Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year and some news for January

Big thanks to everyone that's been reading and commenting, either here or on facebook. So here's what I'm thinking... this coming month, I'm going to have a theme. Since I've done a ten best list every year since 1995, I'm going to be looking at movies from my best of list that I haven't watched in a while. For example, I picked Cradle Will Rock as the #2 movie of 1999, but I can't even remember the last time I watched it. All of this will lead up to long form reviews of my ten best on the last ten days of January, so I'll post my review for my #10 choice on the 22nd, all the way through my #1 on the 31st. I'll leave some wiggle room in case I see a film in the theater that won't make my list, but I want to review. So here are some of the films I'll be reviewing this month in case you want to see them before I post my reviews:

Cradle Will Rock 1999 dir. Tim Robbins
The Constant Gardener 2005 dir. Fernando Meirelles
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story 2007 dir. Jake Kasdan
Mysterious Skin 2005 dir. Gregg Araki
Bad Education 2004 dir. Pedro Almodovar
The Fountain 2006 dir. Darren Aronofsky
X2: X-Men United 2003 dir. Bryan Singer
Road to Perdition 2002 dir. Sam Mendes
Billy Elliot 2000 dir. Stephen Daldry
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World 2010 dir. Edgar Wright
Avatar 2009 dir. James Cameron
L.A. Confidential 1997 dir. Curtis Hanson
Fargo 1996 dir. Joel Coen
United 93 2006 dir. Paul Greengrass
Frost/Nixon 2008 dir. Ron Howard
Amelie 2001 dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet

That's a few, I'll come up with more between now and then. I'll also end my embargo on directors in February. In case anyone hadn't noticed, I'd been avoiding reviewing more than one film by any given director. I'll put a stop to that soon as it's been killing me. It was an exercise to stretch myself, but it's been a bit stifling.
I'm open to any other suggestions anyone may have. One last favor, I would ask you to share this with friends who aren't reading it, or people you know who I may not know, that would find this interesting. I'd like to open up readership a bit, so any help my devoted readers can give would be appreciated.
Thanks everyone, and happy new year!

Day 31: Monkey Business (1931)

"One of the stowaways goes around with a black mustache."
"Well, you couldn't expect a mustache to go around by itself."

When I was around eight or nine, AMC, which is now primarily known for their groundbreaking original programming, used to have Marx Brothers marathons on New Year's Eve & Day. In fact, my old VHS copies of their films were taped during one of these marathons. The Four Marx Brothers made a total of five films together at Paramount Pictures from 1929-1933. Their first two were based on their smash hit Broadway shows The Cocoanuts & Animal Crackers, and their last two are widely regarded as two of their best, Horsefeathers & Duck Soup. Smack dab in the middle is arguably their weakest effort, their first original screenplay, Monkey Business.

The brothers, playing nameless castaways on a cruise ship bound for the United States, find their way through several madcap adventures, none of them particularly inspired. The plot, razor thin though it be, concerns a gangster named Alky (Harry Woods) trying to kill and/or extort money from a wealthy businessman by the name of Big Joe Helton (Rockliffe Fellowes). Groucho and Zeppo find themselves in the employ of Alky, while Chico and Harpo come to work for Helton, but the latter don't offer much protection from the former, and the former seems to have no interest in actually killing the latter. Still with me?

When the ship docks in New York, Helton is to throw a party to introduce his daughter Mary (Ruth Hall) who has fallen in love with Zeppo. During the party, Alky and his thugs kidnap Mary, hide her in a barn, and it's up to the brothers and Helton to rescue her and save the day.

It's a pretty lame plot even by the subpar standards set by the brothers other efforts, but it's filled with some pretty decent comedy bits. The most inspired bit in the whole film is recycled from their vaudeville days when, in an attempt to get off the boat, they steal Maurice Chevalier's passport and one by one, try to pass themselves off as the famous crooner. It's hilarious, but I've seen a video of them doing the original bit, and this feels shoehorned into the film and subsequently not as inspired as it had been. In another, Harpo hides out in a children's puppet show on the ship and masquerades as one of the puppets as the Captain and First Mate try to wrestle him out.

It's unfortunate that even the best bits are pretty thin and unmemorable. There are half a dozen scenes in any of their other films that are better than even the best in this one. A key missing element here is Margaret Dumont, the legendary foil for Groucho. Her presence is sorely missed here, and without her, Groucho flounders a bit, delivering witty one-liners to a random assortment of people, none of whom can live up to the incredible Ms. Dumont.

The physical comedy is top-notch as always, and Harpo is really in top form here. He's always been my favorite Marx Brother, and his prop work and physical bits are hilarious. He's even given a foil of his own during his harp scene, when he accompanies a soprano singing "O Sole Mio," and is given a wonderful opportunity to infuse his harp playing with some very funny asides. His best work lie just ahead of him in their next two films, but he really steals the show here even with the weak material. Chico on the other hand is given some really bad bits in this film. His comedy has always relied heavily on word play and almost every single bit he does in the film is a stretch at best, like confusing vessel for whistle, and the endless puns about his grandfather's beard. It's really weak sauce and Zeppo is as superfluous as he's ever been.

There are much, much better Marx Brothers films out there and I urge you to seek them out (any of the four I mentioned in the first paragraph would be preferable, along with their first two MGM efforts A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races). I would recommend Monkey Business only for the die hards, and even then, it resides next to Room Service, At the Circus, The Big Store and Go West as lesser works (don't even get me started on Love Happy and A Night in Casablanca). Granted it's still funnier than most movies being made today, but they made much better films and you should do yourself a favor and watch those first.

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Friday, December 30, 2011

Day 30: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

"Your time is over and you're gonna die bloody. All you can do is choose where."

The opening credits of 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid read like a who's who of the best in their field. Paul Newman and Robert Redford star, Edith Head did costumes, Conrad Hall shot the film, Burt Bacharach wrote the music, William Goldman wrote the screenplay, George Roy Hill directed... it's a formidable assemblage of talent. Why, then, does the film not totally work? I know that this is blasphemous in some circles (my father saw this movie over ten times in the theater and still quotes it at random), but I think that this is one of the truest examples of a film that is not better than the sum of its parts.

Let's start with the good. The script is fantastic, filled with snappy, endlessly quotable dialogue. The cinematography is breathtaking, seamlessly switching from the sepia-drenched opening to the vast, technicolor beauty of the first hour. Paul Newman may be the most charming actor that ever lived. He's the kind of actor who rarely, if ever, made a misstep, and he's at the top of his game here, just two years removed from his career best performance in Cool Hand Luke. Robert Redford is also very good, though Sundance is more stoic than charming and chooses his words more carefully than Butch does, making it the more thankless role. The music is also great, having won Bacharach two Oscars, one for the score and one for the song "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on my Head." That sequence is great and any time that song shows up in a lesser film (I'm looking at you, Spider-Man 2) it will instantly call this scene to mind.

So, it seems like a pretty good film, so why didn't I like it? Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say I didn't like it, I just don't think it's as good as it should have been. The main reason is the simple fact that no matter how much charm the two leads bring to their roles, their characters are thoroughly unlikable. The first hour when they're being pursued and are constantly on the run and relying on their wits, the film breezes and it's really fantastic. After they jump off the cliff and escape their pursuers, deciding to go to Bolivia, the film grinds to a halt. The odd montage of pictures of their exploits in New York was the first sign that something had gone awry. Stylistically I didn't have a problem with it, I just didn't like the sheer length of it. It's nearly seven minutes of film spent just showing pictures of Butch, Sundance & Etta (Katharine Ross) having fun on Coney Island, etc. but no human connection to this whatsoever.

Once they get to Bolivia and resume their outlaw ways, I lost all sympathy for them. Sure there were charming moments, like Etta teaching them Spanish and them mangling it at every opportunity, but it was all in service of them stealing from people who basically had nothing to begin with. I think the major issue here is that they seem to be stealing because they're bored. There's nothing else for them to do, so they do the only thing they know how to do. Even in their attempt to go straight and get jobs, is the audience supposed to be happy that they steal back the money that was stolen from them? It's a morally ambiguous quagmire that the film gets bogged down in, and I couldn't help but lose what little sympathy I already had for them.

The early scenes breeze by, the fight for control of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang between Butch and the gigantic Logan (Ted Cassidy, best known as Lurch from The Addams Family); the constant run-ins with Woodcock (George Furth); Sweetface's betrayal; the opening card sequence where a young Sam Elliott accuses Sundance of cheating... all of these scenes are fantastic, and led to my favorite scene where they break-in to the office of Sherriff Bledsoe (Jeff Corey) and he gives them the advice I quoted at the top of my review. It's a great, quiet sequence that put the fear of god into them and should have made them seek redemption, but I can't move past the second half where they spit in the face of any hope of redemption.

The ending is iconic, of course. The final freeze-frame is actually the cover-art for the blu-ray, and reminded me too much of that awful Planet of the Apes dvd that was released in 1999 or 2000 where the cover art was Taylor at the Statue of Liberty. But in the end, it's hard to feel bad for them. Their talk of Australia should induce an emotional response of some sort, like Rizzo's dreams of Florida in Midnight Cowboy does, but they've moved beyond redemption at that point, and part of me was almost bored to tears waiting for them to get theirs.

I assume this review will be one of my more controversial as I'm taking down a sacred cow for a lot of people, so I would like to hear what the unabashed lovers of this film think. Leave your comments below!

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Day 29: Brother's Keeper

"We've never had a murder here, as I ever remember."

D.A. Pennebaker, Albert & David Maysles, Errol Morris, Michael Moore, Barbara Kopple. All pioneers of the documentary form, all heavy influences on the work of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Best known as the team that has spent much of the last two decades exploring the story of the West Memphis Three in their Paradise Lost series, they have taken a number of diversions over that time. Most famously Berlinger went off to helm the sequel to The Blair Witch Project and alienated Sinofsky in doing so. The two reunited for 2004's Metallica doc Some Kind of Monster, but have mostly worked apart in the ensuing years.

Their first collaboration was 1992's Brother's Keeper, a warts-and-all look at a small town in central New York state, and what the citizens of the town of Munnsville saw as a gross miscarriage of justice. The focus of the film is the Ward brothers, Delbert, Roscoe, Lyman and William, four men who have lived in Munnsville their entire lives as farmers. The eldest, William, is dead and an examination of his body leads police to believe that he may have been murdered. The surviving brothers are rounded up for some questioning and at the end of a marathon interrogation, they receive a confession from Delbert to having suffocated William in a mercy killing. However, there is more to this story than meets the eye (there has to be I guess, otherwise, why document it?) You see, the brothers are all varying degrees of illiterate and are all pretty simple (there has to be a nicer way of saying that), so many people in town feel that Delbert was tricked or coerced into signing a confession. They bail him out of jail and proceed to help raise money to mount his defense.

Taking a page out of the Errol Morris playbook, the film is very deliberately edited, revealing bits of information at varying times to create suspense. It starts with a lot of interviews with the Ward boys, various townsfolk, and a lot of blustery, self-important law enforcement-types, and culminates in Delbert's trial. The filmmakers build suspense very well, and if you don't know the verdict, the moments before it's read are some of the most intense they captured on film. They're savvy filmmakers, but not so consumed with technique that they fail to capture the human element happening around them. They clearly have a lot of love for the Ward family and do everything in their power to show where their allegiances lie. They devote next to no time to the opposing view, mainly because they feel, rightly, that it's a crock of shit. Be warned, I'm going to be spoiling the verdict, so if you haven't seen the film or don't know the outcome, read the review after doing so.

We're presented with the "evidence" against Delbert which amounts to his confession and the testimony of the first medical examiner (holy hell he's an insufferable douchebag). I suppose it's hard to spend the amount of time the filmmakers spent with these brothers and not feel for them and not demonize the other side, but their case against Delbert is tenuous at best. They only include one particularly astute insight by the prosecution, when one of the officers says something to the effect of "the Ward brothers are outcasts in their own town, but when the people saw how they were being treated, they rallied around them and stood up to protect one of their own." It's clear that even the most die-hard Ward supporter in town still handles them with kid gloves, but that doesn't mean that they won't protect them when they see a blatant disregard for justice.

The scene where the prosecutor puts Lyman on the stand is very difficult to watch. This is a man who hasn't travelled more than five miles from his home in his life being asked to take the stand and answer questions. He falls apart on the stand and can't stop shaking. It probably single-handedly doomed the prosecution's case and rightly so. It was a bush-league move by a district attorney looking to build a case on nothing. The boys obviously had no legal counsel when they were interrogated initially and these prosecutors had nothing to go on beyond some circumstantial evidence that doesn't hold any water.

Late in the film there is a scene where the brothers hire a man to come and slaughter one of their pigs, and it's shown in brutal detail. It's played late in the film like the directors' trump card, almost like a victory lap for their argument: How could Delbert possibly have killed his brother when he has to hire someone to kill an animal? It does give one pause, and I personally began to feel it was almost too stagey. When Delbert is being cross-examined by the prosecutor late in the film, he asks him about what shows he watches. Among them he lists Matlock, and when asked to describe it in more detail, he says that it's a show where Andy Griffith plays a defense lawyer. Now, the non-cynical part of me wants to think that he's now wiser about the world and knows what a defense lawyer is, but there's this creeping suspicion in me that says maybe he's not as dumb as we've been led to believe.

Who knows? His acquittal and ability to go back to his normal life is all that matters. Even if it was a mercy killing, it was between family members and the police and state had no right to interfere. It's not like this man posed a significant threat to anyone, and it seemed more like a land grab than anything else to me on the state's part anyway, so so much the better the case never panned out.

It's a fascinating film and highly recommended for lovers of documentaries. Even though they are borrowing liberally from their heroes like the Maysles and Errol Morris in particular, Berlinger and Sinofsky create their own style, one that blends the best worlds of both of those filmmakers (the intimacy of the Maysles with the clincical precision of Morris). Andrew Jarecki perfected this blend some 11 years later with Capturing the Friedmans, but even that masterpiece's roots can be seen here.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Day 28: Winnie the Pooh

"I am a bear of very little brain and long words bother me."

When Disney animation studios released the hand-drawn The Princess and the Frog in 2009, I was one of very few people who delighted in its old school Disney style. Many people I've talked to about that film found it dull, which I've never understood. I thought it was the best non-Pixar product that Disney put out in the last decade. Last year's Tangled was very good too, but it was computer animation, and Pixar has a corner on that market at Disney as far as I'm concerned, so why even bother? This year, Disney returned not just to hand drawn animation, but to a gentler animation style that hasn't been seen since I was a child, with Winnie the Pooh.

Based on 3 A.A. Milne stories that they have not yet animated on film before, Winnie the Pooh is the seamless blending of those three stories into one narrative that clocks in at just over an hour. The first thing that the filmmakers need to be commended for is the hiring of Book of Mormon and Avenue Q's  Robert Lopez and his wife Kristin Anderson-Lopez to write the songs for the film. They are inspired, charming and endlessly singable. Anyone with children can look forward to hearing these songs being sung for days on end afterwords.

The voice cast is spectacular as well. Jim Cummings has spent the last four decades being an unsung hero of Disney voice work, and has been doing the voices of both Pooh and Tigger for the last two decades. His voice work is of the highest order and he captures both characters so well, sounds exactly like Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell, and somehow manages to infuse it with something that makes it his own and not just a carbon copy of the original masters. Tom Kenny, a name that every Mr. Show and Spongebob fan should already know, does the voice for Rabbit and makes him just as insufferable as ever.

Pixar stalwart Bud Luckey takes over duties for Eeyore and sounds so much like Ralph Wright, the original Eeyore, it's almost enough to make you forget that Peter Cullen had been doing the voice for much of the last two decades. Travis Oates started doing the voice of Piglet a few years back and does a wonderful job, and Craig Ferguson is equally great as the pompous Owl. Rounding things out is John Cleese as the narrator, taking over duties from Sebastian Cabot. It's no secret that I'm a huge admirer of Monty Python and Cleese has always been able to infuse even the most important sounding delivery with the right air of utter foolishness, making him the only choice imaginable.

The stories are all familiar to Pooh lovers, Pooh attempting to track down honey, the whole gang trying to find a new tail for Eeyore, and then saving Christopher Robin from a beast called The Backson which is merely Owl's misinterpretation of the boy's note saying he would be back soon. It's certainly not new territory, but the way that the animators and writers wove the stories together is great and the short film just flies by.

The animation is sublime. I took my girls to see it this summer, but somehow I think it looks even better on blu-ray then it did on 35mm (blasphemy, I know). When it was shown in theaters, it was preceded by a short that's included on the dvd called "The Ballad of Nessie" narrated by Billy Connolly that is also wonderfully whimsical and helps pad the already short run time by another five minutes.
Winnie the Pooh is a must-see for parents, but I think that even the most cynical among us will find themselves falling for its charms. I would be hard-pressed to say I've seen a better animated film all year, and with two girls, I've seen them all. Give this film an hour of your time to try and melt your hard heart. You won't regret it, I promise.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Day 27: Wag the Dog

"The war's not over."
"Yes it is, I just saw it on the television."

1997 was the last time we saw Robert DeNiro in a film, he actually did two that year, Jackie Brown and Wag the Dog (Copland don't count folks). Sure, he's done a lot of movies since then, but has anyone taken the guy seriously in the last 15 years? I liked Analyze This and Meet the Parents and The Score, but DeNiro the actor... DeNiro the respected statesman of American cinema... that guy left us in 1997. He's still the standard bearer for crazy method acting; Whenever an actor loses or gains a ton of weight for a role, he's immediately compared to DeNiro. I've been lulled into a false sense of security by his presence in a trailer too many times in the last decade but the guy hasn't made a good movie in so long, I'm not surprised when he turns up in dreck like New Year's Eve and Machete.

In Wag the Dog he plays Conrad Brean, a political fixer called in by the current President's administration to help them fix a pretty big problem 11 days before the election. Apparently the sitting President is being accused by a teenager of sexual misconduct and his people need Conrad's help in sweeping this thing under the rug. He decides to fly to Hollywood to meet up with a big time producer named Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman very clearly paying homage to his good friend Robert Evans), to enlist his help in manufacturing a war.

Stanley brings in his friends songwriter Johnny Dean (Willie Nelson), Liz Butsky (Andrea Martin) and The Fad King (Denis Leary) to help in coming up with all of the various elements that accompany a war and how to help sell it to the American people. When the CIA eventually exposes that there is no war, Stanley and his team turn the tables and change the focus of the story to a soldier left behind enemy lines named Willie Schumann (Woody Harrleson, brilliant beyond words) and hope to deliver him safely home the day before the election.

The film skewers so many targets with marksman-like precision; It's a satire of Hollywood, Washington D.C., the American public at large, and the media. The fact that the film was released jut months before the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal shows just how prescient the film was at the time of its release, let alone how well it holds up some 15 years later. I do wonder how the events would play out in the age of the internet, 24-hour news and social networking.

It might almost make a remake or revisiting worthwhile, which is something I never say, but you just know that, for example, the young actress played by Kirsten Dunst would be live-tweeting from the set of the secret news footage shoot before anyone could get her to sign any sort of non-disclosure agreement. It would add an interesting set of elements to the story, and with all the other shit getting remade these days (Footloose? Seriously?) at least this would be worth exploring.

Dustin Hoffman is fantastic, as always, and is one of the only living actors that can work effortlessly in both comedy and drama. You never see him working, it all just happens, and his performance here is sublime (all the more so if you've seen The Kid Stays in the Picture). DeNiro is great too, as he always used to be, and is far more effective as a comedic actor when he's doing less. All the mugging he's doing in the comedies he's made since Meet the Parents undermines any of the subtlety he brought to roles like this one. His scene in the bar with William H. Macy and Anne Heche is great and he shows how good he can be when given good material. Speaking of Anne Heche, she's equally good and has no small task ahead of her, playing all of her scenes with two screen legends, but she holds her own and manages to garner laughs and prove she's worthy of the role.

Barry Levinson has always been a very good director for writers and actors, as he never does anything flashy or upstaging as a director. He trusts his actors enough to just get out of their way and let them do their thing, and it almost always works. In his best films like Diner and Rain Man this has served him well. Whenever he's tried to do too much visually, his lack of skill as a director betrays him, like in Toys, Sleepers, Young Sherlock Holmes, the list goes on.

In fact two years ago, he reunited with DeNiro for the insider comedy What Just Happened? that I had hoped against hope would be a return to form for both and be a worthy successor to Wag the Dog. Instead it fell woefully short of the sum of its parts, and was borderline unwatchable. Thankfully Levinson's most recent film redeemed both him and one of DeNiro's contemporaries who also had seemed beyond redemption, when he did You Don't Know Jack with Al Pacino. With the right script, maybe Levinson's the guy to give DeNiro another shot at redemption, but I don't know how fleeting it will be. Any lover of cinema has got to be optimistic though that it will pay off great dividends.

Tomorrow's film will be Disney's 2011 hand-drawn animated Winnie the Pooh.

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Day 26: The Artist


Michel Hazanavicius directed two films which achieved some small modicum of success here in America with his OSS 117 spy spoof films. They both starred the incredibly charming French actor Jean Dujardin as the eponymous character, a distinction he has again here with Hazanavicius' latest film, the almost totally silent 2011 film The Artist. The mere novelty of it being a silent movie made in the third century in which films have been made is enough to get it the notice and attention it's been getting. Novelty is one thing, a film has to have more going for it than a gimmick, and thankfully The Artist coasts for most of its running time on the sheer personality, charm and magnetism of its leading man.

Shot in a 1.33:1 ratio used for most films of the silent era, The Artist opens in 1927 with the story of George Valentin, the biggest silent film star of the time, premiering his new film A Russian Affair. At the premiere, he has a chance encounter with a young starlet named Peppy Miller (the thoroughly beautiful and equally charming Berenice Bejo) and the two are photographed together by the press and she makes the front page of Variety with the headline "Who's That Girl?" It doesn't take long for everyone to find out as she is cast as an extra in Valentin's next film, A German Affair, and Valentin takes the girl under his wing and gives her the advice that she has to have something that makes her stand out from the other girls. The two have a lot of romantic chemistry, but don't act on it as Valentin is married to the stoic and dour Doris (Penelope Ann Miller).

Through a montage we see time passing, and Peppy is working her way up the ranks in Hollywood, and before we know it, it's 1929. The head of the studio that Valentin works at, Al Zimmer (John Goodman), shows George some footage of a talking picture. Valentin laughs and scoffs whereas the suits in the room all feel as though they've seen the future. When George finds out that the future of the studio is in talkies, he quits in a fury and vows to make silent pictures on his own, without studio financing. Naturally one of the new starlets for these talkies is Peppy, who begins her ascent, just as George is making his descent. A wonderfully staged encounter between the two at the studio, features him heading down the stairs just as she is heading up them. It's a nice visual aesthetic, one that is employed one or two more times in the film.

Valentin shoots his new, self-financed silent film and it is set to open on the same day as Peppy's new star attraction. The releases also coincides with the stock market crash, in which Valentin loses all of his assets, including his wife Doris. His film bombs, he loses everything, and his career is in shambles. All of this is of course juxtaposed with Peppy's new career as a major player in talking pictures, and we see that she still carries the torch for George when no one else seems to. She is spotted as one of a dozen or so people at the opening of his film; when he sells off his possessions to get some money, she ends up buying all of them through some of her servants at auction. It's all very sweet and touching, and Peppy is always seen as someone who has undying gratitude for George for giving her her big break. Since the film is just coming out, I won't spoil it any further, but the film follows these two characters and their encounters and lives through the end of 1932.

Overall, I really enjoyed the film. I think it's a delightful film that will melt even the most cynical of hearts, but I do take issue with all of the awards attention it's been garnering. I realize that most of the major award contenders this year with the exception of Hugo are very serious films, but that doesn't make The Artist a better film by comparison. I fear it's being unfairly elevated in peoples' minds because of its gimmick. It's a very good film that's being treated like a great one, and nothing will make people sour to a movie faster than that (Brokeback Mountain anyone?)

The score, costumes, art direction and cinematography are all wonderful. Dujardin and Bejo are irresistibly charming and eminently watchable. There are lots of great little cameos and nods to the silent era, and fans of Chaplin, Keaton and the like will get little kicks that others may not. The dog steals the whole film. There's a lot to love about this film, but it's hard when a producer like Harvey Weinstein gets his hands on a charming little film like this and starts trying to sell it to people as the greatest thing they've ever seen. This is not a movie which should be sold to people, it's the kind of little gem that people should discover on their own, but it will likely win tons of awards and end up becoming as derided as Slumdog Millionaire (though unfairly I think as Slumdog is rightfully derided as the shallow film it really is).

Go see The Artist and marvel at the love that it's filmmakers have for film. Whatever you do though, don't go see it because you think it's going to change your life or be the best film of the year, because it's neither of those things.

Tomorrow's film will be Barry Levinson's 1997 satire Wag The Dog with Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Day 25: A Christmas Story

"In the heat of battle, my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan."

Nostalgia weaves its way through all of our lives. Just the other night while watching Midnight in Paris, there were several conversations about both the power and danger of nostalgia. It holds a powerful sway over our memories and makes things retrospectively seem sunnier. The good tends to outweigh the bad in our memories of everyday life. We all have deep, dark, nasty shit in our past that we can't sunny up, but it makes the not-so-bad times that much better in our minds. Bob Clark's 1983 film A Christmas Story based on Jean Shepherd's awesomely titled short story "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash," resides firmly in the halls of nostalgia.

Bob Clark directed one of the most successful R-rated comedies of all-time with 1982's Porky's. 1983 found him releasing both that film's sequel and A Christmas Story, an odd one-two punch. Diversion alert: It's widely accepted by me that there are only three directors in history who achieved the feat of directing two masterpieces in the same year: Victor Fleming in 1939, Mel Brooks in 1973 & Francis Ford Coppola in 1974. It's hard to call A Christmas Story a masterpiece, but it has undeniably woven itself into the tapestry of American Christmas traditions. I would go so far as to say it is the most widely beloved feature length Christmas film, and is second in people's minds only to the Rankin-Bass animated specials of the 60s and 70s.

The film tells the story of young Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), the prototypical American boy of the early 1940s who has but one wish for Christmas. He's put all his eggs in one basket, and all he wants for Christmas is a "Red Ryder carbine action 200 shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time."

Anyone who's ever had one wish for Christmas like this forms an instant empathetic bond with Ralphie and shares in his single-minded desire for the gift of his dreams. I imagine this phenomenon isn't exclusive to those who celebrate Christmas, but for the purposes of relating to this film, it helps if it was a Christmas gift that you coveted. For me it was The Masters of the Universe Slime Pit, and Christmas morning 1986 I got the shit out of one! It's probably the most vivid Christmas memory for me, and anyone who shares in that experience can't help but get caught up in Raphie's plight.

His mother (Melinda Dillon), father (Darren McGavin), teacher, and even Santa Claus himself warn Ralphie that he'll shoot his eye out if he gets one. This becomes the cock-blocking maneuver that every adult in Ralphie's life seems to use in justification of not letting him have one.

I think that the film's firmly rooted love of the time period and pre-WWII nostalgia is what gives the film its almost universal appeal. It's not a great film, it certainly wasn't well received upon its original release, critically or commercially, yet it has endured somehow. It has a unique, for its time, understanding of childhood and depicts what it's like to be a kid so well, it almost seems made by kids. Every adult in the film is aloof, overbearing, or some combination of the two. Its style was mimicked almost immediately by the television show "The Wonder Years," which also captured the American childhood experience very deftly, but it owes its very existence to the style created by Clark and Shepherd. Having Shepherd himself do the narration is a stroke of genius and his asides throughout the film are incredibly well observed, pithy and often hilarious.

I wonder what it's like seeing this film for the first time at my age. I wonder if it's as instantly captivating as it was when I was a kid. I think it's a film that needs to be latched on to in childhood. The young at heart would be endeared to it as well, I imagine, but I came of age in the perfect time with this film. There was no over-saturation of the film as there is now (thanks a lot Ted Turner). My VHS copy was taped off of HBO by my dad, and is missing the first seven minutes or so. I remember watching the dvd for the first time about 10 years ago and being floored by the fact that there were scenes I hadn't seen before.

Nowadays, all you need to do is pop on the tv any time in the month of December and you can see Flick getting his tongue stuck to a flagpole, or the waiters in the Chinese restaurant butchering Deck the Halls, or Ralphie in his pink bunny suit. The film is a part of the fabric of our lives in this country now and is almost impossible to see intact from beginning to end for the first time now. I don't know if this is a good or a bad thing, but it's certainly been built up by the masses to be a whole lot better than it actually is. But isn't that the whole power of nostalgia in the first place? If you haven't seen it before, I hope you enjoy it. If you don't, give it a year and try again. It's almost impossible not to find it charming at the very least.

I have no idea what tomorrow's film will be, but I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas.

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Day 24: The Boat That Rocked (Pirate Radio)

"All over the world, young men and young women will always dream dreams, and put those dreams into song."

Richard Curtis is one of the most interesting writer/directors around. He got his first big break writing for Black Adder with Rowan Atkinson before penning one of the best screenplays of the nineties with Four Weddings and a Funeral. He continued writing very lucrative screenplays such as Notting Hill and Bridget Jones' Diary, before trying his hand at directing with 2003's Love Actually. The common thread with all of these is his adeptness at handling multiple character arcs within the context of a larger story, and his latest film The Boat That Rocked, released in America as Pirate Radio, is no exception.
Set in 1965 & 66, the film focuses one of a group of ships that broadcast rock and roll radio programs 24 hours a day, as in the United Kingdom, rock and roll was only broadcast for less than an hour a day.

When you consider the fact that no less than three of the best rock and roll bands of all time were from England and recording at that time, it seems all the more tragic that this music was relegated to pirate radio stations. The film tells the story of Radio Rock and it's colorful assortment of deejays and technicians, lead by station owner Quentin (Bill Nighy). There's The Count (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Dave (Nick Frost), Nigel (Rhys Ifans), Simon (Chris O'Dowd), Angus (Rhys Darby) and Bob (Ralph Brown, whom you may remember as the roadie Del in Wayne's World II).

Into this world is thrust Carl (Tom Sturridge), Quentin's godson, who has been sent by his mother (Emma Thompson in a great cameo) to live on the boat. Carl is the ultimate outsider at first: young, naive & callow, but he soon integrates himself into the crazy world of these crazy people and finds himself having the time of his life. This story is juxtaposed by the story of Minister Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh, wonderfully stuffy) of the British Parliament, who has been charged with figuring out a way to ban these pirate radio stations. He turns to an ambitious young assistant by the name of Twatt (Jack Davenport) for help with this, and Twatt works tirelessly to figure out a way to shut them down. The joke about his name is not entirely played out after the first joke, but it does get a little tired.

Curtis' gift for handling multiple characters, stories and arcs serves him well here, but the main issue I have with many of his screenplays inevitably becomes the large amount of filler that ends up on screen. This is not to say that it's no enjoyable, I actually really like pretty much all of his films, it's just that he tends to divert the story towards small moments and conversations that do nothing to move the plot forward. Case in point, the entire subplot dealing with Simon's 17 hour marriage and the elaborate game of chicken which follows takes up roughly fifteen minutes of the running time, and does nothing to move the story forward. It's great character development for Simon, Nigel and The Count, but it really doesn't have anything to do with the rest of the film.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is great as always. He is the most reliable character actor alive, and his mere presence in a film elevates it immediately. The rest of the cast is great as a whole, though Nick Frost and Chris O'Dowd stand out in particular. Carl finds out that his father is aboard the ship, and though we're led to believe it's most likely Quentin, it turns out to be the reserved early morning dj Bob. We find this out halfway through the film, and then Carl and Bob have a total of two scenes after this revelation dealing with it, so there's seemingly no real reason for it to have been there in the first place. I understand that the film is by and large about Carl's journey of self discovery, but the biggest revelation of his entire life is given pretty short shrift.

All of this is not to say that I didn't enjoy the film. I really liked it quite a bit. The third act in particular is very strong with the Parliament passing a law banning pirate radio and the station deciding to stay on the air. The boat picks up anchor and heads for international waters, but the engine is so old and out of shape that it ends up blowing a hole in the side of the boat and dooming everyone on board. If you've seen the trailer for the film, you've already seen how it ends, but I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't as it's actually really well done, and should not have been given away in the trailer. This is the kind of movie that people who like the other movies Richard Curtis has done will like. I doubt it will win over any converts, but you'll find solid entertainment if you're a fan of his work.

Tomorrow I'll be looking at the perennial Christmas favorite, Bob Clark's A Christmas Story with Peter Billingsley and Darren McGavin.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Day 23: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

"We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams."

Roald Dahl's novels have been adapted countless times into films by no less filmmakers than Nicholas Roeg, Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, Henry Selick, and Danny DeVito. Mel Stuart isn't a name that is likely to be associated with any of those directors as he was primarily a television producer and documentarian. In 1971 however, he stepped behind the camera for the first film adaptation of one of Dahl's children's novels, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

There are a couple of major misconceptions about this film that I would like to clarify before we go any further, many of them arose when Tim Burton's remake was released in 2005. Dahl himself wrote the screenplay, so there's no way he disowned the film and the film doesn't pander to children, talk down to them, or treat them as if they need a large set piece every couple of minutes to hold their interest. (Burton's film rather unfortunately falls into all of these traps).

Peter Ostrum plays Charlie Bucket, a boy living with his mother and four grandparents in utter destitution in England. They live near the chocolate factory of the world's premiere chocolatier, Willy Wonka, who has just announced that he is distributing five golden tickets in his chocolate bars that will permit the finders to tour the factory and have a chance to win a lifetime supply of chocolate. Charlie's world is turned upside down by the prospect of winning, and the film spends its first forty minutes with Charlie and his dreams. Burton's remake gets him inside the chocolate factory in under twenty minutes, leaving no time for us to really get to know Charlie and live inside his world. This instantly makes this the better adaptation of the book.

Spending time with Charlie, sharing in his heartbreak and devastation each time a golden ticket is found somewhere else across the globe, hoping against hope that he'll be the next kid to find one, builds up a solid protagonist worth rooting for. Ostrum is a rather adept young actor, never forcing us to feel empathy for him. He earns it solidly through his plucky optimism and drives the film forward by never sulking or feeling bad for himself. He feels blessed to have a family that loves him so much that the golden ticket seems like it would just be almost a hollow wish fulfillment by comparison.

The plot is almost universally well-known, so there's no point in going through it point by point. Gene Wilder is the very definition of brilliant as Willy Wonka. He goes out of his way to make himself simultaneously unlikable and charming. He rides the line so deftly that his motives are never really clear until the final moments of the film. Charlie's been given an offer, as have all the other children, by Slugworth, one of Wonka's competitors, to bring him an everlasting gobstopper in return for ten thousand pounds. When Wonka unloads on Grampa Joe (Jack Albertson) at the end of the film for having stolen the fizzy lifting drinks, Grampa Joe says to Charlie, "I'll get even with him if it's the last thing I do," and tells Charlie that they're going to go give the gobstopper to Slugworth. Charlie stops, knowing that no matter how bad of a person Wonka seems to be, he doesn't deserve to be subjected to a petty revenge like this, and he returns the candy to Wonka. This sends Wonka into a fit of elation as he realizes that Charlie is the exact child he had been looking for to give the grand prize to, which is to take over his operation as chocolatier.

Dahl is shrewd as a screenwriter because he saw a flaw with his novel and fixed it. There was no true motivation for Willy Wonka in the novel to give Charlie the factory other than by virtue of the fact that he was the last child left. By introducing the notion of Wonka testing the children by sending his assistant out masquerading as Slugworth to plant the notion of selling him the gobstopper in the children's heads, he has a foolproof way of figuring out if any of these children are worth his time. It's borderline psychotic when you think about it, but it's to be expected of a virtual shut-in with little to no human contact. His reasoning to find a child to teach his secrets to as they'll carry on his traditions, rather than doing things their own way, is sound. Testing their virtue is a bit extreme, but when you're trying to find the ideal child, I guess it makes sense.

The film is filled with wonderful character actors. All of the children are good, particularly Julie Dawn Cole as Veruca Salt. Roy Kinnear is also wonderful as her father, as is Leonard Stone as Mr. Beauregard (he has most of my favorite lines). It's also great to see Albertson and Wilder go toe to toe in the final scene, a nice little acting showcase in the midst of a kids' movie. I watched the movie yesterday with my five year old daughter Clementine and she really liked it. I thought she'd get bored, as I always remember myself as a child getting bored right around "Cheer Up, Charlie," but it held her interest for all 100 minutes.

Even though the effects and art direction seem archaic to me, she saw them as nothing short of the real deal and whimsical. She didn't notice the strings holding up Charlie and Grampa Joe in the fizzy lifting chamber, so I wasn't about to point them out. She thought they were really flying. At the end of the day, isn't that the real reason that films like this were made, to capture the imaginations of children and to reignite the child inside of adults? We talked afterwords about how awesome it would be to have one of those giant gummy bears from the chocolate room, bringing me instantly back to my identical desire as a child watching the film.

I'm happy to report that forty years on, Willy Wonka holds up, and likely will for another forty. As long as there's a generation of parents willing to share it with their children, when those children grow up to be parents, they'll want to share it with their kids. And isn't that what it's really all about?

Tomorrow I'll be reviewing The Boat That Rocked, released here in the US as Pirate Radio with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Kenneth Branagh, and Bill Nighy.

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Day 22: Midnight in Paris

"You can fool me but you cannot fool Ernest Hemingway!"

Woody Allen has made a movie a year since 1971. One would think that when you're on to your 40th consecutive movie, you'd have lost a little something, but Woody always knows what he needs to revitalize things. In 2005 he went to England and shot Match Point and created his best movie in a decade. Similarly this past year he went to France and shot Midnight in Paris, creating his best movie since Match Point, and more likely, since Bullets Over Broadway.

Owen Wilson plays Gil a screenwriter working on his first novel while on vacation with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) in Paris. On a lonely night when his fiancee goes off dancing with some friends, Gil takes a stroll, gets lost, and at the stroke of midnight, he's whisked into an antique car and taken to a party filled with people dressed like they're living in the 1920s. Gil has actually been transported back in time and here meets Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill & Tom Hiddleston) whom he befriends and in turn introduce him to Ernest Hemingway (the sensational Corey Stoll). When discussing his own novel with his hero, Hemingway suggests he show his manuscript to his friend Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). At Stein's he meets Pablo Picasso and his lover at the time Adriana (Marion Cotillard) with whom he becomes immediately smitten. He makes nightly trips to the 20s in an attempt to connect romantically with Adriana.

Gil has romanticized Paris of the 20s in his mind, and now that he's face to face with it, he sees it as just as ideal as he imagined. However through his conversations with Adriana, he discovers that she wishes she were living during the Belle Epoque time period at the turn of the century. When a carriage takes Gil and Adriana back in time to that period late in the film, they meet Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas & Gauguin who wish they were living in the Renaissance. Gil sees the folly of actual wish-granting and the power of nostalgia, and learns a lesson when he finally returns to his own time.

The film is fantastic with one major exception and that is the character of Inez. There is no earthly reason that I can see that would make Gil want to stay engaged to her. She's very clearly smitten with another man, the pedantic Paul (Michael Sheen) and treats Gil like shit at almost every opportunity. The film falls to pieces whenever the plot centers around any time spent in the present with Gil and Inez. Making her actually nice or having something in common with Gil would have made his decision of whether or not to break off his engagement more dramatic. Making her a one-dimensional shrew infuriated me and made at least a third of the film borderline insufferable.

The scenes in the 20s however are some of Allen's best work ever. A chance meeting between Gil and Dali, Bunuel and Man Ray is the highlight of the film. Adrien Brody is phenomenal as Salvador Dali whose current obsession is with rhinoceroses. This scene was hysterically funny and great to watch. Equally fantastic was the aforementioned Corey Stoll as Hemingway. Hemingway has all the best lines in the film, as to be expected, and Stoll plays him exactly how you imagine him to have been in real life.

The relationship that evolves between Gil and Adriana is very good and roots the film in an emotional core that it's lacking in the modern day scenes. The film is whimsical and finds Allen as sharp as he's ever been, and casting Wilson as his surrogate in the film was a brilliant move. Owen Wilson has a laconic manner that suits his predicament in the film well. If he had been a mensch like the typical Woody Allen protagonist, it likely would have added an unnecessary tension to the time travel aspect of the film. Wilson is so laid back that he just rolls with things as opposed to trying to talk his way out of the whole thing or reason with himself. It's a welcome change of pace and makes the film work all the more as a result.

Woody Allen will continue making a film a year until he can't anymore, I just hope we don't have to wait another six years for him to find something new and interesting to do. This is a master working at the top of his game.

Tomorrow I'll get back around to Doctor Dolittle. I tried watching it yesterday but turned it off after about 20 minutes. I'll give it another go tonight.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Day 21: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

"It's not that I don't want to know you Hilary, although I don't. It's just that I'm afraid we're not really the sort of people you can afford to be associated with."

Much easier to digest than In the Heat of the Night, but no less prescient or ahead of it's time is Stanley Kramer's fellow Best Picture nominee Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? The films share a ton of common threads but the latter is more writerly and much more about dialogue and performance than the mood, atmosphere and intensity displayed in the former. The stakes are high, but you feel much more at ease when watching Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? because the characters are not dealing with life and death, they're dealing with something equally important but much less intense... love.

Joanne Drayton (Katharine Houghton) is a 23-year old woman returning home on a surprise trip to introduce her parents to the man she wants to marry, Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). While this is a seemingly innocuous setup, John is black and Joanne is white and this is 1967, so we're only four years removed from the Civil Rights Act, and interracial marriage was still illegal in sixteen states (every single one of them save Delaware was below the Mason-Dixon line, so just saying...) Joanne feels fairly confident though that her parents Christina (Katharine Hepburn) and Matt (Spencer Tracy) will welcome John. You see, they're the model of the well-to-do liberal white Americans at the time. They raised their daughter to be accepting of all people, they just never knew how they would react when she fell in love with someone of another race.

While their initial reactions are equal parts shock and dismay, Christina finds herself being the first to be won over, because she is a proud mother, swept up in the love and joy she sees radiating from her daughter. Matt takes the position of overly concerned father, worrying more what the world will think of or, worse yet do to, the couple, and refuses to give his blessing. Giving the proceedings the necessary amount of urgency, John is leaving in the morning for Geneva where he is taking a position with the World Health Organization, and Joanne has resolved herself to leave with him, whether her parents give their blessing or not.

John's parents have decided to make a trip to San Francisco that night as well, ostensibly to see their son off before his trip, but also to meet his betrothed and her family. They are equally shocked to find out that she and they are white. The immediate worry for me became that the film would paint the problem of racism as being more on the side of the black family than the white family. The film spent so much time building the Draytons up to be the model of acceptance and progressivism that the only thing that would mount the tension again would be to have the Prentice family be the stereotypical "angry blacks." Thankfully Kramer and screenwriter William Rose aren't dumb enough to fall into so obvious a trap. The parents end up mirroring one another with the mothers being the solid voice of understanding and the fathers be the less accepting, more concerned voice of opposition.

My favorite moment in the film comes when Matt and John's mother (wonderfully played by Beah Richards) have a conversation in which she says that she doesn't understand what happens to men when they grow old. She sees her husband forgetting what it's like to feel passion, and while she had clearly thought it was just him, after hearing Matt's objections, she realizes that it's all men. This conversation is intercut with ones between both Christina and Joanne, and John and his father. All three wonderful conversations/arguments that sum up the myriad feelings that all of the parties involved are having. It's a truly remarkable piece of writing in that it manages to lay bare all of the feelings and anxieties that everyone is having and get them all explained so succinctly. Of course it all culminates in Spencer Tracy's wonderful final monologue where he delivers his thoughts, and the knowledge that it's his last moments on a movie screen ever give them even more weight, emotion and purity than even the brilliant script can provide. Watching Katharine Hepburn watch the love of her life deliver this speech is one of the more moving things you can see in a film.

The performances in the film are uniformly good, with Hepburn being the standout. She won the Best Actress Oscar for the film and was fully deserving. The quote at the top of the review is from her speech when she fires her assistant, and that moment is so incredibly wonderful, it's the perfect synthesis of writing and performing. Stanley Kramer's direction is very classically staged, lots of coverage, everyone is given the proper focus at the proper time. It's essentially a chamber piece, but Kramer opens things up enough (the excursion by the Draytons to get ice cream is particularly funny) so as to not make the film feel stuffy. My only complaint is the god damned score. The song "Glory of Love" was written for the film and the entire score is nothing but a variation on that piece, making it grating, cloying and downright maddening near the end. You should never notice a score in a film, and this one can't help but make you notice it every few minutes.

I would love to say that 45 years after this film was made that things are so much easier for the Johns and Joannes of the world, but they're not. There may be more interracial couples now thanks to Loving vs Virginia, but Americans as a whole seem just as apprehensive about the whole thing as they did then, and of course the raging debate over same-sex marriage shows how this country can skew even less tolerant when given another issue to fume over. The world will never be a perfect place, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? knew that then, just as we know it now. It's up to the brave souls who know the greatest thing in the world is love to continue blazing that trail, and maybe someday, we can all live in peace. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? has a lot of hope for the world and leaves you feeling like things can change. I hope it's right.

I'll be wrapping up my look at the 1967 Best Picture race tomorrow with Doctor Dolittle starring everyone's favorite speak-singer Rex Harrison.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Day 20: In the Heat of the Night

"I got the motive which is money, and the body which is dead."

In the Heat of the Night is an undeniably groundbreaking film. The fact that it was made in 1967 gives it a verisimilitude that it wouldn't have had were it released further down the road from the Civil Rights movement. It's a first rate mystery and is filled with some of the best performances of the decade by an assortment of wonderful character actors. It still crackles with real racial tension, likely because portions of the American South have remained largely unchanged since the time of this film. It could be set in modern times and be thoroughly believable, a statement that speaks both to the timeless power of the story and the sad state of race relations in this country.

Based on the novel by John Ball, In the Heat of the Night tells the story of a small town called Sparta, Mississippi where a wealthy businessman who has come from the north to build a factory and create jobs, has turned up murdered on Main Street. The police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) thinks this is a pretty open and shut case when one of his deputies, Sam Wood (Warren Oates) turns up with a black man who was found alone in the train depot shortly after the murder. The black man turns out to be Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a homicide detective from Philadelphia, who finds himself in the wrong place and the wrong time. After clearing up his identity, Tibbs is instructed by his police chief to stay in Sparta an help them solve the mystery.

Tibbs is an outsider by virtue of the color of his skin, but also because he seems to be the only sensible human being in town. He performs an autopsy, questions suspects, gathers evidence and actively tries to solve the murder, while everyone else on the police force of Sparta is looking for a quick and simple solution. The fact of the matter is that there is no simple solution to this crime. There are lots of people in town with motives, not the least of which seems to be Endicott (Larry Gates) the wealthiest man in town who doesn't cotton to outsiders and would likely want to stub out anyone he viewed as competition.

Several trails run cold, even as Gillespie seemingly tries to pin the murder on anyone he can, but Tibbs continues his investigation in spite of the overwhelming odds against him. I hadn't seen the movie before yesterday, so I don't want to spoil the ending, but it's a very satisfying conclusion and Tibbs' determination to find the killer carries the story along.

Rod Steiger won the Oscar for Best Actor and it's easy to see why. His performance is big, boisterous, showy and all the things that make for an award winning performance. He doesn't deliver the kind of nuance that Dustin Hoffman brought to Ben Braddock, but his performance is outstanding in spite of the fact that I was almost constantly aware that I was watching an actor give a performance.

Sidney Poitier is also outstanding in a role that was as dangerous as could be imagined at the time. The role, as written, requires him to be a model of virtue and truth because audiences of the day couldn't handle a black character with true depth of feeling, lest he end up being branded an "angry black man." Thankfully he doesn't play the character that way. His stoic demeanor is clearly concealing the rage he surely feels but can't express, and Poitier is a savvy actor who knows that he must walk a very thin line, and he does so masterfully, never turning Tibbs into the stereotypical "Magical Negro."

Much like Crash in 2005, I think that this film was awarded the Best Picture Oscar more as a pat on the back for Hollywood to give itself, than a virtue of its artistic merits. In the Heat of the Night is a very good movie, but the direction, editing and pacing are pedestrian at best. It breaks ground socially without ever bringing anything new to the equation of filmmaking. It suffers from being merely a very good movie that people could feel good about rewarding, rather than risk being labeled social pariahs for selecting a film that was truly groundbreaking in its reinvention of the style and business of film itself like The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde were. Even Cool Hand Luke which wasn't nominated for Best Picture had style in spades and is still viewed as a truly great film.

I'm underselling the film, it's really fantastic and will hold you riveted by the mystery at its core. When viewed through the prism of hindsight however, it's a good film surrounded by some great films. I can't begrudge the film that as it is a landmark and deserves its place in Hollywood history. Stirling Silliphant's screenplay is excellent and the film is populated with some great characters like Ralph Henshaw, the waiter at the diner, and Harvey Oberst, a kid who gets locked up as a suspect and ends up forming a solid relationship with Tibbs who is immediately convinced of his innocence.

Watch In the Heat of the Night, particularly if you haven't before, and marvel at how far ahead of its time it is. Tomorrow I continue my examination of the 67 Best Picture race with Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

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Quick diversion about Christopher Nolan's Batman Universe

So a friend wrote me yesterday with this long diatribe that two friends of hers had about Nolan's Batman movies and what I'm putting below is my response. What are other people's opinions on these movies?

Jesus Christ... okay, I don't even know where to begin with all this. Nolan's films are all set in a world where people have unlimited time, power, money and resources to accomplish goals (save for Memento and Insomnia). Inception... seriously who has time to do all that shit except the wealthy?
So to whit Batman is a noble hero out to save the city he loves only because he's really a billionaire with the time, money and resources to do it. So who he is really trying to save?
Yes he hates corruption and hates that there is a justice system in place that allows murderers to walk free, but the economic inequality caused by people like Thomas and Martha Wayne is the reason there are criminals like Joe Chill walking the streets of Gotham in the first place. Yes, Joe Chill is an extreme example as he is a murderer, but he started out just intending to rob Bruce's parents. He saw rich people and tried to make them pay.
Bruce Wayne is driven by his unfailing penchant for criminal justice and totally blind to his direct causing of societal ills and prevention of social justice. He's the ultimate dichotomy, and it's clear that they're introducing Catwoman as the Robin Hood character in the new film, the idealized version of what a superhero should be. But Batman's not a superhero, he's a crime fighter. He's a dude who picks up where the police can't and/or won't.
So that brings me to the most interesting point that I guess is unaddressed by these films... would Gotham be a safer place if Bruce Wayne took all the money he spends being Batman and poured it into an uncorruptable security task force headed by a guy like Jim Gordon? Clearly though this social inequality makes for a much less interesting villain as you need a guy who's blowing shit up and needs to be stopped.
I love the Nolan Batman movies because they're great escapist fair that masquerade as intellectual movies. They're the kind of movie that a moron can go watch and feel like they really got because they're able to follow a story that goes deeper than just good vs evil. Are they good movies? Yeah, kinda. Are they good comic book movies? Absolutely, they're some of the best. X2 is the best comic book movie ever made though because it deals with a real issue in a heightened way (being who you are in spite of overwhelming opposition). So yeah, I don't know if that answers your question. I am really looking forward to DKR because I love spectacle that has at least a little more going on below the surface, but I do agree with your complaints that The Dark Knight betrays the fundamental structure of the superhero set up in Batman Begins (he goes from stopping an elitist terrorist to essentially becoming one), but Batman was blinded by The Joker killing the love of his life and was determined to stop him by any means necessary. It made it an even bigger Bush metaphor because the grudge was personal, just like Bush's grudge against Saddam.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Day 19: The Graduate

"Are you here for an affair sir?"

Continuing my look at the 1967 Best Picture race, I turn to the most financially successful of the films, and the one that launched nearly as many careers as yesterday's Bonnie and Clyde, Mike Nichols' The Graduate. Mike Nichols had a very successful and lucrative career in the late 50s and early 60s as half of a comedy team with Elaine May. When their act split up, Nichols turned to directing for the stage, starting with Barefoot in the Park for which he won a Tony Award. When it came time to make his film debut as a director, he was chosen for 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A daunting task for any director having to deal with the larger than life egos of its stars Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Nichols was more than up to the task, turning the film into a financial and critical success. It also gave him the clout he needed to tackle a project he'd been milling over since the early 60s, a film adaptation of Charles Webb's novel The Graduate.

The Graduate tells the story of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), a recent college graduate from an affluent family in California, who returns home with no real direction in life; He might go to graduate school, he might go to work, he might lounge in his parents' pool for the rest of his life. On the night of his parents' party to celebrate his graduation, he drives home the wife of his father's business partner, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Upon arriving at the house, she seems to be doing everything in her power to seduce the young man and offers him the chance to sleep with her whenever he feels ready to. The next day he calls her from The Taft Hotel and asks to take her up on her offer. They begin an affair that lasts until Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) returns from school.

Ben's parents and Mr. Robinson are encouraging Ben to take her out on a date, but Mrs. Robinson forbids him to do so. Feeling forced by his parents, Ben eventually caves and takes Elaine out on a date that starts disastrously, but once he realizes that Elaine is a kindred spirit, another aimless wanderer like himself, they hit it off.  Mrs. Robinson becomes furious and controlling, telling Ben he has to stop seeing Elaine immediately or she will tell Elaine the truth about their affair. Scared of losing Elaine, Ben tells her the truth and is forced away by her.

What follows is essentially Ben realizing he's found something that he wants to do with his life, namely being with Elaine, and he fights for it with everything he has. This is the quintessential tale of the aimlessness of American youth. Anyone who's ever been young enough to have seemingly endless opportunities but either a lack of purpose or drive or desire will be able to relate to Ben.

Dustin Hoffman became a megastar after this film and it's easy to see why. He handles the comedy and the drama so deftly and effortlessly, he's a joy to watch on screen. He infuses Ben with the right amount of pity and empathy so as to make him a character worth rooting for. When he finally decides that he can't let Elaine go at any cost and is trying desperately to reach her before she marries someone else, we see in his eyes the purpose and drive he has lacked throughout the entire film. He's a man on a mission, determined, and nothing will get in his way.

What makes this quest even more brilliant however is the last 60 seconds of the film. Ben succeeds in tracing Elaine down at a church in Santa Barbara where she's just been married. The scene is so parodied and copied now that it seems ridiculous at first, but it's so effectively done. He screams for her from the top of the church repeatedly, until finally, wonderfully, Elaine screams back and they run off together. Ben uses a cross to prevent anyone from following them out of the church, they run down the street, elated, and hop on a bus, he in a torn jacket, she in a wedding dress. They draw curious stares from everyone on the bus and as the bus pulls away, they couldn't be happier. They are the picture of bliss. If the film ends here, it's a perfectly good movie. What makes the film a masterpiece however is the fact that the camera lingers on them for another minute. Their faces give themselves away. They are two terrified kids who have essentially just turned their backs on their families, and they are scared. Their smiles give way to looks of terror and finally resolve. These two kids that we wanted to end up together seem doomed to end up just as unhappy as the parents they're running away from.

Mike Nichols won the Best Director Oscar and it's plain to see why. He uses tons of angles and setups and the film is always incredibly visually interesting. His use of Simon and Garfunkle is also brilliant. I would wager to say you could set just about anything to Simon and Garfunkle singing "The Sound of Silence" and it would look amazing, but Nichols compliments the music at every given opportunity. He uses that song and "Scarborough Fair" multiple times in montages, and they never feel overused or hackneyed. This was one of the first uses of popular music in this way and, again, it's so copied in modern cinema that it seems like it shouldn't work, but it does.

Another lovely moment in the film is when Ben accompanies Elaine to the zoo, against her will, and she meets up with, presumably, her new boyfriend. The two walk off, leaving Ben standing alone by the monkey house. Right next to him on the fence is a sign that reads "Do Not Tease." It's a brilliant little moment and it's never called attention to, as the full sign isn't visible in the shot of Ben watching them leave, but if you look at the fence it's there and it's just one more example of Nichols' brilliant direction.

The Graduate, like Bonnie and Clyde, holds up incredibly well, and I hate to sound like a shill for blu-ray, but MGM's 2007 blu-ray looks and sounds fantastic. Do yourself a favor and watch The Graduate again. It's better than you remember it.

Tomorrow we'll continue the 1967 Best Picture race with Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier.

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Day 18: Bonnie and Clyde

"Come on, put yer pants on boy, we gonna take some pictures."

I am currently reading a book called "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood" by Mark Harris. It's essentially about the development, production and aftermath of the five Best Picture nominees from 1967: Doctor Dolittle, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, and Bonnie & Clyde. The story behind Bonnie & Clyde is almost as interesting as the movie itself. It began in 1962 when two journalists, Robert Benton & David Newman, who fancied themselves screenwriters, wanted to write a screenplay for their favorite director, Francois Truffault, to make as his English-language directorial debut.

Truffault was involved with the project for a while, as was Jean-Luc Godard, but both eventually moved on to other projects and the fillm landed in the lap of one of the few American maverick auteurs at the time, Arthur Penn. Warren Beatty, who at the time was struggling to live up to his desired image of being more than just another pretty face, decided that he wanted to move into producing, and this film would make him the first actor/producer since Charlie Chaplin.

All fascinating, interesting stuff, but it wouldn't amount to a hill of beans if the movie weren't any good. Thankfully for us, the movie is fantastic. It truly is the first American feature to embrace the style of the French New Wave and it was the birth of a new wave of American independent film production. Beatty plays Clyde Barrow, a criminal who's just been released from prison when he meets up with a small-town Texas waitress named Bonnie Parker, played by the devastatingly gorgeous and talented Faye Dunaway.

She becomes turned on by his bad boy ways, thieving and robbing, and agrees to go with him, wherever it is that he's going, and live a life on the lam. Along the way they meet up with C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) a mechanic who they convince to join them as a getaway driver. The Barrow Gang is soon complete as they meet up with Clyde's brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons).

Bonnie and Clyde become the first mythologized American outlaws since Jesse & Frank James and Billy the Kid. Their reputation preceeds them wherever they go, and they find it harder and harder to lay low after robbing a bank. Everytime they end up somewhere waiting for the heat to die down, it flares up again, and they find themselves on the run. As a side note, I recently watched Terrence Malick's Badlands for the first time, and going back to watch Bonnie & Clyde again, it's easy to see the influence of the latter on the former, but Malick is more a director influenced by the stillness and calm of American directors like George Stevens, so his film plays more poetically than the visceral Bonnie & Clyde. It's no less a film and I suggest you make a double feature of it sometime.

All five of the actors were nominated for Academy Awards in 1967, and though only Estelle Parson won, it undeniably launched the others, save Pollard, into the stratosphere. Hackman would win his first Oscar four years later, Dunaway nine years later, and though Beatty never won an acting Oscar, he would win several as producer and director of Reds in 1981. Much like yesterday's review of Dazed and Confused, it's wonderful to see the birth of the careers of so many brilliant actors being traced back, essentially, to one film. Even Gene Wilder pops up in a small but brilliant role as an undertaker who finds himself and his girlfriend kidnapped by The Barrow Gang when they steal his car.

The film also won, rightfully, an Oscar for it's Cinematography which is fantastic, but I think the award it was most deserving of, it did not win, and that is Best Editing. Dede Allen created this style of editing that we've become so accustomed to in the ensuing decades, but it's truly breathtaking to see it come to life here. The quick cuts before the outlaws are finally gunned down at the end, as Clyde looks to the bushes, then to the flock of birds that fly away, finally the intense and all-too-quick last glances between the lovers before they are killed in a hail of gunfire are probably the best moments in a film filled with great moments. On a side note, Hal Ashby won for editing In the Heat of the Night, and he's one of my all-time favorites, so I won't begrudge him that.

Bonnie and Clyde is a brilliant film and one of the true touchstones of American cinema. It's a film that you can easily watch over and over again and never tire of. It's as much a landmark American film as Citizen Kane, Casablanca and other noteworthy trailblazers before it. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and Warner Bros. deluxe edition bluray that was released a few years ago is amazing. The transfer is incredible and it feels like you're seeing the film the way audiences in 1967 did.

Tomorrow's film will be another from that incredible Best Picture race, Mike Nichols' The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft & Katharine Ross.

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Day 17: Dazed and Confused

"Say man, you got a joint?"
"What? No, not on me man."
"It'd be a lot cooler if you did."

I'm still not entirely sure why I chose Dazed and Confused to review. More than likely because it's a challenging movie to review. It's not a great movie, but it's one that I love a lot. It's one of those movies that I watched so much in high school and college on VHS but have barely revisited in the ensuing decade even though I purchased Criterion's deluxe edition of it five years ago. It's like an old friend that you talk to once in a while and think about occasionally, but don't really spend any time with. But like an old friend, the second it starts, you get sucked in and find yourself wondering why you don't spend more time together.

Set in a small town in Texas on the last day of school in 1976, Dazed and Confused is nostalgic without being wistful, and that's why it's such an effective movie. It's the 70's in miniature. Rather than focusing on a long stretch of time, it focuses on one day and enables us to get to know and care about multiple characters without getting bogged down in exposition or the kind of character development that can sink a movie like this. A lot of that has to do with writer/director Richard Linklater choosing characters that are archetypes and so familiar to anyone who's been in high school that you can easily drop into the story and know immediately who everyone is. There's the jocks, the nerds, the bitchy girls, the nice girls, the stoners, the assholes, and they're all fully inhabited characters.

Jason London (not to be mistaken for his twin brother from Mallrats and getting kidnapped fame) plays Randall "Pink" Floyd, the (I would assume) Linklater surrogate and main protagonist. He's a graduating junior and soon-to-be quarterback of the football team and he's wrestling with having to sign a pledge from his coach that says he won't engage in any drinking, drugs or illegal activity over the summer. This is the main conflict of the movie and pops back in to view from time to time to provide a sense of conflict, but it's never overbearing and certainly never feels like a plot device.

The plot essentially involves a big end of the year blow-out party getting cancelled and a bunch of small-town kids scrambling to find something to do instead. Mostly they drive around and talk a lot, but they all end up at a big beer bash at a park called "The Moon Tower." There's also a through-line involving a freshman hazing ritual that carries some of the characters forward, but it feels a bit more superfluous than Pink's dilemma.

The cast is uniformly good with a few standouts. Rory Cochrane plays Slater, the school's biggest stoner who maintains friendships across several social groups. He is perfect and you almost wonder why he never became more famous as a result of his performance here. Ben Affleck is also great as O'Bannion, a senior who failed seemingly just so he could participate in the hazing again. He is a pure asshole and everyone went to school with a guy just like this, and Affleck's performance is particularly good in retrospect because he played characters like this to much lesser effect in the future, and this is clearly before he tired to playing this kind of character.

Parker Posey is great as always playing a total bitch named Darla who enjoys hazing the incoming freshman girls as much as O'Bannion does the boys. Again, this is an actress with tons of talent and charisma who has seemingly always been as good as she is now.

The true shining star of the movie however is Matthew McConaughey as Wooderson, a townie with an affection for high school girls. Here again is an actor that's become incredibly famous but has clearly always had a talent for creating fully formed characters. Even though he's a bit of a creep, he never comes off that way and has a very endearing and accepting quality to him that makes him the most fully realized character in the entire movie. He's got most of the best lines, he looks the part, sounds the part and is the true breakout here like Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Harrison Ford in American Graffiti, two actors in two films that this one is clearly indebted to.

The soundtrack, costume design, art direction and editing are also incredibly good for such a low budget affair (I understand the soundtrack accounted for roughly a third of the movie's total budget). If I have one complaint, it's a small one and it's Adam Goldberg's character Mike. I don't fault the actor as I think he's doing the best he can with the most overly "written" character in the movie. He speaks in quips and seems the least like a real person. He's one of a trio of brainy kids along with Marissa Ribisi and Anthony Rapp, and while I liked all three of them, Mike's character bothered me as being too much of a caricature. He doesn't talk like a real person and seems to be more of an idea of a character than a real person. It's a small problem, but one I have nonetheless.

If you've never seen Dazed and Confused, I don't know how we're friends, but you need to see it immediately. If you saw it and didn't like it, watch it again and lower your expectations. This isn't an actual depiction of what it must have been like to live in the 70s, it's more like a memory, cooler than it probably actually was. This is all part of nostalgia though, things should never be just as they were, they should be representative and this movie captures that in spades. Lastly, if you haven't seen it in a while, do yourself a favor and watch it again (Criterion just put it out on bluray). It's aged so well and it's as good as, if not better than, you remember it to be.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Day 16: Heavenly Creatures

"I'm not going to heaven. I'm going to the fourth world. It's like heaven, only better because there aren't any Christians."

Peter Jackson is one of the luckiest directors that ever lived. He started out the 90's making small exploitation movies in New Zealand like Dead Alive and Meet the Feebles, and ended the decade filming The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the success of which would send him skyrocketing to the top of Hollywood's A-list. In between this though he made what I feel to be his two best films, 1996's The Frighteners (a wonderful horror movie featuring a never better Michael J. Fox) and 1994's Heavenly Creatures.

Heavenly Creatures is based on a true story of two teenagers in Christchurch, NZ who murdered one of their mothers. The filmmakers used the actual diary entries of one of the girls to piece together the story, much as the police did when prosecuting the crime. Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) is a bit of an outcast at her all girls school in 1952 when a transfer student from England arrives. Her name is Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) and she is a free spirit who connects with the shy and reserved Pauline right away.

They have several mutual interests, namely fantasy and romance novels and begin writing a romance novel together set in a mythical land. As they continue creating the world of the novel, their fantasies begin to come to life and they find their time spent in this fantasy realm to be more rewarding than the more banal world they actually live in. They even begin referring to themselves as characters from their novel. Juliet becomes Deborah (pronounced De-bore-ah) and Pauline becomes Gina. Juliet creates clay figures of the characters who later take shape as life-sized clay people in their fantasy world.

Pauline begins romanticizing Juliet's home life and thinks that because Juliet's parents are rich and disconnected, that they're actually more loving than her own parents. Both sets of parents are painted with a fairly broad brush and it is easy to dislike them at first for their overbearing ways or their non-existent parenting respectively. But as the girls' fantasy world begins to take hold and they lose almost all touch with reality, the parents become sympathetic characters almost by default.

Juliet's parents end up divorcing and Juliet is going to be shipped to South Africa as her parents hope the warm climate will help her tuberculosis. This sends both girls into a mad tizzy as it will drive them apart forever in their minds, so Pauline hatches a plan to murder her mother so that Juliet's parents will adopt her and they can all live together. It's a half-assed plan at best and just the sort of thing that two delusional teenage girls would hatch. Needless to say, they succeed in carrying out their plan; The murder is brutally violent and harshly realistic in contrast to the rest of the violence in the film which has been part of their fantasies and has been presented as non-realistically as possible. Text after the film informs us that the girls were tried for murder and sent to separate prisons for five years and released on the condition that they never see one another again.
The film has its flaws to be sure, but it is an incredibly effective portrait of what the lives of two girls consumed with fantasy would actually be like. This is a bit diversionary but stick with me here. I remember seeing Babel and being particularly engrossed in the segments of the film involving the maid and her nephew.

Afterwords I realized that this was because it was the director working with actors, characters and subject matter he was extremely comfortable with and it made the rest of the film suffer in contrast. I felt the same way here as the film would drag whenever it would deal with the more drab and mundane aspects of the girls' lives, but it would come alive in their fantasy sequences. This was obviously done intentionally for stylistic reasons, but it also shows Jackson's flaws as a director. He flounders when not dealing in fantastical scenarios and he treats those scenes with an orgasmic glee that it forces the rest of the film to drag.

The performances by both girls are extremely effective and it's easy to see why they both became great actresses with incredibly diverse and long careers. Kate Winslet in particular is amazingly good, but Melanie Lynskey is no slouch. She's obviously given the less showy role, but she is extremely good even in scenes without Winslet. I guess I'm trying to say that she's definitely not Peter Scolari to Winslet's Tom Hanks. These are both fantastic actresses and they've been that way since the very beginning of their careers.

The only other lingering issue I have is the girls' sexuality. There is a definite suspicion on the part of their parents that the girls are romantically involved with one another. The film doesn't openly show this as a reality until their last night together. What's odd about all this, I guess, is that when the parents suspicion is first raised, it's very clear that they're just extremely close to one another and are likely not involved romantically, but when they later end up consummating their relationship, it just sort of drops the scene into the film and doesn't make any attempt to use it as a reason or resolution for their relationship. It's almost wholly superfluous. I'm not sure how intentional this was, but I would like to know what the reason for including the scene was when we're made to feel earlier that the parents were being unreasonably paranoid.

Either way, it's a very good film that I highly recommend. I think it has aged extremely well compared with a lot of films from the early 90s and will likely hold up for years to come. What did everyone else think? Let me know in the comments section below!

I haven't decided on tomorrow's film yet, but it will be fairly mainstream as I've done a few obscure ones in a row now.

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