Wednesday, February 17, 2010

THE SCAR (1948)

Starring: Paul Heinreid & Joan Bennett
Director: Steve Sekely

Fans of hardboiled film noir will want to look for this lesser-known but memorable example of the genre. Paul Heinreid plays two parts: a gambler fleeing from the police and a psychiatrist who is his exact double. The gambler plans to escape the law by killing the doctor and assuming his identity. Suspenseful melodrama. (83 mins.)

My Rating: ***


Starring: Jesse Eisenburg, Kristen Stewart & Ryan Reynolds
Director: Greg Mottola

Touted in ads as the latest raucous comedy from the director of Superbad, Adventureland isn't what it looks like -- but it's still good. With an even makeup of one part '80s nostalgia, one part rowdy teen farce, and one part pensive, emotional drama, the film may seem a little modest at first (especially for those expecting it to push the fantastic limits of manic R-rated teenage hilarity the way its predecessor did), but don't write it off as emo. Most of the sentimental stuff is genuine and sweet. And, yes, there are plenty of dick jokes.

The story takes place in 1987, as James Brennan (Eisenburg) has just finished college, and is gearing up for a trip to Europe before starting grad school in the fall. But, of course, things don't go as planned, and he ends up back at his parents' house, working at the local amusement park to stash away money for next year's rent. Lots of quality workplace humor ensues, as James spends his summer vacation awarding the winners of rigged carnival games with cheap plush toys, bonding with hometown losers and other weirdos, falling in love with the park's resident sarcastic hottie (Stewart), and getting punched in the balls every day by his spastic childhood best friend.

It covers all the requisite ground for a nostalgic coming-of-age summer comedy/romance (the hero discovering his dad's vices, an embarrassing case of arrested virginity, flagrant use of "Rock Me Amadeus"), but Adventureland works because it does all of that really, really well. That's partly thanks to a spot-on cast. Eisenburg carries the movie with a graceful balance of charisma and nerdiness, tempering his athletic build and cut-from-marble cheekbones with a guileless stammer (even if he does sometimes sound like he's doing an impression of Michael Cera), and Stewart is fairly irresistible as the sometimes awkward, always disarming love interest, Em. Ryan Reynolds also turns in an impressive performance, in what turns out to be a kind of self-effacing role for an actor who made a name for himself playing the fast-talking cool guy.

It is also delightful because it's intensely sincere -- something hard to pull off in a movie set in the dated, but not yet historical past. Because the movie never feels sneering or mean-spirited, it makes this particular past feel like your own, even if your formative summers never involved menial labor, acid-wash jeans, or torrid first romances with reticent brunettes. It all inspires a sense of affection that makes it easy to love, whether the hero is pouring his heart out, or just enduring a good old-fashioned punch to the testicles. (106 mins.)

My Rating: ***


Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott & Kirk Douglas
Director: Lewis Milestone

In The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers, relationships formed in childhood lead to murder and obsessive love. The wealthy Martha Ivers (Stanwyck) is the prime mover of the small Pennsylvania town of Iverston. Martha lives in a huge mansion with her DA husband, Walter O'Neil (Douglas), an alcoholic weakling. No one knows just why Martha and Walter tolerate one another....but Sam Masterson (Heflin), an Iverstown boy who returns to town, may just have a clue. At least that's what Martha thinks when Sam asks Walter to intervene in the case of Toni Marachek (Scott), who has been unjustly imprisoned. It seems that, as a young boy, Sam was in the vicinity when Martha's rich aunt met with her untimely demise. What does Sam know? And what dark, horrible secret binds Martha and Walter together? Directed by Lewis Milestone, and based on John Patrick's Oscar-nominated original story, Love Lies Bleeding, this movie creates in Martha a unique and interesting, driven, obsessed, and spoiled character, but one not without sympathy. Stanwyck is outstanding as Martha, with her predatory smile and sharp, manicured nails. Douglas is surprisingly convincing as a lost, sad, weak man, who loves his wife, but is unable to gain her respect. This movie eventually lapsed into public domain and became a ubiquitous presence on cable television.

Something of a warm-up for the later The File on Thelma Jordon, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers mixes obsession, desire, delusion, ambition, and fear into a fascinating and enthralling tangle. Unusual for a movie of its period, it's fairly sophisticated in dealing with what is, at heart, a "sick" relationship between Martha Ivers (Stanwyck) and Walter O'Neil (Douglas), and demonstrating how easily a person (Sam Masterson [Heflin]) can get sucked into one. Fortunately for Masterson, he gets out in time, but it's a pretty narrow escape. Ivers is a remarkably tense film, although it's a tension that tends to linger beneath the surface; this is appropriate, as it reflects the turmoil and anxiety that lies under the calm surface of Ivers' and O'Neil's lives. That tension gives the film its life and strange vibrancy, and gives snap to even mundane scenes. There are some problems, notably the fact that the creators don't really seem to have a grasp on Masterson's motivation after the idea of blackmail enters the picture. Is he really interested in the money or is it a plot to get to the bottom of the Martha mystery? But the compelling, multi-layered performances of the stars (including Scott) more than make up for the few flaws in the script. (117 mins.)

My Rating: ***1/2

Monday, February 8, 2010


Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen

With A Serious Man, Joel and Ethan Coen create a jet-black comedy about anxiety and dread so funny -- and so disturbing -- that snack counters should sell Klonopin along with the popcorn.

After being informed by his doctor that he's in perfect health, math professor Larry Gopnik's (Stuhlbarg) world quickly unravels. In quick succession, his mentally unstable brother moves in, a student offers Larry a bribe for a passing grade, his wife informs him their marriage is over, he receives unexpected angry calls from a Columbia Record Club debt collector, and his teenage kids continue to ignore him, apart from his ability to fix their TV's reception problems. As Larry slowly loses control over his surroundings, he seeks counsel from various rabbis, whose parables offer little help to alleviate his anxiety and fear.

Giving away too much more of the plot would be unkind, because experiencing the totality and swiftness with which Larry's life crashes down around him is half the fun of the movie. The Coens fashion a slow-motion existential train wreck where a good and honest man drowns in events that relentlessly grow more outlandish and tragic. And understand that for all the unending pain, there are big laughs throughout -- particularly from Larry's wife's new love, Sy Ableman. Whenever Sy speaks to Larry, he offers the most caring and supportive sentiments imaginable, but he delivers them in a voice so lulling and smooth that it hilariously amplifies their insincerity.

Yet, for all the belly laughs (including a brilliant joke that gets set up in the first ten minutes but doesn't pay off until nearly the end of the movie), this is at heart a Kafka-esque nightmare. The movie underscores the fact that the Coens are remarkably talented filmmakers -- very few directors could make audiences feel dread and panic this acutely while simultaneously doubling them up with laughter.

But it's the unease and not the laughter that the Coens end with, and it's hard to ignore that this is their third film in a row to wrap up with a profound spiritual bummer. The Coen brothers used to temper their skeptical view of people and life with occasional glimpses of positivity -- it's hard to find a more likeable and good-hearted hero than Fargo's Marge Gunderson, unless it's "The Dude." But, A Serious Man finds Joel and Ethan entrenched in pessimism, and that might be the most disquieting aspect of the whole movie. (105 mins.)

My Rating: ***


Starring: Sandra Bullock
Director: John Lee Hancock

Based on the remarkable true story of Michael Oher, as chronicled by Michael Lewis in his nonfiction book of the same name, John Lee Hancock's The Blind Side offers an overly familiar formula delivered with a commendably restrained amount of melodrama.

Memphis businesswoman and housewife Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock) gets what she wants in life through sheer force of will. Her children attend a ritzy private school, and when the higher-ups there admit Michael Oher (Quinton Aron), a disadvantaged African-American kid, because the football coach wants him to play for the school, Leigh Anne focuses all of her considerable energy on giving the boy the kind of loving and stable environment he's never had. Eventually, he grows close to Leigh Anne, her husband (Tim McGraw), teen daughter, Collins, and cloyingly precocious young son, S.J. Michael works hard to get his grades high enough to play, develops skills as a left tackle, and starts getting letters of interest from big-time college programs. But problems arise when influences from Michael's past come back into his life, and when the NCAA worries that the Tuohys might be unethically pushing Michael toward attending their alma mater.

It is decidedly square. Its uplifting message and thoroughly unashamedly folksy qualities make it a feel-good, three-hanky, you-go-girl, wind-beneath-my-wings piece of sappy inspirationalism. But, it does have some persuasive things in its favor. First of all, it gets football right -- those who know nothing about the game will actually learn a little about what an offensive lineman does and how he does it. Secondly, it's not aggressive in its middlebrowness; the film -- like Hancock's previous sports movie, The Rookie -- has a light touch, best exemplified in McGraw's charmingly laid-back performance as Sean Tuohy, a man unfazed and thoroughly charmed by his outspoken Type-A wife.

And let's be clear that this is a Sandra Bullock film through and through. She's essentially playing a less sexually brazen Erin Brockovich -- a no-nonsense Southern girl who fights for what's right, for herself and for her family. It's not a part that requires much depth, but she fills it with her usual charm, and her core audience will undoubtedly laugh and cry along as Leigh Anne stands up to coaches, gang-bangers, and administrators who stand in her and Michael's way.

The movie is very familiar -- you've seen it all before -- but it succeeds at achieving its modest goals. It's cinematic comfort food that could have been called "Chicken Soup for the Football Lover's Soul." (126 mins.)

My Rating: **1/2


Starring: Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges & Kevin Spacey
Director: Grant Heslov

It's hard to imagine a movie about the U.S. military training soldiers to discover their psychic powers that wouldn't be fun, especially if it's played for laughs. And the first half of Heslov's directorial debut doesn't disappoint.

The action begins when heartbroken reporter Bob Wilton (McGregor) heads off to imbed himself with troops as the Iraq War starts, but Wilton can't get himself into the country until he chances upon Lyn Cassady. It turns out Lyn spent decades as part of the New Earth Army -- a platoon of men, led by Bill Django (Bridges), who lived a new-age lifestyle in an attempt to cultivate extrasensory perception that would allow the U.S. army to win wars nonviolently. Bill now has a secret mission in Iraq, and allows Bob to come along. As the duo gets into a series of misadventures, Lyn shares with Bob the colorful history of the New Earth Army and chronicles the nefarious machinations of Larry Hooper (Spacey), whose jealousy of Lyn's remarkable skill brought an end to the group.

With material this quirky and satirical, it's a good thing Heslov shows a flair for comedy. He knows how to accentuate the laughs through editing and framing -- most notably in a scene involving an IED -- and he's very good with his actors. Clooney is screamingly funny playing Lyn's rigid military training and his free-spirited mind against each other in ways that make the character unique -- he's a haunted hippie/dreamer/warrior. He's well-matched by Bridges, who brings an appropriate Dude-like vibe to the proceedings, as well as Spacey, who delivers yet another amusing turn as a naturally loathsome a-hole.

If only the script by Peter Straughan (very loosely adapted from a nonfiction book by Jon Ronson) had a stronger narrative through-line, the whole movie might have maintained its satirical edge throughout, becoming a bizarre cross between The X-Files and Stripes. Unfortunately, the wind comes out of the movie's sails in the second half, after we discover the goal of Lyn's sojourn behind enemy lines, and nothing from that point on has the imaginative bite of the movie's opening hour. But there are plenty of big laughs in this movie, and it doesn't take psychic powers to see that first-time director Heslov, with a stronger story, is capable of great things. (90 mins.)

My Rating: **1/2

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Starring: John Mills
Director: Charles Frend

Unrelenting docudrama of determined British explorer Robert Falcon Scott (Mills), highlighting the details of his last expedition to the South Pole. This saga of bravery and endurance features an especially moving finale. Music by Vaughan Williams, who later used part of this score in his seventh symphony.

This impeccable re-creation of the race to the South Pole superbly captures the unrelenting frustration of explorer Robert Scott's ill-fated final expedition. Gorgeously lensed and orchestrated by director Charles Frend. With stunning photographic effects, authentic narrative, but as drama it's curiously remote, only occasionally affecting. (110 mins.)

My Rating: ***

Movie Trivia: The Antarctic setting for Captain Scott's march homeward from the South Pole in Scott In Antarctic was in fact close to the Arctic Circle--almost as far from the true locale as it was possible to get. The main location was the vast glacier close to the small Norwegian town of Finse. Director Charles Frend and star John Mills were amazed to find that many of the citizens of Finse had personal memories of Captain Scott. The explorer had used the glacier in 1909 for trials of the motor sledges he took with him on his final and fatal expedition.


Starring: Steve McQueen
Director: Henry Hathaway

The character who first appeared in Harold Robbins's The Carpetbaggers (Nevada Smith) is given a film of his own. In this episodic but well-acted film, our half-breed killer tracks down his parents' killers.

Steve McQueen, in the title role, is butcher's-freezer-cold, calculating, and merciless in this hard-hitting, gripping Western. The focus is on a senseless, vicious double murder and the revenge taken by the son of the innocent victims.

Remade as a TVM in 1975. (135 mins.)

My Rating: ***


Starring: Julianne Moore & Woody Harrelson
Director: Jane Anderson

Of all the roles Moore plays well, she excels most at bringing new dimension to the housewife with unfulfilled yearnings. That's definitely the case with Jane anderson's The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, the involving true story of an educated mother who tries to support her spouse and ten children by winning contests to write corporate jingles. Because Moore's prize winner is also the family breadwinner, her drunkard husband, Kelly, spends most of his time feeling castrated and lashing out. Unfortunately, Harrelson mirrors his character's failings by not carrying his share of the acting load; his portrayal alternates between episodes of simplistic rage and simplistic remorse. These extremes prevent us from understanding why Evelyn Ryan would stay with him, unless out of sheer sainthood -- and, of course, a devotion to her 1950s values. What should be a significant flaw is eclipsed by the high quality of everything else onscreen, starting with Moore, whose ability to conquer her disappointment is both inspiring and heartbreaking. (Her narration is also a consistent treat.) The period production design jumps off the screen in cheery pastels that belie the story's pervasive darkness. It's a fun snapshot of an era when television shows and ads were always cross-pollinated, and grand prizes came in the form of a lifetime supply of birdseed. And while the husband-wife relationship never feels completely true, the movie does capture an authentic and touching bond between Evelyn and her feisty daughter Tuff -- whose memoirs inspired this film. For those seeking it out, the film also contains a covert indictment of the Catholic Church. Not only are Evelyn's problems exacerbated by an unwillingness to consider either birth control or divorce, but a priest with alcohol on his breath makes light of Kelly Ryan's crash-and-burn boozing. (99 mins.)

My Rating: ***

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER (2009)

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Zooey Deschanel
Director: Marc Webb

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel star in director Marc Webb's wry, nonlinear romantic comedy about a man who falls head over heels for a woman who doesn't believe in love. Mark (Gordon-Levitt) is an aspiring architect who currently earns his living as a greeting card writer. Upon encountering his boss' beautiful new secretary, Summer (Deschanel), Mark discovers that the pair have plenty in common despite the fact that she's seemingly out of his league; for starters, they both love the Smiths, and they're both fans of surrealist artist Magritte. Before long Mark is smitten. All he can think about is Summer. Mark believes deeply in the concept of soul mates, and he's finally found his. Unfortunately for Mark, Summer sees true love as the stuff of fairy tales, and isn't looking for romance. Undaunted and undeterred by his breezy lover's casual stance on relationships, Mark summons all of his might and courage to pursue Summer and convince her that their love is real. (95 mins.)

My Rating: ***

HUNGER (2008)

Starring: Michael Fassbender
Director: Steve McQueen

One doubts that any feature film could more maturely, passionately, or elegantly evoke the madness and confusion at the heart of the early-'80s IRA conflict than Irish director McQueen's harrowing docudrama Hunger. The film unfurls in 1981, around the tail end of the IRA prisoners' "no wash" strike against the Brits, and dramatizes the martyrdom of Irishman Bobby Sands, champion of a hunger strike within a penitentiary -- and a man who led at least nine of his fellow inmates to the grave in pursuit of unascertained political status. Yet the Sands tale only occupies the second half of the picture. Long before we can identify Sands or follow his crusade, he takes his time to establish the overall atmosphere of the prison and, more importantly, the profound and noble ideas at the core of his film.

The deepest truths and insights into his perspective arrive in an opening sequence, when we observe a British prison employee, Raymond Lohan gazing at himself in the mirror, with a weathered and disillusioned face. Lohan's deep-set, slightly pained eyes aren't eyes that lack a conscience, and his countenance will return to haunt our memories time and again throughout this picture -- likewise, his routine ritual of plunging his bloody, skinned knuckles into warm water to ease the pain. Lohan may be an administrator of brutality (like the other guards, he generates an adequate amount of disdain in the audience, and sympathy toward the prisoners via his brutal actions), but his ability to suffer makes him more human in our eyes -- as does his decision to take flowers to his catatonic mother. Our feelings toward the IRA remain equally balanced; not long after we witness the psychotically violent, perhaps fatal beating of an IRA prisoner (by a uniformed British guard), he interpolates an appalling, sickening act of violence from an IRA terrorist that redefines one's notion of shocking. It comes out of nowhere, unfolds in the sweetest and most benign of locations, and ends with the gunman practically jaunting away merrily, hands in his pockets. The central message is clear: the men on both sides of this fence are neither monsters nor saints. Both the guards and the suffering prisoners have been irrevocably plunged by fate into the same maelstrom of suffering.

Curiously, for a drama about the IRA, the first half of the film completely omits ideological argument and an exploration of the political goings-on at the core of this tumult. And that represents a deliberate choice. For the humanistic director, everything within the prison represents complete insanity -- from the fecal matter smeared on the cell walls, to the slop thrown into bedside troughs, to the maggots swarming around one sleeping prisoner's head, to the said beatings. At the heart of everything, the director reminds us, these men are men, who belong to the same human quilt, and the groups have mutually resigned themselves to the same pit of despair and masochism -- making all external conflicts irrelevant when held up next to the film's gut-wrenching plea for sympathy.

The picture then shifts gears dramatically at about the 45-minute mark, moving into the Sands story, and in what will go down as one of the most audacious directorial choices of 2008, he commits the film and the audience to a fixed shot and a single take for about 20 minutes. Sands (Fassbender) and a priest, Father Dominic Moran, sit on opposite ends of the same table, dissect the pros and cons of martyrdom, and fire arguments at one another on the progression versus regression of the IRA cause. The scene packs an emotional and intellectual wallop: he fully enables us to grasp (and possibly share) the priest's logic, his die-hard conviction that the notion of a hunger strike is absurd and pointless, and his belief that the IRA is a worthy cause but has lost its original foundation, just as the director explores the logic behind Bobby's rebuttals. The fixed shot is thus valuable for keeping the men equidistant from the audience, and underscoring the ideological balance present in the conversation. The film concludes with long, anatomically detailed, and thoroughly devastating sequences of the prisoner withering away to nothing, yet he laces the scenes with lyrical cutaways to Bobby's childhood, hallucinations that his childhood self is visiting him, and images of birds aloft, that draw out the grace and nobility within the man's soul and recall an identical metaphor in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc.(92 mins.)

My Rating: ***1/2