Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Blokes from Across the Pond

When Stevee celebrated her blog's third birthday last week, she listed the blogs that she calls favorites. When she mentioned my blog, she said this:
Any movie I wanna know about, she's likely got it covered. Any British actor I wanna know about, she's likely got it covered.
The second sentence got me intrigued. I mean, I'll admit I like actors from the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales) but am I really an expert on them? I highly doubt it. That said, I do have my favorites. So here are my 25 favorite actors from across the pond. (Also throwing in a few actors from Ireland because why not?)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The opening moments of Rouben Mamoulin's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are seen through the eyes of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Fredric March). This is probably to establish simply what his world looks like. But as the film slowly wears on, it's not an ideal world for one to be a part of.

He longs to marry Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart) immediately, but her father suggests they wait a while. No one truly appreciates his love of science, so disappointment almost comes naturally to him as a result. But he's too reserved to openly express his true feelings.

His alter ego Mr. Hyde (which was the result of a curious experiment), however, isn't afraid to speak his mind. If something angers him, he says so. He's openly abusive to Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins). And, if not careful, he will venture into darker matters.

March gives a fascinating performance as Jekyll and Hyde. As Jekyll, he's quiet and reserved, a perfect gentleman if you will. (Or an angel as Ivy calls him.) As Hyde, he's a pure beast. (Ivy calls him the devil.) No surprise on how he won that Oscar.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is very good though it feels rushed in some scenes. March and also Hopkins are great in their roles. It's definitely one of the essential 1930s horror films. (And boy, you can tell this was made in the pre-code era.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Others

If you were to ask me what makes for a great horror film, I would give you a simple list. The essential elements for any good horror film include a creepy score, equally creepy cinematography (ie, lots of shadows, very little natural light), and not knowing what'll happen next. (Oh, and actors who know what they're doing also helps.)

Alejandro Amenabar's The Others has every single one of those elements and boy, are they in full effect beautifully. Most haunted houses films rely on the usual cliches: the creepy sight in the mirror, the writing on the wall, stuff of that nature. Amenabar wisely throws them out the window.

The leading lady of The Others is Nicole Kidman, an ideal choice for this kind of role. Even with the strange happenings within her home, she keeps her composure until the very end. She doesn't get hysterical the minute something strange happens. She keeps her ground, regardless of who or what is threatening her family.

Amusingly, The Others is much like The Innocents, released forty years earlier. The main connection is that both are loose adaptations of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, but there's also a deeper bond. Both films revolve around women with quiet inner turmoil in their lives and the workings of their minds slowly starting to unravel. Oh, and both lead performances (Kidman in The Others, Deborah Kerr in The Innocents) are some of the finest works from its actresses.

Anyway, The Others is a brilliant film. Along with directing and writing it, Amenabar also provides a very creepy score that's worthy of Hitchcock. And that ending. Oh, that ending. It's brilliant.

My Rating: *****

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bride of Frankenstein

Horror sequels basically never deliver as well as their predecessors. (This is practically a known fact to anyone who's seen enough horror films.) It's when the director of the sequel knows what they're doing results in a solid film.

A prime example is James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, released four years after the original. It's interesting because if you've seen Frankenstein, you would've thought that was the end of the story. But in fact, that was only the end of the first chapter.

In some ways, Whale actually improved what he told in Frankenstein. How so? He makes Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) regret his actions from before. He removes unwanted characters and adds those meaningful to the story. It's almost a tragedy that his career went downhill afterwards.

There are some analyses that highlight the hidden themes of Bride of Frankenstein, the main one being homosexuality. One analysis placed Whale in the form of the Monster (Boris Karloff), mostly the social rejection towards it. It's seems fitting since Whale was an openly gay director from an era where many homosexuals stayed in the closet. It's just a bold statement from him.

Bride of Frankenstein is without a doubt one of the best horror films in existence. It's an even more interesting film to watch if you've also seen Gods and Monsters (its title is a reference to a line from Bride of Frankenstein). Try to watch it as not just a horror film but also a character study.

My Rating: *****

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Frailty

There's always a good omen when the opening credits of a film leave an impact. Take Se7en, Catch Me If You Can and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as recent examples for this. (Older examples include those designed by Saul Bass.)

Another good recent example is Bill Paxton's Frailty. Depicting crime scenes photos and sensational headlines screaming about murder, they set the framework of what the film is about. And what is Paxton's directorial debut even about? How twisted a man's mental state can become.

You've heard of those case studies where the guilty party claimed God told them to do their deeds? (To me, those cases just send chills up my spine because they don't see the error of their ways.) That is the story Paxton tells his audience and damn, it's a creepy one. A true rarity nowadays.

The actors are just great. Frailty contains one of the few great performances of Matthew McConaughey's career. There's also some really solid work from child actors Matt O'Leary and Jeremy Sumpter. But this show belongs to Paxton. The deadness in his (and McConaughey's) stare is one that you don't forget.

Frailty has to be one of the best horror films of the last ten years. That's pretty much a given. I hope Paxton directs another film as great as this. Dude knows how to make a film. (Oh, and I hope McConaughey gets another role like this. Dude's actually a good actor.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, October 26, 2012

Freaks

They say that films from the 1930s were wholesome and clean. Whoever said that clearly never saw any of the horror films from that era. Many of the films from that time period influenced so many films in the decades to come.

That said, there are some that filmmakers don't even dare to top. One such film is Tod Browning's Freaks. The fact that no one had even thought of remaking it shows the film's impact. The fact this was made back in 1932 makes it all the more shocking.

Browning (who directed Dracula the year before) knows how to captivate his audience. How so? Simple: he takes a story commonly found in most films and gives it a surreal take on it. Think of it as Double Indemnity set in the circus.

The most curious factor of Freaks is that the freaks in question aren't the people who allow themselves to be put on display because of their deformities. The freaks are actually trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and her strongman lover Hercules (Henry Victor). That's because Browning makes the "freaks" human and glorifies the bad traits within Cleopatra and Hercules. It's a clever move by him.

Freaks is, well, a freaky film. Just watching it shows why it got so much controversy eighty years ago and how it shocks today. Finally, a film Hollywood doesn't even dare to remake. (You never see those nowadays. Never.)

My Rating: *****

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Wicker Man

This is generally a rule of thumb. (Or it should be.) Any remake of some sort is usually one to avoid. It's the original film that should be seen. (There are a few exceptions of course, but they're so rare.)

In 2006, Neil LaBute unwisely remade Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man. The end result was an unintentional comedy ("NOT THE BEES!") and a complete failure. If you're wondering, this review's about Hardy's film and not LaBute's. (Like I would even think about watching a crap remake.)

Hardy's film, released thirty-three years before LaBute's, takes its material seriously unlike LaBute's film. It focuses on sex, religion and cults to a very provocative level. (Then again, any film from the 1970s focusing on those subjects would be on that level. After all, The Wicker Man was released the same year as The Exorcist.)

I don't know why, but this films reminds me of Hot Fuzz. (It's not because Edward Woodward, the star of The Wicker Man, had a small role in Hot Fuzz.) I think it's because both films revolve around an outsider police officer visiting a small rural village where the residents act in strange ways. That's only a guess, mind you. I don't know the precise reason.

Anyway, The Wicker Man is fantastic. (Then again, can you go wrong with a film that has Christopher Lee in a juicy supporting role?) But, man, that ending though. It gets under your skin in all the right ways. Truly haunting stuff.

My Rating: ****1/2

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Haunting

I admire directors who dabble in different genres. Anyone who can depict a variety of different subjects with complete ease is bound to be someone I'll like. (That is precisely why I like George Cukor and Howard Hawks so much.)

Another noted director is Robert Wise. He has done a number of varying genres from musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) to sci-fi (The Day the Earth Stood Still) to war (Run Silent, Run Deep) to sports (Somebody Up There Likes Me). Then again, can you really go wrong with the man who also edited Citizen Kane?

Wise also dabbled with horror in the form of The Haunting, which he amusingly made between his two Oscar-winning musicals. This is practically a textbook example of what a horror film should be like. (Seriously, Hollywood. Quit fucking around with unwanted sequels and remakes.)

The main draw of The Haunting isn't just the story Wise is telling. It's also the acting, especially Julie Harris. The unhinged nature of her character can be compared to Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion two years later. A far cry from her work in East of Eden, that goes without saying.

The Haunting definitely ain't your typical haunted house film and believe me, that's a very good thing. That creepy cinematography is just divine, precisely what a horror film should be presented as to the masses. Bravo, Mr. Wise.

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Frankenstein

This year has been filled with adaptations of Mary Shelley's famous novel for me. This summer I saw two screenings of Danny Boyle's brilliant stage production. Earlier this month, I saw Tim Burton's stop-motion homage Frankenweenie. (I'm not complaining: I just find it...unusual.)

And what better way to cap them all off than with James Whale's famous film? Made in an era where horror films were king, Frankenstein tells of a tale where one man tempts the moral ethics of his being. How? Nothing too extreme. Just trying to create a "am" from the remains of corpses.

The man in question is Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), a brilliant but visibly disturbed mind. (Not sure why the name went from Victor to Henry.) His devotion to his work becomes an unhealthy obsession, something that those close to him can clearly see. Yet he sees no flaws in it. Method to his madness, I suppose.

The "man" is, of course, played by Boris Karloff. Along with Bela Lugosi in Dracula and Claude Rains in The Invisible Man, Karloff just makes the role his own. There have been many imitators, but there can only be one original.

It feels rushed towards the end, but Frankenstein is still a great film. Whale knows how to capture the rage within both the creature and its creator, channeling anger towards the society that has scorned them. Oh, and you just can't beat Clive's manic delivery of this line: "Now I know what it feels like to be God!"

My Rating: ****1/2

Monday, October 22, 2012

Ali

Raging Bull. Rocky. Somebody Up There Likes Me. These are a few titles that spring to mind when great boxing films are discussed. The reason is simple. They know how to depict the life of the boxer both in the ring and out.

If only I could say the same for Michael Mann's Ali. I mean, I don't blame Mann for trying to tell a tale. I just blame him for trying too hard. (I don't like it when good directors stoop to that level.)

I do, however, admire Mann for providing the brief backstory of Muhammad Ali (Will Smith). He pretty much chronicles the pivotal events in Ali's professional life, which, in this case, were during the mid to late 1960s. (This of course was an era where everyone and everything was changing.) It's not like what Mann did with The Insider, but Lord knows it's better than Public Enemies.

Smith is pretty much perfect as Ali. He's charismatic and knows how to get people to like him. But as Ali, he makes a few enemies. Just goes to show you that even the greatest have their downfalls.

Ali clearly has its flaws, but Smith (as well as Jamie Foxx) keep it afloat. Perhaps the main flaw of the film is simply that the story doesn't go anywhere. It just...stays put. But as I said earlier, even the greatest have their downfalls.

My Rating: ****

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Whistleblower

Any film involving with the dirty side of justice is usually a compelling one. They show how depraved honest people can become when in certain conditions. It's really unsettling stuff sometimes.

Larysa Kondracki's The Whistleblower is the newest title that focuses on the unfortunate matter. Focusing on the international legal system, the film chronicles the dark influence the power of the badge has. And it's a very dark influence.

The film stars Rachel Weisz, who is one of the better actresses working today. Here, she stars as Kathy Bolkovac, a police officer who discovers a huge conspiracy among her ranks. It's not Weisz's best work, but it's definitely ranked among them.

Bolkovac is sort of the female equivalent of Frank Serpico, the eponymous anti-hero of Sidney Lumet's 1973 film. She risked her reputation (and her life) to maintain the sanctity of society. It's a bold move by any means, regardless of occupation, gender or any factor of life.

The Whistleblower shines in spots (thanks in part to Weisz), but it's nothing truly special. It does succeed in bringing the crime of human trafficking to light, but it doesn't do much else. There is some nice cinematography from Kieran McGuigan but apart from that and Weisz's performance, there's not much to write home about. It's worthy of a look to those curious however.

My Rating: ****

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Secrets & Lies

When it comes to modern British social dramas, no one comes close to Mike Leigh in churning out the best the subgenre has to offer. He makes his stories believable and, most importantly, his characters human. (Or, in the case of Naked, inhuman.)

Excluding Topsy-Turvy, Leigh knows how to capture the British working class with complete ease. The in-depth detail he gives his characters is one of a kind. (From what I read, he allows his actors to improvise in order to make their characters more human.) This is the kind of attention directors give to their films that I admire.

Secrets & Lies displays such attention wonderfully. Depicting a troubled small family, the film captures a quiet but conflicted understanding between the characters. Think of the way Leigh tells this story as a sort of British equivalent of a John Cassavetes film. (Okay, maybe not that far, but it's close.)

As with Leigh's other films, the heart of Secrets & Lies rests within the actors. The two primary actors are Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and as you watch them, it's very clear to see why they got all the awards attention. As Cynthia, Blethyn is a nervous woman who just wants to love and be loved in return. As Hortense, Jean-Baptiste is like Cynthia, but quieter and more composed. Two of the best performances of the 1990s without a doubt.

Secrets & Lies is both one of the best films I've seen and one of the more underappreciated films out there. Why that's the case with the latter, I have no idea. Seriously, go watch it. You won't regret it.

My Rating: *****

Friday, October 19, 2012

Written on the Wind

A distraught man drinking while driving. A woman in bed with a man who's not her husband standing by the window. A man with a gun in his hand staggering out of a mansion before collapsing. These images are withing the opening moments of Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind, a melee that could only be found in a melodrama.

There are stories behind these people. Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) and Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) are longtime friends. Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall) is the woman Kyle marries and Mitch desires. Marylee (Dorothy Malone) is Kyle's sister and lusts (strong emphasis on "lusts") for Mitch. This is something only Sirk could have gotten away with.

There is also an interesting comparison between Kyle and Marylee. He is quiet and reserved while she is lively and very outgoing. Their sex lives are also quite different. Hers borders on the line of nymphomania. As for poor Kyle? Well, let's just say he's lacking he's lacking in that area. (Oh, and Marylee also taunts him for his lack of masculinity.) It's amazing that they're even related.

The actors are pretty good. Hudson, Bacall and Stack get the most out of their roles, even though they slip into stock character territory at times. But it's Malone who's the best of the quartet. She gives Marylee auras of a femme fatale. Play by her rules or prepare to be destroyed. That's her credo. Don't argue with it.

Written on the Wind goes through many soap opera cliches, but Sirk and cinematographer Russell Metty make them appear fresh and new. The actors, Malone especially, are quite good. Sirk may have set the benchmark for melodramas, but I don't think anyone could top him.

My Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Margin Call

Hollywood always manages to keep up the times. When World War II broke out, they made films about life on the home front. During the Cold War, science fiction films were thinly veiled attacks on communism. And after 9/11, there were a number of films dealing with terrorism and the politics behind the event.

Amusingly, Hollywood is quite concerned when it comes to the stock market. (Take note that one of the big films of 1987, the same year "Black Monday" occurred, was Wall Street.) Recently there have been a number of films revolving around the effects of the recession, job losses and the economy in general.

One such film is J.C. Chandor's Margin Call. Set before the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis, the film chronicles a tense time for a lone investment firm. You can just feel the immense pressure the investors are feeling.

For a film by a first-time director, the cast is one for the ages. The names include Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Demi Moore and Jeremy Irons. Honestly, the people attached to this film are some of the best working today. You only see a cast like this one every now and again.

Margin Call is good for many of its scenes but alas, it falls in the others. The reason? The supposed suspense doesn't deliver nor build up during those scenes. Still, Chandor got some very good work from his actors (my favorites were Spacey, Quinto and Bettany) and that script of his is damn good. Slow in spots, but I have hope for Chandor.

My Rating: ****

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Stagecoach

There were many directors who could gorgeously and effortlessly capture the Old West (Hawks, Leone), but none could top John Ford. He could blend action and character study with complete ease. He was definitely one of a kind.

Want the best proof of his magic? Try Stagecoach, which many call one of the best titles of 1939. It's pretty easy to see why that is. Who else but Ford could mix Bert Glennon's cinematography and the work of the many actors with no problem whatsoever? No one, that's who.

Speaking of the actors, they're great. John Wayne is his usual badass self with a touch of heart thrown into the mix. And he's one of the many draws of Stagecoach. My personal favorite was Claire Trevor as a frowned-upon prostitute. I mean, you can't help but feel sorry for her.

Early in the film, Thomas Mitchell tells Trevor, "We're the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice." Amusingly, the portrayal of social outsiders is a common theme for Ford. (It also depicted quite wonderfully in The Grapes of Wrath.) Here in Stagecoach, those characters are very much the strongest ones in the bunch.

Stagecoach is another great title from Ford's extensive filmography. (And that's saying a lot because of all those films he made.) Every element just works wonders. I shouldn't be explaining every great thing about it. Go watch it yourself to witness a staple in cinema (and to understand why Orson Welles watched it 40 times before making Citizen Kane).

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Queen Christina

It seems fitting that an androgynous star like Greta Garbo is in a film like Rouben Mamoulian's Queen Christina. The lead role doesn't rely on her to radiate class in a flowing evening gown. Instead, the role has her showing deep devotion in running a country. More specifically, it relies on her mind instead of her body.

When we first see Garbo as Christina, she is dressed in men's attire. (It's also mentioned early in the film that Christina was raised by her father as a boy rather than a girl.) In a later scene, she kisses her female co-star on the lips. (She kissed a few male co-stars cheek to cheek.) She even proclaims she rather "die a bachelor" than marry a prince and present her country with an heir. And these are just a few samplings of what Garbo does.

Enter Antonio, played by Garbo's real-life lover and would-be husband John Gilbert. When he first encounters Christina, he mistakes her for a boy. The charade continues on until she reveals her true identity in, of all places, the room of an inn they're forced to share. There, he brings out the true woman within Christina.

Queen Christina is the kind of film that couldn't be made today. (It's even more of a wonder that it was made back in 1933.) There are a few innuendos that are risky in any era. (Antonio said he "felt it" once Christina revealed she's a woman.) And the gender roles are even bolder than any other period piece of the 1930s. You don't come across a film this daring that often.

Queen Christina is a real tour de force for Garbo. It's not an insanely glamorous role like those common for actresses of the time, but it sure is a hell of a role to sink your teeth into. Hollywood, take note.

My Rating: *****

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Guard

When we first see Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), it's clear that he's a man who goes by his own rules. That said, he still gets the job done even if he does seem unorthodox for the job.

John Michael McDonagh (brother of In Bruges director Martin McDonagh) directs Gleeson in perhaps his best work to date. As Boyle, Gleeson enforces authority while at the same time goes against it. Think of Boyle as a Scorsese-like protagonist.

Amusingly, Gleeson here is much like his role of Ken in In Bruges. He's seen so much wrong happening in the society he lives in, he just doesn't care anymore. It's pretty much a routine of "Fuck it" and "Let's get it over with" every day for him. (Come to think of it, aren't we all like that some days?)

The supporting actors are quite good. The more recognizable names, Don Cheadle and Mark Strong, are also the MVPs for the supporting roster. But this is Gleeson's show without a doubt. It's hard to upstage him to be honest.

The Guard, like In Bruges, shows the quirky (and often violent) side of the criminal life. Gleeson is great in not giving any fucks. (Then again, any actor who can do that on an entertaining level is usually a good thing.) If Tarantino or Scorsese were Irish, The Guard is the kind of film they would make.

My Rating: ****1/2

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

It's weird. When I saw In Bruges a few years back, it left me feeling nauseous. (That finale was gruesome.) Yet when I saw Martin McDonagh's new film Seven Psychopaths, I didn't feel the same way afterwards. (Then again, I did get my fill of Scorsese, Tarantino and Refn by then.)

Seven Psychopaths is actually quite similar to In Bruges. The main differences are the location and the actors. Instead of a film set in Belgium starring Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes, you've got a Los Angeles-set film starring Farrell, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson. (In those exact roles nonetheless.)

Apparently McDonagh has a penchant for three particular characters: the disoriented average Joe (played here by Rockwell), the straight man (Farrell) and the trigger-crazy madman (Harrelson). I'm not complaining, mind you. I just wonder if his future films will have those specific characters.

Anyway, onto the actors. Rockwell was my favorite with Farrell and Harrelson a close second. Christopher Walken and Tom Waits were also quite entertaining. Oh, and the cameos by Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Pitt and Harry Dean Stanton were a nice bonus. I must say, McDonagh knows how to pick choice actors.

Seven Psychopaths is a little better than In Bruges but not by a significant amount. The actors are entertaining as is McDonagh's script. Try to catch it when it's in theaters because there's a certain allure to it that way.

My Rating: ****1/2

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Argo

There are always those names in Hollywood that are basically the butt of everyone's jokes. Usually it's from a string of misfires they starred in. Other times it's because of a highly publicized incident. (Remember Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah's couch? Or Joaquin Phoenix's stunt on David Letterman? Or Robert Downey, Jr. during the 90s?) You honestly wonder if they'll ever be taken seriously.

Take Ben Affleck for example. After winning an Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting, his career sort of went...downhill. A string of critical bombs, a highly publicized relationship with Jennifer Lopez and just bad judgment on the movies he did (Gigli, anyone?) made him go from A-list actor to C-list joke. Then he made Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and Affleck got the last laugh. (How do like them apples?)

In fact, Affleck's new film Argo might have him laughing all the way to the Oscars. The reason? It's to date his best work as a director. (And maybe as an actor.) You honestly don't see a film this brilliant and gripping nowadays.

What makes Argo so compelling is that the plot sounds so outlandish and insane, it can only be from Hollywood. Guess what? It actually happened. You gotta love it when a small but crucial event in history comes to light, and it's just truly fascinating from all angles.

Argo is without a doubt one of the best films of the year. The film proves you don't need excessive violence, sex and swearing to tell a great story; you just need a damn good script and damn good actors. Affleck also proves that the third time is most definitely the charm. (Wonder which film would make a good double feature with ArgoGood Night, and Good Luck or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?)

My Rating: *****

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Contender

There's always tension within politics. (This has been made very evident within the last few weeks.) Dirty secrets are aired to the public, everything becomes scrutinized by the press, and candidates have to watch what they say. Hey, nobody said politics were a friendly matter.

Rod Lurie's The Contender provides such a portrait of nasty politics. Many people support President Jackson Evans' (Jeff Bridges) nomination of Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) as Vice President, but not everyone in the White House likes his decision. They find something suspicious about the clean-cut senator...

What makes The Contender interesting is its examination of the status of the sexes in society. (The one irksome detail is that some of the matters discussed are still being debated twelve years later.) If what Hanson was accused of happened to a man, they'd likely get a slap on the wrist. Yet if it's a woman, it becomes an unwanted persecution of her morals. Society, you're fucked up.

The actors are great. Along with Allen and Bridges, the film also has good, sleazy work from Gary Oldman and Christian Slater. (Seriously, how does Oldman not have an Oscar yet?) Sleaze and politics: two things that strangely go hand in hand, both in Hollywood and real life.

The Contender is probably one of the better titles of the last decade though it is a little spotty in some scenes. Allen, Bridges, Oldman and Slater all give top notch performances, and Lurie's script is pretty darn slick. Also, isn't it a tad ironic that the Republicans are viewed as the villains here?

My Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fail-Safe

It has become somewhat expected for two films of a similar subject to be released the same year. In 2006, it was The Prestige and The Illusionist. In 1998, it was Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. Hell, it happens all the time.

It even happened back in 1964. Two films about the fear of impending  nuclear war were released. Both were made by prominent directors each with six films under their belts. The manner of how the subject was handled is where the similarities end. One is a comedy while the other is much more serious. If you didn't figure it out by now, the comedy is Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

But what's the other film, the one that went down the serious route? Well, that one is Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe. (If you're wondering, Dr. Strangelove was released first.) Along with the way the subject of nuclear warfare is handled, the pacing of both films is different. Kubrick's film moves at a much more quicker pace than Lumet's film, which is sort of the main flaw of Fail-Safe. (It's not exactly the suspenseful pacing of 12 Angry Men.)

The cast is quite good, especially when you have the likes of Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau among it. (There's also good work from a young Larry Hagman, years before Dallas.) The claustrophobic cinematography by Gerald Hirschfeld is a very nice touch as well.

Fail-Safe is good though I wouldn't rank it among Lumet's top five best films. (Top ten, perhaps. Top fifteen, more likely.) The suspense doesn't particularly deliver, but the story is pretty good. All in all, it's worth a look. (Oh, and Dr. Strangelove is the better of the two.)

My Rating: ****

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Big Red One

Directors always have a passion project. Most times they get realized. Other times they don't get realized at all. (This was the case with Stanley Kubrick and Napoleon.) Either way the studios know of them whether they get made or not.

One such director was Samuel Fuller. Most famous for B-movies like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, he wanted to make The Big Red One since the 1950s. (Plans to make it around that time were dropped after Fuller and Warner Bros. disagreed with cuts for another project of Fuller's.) He finally made it in 1980, but even then there were major cuts. Fast forward to 2004, twenty-four years after the original release (and seven years after Fuller's death), and a restoration was presented.

Long before Steven Spielberg made Saving Private Ryan, Fuller shows that there's no heroic bullshit in a good war film. He wants grit in his film, nothing else that's commonly found in the standard Hollywood war film. (What else from the man who made Pickup on South Street?) Although Fuller also shows brief moments of peace for the soldiers, which provides a nice balance.

Who else to lead a Samuel Fuller-directed war film other than Lee Marvin? He's the kind of man who doesn't take shit from anyone, so naturally he's perfect here. There's also some very good supporting work from Mark Hamill as one of the soldiers in Marvin's infantry. Had most of his scenes not been cut from the original release (and had The Empire Strikes Back not been released that same year), I think he would've been a legit actor.

To sum things up, The Big Red One is fantastic. It's definitely one of the best war films ever made, and Fuller's personal touches to it adds to its greatness. Seriously, go watch this. (And make sure it's the restored version.)

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Auto Focus

It comes as almost no surprise that Auto Focus, a film about a television star with a scandalous private life, is directed by the man who wrote Taxi Driver, produced by the men who wrote Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt, and based on a book written by the man who also wrote extensively about the Zodiac Killer. They know controversy. (And how to write a good story.)

The television star in question is Bob Crane, star of Hogan's Heroes. Crane is played by Greg Kinnear and practically to a T. He displays Crane's likability when in the presence of fans wonderfully. When he's in the presence of those close to him, his personality takes a darker turn. It's when those two personalities blend at the wrong time that makes Kinnear's performance stand out in all the right ways.

Crane's major flaw was his addiction to sex. His friend John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), a video expert, was responsible for adding fuel to that poisonous fire. Seeing Crane plummet into an unhealthy obsession is just truly mesmerizing and haunting.

Much like how Ben Affleck portrayed George Reeves in Hollywoodland, Kinnear plays Crane as a man embittered by the failure of his career once his TV show got cancelled. He wants people to see he's a legit actor. The problem is no one can really see a TV star making it in the movies.

Although not precisely accurate in some of the minor details, Auto Focus is still a very fascinating film to watch. Director Paul Schrader isn't afraid to expose the seedy side of life. (This is the same man who wrote Taxi Driver after all.) This also confirms my belief that 2002 was the year of the underrated film.

My Rating: *****

Monday, October 8, 2012

Short Cuts

If there's one thing Robert Altman was guaranteed to do with his films, it was to get most out of his actors. Whether it be a single actor-driven film or one with an ensemble cast, he always got memorable performances from them.

Such is the case with Short Cuts. With twenty-two major characters, Altman knows how to give each of them the right amount of time on screen. (Always trust a director who has that ability.)

Based on Raymond Carver's short stories, Short Cuts provides a glimpse in the lives of several California residents. Some regular, some tragic, some bizarre, all compelling. And yet, this is Altman's work, not Carver's.

As expected from an Altman film, the cast is lovely. The names include Oscar nominees (and a few winners), character actors and a few musicians. It seems cruel to pick favorites among them, but I am partial to Jack Lemmon (for his confession on why he cheated), Julianne Moore (for her confession on why she cheated), Jennifer Jason Leigh (for what she does in front of her children and neglected husband) and Robert Downey, Jr. (for his slightly erratic behavior). Again, it's cruel to pick favorites from a cast like this.

Short Cuts is a very interesting character study. It's not that often you find a film this compelling in both acting and story. Seriously, this is definitely one of Altman's best. (Alongside Nashville and The Player without a doubt.) If you're in need of an excellent contemporary film, Short Cuts is what you're looking for.

My Rating: *****

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Bad Day at Black Rock

Upon his arrival in the small town of Black Rock, John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) is greeted with resentment by the residents. Maybe it's because he's a one-armed man. Maybe it's because he's an outsider. Or maybe it's because of why he showed up in Black Rock in the first place.

Made in an era of racial discrimination, John Sturges' Bad Day at Black Rock speaks of a time when it was all right for slurs to be spewed. (Of course, it's scorned upon nowadays.) The film also displays some damn fine acting from its stars.

Along with Tracy, the cast for Bad Day at Black Rock includes Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Walter Brennan and Anne Francis. They're all great, especially Ryan, Borgnine and Marvin as the men who want Macreedy out of town. But this is Tracy's show.

Sturges, most famous for The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, displays a sort of beauty within the ugliness of the story. The main contributor to that is William C. Mellor's cinematography. It captures the vast landscapes of the west. It's true beauty.

Bad Day at Black Rock seems slightly out of date nowadays (though it can be relateable with the response to 9/11), but it must have been a real eye opener back in 1955. With a cast like this, can you really go wrong?

My Rating: ****1/2

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Frankenweenie

For the last few years, Tim Burton has been getting a bad rap for the movies he made. All of his movies since Big Fish (sans Corpse Bride and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) have been dubbed fluorescence crazy, uncreative and more driven by style than story. Some people wondered: will he make a comeback?

Thankfully, he has with his new movie Frankenweenie. Burton goes back to his creepy roots to make this both thoroughly entertaining and refreshing from his last few misfires. (Frakenweenie, by the way, is a remake of his 1984 short film.)

Much like Edward Scissorhands, Frankenweenie depicts a not-so-ideal life within picture perfect suburbia. The reason? There is something amiss with one of the families. They're hiding something that might reek havoc upon them. But does it?

Another charming aspect of Frankenweenie is the many homages and references to the classic horror movies Burton likely grew up with. Like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, the homages are a nice touch for the adults. (But then again, the movie is ideal for both kids and adults.)

I'm not going to lie. The dark fairy tale element in some of Burton's movies is why I love his work in the first place. Not only does Frankenweenie display that element gloriously (as well as a great score by Danny Elfman), it also restored my faith in him. Please, Mr. Burton, make your future projects as great as this.

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

When you see the poster for Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods, you'd think it would be the typical bad horror movie. But then you see it's produced and co-written by Joss Whedon, then it becomes more interesting to watch.

But is it? Absolutely. The fact that Goddard and Whedon take every horror movie cliche and give it a new variation makes it all the more fun to watch. (It also got me more intrigued to venture into the mind of Whedon.)

Of course most recent horror movies have the typical stock characters: the slut, the jock, the brainiac, the party animal and the virgin. Well, so does The Cabin in the Woods, but Goddard and Whedon just overplay that to the point where it becomes a perfect parody.

Seriously, I just love the script. You just don't see that much cleverness in movies nowadays. Honestly, more horror movie directors need to take note of (and maybe surrender to) the genius that is Joss Whedon. (Yes, I will be watching more of his stuff in the near future.)

Okay, to sum things up, I pretty much loved The Cabin in the Woods. And I have to admit, Goddard and Whedon have some pretty dark minds. (Is Buffy the Vampire Slayer anyway like this?) Seriously, it's fantastic though.

My Rating: *****

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Down by Law

Jim Jarmusch is an interesting director. He blends style and story almost effortlessly. That said, I'm still not entirely won over by his manner of directing. (I did like Broken Flowers and Dead Man, but I didn't love them.)

Did my opinion change when I saw Down by Law? Well, sort of. I did like the story of the film and the way it was shot by Robby Muller. But I wasn't entirely won over by the way Jarmusch told the story. (Maybe one more film of his might make me change my ways.)

Still, the story is nice. As mentioned above, Muller's cinematography is quite lovely. The fact it's shot in black and white is also nice because it's not taking away from the story. (Hell, I just like post-1965 films shot in black and white.)

The stars are pretty good too. The three principal names are John Lurie (who also contributed to the music), Tom Waits (just look at that 80s hair!) and Roberto Benigni (long before he did Life is Beautiful). Of them, I liked Benigni as a form of comic relief.

Down by Law is good, but I wasn't entirely won over by it. Maybe on a re-watch I'll like it more but for now, I'm sticking with this verdict. (I'm picky, so sue me.)

My Rating: ****

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

In the Bedroom

It's hard to depict domestic life without overdoing it. (Sometimes domestic life is overdone in life itself.) It's even harder to depict it when its equilibrium becomes askew.

Todd Field, however, did it with ease for his debut In the Bedroom. Following a personal tragedy, Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth Fowler (Sissy Spacek) try to carry on with their lives. But as time slowly wears on, their grief shifts to anger.

Both Wilkinson and Spacek are fine actors, and In the Bedroom displays their skills. They don't overplay the grief within Matt and Ruth as any inexperienced actor might do. They instead have their characters cope with their loss with quiet composure.

In a similar vein to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? thirty-five years earlier, In the Bedroom depicts domestic life on the breaking point. (There's much less alcohol, mind you.) A once-loving couple's lines of communication become frayed thanks to an incident that happened during their marriage. But at least Matt and Ruth have a better chance than George and Martha.

In the Bedroom contains some fantastic work from Wilkinson, Spacek and Marisa Tomei. The pacing can be problematic at times, but no matter. Just let Field's direction do wonders on screen. Wonder if Little Children is like this...

My Rating: ****1/2

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Night to Remember

When it comes to a film about what happened at sea in the early hours of April 15, 1912, most people think of James Cameron's romantic epic if only for the scenes between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Thirty-nine years earlier, there was a film that many call the most accurate depiction of the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

The film in question is Roy Ward Baker's A Night to Remember. (Ironically, this was what inspired Cameron to make Titanic.) Don't expect Baker to sugarcoat any of the details like Cameron did. He means business.

In a semi-documentary style, Baker depicts the horrifying moment the ship's crew and 2,224 passengers encountered. What makes A Night to Remember different from Titanic is that Walter Lord (who wrote the book the film's based on)  was able to get first-hand accounts from the survivors. (Cameron wasn't so lucky.) Safe to say accuracy is key throughout.

And almost like what Fred Zinnemann did with High Noon six years earlier, A Night to Remember is set in almost exact time. That just builds up the tension, especially when you witness some of the passengers completely oblivious as to what's happening to the vessel carrying them. They don't learn until it's almost too late.

A Night to Remember is truly fantastic. Apart from one discrepancy, it displays everything you've read in your history textbooks (or on Wikipedia) to a T. Baker wasn't interested in a love story to make money like Cameron. He was more interested in the details of a tragedy no one saw coming.

My Rating: *****

Monday, October 1, 2012

BOOK VS MOVIE: Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now

Seeing humanity in ruins is a horrifying thing to witness. The collapse of moral sanity is all around us. There's no escaping it, no matter how hard you try.

Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness displays such a thing. Chronicling the depths of one man's obsession amid a world of carnage, it's an unflinching portrait of how depraved and brutal man can become. It's truly an unsettling read.

Francis Ford Coppola's film Apocalypse Now is more of a nod towards what Conrad wrote than it is an adaptation, but it stills retains many of the novella's themes. With a Vietnam War backdrop, the motifs of consuming madness and reigning chaos seem all the more relevant. (it also seems fitting albeit surreal that Coppola almost went mad during production.)

The film is viewed as a perspective against war, the vile actions one human can do to another, and how deluded a mind can become. Coppola depicted some of these motifs before in the first two entries of The Godfather trilogy, so the film was in good hands. Also, his three films prior to Apocalypse Now were Oscar darlings so again, the film was in good hands.

Both the novella and the film are great, but there can only be one. And I know which one it is. Although Conrad depicts pure madness in the matter of only a few chapters, Coppola goes into grand detail on the same subject. (And I do mean "grand".) You simply can't get a better war film than Apocalypse Now.

What's worth checking out?: I'd go with the movie.