Sunday, June 29, 2008

Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007) B (x2)

Revisiting Ben Affleck directorial debut Gone Baby Gone was a bit of an interesting experience for me. This time around, the first half seemed a little sloppy; the editing was a bit off, the Casey Affleck voiceovers were a complete cop-out and totally unnecessary, the script rushed into doing too many things at one time. The only thing that really stood out in the beginning was Amy Ryan's performance. If I ever doubted the power of your work here Amy, I'm sorry because when I saw you again I quickly remembered how much I loved you. She's loud, abrasive, in your face and having the time of her life with that accent (I still can't get over her line reading of "Faaack Bea" at the end of the film- instantly iconic). If the first half was rough, the second half was golden. Cinematically it was much more proficient, thematically it was richer with the right vs. wrong motif coming into play and acting-wise everyone stepped it up a notch. Ed Harris is truly a joy to watch, especially during that scene in the hospital parking lot. And the ending, in which Casey Affleck contemplates if he did the right thing, is truly magical.

As a side note, if you watch this on DVD, make sure you check out the alternate opening in the extras. It's so good and so much more to the film (in such a short amount of time) that I really wish Affleck would have kept it in.

Jesse James (Henry King, 1939) C/The Return of Frank James (Fritz Lang, 1940) C+

In a million years I never thought I would be interested in the life and crimes of notorious outlaw Jesse James, but after The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford I'm now somewhat fascinated by his legend and murder. Unfortunately, since both Jesse James and The Return of Frank James are, to varying degrees, completely fictitious. Henry King's Jesse James is a solid, if not particularly interesting, crowd pleaser that gets muddled from the get go. The film can't decide if it wants to portray James as a dashing romantic lead, a Robin Hood-esque good guy or a raving lunatic. Jesse James tries each of these to varying degrees of success but in the end we are no closer to understanding the "real" Jesse James. Tyrone Power, proving here he was only a prettyface, definitely doesn't add anything dramatically to the film. He says his lines and hits the marks, but he doesn't evoke the feelings that Brad Pitt did so well in TAoJJbtCRF. The saddest thing about Jesse James however is the fact that the writers so blatantly changed James' life story to fit the story they wanted to tell. Zee never left Jesse after the birth of their first son; it only happened in Jesse James to heighten the drama and make that reunion scene so bittersweet. If Jesse James is a fudged biopic, then The Return of Frank James is a complete work of fiction because nothing that happens in the film actually happened in real life. I wouldn't have minded if the story was an original story, but it tries to pass itself off as history and that's just wrong. Let it be shouted from the rooftops: Frank James never chased the Ford Brothers after Bob shot Jesse and he did NOT kill Bob Ford, no matter what this film tries to tell you. With that little rant aside, let me just say that, cinematically, The Return of Frank James is a much better film thanks to legendary director Fritz Lang. Where King composed every shot of Jesse James like a pretty 2-D postcard, Lang adds depth, shadows and contrast to make every scene fluid and cinematic. It's not groundbreaking stuff (especially when compared with his Metropolis, M or Fury) but it's passable and a much better film than it would have been without it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

I Know Who Killed Me (Chris Sivertson, 2007) F

Was I Know Who Killed Me really the worst film of 2007? I'm going to be bold and say that it wasn't. It's without a doubt an awful mess: horrible acting, overdone cinematography, an immature script and aimless direction that tries way too hard. But I'd rather see a shitty film fly off the rails trying than watch shit like The Bucket List or Wild Hogs not even bother to do anything different. I Know Who Killed Me is actually so bad that it somehow becomes interesting, in the same way that people enjoy watching The Moment of Truth; theoretically, it's awful, but you can't help but stay involved. Lindsay Lohan plays Aubrey Fleming, an intelligent high school student who happens to be a talented writer. A crazy serial killer who tortures his victims is on the loose and one night he kidnaps Aubrey. Somehow, she is found nearly dead in a ditch and is brought back to perfect health- sans her right arm and hand. Everything seems fine until she doesn't recognize anyone around her and takes on the personality of a classless stripper Dakota Moss. The rest of the movie revolves around Aubrey/Dakota trying to figure out what happened. Most of I Know Who Killed Me was so ludicrous that I was either laughing (that scene where Dakota takes Aubrey's boyfriend upstairs to obviously have sex with him- right in front of the mother!) or completely confused (the last 10 minutes made absolutely no sense). When I read online a few hours later what it all meant, what the writer was trying to do was actually somewhat interesting. It's just a shame that everything (including his writing style) got in the way. You need more than just an interesting concept and the 90 minutes of crap that lead up to it is not worth it.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Murder! (Alfred Hitchcock, 1930) B

Leave it to the great Alfred Hitchcock to make a sleek and adult talking picture in Great Britain when in America we were still trying to figure out how to make talking pictures work. Murder! is no classic, but it proved that talking pictures could be more than just people standing around talking and that Hitchcock was going to have a long and successful career. The story is pretty simple: a young actress is convicted of murder, but another actor on the jury (Herbert Marshall) has an attack of conscious and decides to help find the real murderer. It's obvious that Murder! was based on a stage play from the way the scenes are staged, but Hitchcock, as he usually does, tells the story more visually than most talkies of the period. The scene where the jurors are deliberating is pretty fascinating because a normal director would have filmed it mostly in a long shot with a couple of cut-ins. Hitchcock, however, has the camera flowing around the room, bouncing from juror to juror and hardly repeating the same shot more than once. My only major problem with Murder! is the fact that the sound balance hasn't quite been worked out. Whenever there was background music, it was usually so loud that it covered up the dialogue (which was already hard to understand because of the thick dialects). But I can't complain too much; American pictures of the same time could barely compete in terms of quality with this picture.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

All or Nothing (Mike Leigh, 2002) C+

Mike Leigh has a great eye (and ear) for the gritty and non-glamorous life of the working class, as he demonstrated so ably in both Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake. In All or Nothing, Leigh's eyes and ears are still in tune, but nothing else about the script or film really work. The main storyline involves taxi-driver Phil (Timothy Spall) and his wife Penny (Lesley Manville) and their marriage that has turned sour. When a medical emergency threatens one of their children, everything between the two comes to a head in a heated fight. This situation would be fine and dandy if we gave a rat's ass about either of the characters involved. Spall's Phil is an inane, blithering loser who couldn't form a complete sentence or look someone in the eye if his life depended on it. I don't know if I have something against Timothy Spall, but everytime I look at him I get annoyed. I thought Manville gives a good performance, but ultimately her character is just another shrewish wife that we've seen a hundred times before. There are a couple of other subplots going on in All or Nothing, including a potentially interesting one concerning a mother (Ruth Sheen) and her knocked up daughter (Helen Coker), but they are both dropped in the final half hour rather abruptly with no hints of a conclusion at all. A lot of people have attacked for All or Nothing for being "depressing," but I can deal with that (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, possibly the biggest downer of a film I've ever seen is also one of my favorites). What I can't deal with is a sloppy, aimless script that has the potential to be good.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007) B (x2)

Original rant here.

I have a lot of the same thoughts/problems with Michael Clayton that I did in my original rant. The film is pretty good, but I still have the "So what?" thoughts running through my head. It doesn't break any new ground to merit it's multitude of Oscar nominations and George Clooney was most definitely overrated. The film still belongs to Tilda Swinton- a genius performance I can't get over.

Waitress (Adrienne Shelley, 2007) C

Waitress isn't nearly as bad as its detractors claim, but it's also not the comedic masterpieces that its champions hail it as. The film is warm and funny at certain points and Keri Russell's performance is genuinely affecting. One of my main problems with Waitress is the fact that the screenplay can't decide if it wants to be a drama or a comedy or a quirky character study or what not. There's is such an uneven combination of the three genres that none of it really gels together. In the beginning, the Jeremy Sisto character doesn't seem that bad, just tiresome and annoying, but then he makes a complete 180 into abusive, wife-beating husband that we're shocked that Russell's friends let her go home to him every night. I could have used a little less "quirk" (especially from the Ogie character) but it was still an enjoyable time.

Day for Night (François Truffaut, 1973) A (x2)

Truffaut's Day for Night is, quite simply, one of the most fascinating films about the movies that I've ever encountered. Second viewings usually make or break a film for me, but I actually thought it was much stronger than I remembered. Unlike Sunset Boulevard or Singin' in the Rain, Day for Night is a love-letter to the movies and what they mean to Truffaut. Sure, they're messy and shit happens that completely fuck them up, but he wouldn't have it any other way. I also thought the performances were surprisingly strong considering they're hardly Truffaut's main concern here. Valentina Cortese's character arc isn't especially strong, but she's humorous and affecting in her few scenes and quite the diva. Jean-Pierre Leaud understands the immature young man bit quite well by now and delivers nicely. I also noticed in the scene where Leaud asks Truffaut to be his best man how similar they act and look. It was almost a Persona moment it was so eerie. Jacqueline Bisset, as the American actress who's just recovered from a nervous breakdown, was also much better than I remembered. She seemed so lost (in a good way) throughout the whole movie, and I finally understood why she cheats on her husband and sleeps with Leaud's character.

I know this was a little scattered and thread-bare, but I'm positive I'm going to write something more in depth sometime in the future. This movie is much too fascinating to be summarized in a paragraph or two.

Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984) B

One of the few major Oscar winners I've somehow avoided in my 6 or so years of movie watching and I must say I was pleasantly surprised. Amadeus tells the story of Antonio Salieri, court composer to the Emperor of Austria, and his relationship to musical prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salieri recognizes that he is second-rate compared to Mozart's genius and, driven by jealously, plots his downfall. The opening 10 minutes were absolutely brilliant- an exhilarating rush of dreamy editing, glorious Mozart music and F. Murray Abraham's soothing voice. Forman's opening sucked me in, and even if the rest couldn't quite live up to that beginning, it was still an interesting film. The juxtaposition between the mediocre, but immensely successful, Salieri and the genius, but unappreciated, Mozart was fascinating and an interesting commentary on today's music business. Overall, the film probably could have been tightened up and shortened in the middle, but Amadeus was still a good time. F. Murray Abraham gave an excellent performance and earned a well-deserved Oscar. Tom Hulce as Mozart, on the other hand, was nothing more than that annoying giggle. Many 80's actors probably could have given the same performance without much effort.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934) B+ (x2)

While watching The Thin Man again the other night, I had forgotten just how odd of an hybrid this film really is. It's not often you see screwball comedy mixed with a Dashiell Hamett murder mystery- and it's even rarer that you find the two working so well together. William Powell and Myrna Loy, as the witty, urbane and ever so slightly intoxicated Nick and Nora Charles, have perfect chemistry together and are so perfect in their roles that you forget that they hardly appear for the first half hour (almost becoming supporting players in their own story). In lesser hands, I feel the comedy probably would have fallen flat and made this another run-of-the-mill detective story. The Thin Man isn't perfect- there are too many characters to keep track of and most of the performances aside from Powell and Loy are yawn-worthy- but it's still one hell of an enjoyable time.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War (Mike Nichols, 2007) C+ (x2)

The first time I saw Charlie Wilson's War, I loved the irony of the whole situation- helping the Afghanis defeat the Soviets to end the Cold War but, in the end, turning them into enemies- and the sort-of "unholy alliance" that develops between Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), right-wing Texas socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman). This time around, I saw through all of that and what is left is a flimsy film at best. My main problem is the miscasting of Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in their roles. To play someone who does a lot of boozing, hard drugs and partying, the last actor I would think of is Tom Hanks; he's way too babyfaced and all-American to be thought of as someone who would do that. It would be like seeing James Stewart snorting cocaine off a hooker; the pictures don't add up. And the Julia Roberts miscast is even more miserable since she doesn't even give a halfway decent performance. She's so concerned with that Texas accent that she forgets to give an emotion or feeling to the words she's saying (and the accent isn't even that good). My other problem is that the film is way too talky. There's too much verbal explanation and no visual storytelling. Mike Nichols' direction lacks any imagination whatsoever and you can't tell me that the words are so strong they didn't need much camera interpretation; just look at Nichols' own Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as proof that directing screenplays with a lot of talking don't need to be boring visually. A lot of people hated on Philip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar nomination and while I think he was the weakest of the nominees, he's still the only person in Charlie Wilson's War who completely fits his character. Sure, he's pretty much coasting through this, but I love a good scene stealer (I'm a diva, it's in my nature) and Hoffman can steal a scene with the best of them.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Listen, Darling (Edwin L. Marin, 1938) B-

Listen, Darling has the beginnings of an interesting drama about womanhood in the 1930's, but it's ultimately a perfectly respectable family comedy that only aims to please. Mary Astor plays Dottie, a widow with two kids who, due to a lack of money, is considering marrying the town banker so she can provide a future for her children. Her oldest child, Pinkie (Judy Garland) sees her sadness and comes up with a plan with her best friend Buzz (Freddie Bartholomew) to take Dottie out of the city for awhile in their trailer so she can forget about the banker guy. Out in the middle of the woods, Dottie meets a single Walter Pidgeon and they try to find out if a relationship is possible between the two. What I loved most about Listen, Darling was this one scene in particular in which Astor's Dottie describes what it's like to be a single woman in the 1930's with kids to raise. In this scene, she tells Garland's Pinkie to get voice lessons so she'll have something to fall back on in case something happens to her husband- which is exactly is what Dottie believes she should have done so she wasn't in the situation she is in now. This little exchange is brilliant because it's so subtle and not delivered with some sledgehammer speech that it's even more effective. There's not much room in Listen, Darling for a lot of deep acting, but the cast does generally well with what they are giving. It's especially nice to see Walter Pidgeon in something where he's not riding the coattails of the fabulous Greer Garson. Mary Astor, who I've realized within the past month that I love A LOT, is pretty great here, though not especially Oscar-worthy or anything. Judy Garland is given a nice juvenile role, and you can see some of her Dorothy from next year's The Wizard of Oz peeking through, but the real highlight here is her flawless rendition of "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart."

Off topic, but during a scene between Pidgeon and Bartholomew, he asks if Pidgeon's a "woman-hater" because he's an older eligible bachelor; is this 1930's slang for homosexual?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The L-Shaped Room (Bryan Forbes, 1963) A-

I'm usually not a huge fan of 60's British cinema, which usually looks so dated now that it's almost unbearable to sit through, but The L-Shaped Room works exceptionally well because, stylistically, it's straight out of 1940's Hollywood. Leslie Caron plays a young French woman who gets knocked up and decides to keep the child (much to the chagrin of everyone around her) without the help of the baby's father. She moves into a boarding house and becomes friends with her neighbors, including eccentric musician Johnny (Brock Peters), lovable former actress Mavis (Cicely Courtneidge) and a nice young writer Toby (Tom Bell). The first 30 minutes or so are solid, if nothing groundbreaking, but you quickly realize that it's just setting the groundwork for a fantastic final 90 minutes. The material is pure melodrama, but director Bryan Forbes doesn't go for trashy, instead steering The L-Shaped Room towards an effective Sirkian drama. I also loved the impressive deep focus photography that really heightened the emotion, especially the scene on the stairwell between Caron and Bell during an enormous fight. It takes a while to warm up to Caron, but once you do, she'll sucker punch you with how good she is. Caron is definitely a limited actress, but Forbes and The L-Shaped Room play to her strenghts (most importantly, her de Havilland-like quiet strength) and she gives an immaculate performance. I also loved Cicely Courtneidge as the former actress who lives downstairs. She's quirky, dramatic and a lesbian in the 60's- why the hell wasn't she nominated for an Oscar as well?

The Goddess (Yonggang Wu, 1934) B+

The Goddess is a well-controlled silent melodrama starring the Chinese Garbo, Ruan Ling-yu. The film could have easily been something as trashy as something like The Sin of Madelon Claudet, but the sentimentality is downplayed to perfection. The acting is some of the finest I've ever seen in a silent film from Ling-yu's heartbreaking mother, driven to selling her body to support her young son to Zhang Zhizhi, whom I wanted to punch in the face everytime he came on screen (which proves he was doing his job well).

Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008) B

Parts of Cloverfield were some of the scariest shit I have ever seen put on film. Seriously. That scene in the tunnel where the baby monsters start attacking the main characters nearly had me curled up in the fetal position. And the part where they are walking between the destructed buildings, 50 stories above the ground, had my stomach doing somersaults. Literally, at one point my dad asked me if I needed a Zanax I was so freaked out. On the other hand, other parts of Cloverfield fall so flat that it nearly destroys Reeves' impressive work. What bugged me most of all was the cameraman Hud (played by T.J. Miller) whose constant wisecracks and "comic relief" were completely unnecessary. Every thing that came out of his mouth was delivered like a joke and really broke up the tension. The beginning also bothered me because it didn't try hard enough for me to care about the characters. They just seemed super whiny and super boring. They weren't as bad as, say, the characters on The Hills (whom I would root for to be killed), but they weren't exactly fascinating either.

Too Bad She's Bad (Alessandro Blasetti, 1954) B+

A hilarious Italian screwball comedy starring Sophia Loren as the Hawksian motormouth, Marcello Mastroianni as the befuddled Cary Grant-type and Vittorio De Sica as the Charles Coburn screwy father. Too Bad She's Bad is the type of the film don't make anymore and even then it was rare to find a decent one. Judging by the other works I've seen of the main actors (Loren and De Sica with Two Women and Mastroianni as a muse of Fellini), it was strange to find them excelling so well at the break-neck pace of this film. Loren could match Kate Hepburn at her Bringing Up Baby peak and Mastroianni has the ability to still look masculine even while being walked all over by Loren. The chemistry between the two is undeniable and no doubt further cemented their fame together and separately.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Bucket List (Rob Reiner, 2007) F

Sometimes I should listen to my instincts and not let anyone persuade me otherwise. I was going to skip this geriatric death comedy, despite my love of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, but my mom guilted me into watching it with her. Living with that guilt would have been more bearable than this film. In The Bucket List, Nicholson and Freeman play two dying men who decide to really live life in their final days. Watching this, I couldn't believe that this was made by the same guy who did This is Spinal Tap 20 years ago. There was absolutely no personality, jokes or taste to be had in either the bland writing or colorless direction. The Bucket List was just a major downer from the beginning right up until the end. I know it was supposed to be sad, but none of the "jokes" distracted from the knowledge that they were going to die in the end. What's even more disappointing are the performances from Nicholson (who's playing "Crazy Jack" once again) and Freeman (who's playing the "Wise Black Man" yet again) which offer nothing.

'Round Midnight (Bertrand Travernier, 1986) C

'Round Midnight is one of the strangest films I have ever seen that was nominated for a major Oscar (Best Actor in this case). Director Bertrand Travernier is more concerned with the music of fictional jazz legend Dale Turner (played by real-life jazz legend Dexter Gordon) than in the main plot concerning Turner's alcoholism or his friendship with longtime fan Francis Borler (François Cluzet). I guess this film would be a lot more interesting if you enjoyed jazz music, but since I don't (I prefer classical saxophone myself) I found most of the music sections dreadfully boring. The mood and atmosphere of 'Round Midnight are rather interesting, but they alone can't make a whole film, and with such a flimsy story supporting everything the film falls apart. Dexter Gordon's nomination really perplexes me because all this performance has going for him is his saxophone playing, raspy voice and the alcoholism (which the Academy loves almost as much as hookers with a heart of gold). That's seriously all Gordon has to go on, so by the two hour mark you are just exasperated at the shallowness of this performance. It's certainly not the worst Best Actor nominated performance, but it's not one that I would like to see imitated. Thank God for Cluzet's hero-worshiping Francis, which keeps the film moving and, at times, manages to make Gordon look good.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932) B- (x2)

The story and acting in Shanghai Express could have been better, but the real stars here are the gorgeous visuals and Marlene Dietrich glorious face. Cinematographer Lee Garmes won an Oscar for his efforts and I must say that it was well deserved; Shanghai Express looks nothing like any other American picture produced around the same time. Garmes' look is much more visually appealing and dreamlike than anything you would have seen at Warners (whose films tended to look gritty and "realistic") or MGM (which, in comparison, look cheap and unimaginative). He also shoots Dietrich's face in the loveliest way I have ever seen in any one of her films. Her acting, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired. Towards the middle she eases into the performance, but in the beginning and end there's a strange disconnect between her line readings, her vocal intonations and her facial expressions. Something doesn't quite add up and it definitely shows.

Vagabond (Agnès Varda, 1985) D

Agnès Varda's Vagabond tells the story of a young woman named Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) who roams all around France one winter, trying to find herself or some bullshit garbage like that. I'm sorry, but I'm sick and tired of these films that try to turn selfish, idiotic young brats who run away from their life looking for "freedom" into heroes that we should all strive to be more like. Into the Wild's constant reminders were bad enough, but in Vagabond it's never ending, even though I don't really understand why we should be cheering Mona on. She's a selfish, lazy cunt without an ounce of worth in her body. You know, I could see why people might want her around if she was a great conversationalist or something, but she's also the least interesting person on the planet. I've had more fascinating conversations with my friend's dog than anything that happens between Mona and any of the many minor characters that appear in Vagabond. To top it all off, Vagabond is one of the most boring films I've seen in a while. I wanted to turn it off 30 minutes in when we started randomly following characters who bore little relevance to the plot and Bonnaire's Mona started to get on my nerves. It's such a shame that Varda made this stinker because her earlier Cleo de 5 a 7 really fascinated me and had me looking forward to Vagabond.

Story of Women (Claude Chabrol, 1988) B+

A fascinating film about an abortionist (Isabelle Huppert) who is guillotined during the Nazi occupation of France, not necessarily because of the seriousness of the crime but more as a way to set a moral example for the rest of the country. On the surface, Story of Women may seem to have a lot in common with Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, but all similarities end with the abortion issue. While Vera Drake focused on getting women abortions for safety's seek, Marie in Story of Women is only concerned with the wealth that comes from doing the procedure. In fact, Marie is generally an awful person (she's selfish, a lousy wife and a loving but not attentive mother) from the start to the end. Even when she learns about a patient of hers that she may have killed she seems rather unfazed by the news. Story of Women won't convert anyone one way or another on the abortion issue in the way that I suspect Vera Drake was meant to do, but it's a poignant and compelling drama well worth the time.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975) D+

One sub-genre that I simply don't understand, no matter how hard I try, is the 70's conspiracy thriller. The China Syndrome is merely meh, Klute, Fonda's performance aside, is flimsy at best and The Conversation is simply one of the most overrated movies ever. With my prejudices out in the open, let me just tell you why I also didn't enjoy Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor. One of the thing that gets me about thrillers post-Hitchcock is that they generally aren't thrilling and Condor is no exception. We are given no clues throughout the film, such as, maybe, a plot to assassinate someone that's uncovered, as to why the bad guys want Redford's character dead. They simply chase him around and force him to fend for his life. When we are given an explanation at the end, it comes out of left field and makes absolutely no sense. It plays out like the screenwriter wrote a couple of options on a dartboard and threw a dart to see which one to pick. Another problem with Three Days of the Condor is the major miscasting of the leads. Just because you put glasses on Robert Redford, it doesn't mean he's instantly become some bookworm. For Condor to have made any sense, they should have casted someone who actually looks brainy and would have a hard time getting out of these situations. With Redford, it looks too easy and the story doesn't make sense. My beloved Faye Dunaway is also miscast in her role as a woman who Redford forcefully captures. She's too high strung and forceful to play a captive convincingly.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Wuthering Heights (William Wyler, 1939) C (x2)

For being considered one of the most romantic movies not only of the 1930's but ever, it's surprising that the main characters of Wuthering Heights- stableboy Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) and wannabe society lady Cathy (Merle Oberon)- are such incredibly awful people. Not only are they incredibly cold, but they do such incredibly awful things to the people around them, consequently destroying their lives as well, without any regards for anyone else's feelings. Olivier, I believe, understands how to make Heathcliff's coldness sexy and alluring (easy enough considering Oliver was never the was the most personable actor). Through him, we understand what draws Cathy toward him. On the other hand, Oberon is a complete and utter mess as Cathy. Then again, the schizophrenic screenplay by the usually reliable Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, really doesn't do her any favors. In one scene, she goes from loving Heathcliff, to cutting him down to size in front of romantic interest Edgar (David Niven), then berating Edgar for speaking poorly about Heathcliff and then falling in love with Heathcliff again. Keep in mind this takes place in the matter of about 90 seconds. Even Scarlett O'Hara was more consistent. Oberon isn't a good enough actress to connect these emotions together to make them the least bit logical. Instead, we are left with a soulless portrayal of a potentially interesting character. From the beginning to the end, I had no idea who Cathy was. She appears, says some lines, goes through the motions, but she's as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny. Geraldine Fitzgerald, as Edgar's sister Isabella, was nominated for an Oscar but I can't see why besides the fact that she was a respected stage actress and Wuthering Heights was enormously popular in 1939. She's not bad by any means (especially when contrasted with Oberon) but it's not the type of performance to write home about. Fitzgerald has some good moments- most notably the scene where she gets slapped around by Oberon- but they don't add up to a complete performance.

Stolen Kisses (François Truffaut, 1968) A- (x2)

Film Rant here.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Singer Not the Song (Roy Ward Baker, 1961) D

The Singer Not the Song starts off interestingly, with a classic good versus evil plotline between a moralistic priest (John Mills) and the murderous leader of a small Mexican village (Dirk Bogarde). Mills tries to stop Bogarde's alphabetical killings, but Bogarde pretty much laughs in his face and tries twice to kill him. The tension mounts for an hour until circumstance arise in which Bogarde shoots one of his own men to stop him from killing Mills, but, even after the priest protests, the sheriff runs Bogarde out of town. Then, for the next hour, we are introduced to this ridiculous love triangle that involves Bogarde, Mills and a beautiful villager. It wouldn't be so bad if this had been hinted at at some point in the first hour, but it seems almost tacked on to make this film feature length. Needless to say, the rest of the film is a complete mess, nearly dropping the original good vs. evil plot to cater to the melodramatic love story. My pretend boyfriend Dirk Bogarde, however, rises above this crap and delivers a performance that's totally boss. Ben Foster must have been taking notes on this film when preparing for 3:10 to Yuma, because there are a lot of similarities between the two performances: the rock star clothing and swagger, generally badass line deliveries and, above all, the homoeroticism. Bogarde is the only thing that keeps The Singer Not the Song moving long after I've finished giving a crap about it.

The Toll of the Sea (Chester M. Franklin, 1922) C+

The Toll of the Sea was the first feature length film shot in Technicolor and, if nothing else, is worth a look for that. The process is a little primitive (only two colors- red and green- could be used in this early process) but it's almost looks realistic. The story is your average silent melodrama: a Chinese woman (Anna May Wong) is seduced, abandoned and knocked up by an American. Thankfully, director Chester M. Franklin doesn't overdo the dramatics and a lot of the film is actually somewhat touching (if somewhat overdone). Anna May Wong isn't great here, but she has the making of a genuinely great actress. If only Hollywood had let her do more challenging work and not stereotype her because of her Asian heritage- she might have been the next Shearer or Bow if she had been given more experience.

The Peach Girl (Wancang Bu, 1931) C-

A perfectly respectable movie, but it's really nothing more than a sub-par Greta Garbo tragedy. I know I shouldn't have been expecting some grand, sweeping epic that would have put 1930's China into perspective for some American 70 years later, but The Peach Girl is something I would expect from MGM, filmed on the back lot with white actors in "yellowface." Everything from the scene with the children slinging mud at each other (with some landing in the face of the rich landlord) to the fair scene to the dramatic deathbed finale. Actress Ruan Ling-yu was considered the Chinese Garbo before her tragic suicide in 1935 and you can see why she was so beloved in her time. She's not given much to do here, but when her beautiful face fills the frame in a close-up few silent actresses can compare.

Semi-Pro (Kent Alterman, 2008) C-

As embarrassing as it may seem, I'm a sucker for Will Ferrell movies. Sure, his target audience is immature teenage boys, but I always manage to laugh myself silly. They are not great movies, just great escapism, which is all you need sometimes. That being said, Semi-Pro is one of the weakest in the recent filmography of Ferrell. He is as funny as ever, but whenever he isn't on the screen Semi-Pro grinds to a halt. The problem is that Ferrell is so over the top and consistently in character that none of the supporting cast (even Woody Harrelson) could even begin to match him. Even Talladega Nights had Sacha Baron Cohen to keep things going when Ferrell was off screen. If you're looking for a couple of laughs, Semi-Pro will suit you fine, but look for Anchorman and Blades of Glory to stand up to repeated viewings.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Dragon Painter (William Worthington, 1919) C-

A respectable, if not too interesting, silent film starring Japanese star Sessue Hayawaka. The premise is interesting- a talented painter who becomes awful after finding love- but the execution is deadly. Throughout the first half, title cards dominate the screen so much that I thought I was reading a novel instead of watching a movie. Director William Worthington forgets the first basic rule of filmmaking: you have to tell the story visually. There are less title cards in the second half, but were not exactly subjected to passionate filmmaking here (i.e. I was bored). Seeing this Asian perspective is something that we wouldn't have normally seen in 1919, but there could have been a more interesting way to adapt this Japanese style to Western storytelling.

The Cheat (Cecil B. DeMille, 1915) A (x2)

In 1915, D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, which is widely considered one of the most important films during the silent era (technique wise, anyways). I'd wager that Cecil B. DeMille's breakthrough, The Cheat, is probably just as important and a hell of a lot more fun. It's 60 minutes of pure adrenaline that doesn't waver throughout it's long runtime. The Cheat is about a spoiled woman (Fannie Ward) who steals money from a fundraiser to try to make money on an investment opportunity. When the investment tanks, she is forced to borrow money from her Burmese businessman friend (Sessue Hayakawa) who, in return for the loan, wants sex. She tries to pay him back when her husband's own investment comes in, but he doesn't want the money and literally brands her like a cattle when she refuses. The Cheat is a shocking movie, especially for 1915, and as technically superior as anything from the late silent era. The editing isn't as crisp or exciting as the endings to Griffith's Intolerance or Broken Blossoms, but it's an upgrade compared to a lot of other films of the teens. There are fewer long shots and long takes and more cut ins and close ups than I would have expected. Sessue Hayakawa gives such an incredible performance that I'm surprised he doesn't receive more praise for it. He's subtle in a way that many silent stars aren't, but he's not so subtle (like in Broken Blossoms) that you don't see anything happen. It's the type of performance you wish to see in every silent movie but rarely ever do. The first time I saw The Cheat I thought that Fannie Ward was super over the top and not an example of great acting. This time around I thought Fannie Ward was a hell of a lot more interesting. Sure, she's still way over the top, but from her first scene you understand exactly who she is. You can almost hear her voice when she's telling her husband that she needs a bunch of new dresses for the upcoming charity events. And that last scene in the courtroom- scandalous!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford, 1939) D

The problem with Drums Along the Mohawk don't stem from John Ford's direction (which is adequate, if not especially inventive) or the lead performances from Henry Fonda (warm, but the same old same old) and Claudette Colbert (she tries, but everything lets her down). No, exception for occasional bursts of intelligence (the scene after the major battle where Fonda walks around looking for his wife and all you hear on the soundtrack is the crying of a baby; an amazing close-up of Claudette Colbert as she watches Fonda go off to war) Drums Along the Mohawk can't make up for an atrocious screenplay. The film consists of a wedding, a house burning, finding a new house, going off to battle, a birth and a major showdown with the dirty "Injuns" with no real connection between any of these scenes. Nothing the characters do advance the plot- everything bad that occurs to Fonda and Colbert just seems to "happen" to them and not because of the choices they make- and they don't grow at all as people. They remain one-dimensional stick figures from the beginning to the very end. Legendary character actress Edna May Oliver, who was brilliant in David Copperfield and should have won the Oscar for Pride and Prejudice, isn't given much "acting" to do either besides inject her usual no nonsense humor whenever she appears on screen.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Edukators (Hans Weingartner, 2005) B-

My first semester of college, I had to read this book called Looking Backwards for my Literature class and it primarily consisted of characters sitting around discussing politics, social justice and all that jazz for nearly 200 pages. There was very little attempt at story, just philosophical mumbo jumbo. Why do I mention this? At certain points during The Edukators, it felt like everything in the film just stopped for five minutes while Jan (Daniel Bruhl) could rant and rave about how capitalism is the downfall of Germany, that capitalists are pigs and that young people are lazy and should unite and fight for something. Thankfully, these preachings come and go rather quickly and the rest of the film is pretty good. After breaking in to the house of one of the "irresponsible" rich they hate, the owner comes home and Jan, Jule (Julia Jentsch) and Peter (Stripe Ecreg) are forced to kidnap him and go into hiding. While locked away from the world the rich man and the youth come to sort of an understanding after the rich man tells them he used to be like them when he was young. It's very interesting to see this rich man (played by Burghart Klaubner) sort of relive his lost youth through these three revolutionaries. What I loved most about The Edukators is the fact that even though Jan, Jule and Peter think they are right about everything, Weingartner is smart enough to show that they're still fucking morons about the real world. They don't think their breaking into houses will have consequences and they don't really believe that the rich man has any justification to not spreading his wealth around.

We Own the Night (James Gray, 2007) B+

The opening to James Gray's We Own the Night is, bar none, one of the most brilliant of the decade. We first meet Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) emerging from the shadows of his apartment hallway to have a quick makeout session with his hot girlfriend (Eva Mendes) before he has to go downstairs to take care of a problem at the club he manages. And did I mention it's all set to the tune of Blondie's "Heart of Glass." Minutes later, Gray juxtaposes with that another party going on across town. It's intent is to celebrate Bobby's brother Joe (Mark Wahlberg) and his promotion to Captain in the NYPD. There are shots of kids running around, a band playing in the background and food being served like a traditional pot luck. Gray makes it clear that these two worlds couldn't be any more different. The rest of the film is interesting because it plays with our expectations of what this type of police thriller should be. In a normal film, you would have gotten enormous gun fights, a melodramatic reunion between Bobby and Joe and an uplifting ending. Instead, the finale is rather subdued and almost anti-climatic, the moment that Bobby and Joe finally "reunite" is quiet and the ending is surprisingly bittersweet.

The Man With the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955) B

The Man With the Golden Arm is an interesting film for 1955 in that it deals entirely with the post-recovery portion of drug addiction. That it deals with heroin addiction is probably the reason for its enthusiastic reaction by critics in its day, because, except for that, it's just like every other above-average addiction movie in the vein of Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend. The film is realistic and honest, but only in that faux-50's style where people are "poor" and wear low-class clothes, but look as if they had just gotten out of hair and makeup. I thought that Frank Sinatra was pretty good, especially during his withdrawal scene, but a tad overrated. Maybe it's just his acting style, but it seems like every line is said with the same deadpan emotion. His voice goes up and down appropriately, but there's nothing really behind it to make it seem real. The real standout is Eleanor Parker as Sinatra's crippled wife. She's written as a one-dimensional guilting nag, but she wisely stays clear of that and almost becomes sort of a femme fatale, doing anything and everything to keep her man.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, 1968) C-

This is my second viewing of The Thomas Crown Affair and I still don't think it's a very good film. Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway are "sexy! no no no" but are they particularly interesting here? Not really. The placing of four different point of views during the robbery is fascinating, but eventually realizing that Jewison is using style to cover up a lack of substance. The robbery is one of the most boring I've ever seen in a film. They take people hostage in an elevator and the lobby? That's the big secret plan? You've got to be fucking kidding me. After this lackadaisical robbery, the screenplay sort of bounces around from setting to setting, character to character without ever stopping to reflect upon anything substantial: "Oh look, Steve McQueen's flying a plane with 'Windmills of Your Mind' playing over the soundtrack. That's kinda cool. I wonder what it has to do with anything. Nothing you say? Then why the hell am I watching it?" It's only been a couple of hours after I finished watching The Thomas Crown Affair and I really can't remember anything between the robbery and the ending. The only scene that's particularly memorable is the chess scene between Dunaway and McQueen. If you never thought that chess could be that dirty, you obviously haven't seen this scene; it's downright filthy (in an amazing way)!