Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wasn't it nice to see people all giddy again about winning an Oscar? To witness thoughtful and unanticipated honorifics bestowed upon a handful of the most deserving entrants? (see: Tilda Swinton) To hear more than one recipient extol the necessity of making art? To discover that chivalry still flourishes in the expediency-flouting gesture of affording someone her proper say? (Jon Stewart's a mensch.) Jack Fisk should have won Art Direction for There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men might have taken home a Sound trophy, and, well, at least they chose the right Hal Holbrook clip, but most everyone walked away with a slice of the pie, and overall Oscar '07 felt like the right kind of prom: thankful, gracious, thoughtful, inclusionary. (Until Gandhi 2 sweeps next year and it's back to the same old drawing board.)

Monday, February 18, 2008

  • Quantum of Solace, the Buckleyesque title of the new James Bond film, eschews all heretofore requisite reference to dying or death, dispenses with vaginal euphemism, and should have this dimwit nation running for its Webster's. Score one (finally!) for the English language, and take that, George "Huckleberry" Bush!
  • Is Ruby Dee really poised to win an Oscar for massaging the exhausted (and in this case, underwritten) role of Righteous Matriarch in the negligible American Gangster? There are at least two worthy candidates in contention who will sadly come a cropper if Ms. Dee takes home the septuagenarian door prize: the redoubtable Cate Blanchett as a mutable, 60s-era Dylan in I'm Not There, and fearless Tilda Swinton as Michael Clayton's gradually rattled company girl. (Sorry -- I liked Gone Baby Gone, but Amy Ryan's performance was a wee bit studied.) Right, I know -- who really gives a lick?...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

  • Chato's Land (United Artists, 1972) -- Peak-condition Bronson as a wronged, laconic half-breed, willfully pursued by a motley assemblage of vigilantes whose own, interior landscapes prove more their undoing than the titular West: the Civil War romanticist haunted by defeat (an undeniable Jack Palance); the God-fearing Scotsman (an other himself) upbraided by an inability to side against the mob; the blind, entitled Americans to whom their native quarry is just another "savage." Unfussily directed by Michael Winner from a trenchant script by Gerald Wilson. Smashingly, grinningly effective in its objectivity, with a gutsy, veracious close.
  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull (Paramount, 1973) -- Touchy-feely adaptation of Richard Bach's novella about an iconoclastic seabird, though uneasily appended with hoary, Christian overtones, is nonetheless a wonder; one can almost forgive director Hall Bartlett the reported transgressions against his cast when the effects are this unique. Jack Couffer's pre-CGI vistas of gull against nature are often stunning, and ably supported by the guilty pleasure of Neil Diamond's swaggering, musical Farina. An occasionally sluggish and perpetually derided yet ultimately winning curio.
  • WarGames (MGM, 1983) -- Fail-Safe for the Pac-Man generation, and still as astonishingly callow as it was back when considered keen. Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes' credulity-straining script (undoubtedly Oscar-nominated by an Academy membership straining to be hip) sees teen geek Matthew Broderick hack into the United States military's missile defense system and unwittingly commence a countdown to nuclear Armageddon. A perhaps not-too-entirely implausible premise groaningly undone by catchpenny character development (nincompoop adults versus bright young things), innumerable black holes in logic, and maddeningly unresolved narrative threads. (You'll wonder just exactly what happened to the soldiers from the prologue.) Darling, unlikely, and not surprisingly embraced by the nuke-rattled global village of the early 80s. Ugh.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

  • Cache (Sony Pictures Classics, 2005). Provocateur Michael Haneke's meditation on guilt and the subjectivity of truth witnesses the unseaming of a bourgeois Parisian family threatened by videos that suggest they're being watched. Why, it turns out, is incidental -- and a drag. It's a page ascetically reimagined from Lynch's Lost Highway, desaturated of dread and ironically less engrossing for the intellective effort. Haneke prefers examining our pores to getting under our skin, and while such scrutiny traditionally bears fruit for adherents to the filmmaker's often more harrowing oeuvre (see: The Seventh Continent), the lot it yields here is the nettled conscience of its blame-reproving principal and this infrequent Luddite's distress at such calculatedly enigmatic navel-gazing. The knockout finale suggests a deeper experience.
  • Krakatoa, East of Java (ABC/Cinerama, 1969). A certifiable script overyoked with plot navigates a "B" list through the Sudan Strait as Krakatoa menaces ad nauseum. Of interest chiefly to those entranced by erector set visuals that somehow managed to flourish post-Kubrick and pre-Dykstra.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

  • Scrooge (National General, 1970). Fashionably distressed cherubim drop "h"'s all over a Simonized London in Leslie Bricusse's treacly musicalization of A Christmas Carol. Yeoman Ronald Neame hasn't the craft to direct attention away from the peurile score (he can't -- it's ubiquitous), and the cast troupes about on autopilot. Guinness' fey Marley proves the lone exception; it's an astonishingly misguided conceit, but at least he seems amused with the enterprise.
  • Sunrise at Campobello (Warner Bros., 1960). Dore Schary's bromidic adaptation of his prior stage success recounts a pivotal few years in the life of FDR: contracting polio, acquiring the stature of a Democratic, presidential hopeful. Greer Garson's Great Lady comeback as an insufferably well-heeled Eleanor earned the obligatory Oscar nod, but it's Bellamy as Franklin who manages to salvage what he can of the logy narrative, lockjaw notwithstanding. Nowhere near as soporific as Daryl Zanuck's Wilson, and a giddy indulgence for fans of the spit-shined biopic (you'll have trouble separating the Roosevelt progeny from the von Trapp kids), but a soppy affair nonetheless. With Ann Shoemaker as a theatrically emasculating Mother R. and Hume Cronyn signaling his every actor's intent as Louis McHenry Howe.
  • Zelary (Sony Pictures Classics, 2004). Czech nurse and WWII resistance fighter Anna Geislerova is forced to relocate, establish a new identity in titular mountain town after running afoul of the Nazis. Handsome, well-acted bucolic benefits from a fresh perspective and an uncommon climax, but the hasty epilogue and short shrift given to key characters (Jaroslev Dusek and Miroslav Donutil share a fascinating relationship as the resident schoolteacher and priest) keep this one firmly inside the ballpark.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

  • Dawn of the Dead (Universal, 2004). Fanboy horseshit. An ugly, vicious remake of a spurious "classic" that at least had the sense enough to be superficially moralistic in its thinly satiric jab at consumerism, a concept merely appropriated for the current version sans advancement or ingenuity. A soulless, indefensible money-grubber that ironically becomes what its predecessor intended to excoriate.
  • Shock Corridor (Allied Artists, 1963). Samuel Fuller morality jumble with Peter Breck a rapacious journalist gone undercover to investigate murder in a psychiatric hospital. Flagrant, phony, and often more compelling for it -- a feral ballet choreographed to the teeth. But what does Fuller mean by condemning to madness a trio of history's unfortunates: the emotionally stunted soldier unhinged by Communist brainwashing, the pioneering black student who takes on the mantle of his vicious oppressors (Hari Rhodes, in the film's most dedicated performance), the nuclear physicist infantilized by the unethical nature of Man. While significant as expose, the subtext is muddy, though it's likely that this is precisely the intent. No points for guessing the conclusion.
  • Teresa Wright has died. MSN News has appropriately eulogized her as "willowy" -- to which I might loquaciously add, "eminently palatable." Her self-effacing temperament prevented Wright from pursuing (or landing, for the most part) "glamour" roles, but her stalwart, and more importantly, sincere support in any number of significant dramas throughout her carefully navigated career resulted in two Oscar nominations, one win (heartbreaking in Mrs. Miniver) and a raft of memorable performances that ached with honesty. Peace be with her. (Recommendations: The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver, Shadow of a Doubt, and even the soppy Somewhere in Time -- if "Come back to me..." doesn't get you just a little, better check your pulse.)

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

  • Bright Victory (Universal-International, 1951). Arthur Kennedy, earnest in his fashion, as a sightless WWII veteran. Sincere if flavorless.
  • Love Liza (Sony Pictures Classics, 2002). A recipe for disaster (or at least a swift emetic) gone right. After years of sweaty character turns, Philip Seymour Hoffman slows up to find his stride as an emotionally stunted widower taken to huffing gasoline and an obsession with model planes. Delicate writing and an assured sense of composition frame this potential indie mess, a sincerely presented meditation on the harrow of bereavement sensitively managed by a well-chosen cast. (Jack Kehler nails the role of a small craft enthusiast.) A curious, if likely, conclusion.
  • The Subject Was Roses (MGM, 1968). Laborious adaptation of Frank D. Gilroy's stage success concerns the fractured family dynamic of yet another returning veteran. Patricia Neal (post-stroke and sadly sour), Frank Albertson (he won the Oscar?) and a then callow Martin Sheen deliver indicatory performances that bump up against one another without ever really connecting. They can't. The arcane dialogue and hands-off-the-artwork direction won't let them. It's American "kitchen sink" drama dutifully transferred to film with the compulsory amount of "opening out" to appear less theatrical. And it's a drone.
  • Thoughts on Oscar '04. Did I blink and miss something, or did the membership capitulate and (mostly) get it right for once? While I might have preferred seeing Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen take home richly deserved honors, the woefully overdue Freeman and peerless Cate Blanchett were nonetheless worthy recipients. Also: the proper urge to wait and award Scorsese for his next "great" film (although The Aviator was requisitely well-crafted and undeniably invigorating); screenplay awards bestowed upon the most deserving nominees in their respective categories (see Dead Poets Society or Ghost -- ugh); Hilary Swank besting the admittedly terrific Annette Bening (though not for Being Julia -- swell performance in a superfluous film); Million Dollar Baby going the distance, even over my second-by-a-nose favorite, Sideways; "Al Otro Lado del Rio" shaking up Original Song amid the usual clot of wallpaper paste contenders; Lemony Snicket's justifiable win in Makeup over the cheesy body suit in The Passion of the Christ; my worst fears unrealized as the pageant-like dispersal of awards both onstage and in-house actually worked -- and well.

Welcome! (Wherein I cut to the chase and explain this mess.)

Too much energy wasted composing literate critique and offhand observations about film to friends in after midnight e-mails. Zero interest in resurrecting my early 90s "career" as a malcontent, Pauline Kael acolyte for weeklies in L.A. Haunted nevertheless by voices that command my musings on movies be fashioned into cogent prose. Didactic, subjective, glib, furiously earnest, laudatory and often despairing. But never less than passionate. New clunkers, old classics (and their reverse), examined at random to suit the mood, plus the occasional industry-specific reflection. And while this makes me feel more than a bit like Nero (Quick! The world is burning! Put in Jason X!) , it ultimately keeps me from combusting. (Hey! -- medical write-off?...) Enjoy if you dare and share if you must, but remember: "There is nothing quite like that moment when the lights go down and all of our hopes are concentrated on the screen." (Ms. Kael)