Friday, July 30, 2010

Bronson (2008)

If there is one genre where people definitely need to figure out new and inventive ways to present a story its the biopic. Thats one of the things that Bronson has going for it. The movie is the story of England's most notorious prisoner, Michael Peterson, who renamed himself Charles Bronson (as his "fighting name"). Its an interesting take on the biopic, Brock Norman Brock (apparently his real name) and Nicolas Winding Refn frame the movie as if Bronson is speaking to audience at a fictional play, or fictional one man show, and its actually an interesting way to go. Its definitely stylish, with a definite Kubrickian feel to it. Tom Hardy, as Bronson, is starting become one of my favorite actors, and this is just an amazing, tour-de-force performance. Here's the thing though: your mileage will vary, while its definitely interesting, well-acted, and even funny at times-here's the thing: Bronson is an unrepentant and cruel bastard, so how much time you want to spend with him might definitely vary. While I really like how they took something as stale as the biopic and turned it on its head, one nude fight scene is one thing, but the next one, I just start to wonder if Hardy is cold or not. I wouldn't say the experience is overwhelming, but after a while I was like: "Okay, I get it."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Winter's Bone (2010)

You can never tell as far as "buzz" out of Sundance goes. Sometimes these films can arrive with a thud. Every once in a while, like with Winter's Bone they are the real deal. I was happy to find out that everyone that was raving about Winter's Bone during after Sundance were right on the money, this is really good stuff. When it comes down to it this is a mystery story, people have been referring to it as "Ozark noir", set in the hills and the backwoods of, you guessed it, the Ozarks. It features an amazing performance from Jennifer Lawrence as Ree, the teenage girl who has to figure out what happened to her father, or risk losing her family's house and land-which is pretty much all they have. Unfortunately that means trying to talk to people who really don't want any of their secrets getting out. It works both as atmospheric piece, of a community of people truly living on the very furthest fringes of society, and it works as mystery. One of the things I really like about it is nothing is ever overexplained, the audience puts information together as Ree finds it out, there is no big reveal like there would be in a more "standard" thriller. We are thrown into this community, and what we know about the characters is also only portioned piecemeal, such how people are really afraid of Thump Milton. Or one piece of dialogue where John Hawkes, truly amazing here, as Ree's uncle, Teardrop, shows up while she is being questioned. One of the men goes (or words to the effect), "I'm not dealing with Teardrop naked." As in, without a gun, because Teardrop is a true badass. Finding out like this, somehow helps to ratchet up the tension even more, everything sort of adds up, and then comes to its grim solution . Like I said, John Hawkes and Jennifer Lawrence are amazing here. (Interesting casting job, I had assumed this was her first acting job but apparently she came from working on the execrable TBS sitcom, The BIll Engvall Show, you never know where talent might spring from.) I mentioned before that not only is this a movie mainly a mystery, but it is also about community, and more specifically, family, showing that family can be both a source of liberation, but can also be a force that can trap you too. (Which I know isn't a particularly original sentiment-but the last scene in here really drives it home.)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Ten James Mason Films

Due to this article in the "Scenic Routes" column that the AV Club runs about every week or so. (Which, on its own, is usually a pretty interesting read.) That made me think of James Mason and what my favorite James Mason movies might be, here is what I came up with. Its sort of difficult, his career lasted for a good fifty years or so. Oh, also, my colleague posted a poem that seems to be about or inspired by The Prisoner of Zenda, I believe the 1952 version that James Mason was in, and starred Deborah Kerr. Weird coincidence that I was thinking of this today. (One interesting aside, that is only interesting to us in the here in now, Mason did a lot of television, in 1956 he even had what seemed to be his own variety show appropriately called The James Mason Show. He was even in 1979's Tobe Hooper-directed, Salem's Lot. So he did a lot of teleplays, and one of the ones he did was on something called The Schlitz Playhouse. Again this only funny in hindsight, the juxtaposition of a somewhat low-rent beer like Schlitz offering high class entertainment.)

My Favorite James Mason Movies:

(in chronological order)

1) Odd Man Out (1947)

Neat little failed-heist movie directed by Carol Reed. Mason plays Johnny McQueen, the leader of some sort of clandestine Irish organization. He sets up a robbery, and that goes sour, as they do, he is wounded and can't make it back to their hideout. So he takes to the back alleys of Belfast to try to evade the police, in particular a police chief who really has it out for him. While its not The Third Man, this is a nice little precursor to it, because the atmosphere is just oppressive, with Mason running through the back streets trying to stay one step ahead of the police. Really good stuff.

2) The Desert Fox (1951)

I don't know exactly why, but I always found it interesting that they even made a biopic about Rommel just 6 years after the end of World War 2. I suppose, I shouldn't, I mean they made movies about World War 2 DURING World War 2. As a rule, I am usually not much of a biopic person, but this one is pretty interesting. They probably made it because Rommerl plotted to assassinate Hitler. But it follows Rommel's career from the Afrika Korps, including his work on the defenses of Fortress Europe, that plot to assassinate Hitler, and his subsequent suicide. Its like watching Das Boot in a way, fascinating, even though you in your mind shouldn't be identifying or rooting for these men. I do think it was a somewhat bold choice for Mason to play Rommel. He has a career full of them.

3) Julius Caesar (1953)

This is a 50's method-acting powerhouse showcase where James Mason (and Deborah Kerr) hold their own against Marlon Brando in this Shakespeare adaptation.

4) A Star Is Born (1954)

Mason is great as Norman Maine, the alcoholic movie star who helps out Judy Garland's Vicki Lester's career. The two meet in the middle, develop a romance, but it all starts to go sour as Lester's career takes off, and Maine's keeps plummeting.

5) 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954)

1954 was a good year for James Mason, it seems. Its interesting ina big budget (particularly for the time) Disney adventure that Mason can walk the tightrope between being a semi-mad, out-in-out villain, and being a sympathetic character. He also serves as a nice counter to Kirk Douglas here.

6) North By Northwest (1959

Here,as Phillip Vandamm, silky-smooth as one of the best villains in one of the best Hitchcock movies.

7) Lolita (1962)

This probably could have killed his career, playing the noted and tortured pervert Professor Humbert Humbert. This is a highwire act since he is supposed to be the one the audience identifies with, since he also narrates. Kubrick might have helped (I am quite sure that he had to do this) by making Lolita older here than she is in the book (In the book she's twelve). But for Mason, he plays it note-perfect, while being able to work opposite Peter Sellers, and work with Stanley Kubrick.

8) Georgy Girl (1966)

If there is one thing James Mason can pull off it is being a part of the stuff, British upper crust. Here he wants the titular Georgy, played awesomely by the late Lynn Redgrave, to be his mistress. He even offers her a contract! Which is made somewhat creepier since her parents are domestic servants living there at his estate. There is an undercurrent of class conflict to the whole film, which is obviously focused on Georgy and her attempts to fit in with her swinging single London roommates, and eventually grow and mature as all their lives begin to change.

9) Heaven Can Wait (1978)

This is somewhat of a trifle, I guess, but I really enjoy Mason's turn here as Mr. Jordan (or god!?)

10) The Verdict (1982)

This is one of Mason's final roles (he died in 1984) What a way to go out, this is really an amazing movie. It features one of the best Paul Newman performances ever as an alcoholic lawyer that stumbles from one seedy case to the next until he happens upon his chance for redemption in the form of a malpractice suit against a Catholic hospital in Boston. James Mason plays Ed Concannon, who is defending the hospital. Mason brings the perfect balance of elegance and cunning to the table.

Eddie Izzard does a pretty good impression of James Mason. Check it out around the 4:45 mark:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Truck Turner (1974)

I actually watched this due to a misunderstanding. Let me explain: Quentin Tarantino used the track "Run Fay Run" in the last part of the anime sequence (Chapter 3: The Origin of O-Ren) in Kill Bill: Vol 1. You can check it out here, "Run Fay Run" starts at the 7:13 mark. (But the whole thing is awesome):

For some reason I got it into my head that that track came from the Isaac Hayes movie, Truck Turner. Well, having just watched Truck Turner, I can tell you that its definitely not on that soundtrack. Slightly confused, I looked closer, and it turns out that "Run Fay Run" is on another Isaac Hayes soundtrack for a movie from 1970 called Tough Guys. Ah well, at least I know now. Fascinating, no?

Anyway. I do have to admit that Truck Turner was at least entertaining. Isaac Hayes brings a boatload of charisma-he's great at playing the smooth, bad-ass bounty hunter (with an affinity for cats) who runs afoul of some pimps and their ladies and has to take them on-you know, standard issue 70's fare. I can't put my finger on it, but what makes this outing interesting is, at least in the beginning, there is a real sense of humor to the proceedings that make it especially fun. Particularly in the relationship between Turner and his partner, Jerry (Alan Weeks) I liked their chemistry, they really seemed like they has been friends for a long time.

This was crammed with character actors one would recognize. Scatman Crothers as on old pimp/helpful informant to Turner. Yaphet Kotto was great as the awesomely named pimp, Harvard Blue. But the biggest surprise to me was Nichelle Nichols, thats right Uhura from the starship Enterprise. On the one hand I had never seen her in anything else. On the other it was crazy to see her go from her role on Star Trek to the foul-mouthed lady of a pimp named Gator. Its his murder that sets off the revenge plot against Truck Turner. And she puts out the hit against Truck Turner. Its pretty astonishing to see her here.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Inception (2010)

I actually tried to write something up about Inception last night and even posted it but decided to take it down and try again. This movie excited and flummoxed me so much that I wasn't really putting together the most coherent sentences or paragraph. If you wanted to mention that I rarely put together coherent sentences anyway, please keep it to yourself. I thought maybe I would try it again in list form:

1) Christopher Nolan, right now, is the most interesting "blockbuster" director out there. Bar none. Nolan has a unique talent for melding spectacle with big ideas . And judging by this particular foray, just give him the next Bond movie, let him write and direct it and you'll have the best Bond movie in years. And thats not even based on the snow fortress sequence, I base that on the chase sequence in...what? Morocco, I want to say, but I might be wrong. Heck, Nolan could make Leonardo Dicaprio the next Bond and it might still be exciting. Yeah, I have drunk the Kool-Aid on Nolan thoroughly, because I think he brings the goods, his writing his excellent, although not perfect, there are times when he leaves loose threads, and the plot threatens to buckle the whole endeavor but it never quite does. He might have, once again, turned in one of the best movies of the year.

2) If I gave out letter grades I would give this endeavor an A-, I think it is just shy of a homerun, but besides a few minor quibbles, one being that sometimes the visual imagery doesn't quite-QUITE-keep up with the ideas he is putting out there.

3) That being said, I do like the idea that Nolan made something that is original, ambitious, and, most of all, made for adults. He thrusts us into this world with a minimal amount of handholding. There are a few things in there-the device maybe that connects the sleeping people and enables the person to jump into their dreams is one that pops into my head-that might have benefited from maybe a little exposition, but, again, it doesn't sink the whole thing at all. I mean we are dealing with dreamworlds on top of dreamworlds. And I think in the end everything ties together pretty well-or does it!?

4) That ending-really the whole movie is immune to an instant reaction. Rarely has a big film like this going to start so many conversations and interpretations. Leave it to my teenage nephew on my ride home from the theater to say it in the best way: "You could interpret the ending either way and it would still work." And thats true. Smart kid.

5) I mean it is a completely ridiculous idea- "dream heists"? It shouldn't end up working so well. I do like from a writing standpoint that Nolan can take old tropes (one last job, putting a crew together) and put them in service of something much twistier and new.

6) Even after I watched the movie I couldn't help but wonder if Nolan's seed of an idea for this movie (besides James Bond) was planted by watched Dreamscape and thats not a criticism. That movie was awesome, and Nolan took an idea (people invading other people's dreams) and ran with it. I'm not sure if thats true but I definitely kept thinking about Dreamscape afterwards-only in that they are similarly, sort of, themed.

7) For the most part, it looks really amazing.

8) The cast is uniformly good. I never expect too much from Leonardo Dicaprio, but I thought he did an admirable job here. I feel like he has been getting better, but I could be deluding myself. I particularly enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy, but everyone was good. Ellen Page usually annoys the crap out of me, but even here she was good. Or didn't annoy me-which is really something. My goodness, Nolan populated his cast with pretty people.

9) Hans Zimmer's score is really remarkable.

10) I have to mention especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt floating around (and fighting) weightless in the hotel was an pretty awesome sequence. The whole thing was great, but that fight was especially great.

11) I meant to to go only to 10 but I thought of this as well: I like how Nolan constructed specific rules/"logic" for the dreamworlds and stuck to them.

12) AGH! I can't stop. I also have disagree with people who thought there was no real emotion to the movie. I think the movie had a very real emotional core. I do think despite all the beautiful people it lacked a certain sexuality, but not a genuine core of emotion. Whether you thought it was too overwrought, I didn't, but I could see an argument for it.

13) Oh yeah: Tom Berenger!

Interesting sidenote: well, interesting only to me really, in the trailers before the movie, a good portion of them were movies that I would actually see. Thats pretty rare too.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sugar (2008)

From the same team that made Half Nelson comes this story about a baseball player, MIguel "Sugar" Santos, from the Dominican Republic who gets called up to the Kansas City Royals Triple-A team, hopefully to one day go to the majors. The movie is definitely at its most interesting as it showcases Sugar's struggles not only in trying to become a major league ballplayer, which is done very well. But also his struggles in being a 19 year old from the Dominican Republic transplanted to the Midwestern United States-where he has to deal not only his performance on the field, but navigating in a place that largely does not speak his language, outside of some of his teammates on the diamond. You get the idea that the MLB might be able to be a bit more helpful to these players if they either sponsored some English classes for them, or had a translator around or something-a lot of misunderstandings could have been avoided. Miguel lived with a host family that couldn't speak Spanish, and his coach on the team could hardly speak to him. I mean, he picked things up after a while, but still, it has to be unbelievably hard trying to not only reach the major leagues but also to suddenly be transported thousands of miles away from home with little to no safety net or backup besides the friends he makes on the field.

At any rate, it plays sort of like an interesting, somewhat slow character study from the seventies. Its particularly interesting to for baseball fans who have to be curious about this sort of thing. Ultimately you gain a deeper understanding of these players' lives.

Sadly, though, the man who plays Sugar, Algenis Perez Soto, is not an actor but a ballplayer that the filmmakers actually pulled off the field in the Dominican Republic. So while he looks good playing baseball, as he should, but as an actor, he uses this long, expressionless stare for nearly every reaction, and it gets kind of boring, and he becomes sort inscrutable.

Year One (2009)

Look, it was late on a Saturday night after a long day of swimming and cookouts. We also realized that at the moment there wasn't a lot of "lighter" fare stacked up on the ol' Roku. At any rate, this was a pretty unfunny comedy which featured people that were funny in other stuff. I am convinced that the only time the movie was funny was when people were improvising, and not anything that was actually written for the movie. How can all this talent have gone so wrong?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Heat Wave

If you're like me and you work in an office you know that the weather is frequently a topic of conversation. Particularly in New England, and mostly how hot or cold it happens to be. Its as scintillating as it sounds. Right now, the Northeast happens to be in the midst of a heat wave, they are promising it is going to go away soon. I won't bore you with the details, but it is amazingly hot around here. I kind of can't wait until it breaks at some point this week. But that's beside the point. Well, sort of. Heat waves are also sometimes used as dramatic devices in movies. Did you know that? I am the king of the segue. At any rate, here are five great movies which are set in and around heat waves:

1) Do The Right Thing (1989)

As far as Spike Lee goes, I guess I could have chose Summer OF Sam as well, but, really it doesn't stack up to Do The Right Thing, which happens to be not only perhaps my favorite Spike Lee movie but also one of my favorite movies in general. Here, like in most of these movies, the intense heat is one of the components that causes tension, racial and otherwise, to reach a dangerous boiling point by the end of the movie.

2) 12 Angry Men (1957)

This is another instance where the heat serves to make the titular men more disagreeable. The audience is being constantly reminded of the heat in the courthouse: the fan that won't work, the men's shirts become more and more wet with sweat. Henry Fonda is the lone holdout who examines the evidence in the case closer than the boy who's on trial's lawyer. And his brow is frequently furrowed and shown in sweaty closeup as he tries not only to puzzle things out but to work to convince the rest of the men. Toward the end, the heat breaks in a dramatic fashion, as the jury is split, and one lone holdout is still keeping them there.

3) Rear Window (1954)

In Rear Window, the heat is less of a force for intensifying the dramatic tension (the murder is enough for that) and more another detail to heighten James Stewart's L.B. Jeffries' annoyance and boredom in having to sit in a leg cast and entertain himself while looking out the window. Its another detail about being in New York City, which, even though you only see Jeffries' backyard, its another detail by Hitchcock to make everything feel that much more lived in. The heat wave does break here with another rainstorm, but this doesn't force any sort of resolution but adds another piece to the puzzle. In this instance: where would a man possibly be going in that rain? (And also there's the small gag of the couple with the small dog who get caught out in the rain when they've been sleeping on their fire escape to keep cool).

4) Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

In Sidney Lumet's botched-heist classic, the heat serves much the same purpose as it does in Do The Right Thing. As the heist goes more and more off the rails, its partially the heat that serves to ratchet up the tension. As the the temperature continues to rise, so do the problems for everyone involved. Just look at that sweat pouring off Al Pacino!

5) Body Heat (1981)

This quasi-remake of Double Indemnity, there's a lot of different meanings to the "heat", if you get my meaning "wink wink nudge nudge". And when you first see Kathleen Turner in that white dress, you can understand why someone might want to commit vehicular homicide for her.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

20 Actresses

So I guess this meme has been around for a while...which I assume is as simple as picking 20 of your favorite actresses. I don't think this list is gospel though, because these are basically the first twenty off the top of my head, I could probably have done more, or picked differently, but this is as it stands right now.

Session 9 (2001)

A neat little haunted house story about a group of workers removing asbestos from an abandoned mental hospital. A little bit of local pride: this was actually shot at the abandoned Danvers Mental Hospital in Danvers, MA. Brad Anderson, the director, apparently used to drive past it everyday going to work and wanted to shoot something there. How about the movie? Its pretty good and being set in an abandoned mental hospital, suitably creepy. At times, reminding me of The Shining, never quite reaching those heights of course, but in the idea of working class men or man having severe personal issues, and then psychological being transformed by a place with a sordid past. I've thought about it a lot since I watched it about a day or two, and I am still not quite sure they completely nail the ending, but they do an admirable job of creating a sense of impending doom and foreboding throughout, its definitely worth a look for a minor, overlooked, small horror movie from the early aughts.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Extra Man (2010)

This is odd, but I wasn't completely taken by the movie as a whole. But I was taken by the easy chemistry between the Paul Dano and Kevin Kline. And since, that was basically the crux of the movie, the movie itself wasn't too bad. It leans on way too many easy quirks like a lot of indie movie tend to. But Kline as an aging somewhat escort, a man about 70-80 years out of his time, he nails the funny, actorly, pretentious air that his character gives off. Its kind of an uphill battle to make someone like him likeable, but Kline nails the balancing act, and, not surprisingly, delivers a good amount of the laughs from the movie. Kline is great at this sort of thing. He doesn't reach the heights of his turn as Otto in A Fish Called Wanda, but is still a good turn. Paul Dano pulls his weight really well alongside Kline, which could probably be a pretty difficult bargain. In the end, its an enjoyable trifle, as a Great Gatsby-addict "find himself" in Manhattan. Its good, fun in parts, but not great. Oh, but the soundtrack is really good.