Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Movies Watched in August

New movies, some TCM, and re-visiting the films of my favorite directors.

*-Denotes that I've seen the film before.

30 Minutes or Less (2011, Ruben Fleischer)
Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger)
The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)*
Bottle Rocket (1996, Wes Anderson)*
Flirting with Disaster (1996, David O. Russell)*
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004, Wes Anderson)*
The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston)
Our Idiot Brother (2011, Jesse Peretz)
Red River (1948, Howard Hawks)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, Rupert Wyatt)
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001, Wes Anderson)
Rushmore (1998, Wes Anderson)
The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My Family Ranks the 10 Best Picture Nominees

So I decided to do something different. I wanted to get the opinion of someone who isn't a movie goer, film buff, cinephile, critic, historian, analyst, etc. I wanted to get an average person's opinion on some popular films. I ended up asking those closest to me, my family, to participate and they actually all responded to the idea with a surprising amount of enthusiasm. My grandmother (Eleanor Conn) loves movies so she is always trying to keep up to date as well as go back and catch movies that she missed. My parents (Maryanne and Anthony DiDonato) usually aren't sure which movies to watch so they usually end up watching the Oscar nominees for Best Picture and whatever else catches their interest. So below are their rankings (1 being the best), thoughts, and a little information about them (I also ask a few questions, some relating back to the Oscars which is what generated this list), but first, here is a reminder of the films that were nominated...

127 Hours Directed by Danny Boyle. Written by Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle (based on the book by Aron Ralston). Starring James Franco.
Black Swan Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Written by Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman, and John McLaughlin. Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, and Mila Kunis.
The Fighter Directed by David O. Russell. Written by Eric Johnson, Scott Silver, and Paul Tamasy. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo
Inception Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher Nolan. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
The Kids Are All Right Directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Written by Stuart Blumberg and Lisa Cholodenko. Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo.
The King's Speech Directed by Tom Hooper. Written by David Seidler. Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter. -WINNER
The Social Network Directed by David Fincher. Written by Aaron Sorkin (based on the book by Ben Mezrich). Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake.
Toy Story 3 Directed by Lee Unkrich. Written by Michael Arndt (based on characters created by John Lasseter). Starring Tom Hanks and Tim Allen.
True Grit Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (based on the novel by Charles Portis). Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Hailee Steinfeld.
Winter's Bone Directed by Debra Granik. Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini (based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell). Starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, and Dale Dickey.

-Like I said, Ellie loves movies. Aside from the being the coolest 79-year old woman I know, she was alive back when some of the classics were released. She saw movies like Casablanca multiple times on its opening weekend and loves movies ranging from On the Waterfront to The Godfather to The Deer Hunter. Her favorite movie, however, is a complete surprise to me, but it goes to show how socially-modern of a woman she is. The movie being Adaptation (2002). She said no movie ever made her feel and think the way that did. She also considers Netflix the greatest thing ever invented. So without further ado, here are her thoughts as transcribed by me.

10. The Kids Are All Right
The fact that two women had the same sperm from the same man, it was silly. It wasn't meaningful to me at all. Don't forget, I haven't seen this recently (note- she saw this in November of 2010), but I remember not finding it dramatic or even comedic. It had a few "ha-ha" moments, but it didn't move me.
Did you feel unable to appreciate the story about the family because you couldn't get past the concept of the film?
I just couldn't get over the concept about the two women. It's not that it was hard to believe, but the situations they find themselves in, I just didn't care for it.

9. Toy Story 3
It was an animated film and animated films are just sometimes so make-believe to me. Not that all of them are, but this was definitely something a child would love. I'm not overly interested in them [the Toy Story series], but some of the lines they said were cute. Still glad I saw it.
Was there anything mature about it for you?
Yes, how entertaining it was. It entertained me. Everybody should still see it. Reminded me of older cartoons. A great family film.

8. Inception
The one where they ran on the walls? (Laughs) It was hard to follow, but I enjoyed the action in that. The chases, the snow scenes- the scenery was gorgeous. After you realize that scenes were in someone's dream, in someone's mind, it started to make more sense. Another movie that was completely different from what I'm accustomed to seeing. I liked the make-believe science of it all.

7. 127 Hours
That movie was troublesome to watch. Getting his arm stuck and how he gets free. I mean, what he did to try to survive and how something like that makes you think about how he would think about his past. He was thinking about things he should've done. Maybe he should've answered his phone. When you walk out of that movie, I feel like I learned a lesson. He didn't let anybody know about his life and where he was going. A lesson to be learned.
What did you think of James Franco?
Excellent. His anguish, his agony, his expressions, his feeling, his face, his demeanor- it showed what the character was going through. Oh, and the shots of the mountains and the skyline were absolutely breathtaking and beautiful.

6. Black Swan
I loved the costumes that she [Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers] wore, the swan costume. I was so focused on the fact that she was crazy. Actually, crazy isn't the right word. Obsessed. Obsessed with giving a spectacular performance. There's an attraction with this whole scenario for me. It was scary too. Made you frightened. It wasn't a comedy, that's for sure. (Laughs)

5. The Fighter
Took me back to when I would watch Joe Lewis and boxing. How that mother [Melissa Leo as Alice Ward] was always going overboard and at the end of the film it almost brings him [Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward] down. But, I think his family realized how they wronged him, even if not everyone was left in a happy place at the end of the movie.
Where do you think the character of Micky is left?
He knows where he is going and what he is doing. He seems okay with himself. He was a smart guy.

4. True Grit
That little girl [Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross] just showed me how courageous a younger person can be. She was very self confident. People kept trying to show her the way to be, but she would get her way. When she trusted that U.S. Marshal [Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn], he then saved her life. Great cinematography, the desert looked beautiful.
You mentioned to me that you thought Mattie Ross should be a role model for younger girls?
This kid, growing up, was going to always know what she wanted to get done. Actually, not so much what she wanted, but what she needed to get done. She was not weak, she showed how strong a girl could be. This reminded me of the kind of person I wanted to be at that age. They [Cogburn and Matt Damon as Labeouf] thought she was a stupid kid and she gained their respect, confidence, and even their love. She is saying, "I'm no jerk." They realize that and she earns all of that from them.

3. The Social Network
Don't forget, you're talking to an almost 80-year old woman and this movie just showed me how a young man today can be so forward-thinking and how people like that can become so noticed. It gave me insight into what privileged college life must be like now. What pressure these types of people are under- peer pressure, social pressure, academic pressure. For that alone, it was a must-see movie for me.
What did you think about the relationship between Mark and Eduardo?
He wasn't a true friend to Eduardo. He [Mark] was almost jealous of others. He wanted to be in the clubs and he was awkward and he tried to polarize everyone around him in his own unique way and he is then left alone at the end.

2. The King's Speech
Although he [Colin Firth as King George VI] was royalty, he knew he had a disability and tried to keep that out of the limelight. His struggle was touching and he had such determination to overcome [his stuttering]. His wife wanted to help him because she loved him so much and she stood by him. What he does to overcome his stutter through practice was hard work, but he persevered.
What did you think of Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue?
He gave a good performance. Lionel showed his true self by not treating the King any different from anyone else. He was a good soul and that was probably why he knew he could help the King.

1. Winter's Bone
I went into that movie and my heart just opened up to that character. It was her [Jennifer Lawrence] acting. It felt so real, so honest that she [Lawrence as Ree Dolly] had to help her mother and her siblings, but you can tell that she had some feelings for her father. That sent her on a mission, one that she accomplished. In that movie, the cinematography, when she was thinking and walking, I felt like I could walk on those leaves with her. I felt I was there because of the visuals. Outstanding. The directing of the story was spectacular. I could shut my eyes and see images from that movie that are so clear to me.

Tony DiDonato
-My father is 53-years old and is a steel manufacturing contractor. His favorite movie is probably The Godfather.

10. The Kids Are All Right
It holds your attention, but it's somewhat predictable. I think at some point it tries to over-emphasize the relationship between the women as if the movie is trying to make a point as opposed to letting the relationship feel natural.

9. Black Swan
It was confusing as to what was real and what wasn't. I realize that is part of the intention of the movie. I thought both actresses [Portman and Mila Kunis] were pretty good and they were believable characters.
Did you think Natalie Portman's performance was worthy of winning Best Actress?
The best performance, no. A good performance, yes.

8. Winter's Bone
It was a little slow. A little beating around the bush, trying to get to the point of it all. They [the filmmakers] had a small story and they tried to make a larger movie out of it.
Did it have any redeeming qualities for you?
Yes. The actress [Lawrence] gave a really good performance.

7. Toy Story 3
You need to see the earlier ones to get the basis of the relationships between the characters. Being that it was the third one that we've seen, you know the characters so it is just a matter of a having a level enjoyment and entertainment.
How enjoying was it for you?
It was the difference between going to an amusement park or a museum. One is just pure entertainment and the other is more intellectual. Since this wasn't anything new, it was pure entertainment. I knew what to expect.

6. Inception
Considering it's science-fiction, they [the filmmakers] presented it to make you think that this was something real and that it could be done. It had somewhat of the "Lost" [the TV show] feeling to it where they could just for the sake of the movie, make up and say whatever they wanted and then they make it work. They did a good job of trying to make you think it's real by explaining it, but like I said, since it's science-fiction, the quality is in how they present the science to the audience. When you sit down and see a movie, you want to be engrossed. It's a balance of not boring the audience and keeping them interested and I was interested. They pulled it off.

5. True Grit
I don't remember much of the similarities between the John Wayne version and this one, but the acting and especially the actress [Steinfeld] was unbelievable. It held your attention. The action was suspenseful right up to the end.

4. 127 Hours
If it wasn't based on a true story, I don't think I would watch it. Knowing the fact that it's based on a true story, your attention is maintained.
What did you think of James Franco?
The acting is what holds your attention too. The performance was exceptional. The way it was delivered and then with the flashbacks, that added to it.

3. The Fighter
I enjoyed the underdog prevailing in spite of adversity with his family. The boxing scenes were realistic which added to the enjoyment of it. By the end of the movie, him [Micky] and his brother [Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund] are in a better place so far as their relationships which also made the movie interesting.
Did you think Christian Bale and Melissa Leo were Oscar-worthy?
I thought Christian Bale's performance was worthy. Not so much for Leo, though a nomination was deserved. His girlfriend [Amy Adams as Charlene] was a good character too.

2. The Social Network
That was purely interesting to me just because of knowing what a phenomenon Facebook is. I knew some of the history of the story between the twins suing and what have you. Knowing about the success of Facebook, I wonder if somebody who had no idea what Facebook is if they would like it as much as someone like myself did. Either way it was a good movie that had a good story and it holds your interest. I didn't know when it was going to end, the fact that it can keep you off balance like that was a good thing. Good themes to it.

1. The King's Speech
Knowing that it was based on truth as well made it quite an amazing story. To think that the leader of a country was so affected by his inability to speak and that they [the filmmakers] were able to make a movie that was very emotional and could hold your attention. You wanted to see more. I didn't want it to end because I wanted to see what happened to the King. They were also able to introduce some humor into the story very well. Lionel, more than the King's wife seemed like a stronger character and supporter. The therapy scenes were pretty amazing.
Did it deserve Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor?
Yes to both.

Maryanne DiDonato
-My mother is 54-years old and is a hospice nurse. Her favorite movie is also, probably The Godfather.

10. The Kids Are All Right
I didn't like it. I thought the story was predictable and it could be because of my age, a younger person might find it interesting, but I didn't. I think that it was popular because of the relationship between the characters played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore and I felt like that was what was marketed, but it felt like any other story. Especially with her [Moore as Jules] going with that guy [Mark Ruffalo as Paul] and Bening's character feeling hurt by that and then the kids are suffering- I didn't think it was interesting. Maybe it is because I missed out on the details, I didn't think the characters were that interesting.

9. Black Swan
Strange. It was a good story because it was sort of looking at her [Portman as Sayers] going crazy and losing it because of the pressures of the career, which could be really any type of person involved in performance. She [Portman] was amazing and Mila Kunis was good too. Kunis's character was definitely a manipulator. She knew what was going on and she took advantage of Portman's character. Good portrayals by the actresses.

8. Inception
Yeah, that was above my intellect. I couldn't follow it. I suppose if you could follow it, it could be a fantastic story and I just wasn't able to follow it and therefore have it keep my attention. I think that's more my flaw than anything. I expect movies not to challenge me to understand it (Laughs). That being said, DiCaprio was amazing. His acting is just like, "wow." He is always believable and he was emotional. He [Dom Cobb] seemed like a real character to me.

7. The King's Speech
I'm not really a fan of that many British movies to start with, but I did like how the King's wife supported him and she was just so behind him. I don't normally like Helena Bonham Carter that much in other movies. Colin Firth was okay. Geoffrey Rush was amazing.
Did it deserve Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor?
I could see why people liked it. Though, definitely not for Best Actor. Especially not with Wahlberg, DiCaprio, and Franco's performances.

6. Winter's Bone
I think that the setting and the cinematography were just so connected to the story and the sad downtrodden characters. The environment and the dreariness of the winter and the cold just emphasized and tied into the story in an unique way. It couldn't have worked in a hot environment. It [the winter] represented the harshness of that life that people live. The uncle [John Hawkes as Teardrop] was interesting and so was the girl [Lawrence as Dolly].

5. Toy Story 3
I love Toy Story movies. It was cute and engaging. They are always nice stories with nice themes that are appealing to adults and children. The animation is amazing. I love Woody and the themes of growing up.

4. True Grit
I really liked that story. I liked Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges was really believable, it didn't seem like he was acting. He [Cogburn] just seemed real and I liked his "coolness." Matt Damon too with how harsh he was and it was a little out of character for his usual kinder characters that he plays. The setting and the costumes, I really liked. I hate when movies are contrived and so simple that when they try to entertain you it feels silly. This movie didn't feel silly, it felt real and that is a tribute to the people who handled all the details from the horses to the clothing to the landscape. Similar to Winter's Bone for me.
What did you think of Hailee Steinfeld?
She reminded me of the girl from Winter's Bone. The fact that she is fourteen, wow. Looking forward to seeing her in other films.

3. The Fighter
As much as I tend to dislike Christian Bale, he was amazing and the relationships were so dysfunctional, but it felt real like I keep saying about other movies. Mark Wahlberg is always incredible and it was just a deeply emotional movie because you see how much these characters love each other and the raw emotion behind that love. Deep movie. Deeper than some of the other movies I've seen maybe because I liked the setting too. (Laughs) I love Boston. The mother and her daughters, as supporting characters, added a lot to the believability of the plot. Sometimes you just love the people you love no matter what, even when it hurts. I liked Amy Adams too.
Did Christian Bale and Melissa Leo deserve Oscars?
Definitely. Wahlberg was overlooked too.

2. The Social Network
I liked it and I liked the pace. Very modern-feeling movie. It has a lot of short and important scenes. Sometimes you see a scene that goes on and on and on, but this story was tied together with quick scenes making it an interesting movie. It seemed like a factual account of what happened. I don't know all the details, but it makes me think this is how it happened in real life. I think he [Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg] screwed over people for money. The main character wanted more and he wanted to be on top so he wasn't fair to others. He was Machiavellian. Sure the movie has those wider themes as well. He wanted things more than having a friendship. Especially with Eduardo, Mark sacrificed his integrity so he could own it all. That's the impression I got.

1. 127 Hours
I loved it. I didn't expect to be as engaged in Franco's performance, but it was on par with that of Tom Hanks in Cast Away. For a single character in such a simple setting, to keep it interesting is an example of phenomenal filmmaking. He deserved his nomination for Best Actor. It has a great message. That message is that you need to have connections in your life.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Our Idiot Brother

Paul Rudd is an interesting actor. He gives his characters something I'm going to call Ruddishness, as if to say they are all somehow related just in their excellently dry delivery of comedic dialogue. Yet he actually plays a variety of characters. He has men who get stuck in problems when they are most successful (I Love You Man), just shooting the breeze (Knocked Up), or at their lowest point (Role Models). Sometimes he also just plays complete morons (Forgetting Sarah Marshall). This new character he has created for Our Idiot Brother (directed by music video director Jesse Peretz of The Lemonheads fame) is a guy who wanders that spectrum, thus making him perhaps Rudd's most oddly well-rounded character he has yet to play. He is, however, only one part of the best ensemble cast I've seen this year.

Ned (Rudd) is such an honest guy that it makes him look like a moron. When an uniformed cop comes up to him and tells him how he has had such a hard week and would like some weed, Ned of course sells him some. Ned goes to jail and when he gets out, he tries to go back to his organic farm where his girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn) and her nonchalant new boyfriend (T.J. Miller) are asking that he come up with some more money if he wishes to continue living with them and his favorite companion- a dog named Willie Nelson.

So Ned decides to try out living with each of his sisters until he can get his life together. Liz (Emily Mortimer) has become so involved with parenting the youngest of two children she has started to become as typically frizzy haired as you might expect. She is married to the snobbish Dylan (Steve Coogan) who Ned tries to help out with his documentary film about ballet. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is a bossy single woman who works for a magazine and is trying to get the scoop on a sex scandal involving a charitable British socialite (Janet Montgomery). She lives above a science-fiction writer (Adam Scott) and Ned begins to realize that they secretly pine for each other. Liz (Zooey Deschanel) is a warm spirited bi-sexual comedian who is currently dating a lawyer named Cindy (Rashida Jones), but after a fling with an artist (Hugh Dancy), Ned tries to help her figure out how to deal with the repercussions of cheating. Then of course there is the mother (Shirley Knight) who is somewhat oblivious to certain realities, but she loves her kids all the same (you can see that Ned is perhaps most like her). Don't forget this is all while Ned is on parole and he has to often check in with his no-nonsense parole officer (Sterling K. Brown).

Sorry for making this review plot heavy, I normally don't do that. I just wanted to showcase all of the different story-lines that the film moves between. The story goes through several twists as Ned's honesty begins to show his sisters all the lies they've been living with. This is a loaded statement, but this film felt like if someone went out today and resurrected Frank Capra who then decided to make an indie film for the Sundance crowd. The script (by Peretz, his sister Evgenia Peretz, and David Schisgall) is so sharp, funny, and introspective that moments that should feel dull are immediately lightened with the film's sweet tone. I'd definitely call this the most charming movie of the year.

The best independent dramedy of last year was Boden and Fleck's It's Kind of a Funny Story, and this is right in the same category. This film just also has some Ruddishness to it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Retro Review- Red River (1948, Howard Hawks)

Since I'm a relatively mainstream movie goer, it's hard for me to imagine epic films without CGI. There was, however, an age of filmmaking where enormous feats were done for real. There were hundred of extras in the desert during Lawrence of Arabia and a bridge was built for a train to go off of in The Bridge on the River Kwai (coincidentally, both were directed by British filmmaker David Lean). Red River is along the same line of thought for me.

The plot is set during the old west in which rancher Thomas Dunson (John Wayne), his adoptive son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift), and a plethora of colorful characters all take part in a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri. For some of these shots, hundred of cattle can be seen and the sight is breathtaking. There is some beautiful black-and-white cinematography by Russell Harlan (who apparently had not much experience before he made a film of this scale) and I was at first worried that I wouldn't be able to appreciate the colored landscape as I did in westerns ranging from John Ford's The Searchers to Ethan and Joel Coen's True Grit. Yet under the guiding vision of Howard Hawks, this film is as visually compelling as it is narratively.

Speaking of Hawks, I continue to consider him to be the quintessential filmmaker when I think of versatility. His work includes films such as Scarface (gangster), Bringing Up Baby (comedy), His Girl Friday (comedy), Sergeant York (war), The Big Sleep (mystery), and The Thing (science-fiction). The trait I love about Hawks is that he would still play with the conventions and expectations (at the time) of a genre. To make an observation (that might not be as informed as I'd like to imagine), a majority of the western films before Red River strike me as more action-oriented. For its time period, Red River seems to be a stronger example of character development mixed with action, humor, romance, and a great sense of constantly foreboding dramatic tension between Dunson and Garth. The film perhaps gives the wild west the most mythic of feelings.

Comparing the western films I've seen of Wayne, I can sense an evolution of him as an actor. Stagecoach-Wayne is more of the action star, Red River-Wayne is more complex, and The Searchers-Wayne is a fully realized actor. Not to say he was ever a bad performer, I just feel that like say A Fistful of Dollars-Clint Eastwood is different from Unforgiven-Clint Eastwood in the sense of there being a great deal of growth. Once again, this is all just my take on the matter, I'm sure that movie buffs and especially Wayne fans might be able to come up with a few arguments. Wayne's co-star, Clift, was also a revelation. He comes off as this fresh-faced youth and at the same time he can shift into a brooding manner or a love-struck one.

Now, despite Wayne and Clift both giving great and driven performances, I took a small issue with how the film ends (SPOILERS AHEAD).

Dunson and Garth have a falling out leading Garth to take charge and finish the cattle herd so he abandons Dunson. Dunson swears revenge and there is a aura of doom surrounding the last third of the film. Yet when they meet... things get resolved in a matter of moments through a speech by another character. The leads then go from just about to kill each other to wanting to share the cattle. It happened so fast compared to the chunk of time in which one character is getting ready to face the other (and that goes for the supporting characters on the sidelines as well). The idea behind the resolution is good, but the pacing and acting just feels forced as if to give the film a happy ending (one that is also different from the novel).

Like with many classics, I can overlook such things in favor of there being a much stronger and bigger picture. For my last retro review for at least a while, I'm happy I got to both see another side of Hawks and Wayne as well as experience another multi-faceted film of years past.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Retro Review- The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston)

The Maltese Falcon is often cited as the movie that started the film noir era of the American film industry. An era full of crime stories that were so clearly defined by standards that included cynical characters and dark motivations for one's actions (among a variety of other characteristics). I'm a fan of the period, but The Maltese Falcon was even then a surprisingly complex film for me to digest. So much is going on with its characters and plot that your interest as the viewer never ends until Sam's last memorable line.

The story is that of private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) who sends his investigator partner to tail a man who ran off with the sister of a worrying femme fatale (Mary Astor) that is Sam's new client. When his partner is killed, Sam is thrust into a game of cat-and-mouse, shifting alliances, and double crosses all centered around recovering an expensive artifact called The Falcon. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet star as two men who are both separately competing for the statue and they both try to buy Sam's loyalty... but Sam has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Spade is a really rough guy on the outside, but a truly innovative man on the inside. The question of whose interests he is looking out for constantly looms over the audience, but one look at Bogart's suave demeanor and you know that Sam already has a plan to get out of any sticky situation. A lot of the joy of watching The Maltese Falcon includes not knowing the diverse set of characters who themselves have numerous eccentricities, so I won't say much other than it is another well-cast classic that lives up to its hype. I mean, this was the film that put Bogart on the map. To think that we wouldn't have the memorable Rick Blaine from Casablanca if he hadn't been Sam Spade... Bogart has created such a distinctive niche for himself in American film history.

As for a technical aspect I noticed, I loved the slightly low camera angles. They wouldn't be awkward but I read online that they would always be on enough of a slant that you saw the ceiling above the characters giving everyone such a dominating look as they moved across the also brilliantly designed sets. That being said, the one thing that I'm amazed the most about, above the acting and visuals, is that all of this complexity was captured by a first-time director.

This is perhaps the most accomplishing directorial debut aside from Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men. John Huston is such a great writer-director who was said to be so detail oriented when it came to planning a scene and with films like the ones I'm going to list, that commitment really shows. The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, Moby Dick, The Unforgiven, The Misfits, The Night of the Iguana, Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Man Who Would Be King, Under the Volcano, Prizzi's Honor, and The Dead. Huston practically died in the directing chair and to think that major stars turned down The Maltese Falcon because they didn't want to work with a first-timer.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Retro Review- Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger)

When courtroom dramas are good, they are like thrillers minus the action scenes. I've always been a fan of the genre mostly thanks to Dick Wolf's Law & Order which stared Sam Waterston as the hard-working attorney Jack McCoy for I believe seventeen years of the show's run. Some popular films that I know of (some that I've seen) that also exemplify this genre include- Judgement at Nuremberg, Witness for the Prosecution, A Few Good Men, The Verdict, To Kill a Mockingbird, and one of my favorite films of all-time, that actually is a twist on the courtroom drama as it is from the jury's point of view, 12 Angry Men. The film I'm going to be talking about, Anatomy of a Murder, is also a part of that pantheon thanks to its ensemble acting, masterful directing, and unique script (something that I'm still not sure how I feel about).

In upper Michigan, small-town defense lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is asked by Laura Manion (Lee Remick) to defend her husband, Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who is being charged for murdering the man who raped Laura. After some debate, Paul ends up taking the case, but runs into several problems, one of which is that the prosecution has asked a slick city attorney (George C. Scott) to come sit in on the proceedings.

The film is directed by Otto Preminger (Laura) who gave a fantastic performance opposite William Holden in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17. Preminger obviously understands the art of acting and he along with Jimmy Stewart, show us a complex character who is stuck in a complex case. Paul's speaking style shows his rural roots and he is quite laid back. This does help to hide his sharp legal mind which can be shown in his calm questioning of a witness at one moment and then his disguised "smoke-screens" which include theatrics that I'm pretty sure would get anyone held in contempt of court these days on any procedural crime drama on television. Stewart is completely convincing in the role, but that doesn't come as a surprise as he is one of the greatest actors to have ever lived.

Laura is an interesting character- a flirtatious rape victim? Throw in the fact that Frederick's questionable temporary insanity becomes his defense and I at first had a tough time really wanting to side with Paul when it came to his defendants. Eventually, things change as Laura and Frederick's marriage comes to the forefront of the case and you begin to see different sides to their personalities. George C. Scott is intense as Claude Dancer and the rest of the cast does a fine job, but the performance I was most pleased with was that of Gazzara. You can see the anger in him and the confusion he may or may not feel about what is happening. How much is he holding back? Does he hit his wife? Is his defense just an excuse for a man who may not have morals? The film's ending doesn't help with some of the ambiguity one might feel towards Frederick, but the conclusion is more creative than it is resolving.

I wish at the end that we could have seen what happens between Laura and Frederick as instead we get a quick verdict and then Paul is driving down the road with Parnell (Arthur O'Connell, another great performance) to the jazz score (more on that in a second). Then again, when Paul goes to pay one last visit to the Marion's, what he ends up finding perhaps speaks to all we as the audience need to and should know. I also found myself questioning how much we needed to know about these characters lives before the trail, but it all ends up fitting in if you stay until the end. You need to understand what we see of Paul so when we move the trial (which does admittedly take up a huge portion of the film), we can enjoy what Paul has up his sleeve while combatting what the prosecution has up theirs. The cinematography and the editing also keeps one on their toes; great filmmaking all around.

As for the score, it was composed by jazz musician Duke Ellington (who was apparently on set most of the time working with Preminger on the music as they filmed) and his style is a unique choice for the score, but like my previous review of the all-zither score in The Third Man it somehow oddly fits. Add a Saul Bass title sequence and you have nicely stylized and memorable film.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

30 Minutes or Less

30 Minutes or Less just shouldn't work, but it does. It has the craziest plot I've heard in a long time- Dwayne (Danny McBride) and his bomb-expert friend Travis (Nick Swardson) want to murder Dwayne's father (Fred Ward) so they hire a hit-man (Michael Pena), but to pay the guy they have a pizza delivery boy named Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) rob a bank or else they will blow him up with the bomb they have strapped to his chest so Nick asks his friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) to help him out.

That's a mouthful of a concept. It is partially inspired by true events in which a pizza delivery man named Brian Douglas Wells walked into a bank with a bomb strapped to his chest and robbed the place only to be blown up (unlike the film, he was also in on the robbery with his co-conspirators). So how does Ruben Fleischer (director of Zombieland, another film where the idea succeeds better than expected) and writers Michael Diliberti and Matthew Sullivan make it all work? I'm not so sure other than the obvious answer- I think they just did a good job of filmmaking. They realized what would work and somehow made me suspend disbelief. This is like if Adam McKay (the modern-day master of absurd commercial comedies) made a more grounded film.

The cast does a good job with this witty script and the chemistry between the two pairs (Eisenberg and Ansari, McBride and Swardson) is handled well and then you throw in Michael Pena and it could only get better. Eisenberg is such a talented actor (having done a variety of roles such as his work from The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland, and The Social Network) and Fleischer knows how to direct him as the two worked together on Zombieland to great acclaim. Ansari (Parks and Recreation) and McBride (Eastbound and Down, Pineapple Express) are always funny, but I was never crazy about Swardson's style of comedy. Then again, even if he is the weakest link, he isn't half-bad since his character mostly follows Dwayne around and bounces off of what he says.

The film is as fast-paced as it is laugh-out-loud funny where every character has about two flaws for every thing they can actually be good at. This film doesn't need charm or redeeming moments, it's too damn funny to worry about being something that wouldn't fit with the story.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Retro Review- The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)

What is The Apartment? Is it a comedy, a tragedy, a romance, a satire, or a commentary? Well, under the versatile direction of Billy Wilder- it is all of the above. Wilder is my favorite director as his films, no matter what the subject matter, are touching and come from someone with such a distinct voice (Martin Scorsese would rank as my favorite active director for very much the same reasons). The Apartment remains important to me as I've yet to see any other movie like it. In fact, I can't think of a film that came before or after that has a story so uniquely presented.

The story is that of C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a man who is climbing the corporate ladder at his job at an insurance company by renting out his apartment in New York City to his bosses so they can have a convenient place to take a lady to now and again. Baxter hits the jackpot when the head of the company, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) wishes to keep promoting Baxter if he would give him the keys for a lady who he claims to be important to his heart. Perhaps this promotion will even give Baxter enough nerve to ask out the beautiful elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).

The performances of this film are impeccable. Looking at Lemmon's films chronologically, his films before The Apartment that I've seen would have me only view him as a fine comic actor. Yet the role of Baxter requires him to be goofy one moment and depressing the next. Lemmon delivers a performance that is so versatile and expressive that this ranks as my favorite performance by him (right above such other multi-faceted, but ultimately tragic characters like Ed Horman in Missing or Shelley Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross). His co-stars, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray also do a great job of embodying what they need to be for this movie to work. That is what I love about older film stars, you go around and hear how iconic they are and then those expectations are fully realized when you experience their work. I felt that way about MacLaine in Terms of Endearment and MacMurray in Double Indemnity and that same exact feeling is repeated again with Wilder's film.

I find all of that surprising as none of the characters are all that likable as your typical American audience member might be used to (I'd imagine even more so in 1960). I mean, the male protagonist is practically a pimp and the female is suicidal... but they are played with such charm, something that Wilder excelled at throwing into all of his films. His plot and the visuals contain so much detail and the script is so superb that everything in the story leads to something else and then there is a call back to it later in the film. For example, the scene where Sheldrake first meets Baxter has so much going on in it that I'd imagine that the master of comedies with romantic touches, Ernst Lubitsch, would be quite proud of his previous collaborator. And to just touch on the visual for a second, I love how Wilder never really used close-ups in his films as much as others do. The scenery by Alexander Trauner (who amazed me with his work on Children of Paradise) has created such a dynamic environment that you can admire especially, since whether it be the office or the apartment, the sets are like characters of their own in this story.

There are so many themes and characterizations that this film may be the most complex movie that I've ever seen that can be enjoyed on even the most basic levels that one views it at (whether it be for pure entertainment or food-for-thought). When Kevin Spacey accepted his Oscar for American Beauty, he said that he was inspired by Jack Lemmon's work in The Apartment and rightfully so. Baxter is nice, but gullible- but don't worry, his morals see him through this rough patch at the end of the day. After all, he is a human being or as Dr. Dreyfuss tells him- "Be a mensch!"

Very Early Oscar Predictions

I'll go ahead and have some fun...

-A Dangerous Method
-Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
-The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
-The Rum Diary
-Super 8
-The Tree of Life
-War Horse
-We Need to Talk About Kevin

-J.J. Abrams (Super 8)
-David Cronenberg (A Dangerous Method)
-Stephen Daldry (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)
-David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
-Steven Spielberg (War Horse)

-Daniel Craig (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
-Johnny Depp (The Rum Diary)
-Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar)
-Michael Fassbender (A Dangerous Method)
-Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus)

-Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia)
-Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
-Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady)
-Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin)
-Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn)

-Tom Hanks (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)
-Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin)
-Viggo Mortensen (A Dangerous Method)
-John C. Reilly (Carnage)
-Christoph Waltz (Carnage)

-Sandra Bullock (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)
-Elle Fanning (Super 8)
-Jodie Foster (Carnage)
-Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method)
-Kate Winslet (Carnage)

-J.J. Abrams (Super 8)
-Diablo Cody (Young Adult)
-Drake Doremus and Ben York Jones (Like Crazy)
-Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)
-Lars Von Trier (Melancholia)

-Christopher Hampton (A Dangerous Method)
-Rory Stewart Kinnear and Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin)
-Roman Polanski and Yasmina Reza (Carnage)
-Bruce Robinson (The Rum Diary)
-Eric Roth (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Retro Review- The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)

"You know what the fellow said- in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they hard warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace- and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."- Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in The Third Man.

This tale of British noir, directed by Carol Reed (Oliver), is set in post-WWII Vienna, a city that is virtually in ruins. When the film wishes to open with depicting a "slice-of-life," it shows soldiers that are constantly walking in their different different sectors of the streets and that mostly everyone is walking through rubble and demolished areas.

The story follows American novelist Holly Martin (Joseph Cotten) who is invited to Vienna by his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to discover upon arrival that Lime was killed in a car accident. After talking to a variety of associates and friends of Harry, Holly begins to believe that not everything is as it seems. It turns out that all of the reports, of only two men carrying Lime to the curbside after the car accident, are incorrect. It is revealed that there was a third man and as more details become apparent, is Lime really the man and friend that Holly thought he was?

The movie not only has a thrilling premise, but it is presented in a dynamic fashion. The lighting captures the slick looking streets and the deep focus detail of all of these off-kilter angles creates a foreign and unnerving feeling. It doesn't matter whether the scene is on a staircase or in the sewers, this is a fantastic looking black-and-white film. The music is an all-zither score. It's an odd and unique choice and it just somehow fits with the film's look and story. It's almost as if everything is meant to keep you off-balance as the film moves towards its finale.

It was great to see more of Joseph Cotten as I had only seen him in Citizen Kane as Jebediah (also opposite Welles). At the end when Holly seems defeated as Anna (Valli) walks by, I was reminded to take a look back at Cotten's performance (as a lot of attention is spent on Welles at least in the reviews I've read), I was amazed how even without the final shot of the film being a close-up of him, we can still feel what he is feeling- defeated. To have the hero defeated for not doing anything all that wrong and then to set up the finale with that long shot, it just felt jaw-dropping to watch. All of the other performers (Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, etc.) embody their parts, but I was caught by surprise to see Bernard Lee as a police officer. Nine years ago, I spent a summer watching him as M in the James Bond movies and here he plays a much more fun of a character. The love story that also develops is interesting and organic as Anna is still in love with Harry, but perhaps it is that shared admiration of Harry that draws Holly closer to her.

Now onto the reason why I wanted to watch the film- the iconic performance of Orson Welles. I love going into classics and not knowing much about them, as the ferris wheel scene just comes as such a pleasant surprise. Harry mentions how he still believes in and fears God, but he doesn't care if one of those "dots" (referring to the people on the ground) were to stop moving. The moment is haunting in retrospect, mainly because Welles plays the role with such allure and charm. Interestingly enough and compared to Cotten, Welles doesn't have a lot of screen-time. Still, his presence is built up so wonderfully with famed novelist Graham Greene's script that his presence is justified when Welles steps out from the shadows on the street corner for the first time and then after that- his aura is still hanging around. I like that shot when Harry comes from the rubble across the street and above the cafe where Holly plans to entrap him (the camera pans to the right showing the landscape, with it being Harry's point-of-view). You sort of feel like Harry is lording over his domain. How interesting it is then that he meets his end below, in the sewers.

I remember when I first watched Welles, it was in Citizen Kane. The film is praised for being such a technically proficient looking film, but I always jump right back to the character of Charles Foster Kane and that fearless portrayal by Welles. The character was both emotionally vulnerable and with a steel exterior. Welles just has this look about him that makes his presence so well known and that comes across in The Third Man as well.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The main difference between Planet of the Apes and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is that the first film had such a well-written allegory to it. I mean, you could apply the subtext of the great Franklin J. Schaffner's 1968 classic to being about race or social class divides. Similar to Night of the Living Dead, whether it was intentional or not, it contained the kind of symbolism that I feel places it up there as being a great representation of its genre during that given era. This prequel, directed by Rupert Wyatt (whose previous film The Escapist is a must see), is unfortunately a lot more impersonal and has very little meaning to it. If there is any meaning, its the exact same stuff we saw in the first film.

Not that there is anything wrong with taking the pop-culture aspects of the first one and trying to play more with that, I just feel the writing is somewhat uneven. The film does have a fantastic beginning- a scientist named Will Rodman (James Franco) is trying to cure Alzheimer's and in the process he makes a chimpanzee he named Caesar (Andy Serkis) become phenomenally smart. The film also has a fantastic ending- Caesar leads a revolt by dosing other apes with the same chemicals that made him the way he was and he then leads a revolution. What happens in between, is where I think the film lags a bit.

After the story does a quite fantastic job of setting up Caesar as a very sympathetic and loving character, we instead have to watch quite a bit of him getting used to a primate facility. I just feel like I sat there waiting for the revolution to happen and not to say that my expectations are what prevented me from enjoying this, but looking back on it, a lot of that was unnecessary. It does build up Caesar's hate for humanity, but it doesn't do it in as unique of a way he comes to understand the world in the beginning and then fight back at the end.

That being said, the development that Caesar goes through is very well handled, but I wish the same could be said of the humans. You feel a little bad for Will because his father (John Lithgow) is diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but most of the emotional element there comes from the father's struggle and not from Will. Perhaps it is because Franco is more believable when he isn't reciting scientific babble, but due to your typical love plot, I just found myself not caring much about Will as it's really Caesar's story. The relationship that Will has with Caroline (Freida Pinto) just feels like its there for no reason.

I did have to suspend some disbelief as the film does feature an orangutan that learned sign language from the circus, dumb apes just following the smart ones because... well they need to take over the planet, and I also have the feeling that even counting the zoo, facility, and laboratory- there were a ton more apes just showing up in some shots. This ends up being more Rise of the redwood trees of the Apes. There seems to be just a move away from a more philosophical subtext so there can be a few action scenes here and there.

So despite not as deeply exposing the flaws of our humanity and culture as well as the first installment did, I do have some very positive comments about the film. The movie is superbly directed. The best scenes are the ones where Caesar is interacting with Will or when he is discovering his environment both in captivity and out in the world. Ignoring the so-so story, this film is full of dynamic shots and the special effects are breathtaking. I applaud Weta Digital and how the CGI/mo-cap is implored. It isn't used as a cheap trick as some might be worrying; if anything the this was the most artful use of special effects I've seen in a blockbuster this year. A shame the ethics that the film deals with are not as revolutionary as the ability to make these apes feel real.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Movies Watched in July

*- Re-watch

The Abyss (1989, James Cameron)*
Aliens (1986, James Cameron)*
Captain America (2011, Joe Johnston)
Cowboys and Aliens (2011, Jon Favreau)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II (2011, David Yates)
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008, Guillermo Del Toro)*
Horrible Bosses (2011, Seth Gordon)
Orgazmo (1997, Trey Parker)*
Spanking the Monkey (1994, David O. Russell)*
Star Trek (2009, J.J. Abrams)*
Terminator (1984, James Cameron)*
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991, James Cameron)*
Transformers 3 (2011, Michael Bay)

Cowboys and Aliens

When I first saw a trailer for the film, I was happy that the title was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Yes, the movie was about cowboys fighting aliens, but it was going to be a serious movie. Picture a western film such as Unforgiven and all of a sudden aliens just decide to show up. The problem is- this doesn't end up being Unforgiven. It's not a good movie, at all.

If you were worrying the plot would be too ridiculous, well it is, but it at least treats everything in a realistic manner that only such a high-concept film like this should do. The story follows a man named Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) who wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory of how he got there or who he is, so he walks towards the town of Absolution. Once there, he comes across Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who claims that Jake stole money from him, but before they can settle, the aliens attack and kidnap the townspeople. Lonergan and Dolarhyde then team-up to lead a renegade band of survivors out into the wild western frontier to fight the aliens and recover their friends and family.

The movie was actually a good movie until the aliens showed up. Then I realized that none of these characters were going to develop if the film kept heading in the direction I foresaw. I prefer films with characters that go through an arc. Instead the film is all plot. A plot that includes hummingbirds, Native American memory-loss curing liquid, a dog, and aliens that have smaller hands inside of them so they can hit the smaller buttons on their consoles and whatnot. The aliens also suck at killing people until the end of the movie. They can sure as hell cause explosions around everyone and create chaos, but they only develop hand-eye coordination when the heroes lead an attack against their docked mothership. The movie ends up being full of action cliches, which was my problem with director Jon Favreau's Iron Man 2. It just felt too overdone whereas his other films (Made, Elf, Iron Man, and even the not-that-well-regarded Zathura) felt charming and fresh.

Like I said, the biggest problem with this film isn't even the concepts. The characters are just so flat and not multi-faceted. Two that I took issue with for example were Ella (Olivia Wilde) and Percy (Paul Dano). Ella is purely a plot device and who she really is ends up being quite predictable due to all of the mystery that surrounds her. Percy is just a brat, nothing redeeming about him and I don't quite get why Woodrow hasn't disowned him. There was nothing redeeming about that whole storyline, but another character's death figures in so I'll keep quiet.

I like movies that make me care or at the very least make me feel something, anything, in response to the events on screen. This film, just didn't do anything for me.