Monday, September 20, 2010

THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD (2008)

Starring: John Malkovich, Colin Hanks & Emily Blunt
Director: Sean McGinly

This is a very agreeable "feel good" movie and, as such, should find favor with a great many of those who view it. The story, which is in the tradition of other "behind the scenes with a difficult talent" films as My Favorite Year, concerns an aging mentalist -- do not call him a magician, please -- named Buck Howard (Malkovich), who was once at the top of the heap but is now reduced to playing to small, if appreciative, audiences far from the big time. His new road manager, Troy (Hanks), has joined Buck because he is floating aimlessly after dropping out of law school and is trying to "find himself." Working with Buck is an education in itself, as he has taken self-delusion to an extreme, is entirely self-involved, and more than a bit temperamental. But there's something about Buck that draws Troy in and ultimately teaches him a lesson about being true to himself.

Buck is a very audience-friendly film, provided that viewers are willing to let themselves be taken along for a fairly manipulative ride. Director-writer McGinly has created a well-crafted screenplay that hits all the right buttons in terms of eliciting the desired response. Where he has fallen down a bit is in not adding real depth to the story or keeping it as tightly focused as it might have been. Troy's dilemma is a bit too superficial, as is the setup with his disapproving father (well-played by the actor's real-life papa, Tom Hanks). The part of the plot which deals with Troy's dalliance with a young P.R. agent feels incomplete, perhaps because Blunt's dynamic, eye-catching performance makes the viewer want to learn more about her character and see more confrontations between the agent and Buck. However, neither of these flaws (nor McGinly's tendency to overwrite and overuse the narration) is fatal by any means and they're more than made up for by some wonderful comic moments and McGinly's trenchant yet amiable way of dissecting the whole concept of celebrity. Most importantly, Buck has Malkovich operating at the top of his not inconsiderable form. The actor clearly relishes this character, and it is a joy to watch him inhabit Buck's skin and bring him to beautiful life. Malkovich finds the humanity beneath the caricature without letting the caricature slip away; Buck's trademark "I love this town" is funny because it is simultaneously cheesy and heartfelt. As Troy, Hanks isn't able to hold his own against Malkovich -- or Blunt -- but he does the best he can as the "straight" man in the movie. The supporting cast, especially Steve Zahn's and Debra Monk's on-target "hayseeds," are aces. McGinly's direction is smooth, if a bit too concerned with getting its points across, and Tak Fujimoto's cinematography is both glossy and warm. (87 mins.)

My Rating: ***

LA STRADA (1954)

Starring: Anthony Quinn, Giuletta Masina & Richard Basehart
Director: Federico Fellini

La Strada is often considered one of the masterpieces of 20th century filmmaking, a sad and poignant remembrance of innocence lost and of the roads that each of us must choose. As with much of the work of director Fellini, man is viewed as suspended between the heavens and the earth, adroitly symbolized here by Il Matto/The Fool (Basehart), a high-wire circus performer. Fellini's motifs are among the most influential of all post-WWII filmmakers, and you'll find clever Fellini and La Strada references in such unlikely films as Blues Brothers 2000. Giuletta massina's Chaplin-like Gelsomina is among the screen's most poignant and tragic performances, and she, like the entire film, is aided by Nino Rota's evocative score. Fellini had few production values to work with, but here he doesn't need them. La Strada is among the most studied films of late Italian Neo-Realism and a classic of the first rank. (115 mins.)

My Rating: ****

THE SOLOIST (2008)

Starring: Robert Downey, Jr. & Jamie Foxx
Director: Joe Wright

When the Soloist was originally intended to be a 2008 Oscar hopeful, the initial advertising campaign made it look like a cross between Shine and A Beautiful Mind. And the setup certainly smacks of Oscar bait: Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Downey), recovering from an especially nasty bike accident, meets the homeless Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Foxx) during a walk through the park. Because Nathaniel plays a violin with just two strings -- and plays it rather well -- he catches Steve's eye, and Steve, always on the lookout for a story, strikes up a conversation. When the obviously mentally ill Nathaniel mentions that he went to Juilliard, Steve decides to investigate the man's life, and discovers that the onetime cello prodigy suffered a schizophrenic breakdown while he was at the school, leading to a life on the street. Steve proceeds to write a column about Nathaniel, and the overwhelmingly positive response to the story prompts the gift of a cello from a reader. After delivering the present to Nathaniel, Steve slowly finds himself, almost against his nature, trying to make life better for the man.

This kind of movie quickly falls apart if the actors overplay the inherent sadness of the situation, and thankfully the stellar cast never makes that mistake. Although he's become more famous for performances in blockbusters like Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, Downey hasn't lost an ounce of his dramatic chops. He makes Steve selfish and prickly, but also so charming and funny that you understand why his subjects trust him with their life stories. You can also see why his ex-wife (Catherine Keener), who is now his boss, stays close to him even though she left their marriage. Steve begins asking himself why he cares so much about what happens to Nathaniel, questioning his own motivations -- is it really an ongoing act of selfless goodness, or is he just doing it for his career? Steve doesn't find a satisfying answer, until realizing that this new friendship offers the chance for him to become a better person.

As the catalyst for Steve's change, foxx pulls off a disciplined, subtle performance. Foxx isn't interested in earning our pity -- a choice that undermines so many actors playing mentally ill characters. You never question the debilitating nature of Nathaniel's disorder, but you also never question that he's able to take care of himself to the best of his ability, surviving -- however miserably -- in L.A.'s large homeless community. Both he and Downey avoid obvious melodramatic choices, and in doing so they create unfailingly honest portraits of complicated people.
(109 mins.)

My Rating: **1/2

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

CROSSROADS (1986)

Starring: Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca & Jami Gertz
Director: Walter Hill

A superb blues score by guitarist Ry Cooder highlights this enjoyable fantasy about an ambitious young bluesman (Macchio) who "goes down to the crossroads," in the words of Robert Johnson, to make a deal with the devil for fame and fortune. Most viewers will enjoy the performances, the story, and the music in this all-too-rare-big-screen celebration of the blues and its mythology.

This misbegotten fantasy seems like a revamp of The Karate Kid, with a crotchety old musician replacing the wise karate master who guided macchio's coming-of-age. Halfway through, it becomes a Faustian morality play in which Macchio has yo play a mean guitar to save his mentor's soul. (100 mins.)

My Rating: ***

PANDORA'S BOX (1929)

Starring: Louise Brooks
Director: G. W. Pabst

Pabst's most famous film featured his first, star-making collaboration with American actress Brooks in a complex exploration of sexual psychology and Weimar Germany's social decadence. Working from Frank Wedekind's play in Pabst's trademark realist style, Pabst and Brooks transformed the character of Lulu from an evil temptress into a hedonistic innocent at ease with her sexuality. Pursued by men and women alike, Lulu is prey as much to social repression as to her own insatiable desires, as she winds up blamed for the troubles that others have brought on themselves through their own sexual hypocrisy. The appearance of Jack the Ripper at the conclusion is a sign less of sensationalist melodrama than of Lulu's internalized victimization. Brooks's subtle, nuanced performance and Pabst's fluid editing style infuse Pandora's Box with a sensuality that remains undiminished to this day. Critically panned on its release, Pandora's Box has since come to be seen as a hypnotic masterwork, remarkable for its frank treatment of sexuality and the sympathetic, inscrutable, fascinating presence of Brooks, who became a Jazz Age flapper icon. (131 mins.)

My Rating: ***1/2

ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)

Starring: Bette Davis, Ann Baxter, George Sanders & Celeste
Holm
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Mankiewicz's jaundiced look at the show biz battle zone better known as Broadway is probably the summit of Hollywood movie-making; it's as finely crafted an entertainment as we're likely to see. Eve, a female Uriah Heep, insinuates herself into the good graces of some theater folk whose generosity does not prepare them for this cunning steamroller out to eliminate years of hard knocks at their expense. What gives this cynical high comedy its emotional resonance and depth, however, is poignance with thick Davis plays Margo Channing, the just-turned-forty actress who's a living monument to enormous talent and volcanic temperament.

Witty dialogue to spare, especially great when spoken by Sanders and Thelma Ritter. 6 Oscars include Best Picture, director, screenplay, and Supporting Actor (Sanders). Later musicalized on Broadway as Applause. (138 mins.)

My Rating; ****


DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952)

Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Richard Widmark, Anne Bancroft &
Elisha Cook
Director: Roy Ward Baker

Those who consider Monroe an actress of limited range should take a look at Don't Bother To Knock, in which the sex symbol is cast in a most un-Monroe-like part and turns in a quite impressive performance. Monroe's talent was considerable, and while she shown in the lighter roles that emphasized her obvious sexual allure, she was quite capable of handling meatier roles. Knock is also interesting to watch because Monroe's part is a surprising one for a star to take -- a psychotic who is not especially sympathetic. Knock has lots to recommend it aside form Monroe, include a script that, while it often stretches credulity, is nonetheless tightly structured and features some great dialogue, as well as an across-the-courtyard-through-the-windows scene that is engrossingly voyeuristic. A very young Bancroft turns in a solid performance, as do Cook and Widmark is less solid; he's fine, but he doesn't seem to be totally engaged in his part and thus can't fill out some of its more two-dimensional qualities. Knock could have been a truly top-notch little thriller had director Baker given it a bit more sizzle. Unfortunately, he's a bit cautious, and so Knock doesn't build up the head of steam and the tense suspense that it needs to. Nevertheless, it's well worth a look, especially for Monroe fans. (76 mins.)

My Rating: ***

GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST (2009)

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner & Michael
Douglas
Director: Mark S. Waters

There are only so many ways to spice up the traditional romantic comedy formula, which is probably why many of them are so dull and familiar. Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past stars McConaughey as ├╝ber-famous womanizing photographer Connor Mead, a single man so entrenched in his love 'em and leave 'em lifestyle he'll use a video conference to break up with three girls simultaneously. He takes time out of his busy playboy schedule to attend his brother's wedding, where he comes face to face with Jenny Perotti (Garner), the only girl who ever truly captured his heart. Because the two have known each other since childhood, Jenny seems to be the only one who can call Connor out on his emotionally empty life and bad-boy behavior. After the rehearsal dinner -- where Connor, who hates all weddings, delivers a drunken speech about how love isn't real -- he's visited by the ghost of his uncle Wayne (Douglas), a Hefner-esque horndog who taught Connor everything he knows about picking up chicks. Wayne tells Connor that three more ghosts will visit Connor that night. They proceed to show him his romantic past, present, and future, in an attempt for him to get over himself and recognize his true feelings for Jenny.

Mark S. Waters is the kind of filmmaker who won't screw up a good script (Mean Girls), but he's not talented enough to make subpar material tolerable (Just Like Heaven). Because this script is so paint-by-numbers, Ghosts shows off Waters' best and worst qualities as a director. On the plus side, he trusts his actors when the material is good, allowing them to get laughs when the dialogue is genuinely funny. On the minus side, he encourages over-the-top performances in order to disguise the flat jokes and lame slapstick set pieces -- something that makes many of the characters more annoying than endearing.

But when the jokes are good -- or even just not awful -- the actors deliver. Sure McConaughey has been typecast in this role for years, but that's because he's good at it. The man knows how to mix his trademark laid-back attitude with a hint of vulnerability that makes him appealing to both men and women who want to see this kind of movie. But it's Douglas who walks off with the movie because he's got most of the best lines -- his robe-clad, highball-swigging swinger gives the movie what little fresh energy it has.

But "freshness" isn't even the point. After all, the people who want to see this movie will want it to be exactly what they expect. It's the movie equivalent of fast food -- nobody needs this to be good, just adequate. And Ghosts is nothing if not thoroughly adequate. (100 mins.)

My Rating: **

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971)

Starring: Clint Eastwood
Director: Clint Eastwood

Well-done shocker of late night radio DJ stalked by a homicidal ex-fan. Eastwood's first film as a director, Don Siegel plays Murphy the bartender.

Eastwood made a promising directorial debut with this mystery about a sexy disc jockey on a California radio station, and his involvement with a psychotic. Jessica Walter is first-rate playing the dangerous listener who takes charge of Eastwood's life when he makes the mistake of entering into what he thinks is a casual affair.
(102 mins.)

My Rating: ***

Monday, September 6, 2010

PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING (1981)

Starring: Lance Henriksen
Director: James Cameron

This poorly scripted horror film about miniature, finny "jaws" details the mating rituals of the fictional "grunion" fish (falsely introduced as "piranhas" for more box-office recognition) and their need to attack and kill humans -- either inside or outside the water. These saber-toothed wonders have been hatched from a canister of eggs on a sunken ship in front of a posh Club Med resort, which features the mating rituals of humans who at times need to attack and kill fish. The product of a series of secret genetic engineering experiments, the toothy fish are to be tracked down by an undercover biochemist (Steve Marachuk), who is soon joined by the resident scuba diver at the resort (tricia O'Neill). With believable gore but second-rate special effects, this film in no way presages the coming success of its debut director, James Cameron.

A flying-piranhas movie helmed by Cameron should by all means be better than this bland horror sequel -- proving that the picture's behind-the-scenes story is ultimately more involving than movie itself. As a film study, the picture shows nothing of Cameron's talent, which could possibly be because of his rumored noninvolvement in most of it. Shut out from most of the production, the special effects technician-turned-stand-in director obviously wasn't involved with most of the final product, as evidenced in its watery take on such an outrageous premise. Airborne deadly fish should be comedy gold -- ironic or not -- but the sly humor of the the original Piranha film, written by John Sayles, is sorely missing from the proceedings. Instead, the flick plays out in a fairly straightforward tone that kills the entire flick. Though it is interesting to see Henriksen and Cameron together at even this early of a stage in their careers, Piranha II is devoid of any other cinematic merit -- other than being the first film to open with an underwater sex scene involving scuba divers. (94 mins.)

My Rating: **

HOT TUB TIME MACHINE (2010)

Starring; John Cusack
Director: Steve Pink

The story starts with old friends Adam (Cusack) and Nick (Craig Robinson), who are both pretty mopey. Adam's girlfriend just left him, and Nick is feeling kind of emasculated about his failed music career. But they put their thirtysomething angst aside when the third member of their old clique, the tequila-soaked basket case Lou (Rob Corddry), is hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning after jamming too hard to some rock in his Trans Am. They're not sure whether or not their hard-partying buddy was actually trying to kill himself, but just to be safe, they try to cheer him up with a trip back to Kodiak Valley, the ski lodge they frequented in their youth. After talking it up to Adam's nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) in the car on the way there, they realize that the resort, much like them, has become a spent shadow of what it once was. But, lucky for everyone, the hot tub attached to their room transports them back in time to 1986, where they re-inhabit their 20-year-old bodies, party at the lodge in its heyday, and try not to do anything to prevent Jacob (who for occasional milliseconds starts to flicker out of existence) from being born.

What follows is a fairly solid sex/stoner/gross-out comedy with a predilection toward '80s jokes. That's all well and good, but it can be a little disappointing when you think about what could have been. You've got a fun sense of smirking self-awareness surrounding the unabashedly silly premise, you've got a pointlessly evil rich-kid villain named Blaine, and you've got Cusack playing a guy who is transported back to the '80s -- to a ski lodge, no less. You'd think there would be a lot of room for cleverness and self-parody, but aside from an extra making a "two dollars" reference near the beginning, none of the humor really ties together in a cool way -- it's mostly just big hair and leg warmer jokes. William Zabka even shows up and makes a cameo (the bad guy from the Karate Kid!), but you might not even recognize him. He's hiding under an admittedly awesome mustache, but he certainly doesn't challenge anyone to a ludicrously climactic ski competition. Of course, that might not matter to most viewers, because the movie is still funny, and if nothing else, it delivers on the title. (100 mins.)

My Rating: **1/2

THE WHITE RIBBON (2009)

Starring: Christian Friedel
Director: Michael Haneke

When university film students are studying the career of Michael Haneke in 50 years (and they will be), it seems likely that The White Ribbon will be seen as the crest of his impressive career. However, the film represents a pinnacle in terms of reception, rather than execution. Certainly, it will be difficult for Haneke to duplicate this film in terms of hardware, having already garnered the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the trifecta of Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenwriter at the European Film Awards, with Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Foreign Film promising the possibility of more accolades in the near future. This film is easy to praise, with its gripping and thoughtful examination of the foundations of fascism in a German village just before World War I, delivered through the lush austerity of Christian Berger's striking black-and-white cinematography. With time, however, the impetuous consensus which has agreed to herald Haneke as the cinematic master of this moment in film history will dissipate, revealing that The White Ribbon is frayed and blemished, though Haneke himself would likely agree that such defects can only increase the film's ability to intrigue.

The film opens with the voice of a narrator, who warns that the story he's about to tell may not be entirely true, an assessment which is manifested by the fact that the majority of the action happens behind the groaning doors and sturdy shutters of the village, meaning that no single character has access to all of the relevant events. An unknown perpetrator strikes at the moral heart of the Protestant village with a series of vicious pranks and brutal assaults, until the villagers' trust of one another is gradually eclipsed by suspicion. Having no other outlet for their fear and frustration, many of the villagers, particularly the town pastor, flex their authority by tightening the vice of discipline on their children, who in turn become the carriers of their parents' parasitic malice.

Haneke employs some ham-handed devices to reinforce his theme, including a prominent biblical quote and the metaphor of the film's title, which is nakedly explained in a central speech. At times, he resorts to scenes of benign banality which seem better suited to a television sitcom, as one young boy adopts a wounded bird while another innocently queries his older sister about the nature of death. It is unthinkable that Haneke intended to single-handedly decipher something as seminal as the rise of German fascism, but one of his central assertions is that people will often forego moral struggle in favor of simple reproach, and it seems likely that audiences will do the same as they digest and interpret The White Ribbon. In life, "this" never quite blossoms into "thus" -- the causes of complex events can never be truly elucidated, only endlessly examined. Haneke has made a noble effort in this direction, but in the end his attempt at lucidity inevitably draws us further from the essential nature of fascism, rather than nearer to it. (144 mins.)

My Rating: ***

SURROGATES (2009)

Starring: Bruce Willis
Director: Jonathan Mostow

Anybody who likes a solid sci-fi action film probably loves Bruce Willis, and anybody who loves Bruce Willis would probably be willing to give his futuristic thriller Surrogates a chance. But, sadly, this movie doesn't deliver for fans of the genre, for lovers of old Bruno, or for soulless robotic avatars populating society in place of real humans.

That's basically the premise of Surrogates. Human beings no longer walk around in the real world, and instead stay at home hooked into a super-advanced sensory replication program through which they control lifelike robots that leave the house in their place -- the titular "surrogates." People love that their surrogates are stronger, faster, and better-looking than their "meatbag" selves, but there's also a quasi-hippie collective living on a reservation outside of mainstream society whose members don't believe in using surrogates. When the son of the inventor behind the android innovation becomes the victim of a mysterious murder in which not only the surrogate is destroyed, but the boy at home controlling it is killed as well -- all signs point to the anti-robot enclave, and their vaguely Rastafarian charismatic leader, The Prophet (Ving Rhames).

So now FBI agent Greer (Willis) -- who is clearly disillusioned with surrogate society following an obligatory tragedy in his past (a lonely-looking baseball glove lovingly inscribed with "Robbie" in a child's writing tells us just about as much of that backstory as we ever hear, or need to) -- has to investigate the crime, and get to the bottom of a possible conspiracy behind it to end surrogacy altogether. The way that the mystery unfolds, like the rest of the movie, is pretty flimsy and boring.

For a story mounted on a hardcore Asimovian prologue -- detailed, long-form imaginings about the introduction of technology into the human evolutionary play -- everything in Surrogates besides the special-effects budget feels downright chintzy. The script fails to grab you in even a one-liners-and-explosions kind of way, and even Willis can't sell the crappy dialogue well enough to get you on board with anything that happens in the story. It does look pretty cool, but not cool enough to make it interesting -- even for a summer action movie starring a seasoned pro. (89 mins.)

My Rating: *1/2