Away We Go surprised me. It made me think twice about every snide comment I've ever made at the expense of director Sam Mendes. It's like the anti-Mendes film. Archetypes are replaced with real characters. Grand moral statements are traded for honest uncertainty. There is something unpredictable if not inevitable about the way the screenplay by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida unfolds. The movie has a breezy, melancholy, spirit of discovery -- we feel as though we are discovering the world all over again through the eyes of John Krasinsky and Maya Rudolph, as they prepare for the birth of their first child and contemplate what kind of parents they'll be. Touring North America from Albequerque to Montreal, they encounter various couples who have devised their own unique child-rearing strategies and are now facing the consequences of their decisions.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
George Cukor's Holiday is an enchanting, old fashioned, romantic comedy with a premise as irresistible today as it was when it premiered in 1938. Cary Grant is a free-spirited dreamer, engaged to Doris Nolan, an upper crust socialite from one of Manhattan's wealthiest families. When he makes a killing on the stock exchange and announces his intention to retire from law so he can sail around the world, he draws rancor from Nolan and her family. The question then becomes whether he will compromise by taking the desk that his would-be father in law has offered him, or pursue the life he truly wants. Enter Katherine Hepburn, Nolan's sister, a very modern woman hemmed in by her stuffy, elitist family. Hepburn responds to Grant's youthful ideals and quickly makes it her mission to hold onto him -- on her sister's behalf.
It's plain to see that she and Grant belong together, but Donald Ogden Stewart & Sydney Buchman's script is truly a crash course on how to write your characters out of a potentially unsavory triangle. Somehow Hepburn manages to steal her sister's beau without betraying her trust and Grant wins our sympathies after quitting his fiancee in favor of her sister. Cynics may dismiss this as romantic pablum, but fans of the genre will be hard-pressed to find a film that is as funny and genuinely romantic as this one. Cukor keeps things moving, Grant somehow makes even the clumsiest acrobatic flips look dashing and gallant and Hepburn tugs at our heartstrings without resorting to maudlin theatrics. Watch for peerless character actor Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon as Grant's closest friends, who realize before anyone else that he and Hepburn are made for each other. Sparkling and timeless.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Branagh's customarily baroque storytelling style is ideally matched to the material. The camera moves at just the right pace. The cuts have impact. The chills are doled out methodically, leading to a revelation that has to qualify as one of the most brilliant red-herrings in the history of cinema. Franks' snappy dialogue and macabre sense of humor punctuates the suspense and keep us on edge of our seats. Derek Jacobi and an unbilled Robin Williams only add to the fun.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
JJ Abrams' giddy new Star Trek reboot is an occasionally exhilarating, cleverer than usual, summer popcorn spectacular, which is a nice way of saying it is easily digested and ultimately forgotten. The story re-imagines the "origins" of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the Starship Enterprise. When this became an obsession of the mainstream is beyond me, but it seems the studios believe that we have a tireless desire to learn more about how our icons became icons.
Saturday, May 9, 2009
Topaz is a mineral that appears in prismatic crystal and changes colors depending on the angle from which it is perceived. It is also the title of a complex, unusual, Hitchcock gem, that is arguably the highlight of his late career. The movie was released in 1969, at the height of the critical debate over Hitchcock's validity as an 'artist.' This was also the era of Antonioni and Godard. An era during which many avant-garde European filmmakers were taking cinema in an esoteric new direction. It is this aesthetic that Hitchcock seems to adopt and make his own, and perhaps this can account for the outrage early test audiences felt when they discovered that their ever-reliable master of suspense had gone cerebral.
Monday, May 4, 2009
When it comes to documentaries, I can be a bit of a counter-snob. Ever since my parents dragged me kicking and screaming from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, I've been aware of the debate between the so-called "intellectuals" who profess a slavish devotion to non-fiction and those weak-willed dreamers, the "escapists," who blindly champion the art of make-believe. Off the record, to be perfectly blunt, I am a fiction guy. There is nothing I find more exhilarating than the human imagination. The giddy rush I get from a triumphant piece of fiction has no analog. Probably because great fiction always has a strong point of view. My favorite documentaries have this same fidelity of vision -- which isn't to suggest that they can only be interpreted one way. As far as I'm concerned, a movie's point of view can be completely ambiguous, so long as there is an organic cohesion between image and text, rhythm and tone. Unfortunately, point of view is sorely lacking in the three films I've seen thus far at Toronto's Hot Docs International Film Festival.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
Two Lovers, directed by James Gray and written by Gray and Ric Menello, is a haunting, subtle, film about thwarted dreams, broken hearts and the finite limits of redemption. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Leonard Kraditor, the lonely neurotic character who brought him out of retirement. Initially his story smacks of C.C. Baxter in The Apartment. Leonard's in love with his damaged neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), but she's involved in a hopeless relationship with her married boss. His parents (who he lives with) would prefer he date and ultimately marry Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), for the sake of their business merger with her parents. But Leonard is a man on the edge.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Gomorrah is to The Godfather what last year's American Teen was to The Breakfast Club. It strips away all the style, flash and romance, of the genre to comment on a real world community that has become inextricably linked with the movies it inspired. Early crime pictures were fashioned as a reaction to the pervasive growth of organized crime. Now, the real life members of said "families" are well acquainted with their cinematic counterparts and their behavior can be seen as a reaction to the movies that are based on them. The reflexive nature of gangland violence is a relatively new phenomenon and something that Gomorrah elucidates remarkably well.
Friday, April 3, 2009
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Henry Selick's Coraline, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, is a powerhouse of visual invention, filled with the wonder, freshness and singularity of vision that distinguishes only our most beloved fairy tales. Seeing it in 3-D, in particular, will be one of the great cinematic experiences of your life, provided that you remember the following things:
Friday, March 6, 2009
If you're reading this you probably already know that Zack Snyder's Watchmen is based on the so-called greatest graphic novel of all time, written by Allan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Like the book, the movie is dense, ponderous, fascinating and ultimately frustrating. It posits an alternate reality in which America "wins" the war in Vietnam thanks to Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), their ace in the hole, a physicist who accidentally blows himself up but is miraculously reborn with the power to teleport through time and space. The story is set in 1985 with Nixon as President for his fifth consecutive term. America teeters on the brink of nuclear war and the only thing preventing a Russian attack is the existence of Dr. Manhattan, the shiny blue man with the power to obliterate whole countries. At least, that is until he cracks and exiles himself to Mars.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Monday, March 2, 2009
After six and a half seasons of harrowing twists and countless surprises I can say with absolute certainty that episodes 10 and 11 of this seventh and latest season of 24 are the best two hours of 24 ever. When I started this blog I had one rule and one rule only: to write about movies exclusively. Nobody can therefore be more surprised than me that a program on the "boob tube" has inspired me -- like Jack Bauer -- to break my rule. Sorry dear reader. If you're disappointed, all I can say in my defense is that the show has always looked more like a movie than anything else on TV and I have been vehemently trying to recruit viewers ever since it started.
Friday, February 27, 2009
Suspicions whether founded or not can have a profound impact. This is the idea behind John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, adapted from his Tony winning play by the same name. The story deals with an aging nun's crusade to expose a priest in her parish as a child molester. The question of the priest's guilt is planted in her head by a naive young nun who witnesses a series of circumstantial encounters between the father and the boy and -- driven by feelings of inadequacy, voices her suspicions to the elder sister.