Archive for the '2008 movies@home' Category

“Our Man in Havana” (1960)

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Filmed in Cuba soon after Castro took over but before he aligned with the Soviet Union, Our Man in Havana is one of the last movies set there. It was written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed. Noise was so great in the street scenes that all the actors’ dialogue during them had to be redubbed. Alec Guinness is a vacuum cleaner salesman; his teen daughter wants a horse. An English Secret Serviceman, played by Noel Coward, recruits Guinness as a spy; he accepts for money, and in several funny scenes begins to fabricate sub-agents and discoveries to buy his keep. Unfortunately, he’s playing it as a game, but the others are not, and tragedy follows. This is a weird mixture of comedy and spy conventions, and the two make uneasy bedfellows. The mood was fitting for Cuba at the time, though. It was in the wake of a corrupt regime, and optimistically embarking on a new one that wouldn’t prove so different from the old one.

“Three on a Match” (1932)

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

Three on a Match, another film from TCM’s series, “Forbidden Hollywood vol. 2“, with then-subversive pre-decency-code movies. As with Night Nurse, there’s not a great deal to scandalize by modern standards: women singing suggestively to each other in a reform school, adultery, drunkenness and implied drug use, and child neglect. Also, one of the characters meets a particularly bad end.

Three schoolmates meet up as adults. One is a showgirl, another a secretary, and the other a depressed rich man’s wife. Each takes on some of the details of the others’ lives as they strive for the life each thinks she wants. The title refers to the superstition that it was bad luck to light three cigarettes off one match, and that the third was marked for death. Originally a myth of WWI, it was instead invented by a match manufacturer.

This wasn’t a good film. It was poorly directed with clumsy newspaper montages to mark the passage of time, and it had a heavy-handed didactic message. But it was worth it to see another example of what was once transgressive at the movies, for an underused bottle-blonde Bette Davis, and a young, handsome Humphrey Bogart in his first gangster role.

Enchanted (2008)

Monday, July 7th, 2008

I approached Disney’s Enchanted, a mix of live action and animation, with low expectations. Few reviews were glowing, until the DVD review in Entertainment Weekly convinced me to give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised.

Amy Adams voices, then plays, Giselle, a beautiful girl who speaks to animals. She is not a princess, though she is set to become one after she meets the prince, voiced and played with tongue in cheek by the handsome James Marsden. His stepmother, the evil queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), is determined not to give up the crown, so she sends Giselle down a well to NYC, where the action becomes live. There she meets Patrick Dempsey, a divorce lawyer, and wacky hijinks ensue.

For Disney, it might even be considered transgressive. The film pokes, albeit gently, at the Disney princess paradigm. Giselle isn’t a princess, and the prince is rather dim, in contrast to his smile. The cartoon characters have simple views of life: they fall in love in a day, live in countries just beyond the forest, and burst into song on a regular basis. There is a very funny scene when Giselle calls up animals in NYC to help her clean Dempsey’s apartment. Instead of the cutesy wood animals of the animated section (or the Snow White scene to which it pays homage), she summons cockroaches, pigeons (one of the them one legged) and rats. She sings a “Happy Working Song” while they clean, including a shot of toothbrushes used to clean the toilet. (That three songs from the film were nominated for Oscars, including this one, was silly. There must have been better songs in other movies that got passed over for this trifle.) There’s further winking in the casting. Dempsey’s girlfriend is played by Idina Menzel, who voiced the princess in Hercules. The women who voiced Ariel in the Little Mermaid is his secretary, and the woman who voiced Belle in Beauty and the Beast also has a cameo.

This could easily have been trifling and saccharine. Yet Dempsey’s charm, Marsden’s ironic prince, Sarandon’s campy queen, and Adams’ charming heroine, combine to make this quite good. My 4yo son Drake watched half of it with us. The July 4 fireworks woke and upset him. Any innuendo went over his head, and while the queen frightened him, he really liked Pip the chipmunk, so it was a good parentally guided viewing.

Sweeney Todd (2007)

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

I like Johnny Depp. I’ve liked Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands. So I thought I would like Sweeney Todd. I thought the quality of the production and acting (Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen and Alan Rickman) would outweigh the dark and gory aspects of the film.

I was wrong.

The film is so dark, and so relentlessly gory, that I spent much of it gazing at the ceiling, waiting for scenes to be done. It’s embarrassing to admit I didn’t like the film because it was too dark and gory. What did I expect? Perhaps a little more humanity, a lot less blood and violence. But the acting, the look of the film, and the singing were all top notch. And it was interesting to see the pregnant Bonham Carter’s bust and belly change size, sometimes even within a scene, depending on when the scenes were filmed.

Hellboy (2004)

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

I’ve heard the same thing over again by friends who saw Hellboy–it’s OK. Good not great. Yet Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth made me want to check out his earlier movie for myself, since Hellboy II is out this summer. I’m glad I did. I think Hellboy may have been plagued by misplaced expectations. Hellboy is a monster movie. The villains are occult-obsessed Nazis (think Raiders of the Lost Ark). The antihero is a giant red demon who smokes, quips, and shaves his horns down. Oh, and he likes kittens. This is not a movie for deep analysis. This is a fun movie. A silly movie. The look is the thing, and it looks terrific. The characters are engaging and interesting, except perhaps for the newbie, observer character. The plot, such as it is, fizzles out at the end. But that’s compensated for by the cool effects of Selma Blair’s character’s pyrokineses.

“Justice League: The New Frontier” (2008)

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

Justice League: The New FrontierJustice League: The New Frontier is the direct-to-dvd adaptation of the DC Comics graphic novel collection of Darwyn Cooke’s excellent miniseries. Set at the dawn of comics’ Silver Age, the film visits each of the members of what would become the Justice League: Wonder Woman, Superman, Barry Allen (Flash), Martian Manhunter, Batman, and Hal Jordan (Green Lantern).

This is a standalone tale that introduces each main character so they are familiar to comic-book regulars, but also accessible to newcomers. This is not a movie for small children; it has several scenes of death and violence. The heroes come together when faced with the growing threat of something known only as The Center. As subtext, they also struggle to find themselves and their place in the postwar United States. There’s a good balance of humor and drama. The voice casting is excellent, particularly David Boreanaz as Hal Jordan. There’s also a well-done feature in the extras on the history of the Justice League and its characters. For older children, of all ages. (Heh.)

“Night Nurse” (1931)

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

Night Nurse, which is not nearly so tawdry as it sounds, was part of TCM’s feature, “Forbidden Hollywood,” about films that skirted the decency code of the time.

Barbara Stanwyck is a woman hoping to become a nurse. She inveigles her way into the nursing program and rooms with a saucy Joan Blondell. In the hospital, she must dodge leering interns and a stern head nurse. After graduation, she is assigned to the night shift for two children in their home. The children’s health is failing, and the nurse suspects foul play. There is a wild collection of characters: a gangster who wants to date her, a strict housekeeper, a drunk mother and her soused boyfriend, a doctor with suspicious motives, and, best of all, a very young Clark Gable as the shady chauffeur.

It’s a quick, entertaining film, especially for the glimpse into the early performances of Stanwyck and Gable. What I found most interesting, though, is that the movie was rated G for general audience on TCM, in spite of its history as a transgressive pre-Code film. Its naughty reputation was based on scenes of Stanwyck and Blondell undressing together (though they revealed little) and sharing a bed. There was sexual innuendo, a brief scene of violence, and several instances of drunkenness. It makes for an ironic look at the contrast between what was banned then, and now.

Critique of “Cranford”

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

In the US, PBS’s Masterpiece recently ended its season with the 3-part Cranford, based on three novels by Elizabeth Gaskell; she’s best known as a friend and biographer of Charlotte Bronte. Mo Ryan recommended Cranford, but I found it disappointing. It featured some great performances, especially from Dame Judi Dench and Imelda Staunton, but this tale of a matriarchal town too often used its female denizens as butts of jokes, many of them cruel. The treatment of men was quite negative. Many were thoughtless or bad: a man who discouraged his daughter from marrying, a drunken poacher, a prank-playing friend, a prodigal son who broke his mother’s heart, a brother who deserted his sisters without explanation, and was welcomed back without it. Two especially kind, honorable men were killed off abruptly. One man took a self-imposed exile to India. In all, the tone shifts were extreme, and there seemed to be an underlying misanthropy about it that put me off. Only the removed observer, Mary, seemed immune to trouble.

Was anyone else aloof to the charm of Cranford, or am I a curmudgeon? I’ve recorded two other Masterpiece movies from earlier in the season, My Boy Jack and A Room with a View. Did anyone watch these, and what did you think? I’m hesitant to spend time on them after investing five hours in Cranford.

“Invincible” (2006)

Monday, May 26th, 2008

Invincible is a sports movie, with all the attendant cliches. It’s from Disney, so there’s even an extra layer of schmaltz, like the title. Maybe it’s because I married an Eagles fan, but I couldn’t help but enjoy the movie. Mark Wahlberg plays Vince Papale, a 30yo bartender from south Philly who walked onto the Eagles 1976 team from an open tryout held by then new-coach Dick Vermeil. There’s not an unpredictable moment in this film, yet Wahlberg is so likable, and his buddies and father so sympathetic, that the movie charms away most grumbles. The love interest, played ably enough by Elizabeth Banks, felt particularly shoehorned in.

It’s “based on a true story” and the extra feature on Papale is worth watching to get the commentary from Philly sports guys about some of the true stuff (see also the IMDB trivia of the movie), and the similarity of Papale to a fictional character from South Philly whose movie came out in 1976, the same year that Papale made the team. A little of the real Papale goes a long way, though, and something seemed very off about Merrill Reese’s face–his cheeks didn’t move.

A question for other Eagles fans: did Papale really call that audible at the end?

Blast of Silence (1961)

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

I first saw Blast of Silence, a neonoir film recently released by the Criterion Collection, praised in the back pages of the excellent comic book Criminal. I next saw a good review in Entertainment Weekly:

Director-star Allen Baron’s hitman takes on one last job – can you guess how it ends? But this wintry noir is a trove of unexpected delights, from the sumptuously shot NYC locations and proto-Scorsese touches (several street scenes look like Taxi Driver outtakes; the opening voice-over could be a dry run for Mean Streets) to a mesmerizing performance (as a gun-dealing slob) by Larry Tucker, who would go on to co-create…the Monkees?!?

Alas, though it came with impressive credentials, Blast of Silence left me mostly cold. Its glacial pace meant that its mere 77 minutes felt much longer, and I struggled to stay awake through it. Still, there were good things, like the scene where Baron discovers a girl he’s interested in with another man, when he walks away from a wad of money clearly lying in front of him, and when he finally connects with the man who’s his target. The packaging of the dvd, with Sean Phillips’ art, is also very nice. I think this one is more for noir completists, though, than the general viewing public.

I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007)

Friday, May 16th, 2008

I Could Never Be Your Woman I Could Never Be Your Woman, a direct-to-dvd directed by Amy Heckerling (Clueless, Fast Times at Ridgmont High) is that rare movie that I know isn’t great, yet I liked anyway, sometimes a great deal. Behold the power of Paul Rudd, at least on me.

Michelle Pfeiffer is a 40yo tv producer of a show for teens who are played mostly by adult actors. Jon Lovitz is her ex-husband and Saoirse Ronan her middle-school-aged daughter. Rudd is a 29yo actor who asks her out. Tracey Ullman narrates as Mother Nature. It attempts to skewer Hollywood specifically, and biology in general, for the veneration of young women.

What was not-so-good: The soundtrack of 80’s music for no apparent reason; Ullman’s shrill and unfunny turn; Pfeiffer and Rudd playing a decade younger than they are/were; Ronan playing dumb with a boy so he’ll like her. Also, Pfeiffer could use a sandwich or twelve, and she’s shot with a fog filter plus has likely had some of the type of “enhancement” that the movie purports to ridicule.

What worked, in spite of all that: Pfeiffer had some genuinely touching and funny moments; Lovitz was endearing as the ex; Ronan charmed as the insecure daughter; and Paul Rudd stole the movie. He’s good looking, has a good sense for physical comedy, and was believable as the younger guy who was seriously interested in Pfeiffer. And she’s gorgeous, if skinny, so it’s not much of a stretch.

Payday (1972)

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

I read about the recent reissue of Payday on dvd from Entertainment Weekly, which called it corrosive and uproarious.

The review in the Time Out film guide praises it for its portrayal of the music industry:

it remains one of those welcome movies made by people with genuine knowledge of their subject, on the assumption that their audience is going to be reasonably knowledgeable and interested in the first place.

70’s movies have an element of cool that defines them as surely as the wardrobe and the slang do. Rip Torn is a medium successful country star, and the film follows him and his shifting entourage through 36 hours. The pace was leisurely, but certain moments, and the seedy atmosphere, lingered after the film was done.

More on King of Kong

Friday, May 2nd, 2008

My friend Blogenheimer sent me this link with a less-than-glowing take on King of Kong that brings up what seems to be a question of our time: if it’s entertaining and well-made, how much does it matter that it’s only pretty much all true? (That’s an Olivia reference; thanks Ian Falconer)

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

King of Kong was named by many critics as one of the best documentaries of last year, out of a very strong field. A movie about Donkey Kong? Yes, a movie about Donkey Kong.

One nice guy, Steve Wiebe (pronounced Wee Bee), decides to take on the world record for Donkey Kong, which has stood for about 20 years. Recently laid off, he wanted to do something that he was good at.

The record belonged to Billy Mitchell, a celebrity in gaming circles, and was one of many records he held over the years. What ensues is a sequence of reversals, and a cast of characters so bizarre, that I felt like I was watching a Christopher Guest mockumentary.

What makes it so satisfying is how easily the two men fall into the roles of hero and villain. Wiebe is an affable, good-looking blond guy who used to play baseball in school. He’s got a patient wife who tries to understand his weird obsession, two kids, and he teaches and coaches at a local middle school. Mitchell is a lifelong gamer. He sports a well-kept mullet, and his wife wears deep V-necks to showcase her breast implants. He’s a successful businessman, yet passive agressive in all dealings with Wiebe. This is a fun, funny film about a weird corner of the world. I think Donkey Kong has windmills in it, and Wiebe’s engaging underdog tilts at them well. He never let himself be chumpatized.

“Paris, Je T’aime” (2006)

Monday, April 28th, 2008

Paris, Je T’aime is an entertaining collection of short films set in and around the arrondissement of Paris. There are many famous directors, like the Coen Brothers, and famous actors, like Natalie Portman and Gerard Depardieu. It unrolls at a fast clip. Just as soon as I liked or disliked something, it was done. The themes ranged far and wide, covering race, class, marriage, kids, work, and more. There was a lot of good acting and directing, and I followed the film by watching the “making of” featurette. It had the usual odious puffy interviews, but it also had some good commentary by the directors that helped me better match the film and its maker.

The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

I thought The Jane Austen Book Club was a very good film, and faithful to the spirit, if not the letter of the book, which I also thought was very good. I found it so well done that I not only watched all the extras, but stayed up late to do so.

Austen completed six novels, and the book club has six characters, whose joys and troubles overlap as they work their way through Jane’s oeuvre. The movie is very well cast. Each actor does a good job of embodying their character’s charms and quirk. Hugh Dancy is Grigg, the only male in the group. He wears spandex better than he adopts an American accent. Emily Blunt is smoldering as the repressed Prudie. Maria Bello is intimidating as a control-freak dog breeder and matchmaker; she went a little nuts with the Botox though. Her forehead hardly moves. Kathy Baker has appropriately wacky hair and outfits for the spacy Bernadette. Amy Brenneman is sympathetic as a recently divorced parent, and Maggie Grace is charming as the reckless Alexis. Jimmy Smits and Marc Blucas do a great job in supporting roles as well. It’s a wonderful ensemble, and the movie clips along at a satisfying pace through a year of their lives.

Aside from the performances, what I loved about this movie was its obvious love for reading in general, and Jane’s books in particular. Each segment focuses on one character, and one book. Each character is shown reading each book. With one notable exception, most of the editions are different, and obviously cherished; they look lived in. Penguin, Oxford, softcover, hardcover, they reminded me fondly of my shelves, where I have different editions of works by Austen and the Brontes.

The extras did a good job of rounding out the film. One on Austen interviewed two scholars to give details on her life. For example, one of the things known about Tom Lefroy is that he ran out the back door one day when Austen came to visit, and returned the visit days later in the company of his 13yo cousin. “Hardly the stuff of passion,” one of the commentators notes, wryly, in what may be a small dig at Becoming Jane, which imagined a torrid romance between Austen and Lefroy. I skipped the extras in Becoming Jane; that film took so many liberties with fact that it hardly seemed a reliable reference. Extras on The Jane Austen Book Club included an analysis of which character reflected which novel, as well as a brief but entertaining glimpse of the red-carpet opening of the film. A behind-the-scenes featurette wasn’t the usual puff piece; it included interesting background for how the charactes were cast, and how the film received financing. For example, Maggie Grace is an Austen geek; she’s read all the novels, short stories and letters.

If you like reading Austen, and enjoyed Fowler’s book, you’ll likely appreciate the movie. It’s done skillfully and with care. If you’re lukewarm or unfamiliar with either, it might just prompt you, as the book did with me, to seek out all of Austen’s novels.

Born Yesterday (1950)

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

Born Yesterday has been languishing on my Tivo for ages. I recorded it during one of TCM’s month of Oscars, so I think it’s been there over two years. When I finally watched it, I was pleased that I had kept it around.

A junk tycoon, Harry Brock, decides his girlfriend, Billie (Judy Holliday) needs to improve her manners. He hires a reporter, played by William Holden, to tutor her. Holliday is a delight as Billie, and the movie is worth seeing for her performance alone. She’s so good she even upstages Holden.

Holliday won the best actress Oscar that year, over Bette Davis in All About Eve, and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Some griped that Holliday had an unfair advantage; she’d played the role of Billie on stage for four years. And in spite of that, she was far from the first pick for the role!

Becoming Jane (2007)

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

I went back and forth on whether to watch Becoming Jane. If I could advise my past self, I would say to skip it. I find Jane Austen’s six complete novels well written and engaging; they draw me through from beginning to end and keep my interest. Alas, I can’t say the same for this piece of historical fiction. The movie about the woman who wrote such timeless books, and her own possible romantic entanglements, manages to be quite dull. There are some good points, especially a scene between Jane and her mother, but overall this was a poorly done pastiche, with a little of Austen’s life, a little of her plot points, and a lot of made up stuff. Austenblog has a thorough and very fair review of the DVD. I think Becoming Jane was interesting to contrast with the recent PBS Miss Austen Regrets, which looked at the same themes and characters from the end of Austen’s life. In my opinion, it was the better film of the two, though not perfect, either.

Emma (1996) (TV)

Monday, March 31st, 2008

After my recent disappointment with the adaptation of the Guthrie’s Jane Eyre, I found the 1996 Emma, made for television, a pleasant surprise. I remember the Paltrow Emma as uneven, but I thought this version was paced well. I appreciated its depiction of class and living conditions. Beckinsale was convincing and girlish in the title role, and looked much more normal than what she’s morphed into over the years. There were several strong supporting performances: Mark Strong as Mr. Knightley (who I’ve seen and enjoyed recently in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and Stardust), Lucy Morrison as Mrs. Elton, Samantha Morton as Harriet Smith, and particularly Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax. The adaptation hewed closely to the novel; that, along with the casting, were what made it so enjoyable for me.

Indiana Jones and Last Crusade (1989)

Monday, March 31st, 2008

A much better movie than Temple of Doom, Last Crusade does a good job of inserting Indie’s origins, and provides both humor and pathos with Sean Connery as Indie’s estranged father. It made me hopeful for #4. This was Spielberg’s favorite of the trilogy, though I still prefer the original.