Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Noah's Ark (1929)

I'm sort of obsessed, or rather curious, of any massively ambitious, large-scale silent epic, and so naturally I jumped at the opportunity to see Michael Curtiz's Noah's Ark ('29), when it aired on TCM this past weekend. 
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Part The Big Parade, part King of Kings, the film rather peculiarly parallels its modern age WWI romance with a biblical allegory, producing exorbitant amounts of large-scale destruction and a murky, feeble deduction between then and now. 
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As pure spectacle, Noah's Ark is pure fodder for people like me, but the fact remains that the film is awkwardly pious and poorly acted, whether recorded or not (the film does have a small amount of sound effects and spoken dialogue featured mostly in its mid-section, classifying itself as a part-talkie), for George O'Brien was certainly no John Gilbert. [C+]

Monday, March 28, 2011

Short Review: The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

The only truly commendable aspect of Brad Furman's The Lincoln Lawyer is a wonderfully conceited and sly performance from Matthew McConaughey as Mickey Haller, a defense attorney and generally okay guy who nevertheless isn't afraid to get dirty and loose with the law as he operates mostly out of his eponymous towncar. 
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Otherwise, this legal thriller, adapted from the 2005 Michael Connelly novel, is airport lounge-rack fodder of the highest order - a deluge of facts and slimy characters and suits that eventually becomes exhausting, like a blistering afternoon stuck out in the sun. 
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Anyone going into this film expecting anything more than your average assemble-the-facts-until-the-truth-gets-out legal pabulum with filtered flashbacks, tattered, bygone relationships and bad-guy-gets-his-comeuppance punctuation, you're fresh out of luck. 
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The spread of supporting players all get their due (I loved seeing Michael Paré and Josh Lucas back in a movie of relative substance), but the biggest comeback is from McConaughey, who, after the spiffy title sequence, immediately erases any and all past romantic, comedic or surfing digressions to make a much-appreciated return to form - it's not his fault this material is so hopelessly stale. [C+]

Saturday, March 26, 2011

My Favorite Movie Songs of All-Time

As Will Ferrell said at the 2006 Oscar ceremony, "there's no greater weapon in a director's arsenal than a well-placed song." Okay, he was joking, but songs can nevertheless be devastatingly memorable if placed exactly right. (And oddly enough, I found that it's the non-musical films that place higher in the list.)
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Anyway, the guidelines for the list are as follows:
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-The song can either been written for the film or simply used after the fact, it does not matter so long as it has verbal lyrics. (i.e. not an orchestral piece). 
-Cultural or historical significance has absolutely no bearing on its placement on this list. It is strictly my personal preference. 
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So, without any further hesitations or alterations, the top 25 movie songs:
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#25
"Relax" from 
"BODY DOUBLE" (1984)
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Brian De Palma's skillful, sleazy 80's Hitchcockian porno dream Body Double ('84) has many memorable moments, but it's not until the film introduces Melanie Griffith's porn star character Holly Body that the film really starts to become something tricky, and this well known hit from British dance quattro Frankie Goes to Hollywood cements its place as a VHS-era landmark.
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#24
"Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis" from 
"MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS" (1944)
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There are more lively and showstopping tunes in Vincente Minnelli's classic American musical ("The Trolley Song", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), but around the holidays, I always start humming "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis" and am therefore compelled to pop it in. 
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#23
"Le Tourbillon" from
"JULES AND JIM" (1962)
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Francois Truffaut's beautiful and complex love triangle Jules and Jim has a centerpiece moment (for this viewer anyway) in which French icon Jeanne Moreau casually sings along to Henri Serre's steady plucking, producing one of the more indelible moments in this careful, tragic relationship.
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#22
"Leaning" from
"THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER" (1955)
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Robert Mitchum's unforgettable Reverend Harry Powell (borrowing a cue from obvious inspiration, Fritz Lang's M) hums the song "Leaning on Everlasting Arms" throughout Charles Laughton's expressionistic masterpiece, but the dueling finale between he and Lillian Gish, so comfortably seated on her porch, shotgun in hand, is enough to get it on this list.
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#21
"I'm Tired" from
"BLAZING SADDLES" (1973)
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Mel Brooks shoehorned plenty of original tunes into his string of hit-and-miss spoofs of the 70's, but "I'm Tired", performed by stock actress Madeline Kahn, is a real hoot-and-a-half. It's not the funniest thing in Blazing Saddles, but as a tongue-in-cheek Marlene Dietrich saloon ditty, it's pretty brilliant.
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#20
"Go Down, Moses" from
"SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS" (1942)
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After recently revisiting Preston Sturges' masterful Hollywood satire Sullivan's Travels, I  was particularly taken with the church scene near the end in which a line of prisoners march into a black church to take their seats for a "picture show". The old Negro spiritual is well-served here in the film's more dour, yet surprisingly reverent, final act. 
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#19
"The Desert Song" from
"THE DESERT SONG" (1953)
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This classic Sigmund Romberg operetta has some truly beautiful music, which I've only heard thanks to the Warner Bros. 1953 version starring Kathryn Grayson and Gordon MacRae. It's not a particularly "great" film, but this sandswept superhero musical of sorts has got some serious pipes and the title song is the best of them all.
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#18
"Somebody to Love" from
"A SERIOUS MAN" (2009)
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The Coen Brothers absolutely reinvented this classic Jefferson Airplane track off of "Surrealistic Pillow", molding the song's alienated lyrics into their fatalistic tale of a guy who, for no particular reason, has been belittled by fate. 
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#17
"When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" from
"STALAG 17" (1953)
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Billy Wilder's humorously paranoiac prisoner-of-war drama Stalag 17 hinges around the question: "Who is the informant of Barracks Fours?" The cynical, entrepreneurial Sefton, played by William Holden, is the one everyone suspects due to his apathetic demeanor, yet during the film's most expertly directed scene, the true traitor is revealed as the men march around the barracks singing the infamous Civil War song. 
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#16
"Lullaby" from
"ROSEMARY'S BABY" (1968)
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Roman Polanksi brought his peculiar brand of urban paranoia stateside with Rosemary's Baby in 1968, and with it came one of the more sinister, breathy lullabies in film history, I can safely announce. Farrow's motherly vocals accompany the opening titles, but they flat-out haunt the closing credits.
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#15
"Would You?" from
"SINGIN' IN THE RAIN" (1952)
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It's such a trivial aspect of Stanley Donen's defining film, the jolly, satirical Singin' in the Rain - but this lovely little duet not only graces our eardrums, but accompanies the most well-directed montage of the film, taking "Would You?" from the soundstage to the projector. 
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#14
"Hurdy Gurdy Man" from
"ZODIAC" (2007)
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David Fincher's 21st century masterwork was perhaps, among other things, the director's greatest showcase for his musical ingenuity. Three Dog Night and Marvin Gaye leave their impacts, but ultimately, it's Donovan's psychedelic rock-anthem "Hurdy Gurdy Man" that steals the show, becoming as much a part of Fincher's 70's California landscape as the Golden Gate Bridge.  
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#13
"Knockin' on Heaven's Door" from
"PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID" (1973)
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Sam Peckinpah's films, or more specifically, his westerns, are bleak, violent outbursts of traditional values against modern age corruption, but they're also very lyrical and even beautiful, as evidenced by Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door", which plays as Slim Pickens limps to his death at the river bend with his wife, Katy Jurado, closely behind him. 
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#12
"Wise Up" from
"MAGNOLIA" (2000)
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Paul Thomas Anderson's mosaic of unrelenting misfits and heartache takes a bit of a reprieve - a welcome one at that - during the montage of Aimee Mann's rendition of "Wise Up", a collective turning point in the film that sees every character singing the lyrics on screen. It's a gutsy scene, but it works brilliantly. 
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#11
"It Only Takes a Moment" from
"WALL-E" (2008)
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For me, Pixar reached their creative peak with 2008's Wall-E, the junk-bot post-apocalyptic love saga, which brilliantly tears at your heart with this nostalgic duet "It Only Takes a Moment" from Jerry Herman's 1964 musical, "Hello Dolly". 
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#10
"Colonel Bogey March" from
"THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI" (1957)
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Yes, I suppose it doesn't technically have lyrics, but this whistling "Colonel Bogey March", originally written in 1941, is not only a memorable tune, but a shining example of the kind of ignorant British pride that makes up the film.
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#9
"Singin' in the Rain" from
"A CLOCKWORK ORANGE" (1971)

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What a surprise to find that the title song from my favorite musical of all-time makes this list, but not under the sub-title of its own nurturing biosphere. No, I went with Malcolm McDowell's indelibly sadistic rendering as he sexually assaults a woman during an apparently routine break-in. The wonderfully ironic twist is that it's that very tune that will eventually condemn him in the film's third act. 
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#8
"The Piccolino" from
"TOP HAT" (1934)

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No real explanation needed here, this is just a flat-out glorious show-tunes piece, which serves as the finale in the wonderful 1934 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical. The fact that I can recite the song's first verse is enough to get it on here. 
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#7
"Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin" from
"HIGH NOON" (1952)
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Most westerns have obligatory title songs that play over the opening and closing credits, almost assuredly crooning the film's title in the chorus, but Tex Ritter's effort from Fred Zinneman's classic western is the kind of folksy, porch-swing tune to match the film's themes of honorable self-motivation and sheepish small-town apathy. 
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#6
"Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" from
"THE WIZARD OF OZ" (1939)
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The everlasting children's musical-fantasy certainly has more iconic songs, but for me, this playful, catchy sing-a-long, which ushers in the film's Technicolor magnificence, is the most vibrant and joyous moment in the film.
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#5
"In Dreams" from 
"BLUE VELVET" (1984)
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David Lynch's disturbing odyssey through the shadows of small-town America in Blue Velvet comes to a surrealistic apex with Dean Stockwell's memorable lip-syncing rendition of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams". The only thing holding it back is the fact that the masochistic Frank Booth cuts it short.
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#4
"The Stranger Song" from
"McCABE AND MRS. MILLER" (1971)
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Leonard Cohen's soundtrack is as much a part of Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller as Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography or any other aspect of the indubitably crafted "anti-western". The fact that Coen's songs were simply lifted from the Canadian's debut album of four years prior only elevates its status on this list as a shrewd selection.
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#3
"The Faithful Hussar" from
"PATHS OF GLORY" (1957)
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It's literally impossible not to well-up at least a little during this German folk song, sung during the final scene of Stanley Kubrick's stirring anti-war film, Paths of Glory. It's one of the director's more distinguished moments, not only in his filmography, but in his personal life - the woman singing the song on film would go on to be his wife of over forty years.
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#2 
"Que Sera, Sera" from
"THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH" (1956)
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The song that would become greatly attached to the lifework of Doris Day, "Que Sera, Sera" was, in fact, introduced during this 1956 Hitchcock film, another example of why it is a superior work to his own 1934 original starring Peter Lorre. The song becomes more than a publicity campaign throughout the course of the film, eventually leading to the reunion between mother and child.
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#1
"Risseldy, Rosseldy" from
"THE BIRDS" (1963)
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This piece of music, an Americanized version of the Scottish folk song, "Wee Cooper O'Fife," not only accompanies one of Alfred Hitchcock's more memorable suspense set-pieces, but it introduced a young Chase Kahn as to how music can be implemented into film, creating an effective whole. 
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It's the song (and the scene) that I always think of when I think of The Birds and encapsulates the masterful, undervalued sound design of one of the master's more brash technical accomplishments. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

One of the Best Opening Titles

Stanley Donen's Arabesque ('66) is only a moderate addition to the girl-and-a-guy 60's mod spy thriller, but Henry Mancini's original score and Maurice Bender's opening titles make for one of my new all-time favorite credits sequences. 
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It's funny how the opening title cards never amounted to squat during the 30's, 40's and early 50's when they were all, for the most part, indistinguishable. Yet it seems once Saul Bass did The Man With the Golden Arm ('55) followed by Vertigo ('58) and Anatomy of a Murder ('59), the flood-gates opened for the next two decades.
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And you won't find better opening titles than in the 1960's, the decade of the gimmick. Split-screens, kaleidoscopes, pinwheel primary colors, etc., it was all there. The opening titles to Stanley Donen's Charade ('63) were very Hitchcockesque, but Arabesque is more James Bond, I love it.
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The Unavoidable Flashbulb

In staying with my "Rear Window" buzz after last night's showing at the Texas Theatre, I do have to concede that there's one scene I've always had a problem with. It occurs near the end where Jimmy Stewart and Raymond Burr, the across-the-way wife-murderer come face-to-face in Stewart's apartment. 
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The rotund Burr, after poking around with a few questions, then slowly walks across the dark apartment like Frankenstein in one of those Hammer Horror films. Stewart, a photographer, stuns him four times with flashbulbs before he eventually arrives. 
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The scene is extremely well executed by Hitchcock and Robert Burks, effectively simulating the temporary blinded vision that can be caused by an ultra-bright light, but I've always thought that anybody in their right mind, after one or two flashbulbs to the eyes, could simply shield or close their eyes and avoid being stunned by the flash. 
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This goes back to my Frankenstein analogy - it's like Burr is a witless, unintelligent monster with the mind and maturity of a 9 year-old. He just keeps on lumbering towards his foe without any regard for himself. 

Liking to Make a Big Entrance

After seeing "Rear Window" at the Texas Theatre last night, I was once again entranced by one of my favorite shots of all-time, the unforgettable Grace Kelly entrance as she bends over to kiss the half-asleep Jimmy Stewart. 
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Then I began to think about the greatest "entrances" for an iconic film role and could only come up with that swooping, zoom-in shot of John Wayne in "Stagecoach" and of course Orson Welles' reveal in "The Third Man"

Friday, March 18, 2011

Classic Musical Round-Up

"FOR ME AND MY GAL" (1942)
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Judy Garland and a debuting Gene Kelly really shine in this patriotic, sentimental ode to vaudeville. In WWI, a brash, charming dance comic (Kelly) teams up with a beautiful singer (Garland) as the two struggle with their personal and professional lives amidst wartime. 
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The ending is about as believable as "Sergeant York", but seeing Kelly and Garland feel each other out singing the title song in the first reel is worth the price of admission - or maybe a few war bonds. [B]
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"THE HARVEY GIRLS" (1946)
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A western-musical of sorts, "The Harvey Girls" is a bit of a wayward duck - colorful and fitfully amusing, but musically flat and awkward. The opening number, "On the Atchinson, Topeka and the Sante Fe" went on to become a big hit, but listening to Virginia O'Brien's "Wild Wild West" is enough to dash for the mute button. 
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Even Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow himself, is an enigma with his shoehorned dance exhibitions and goofy geriatrics. By the end of the film, I had forgotten who he was exactly and my apathy or bewilderment in regards to the answer is the epitome of what is an ultimately forgettable trip down that Atchinson, Topeka and the Sante Fe. [C]
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"ANCHORS AWEIGH" (1945)
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This star-studded, overcooked sailors-on-leave musical is the prototypical example of the kind of tangential excess that sometimes plagued the MGM musicals of the 40's and 50's. 
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At once a delightful romantic puzzle with elements of screwball comedy, the film ultimately proves to be all over the place - Frank Sinatra crooning here, Gene Kelly tapping there, Kathryn Grayson's operatic soprano in the middle, it takes an animated sequence to finally convince us that this thing is only intermittently focused. [B-]
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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Short Review: "The Adjustment Bureau" (2011)

For a good portion of its running-time - or rather just about all of it - George Nolfi's "The Adjustment Bureau" is a smooth, heady sci-fi swooner - stirring, romantic and surprisingly amusing. 
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That is until the final moments which do no favors by eliminating the central discussion at the heart of this otherwise intriguing fate vs. free will love story, exceedingly well-played by the film's two strangers-in-a-bathroom, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. (Although if you're asking me, the film's best performance comes from Mr. John Slattery.)
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I did quite like it, but I think the ending comes dangerously close to horrific. It reminded me of a certain William Castle trick for his gimmicky 1961 horror film, "Mr. Sardonicus"
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Castle inserted a cut of himself addressing the audience, "polling" them on the outcome they would like to see. It seems that with "The Adjustment Bureau", Nolfi went with the ending that would send people home happy, not necessarily the one that would send them home thinking. [B]

Monday, March 14, 2011

"Your dead...right now. I've killed you"

Joe Wright's "Hanna" looks like a winner in my books. I mean, at the very least it will be an admirable, offbeat misfire, right? It's certainly the first film of the year that I really can't wait to see. 
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The spy game, on-the-run thriller has been done to death, but when I watch this trailer, I don't get those "here we go again" headaches or overwhelming feelings of monotony. I see a film that looks just weird enough to be interesting.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Review: "Battle: Los Angeles" (2011)

Jonathan Liebesman's bravely conceived yet relentlessly tedious alien invasion flick, "Battle: Los Angeles" offers a unique viewpoint on the global crisis sub-genre, following a small platoon of U.S. Marines stationed in LA. 
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It's unique in that Liebesman and screenwriter Christopher Bertolini clearly set out to make a combat/military action film rather than the usual Roland Emmerich globalized mosaic, but the effect is both refreshingly simplistic and irritatingly restrictive.
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But the film's framework is hardly the issue at hand because "Battle: Los Angeles" is a film so hopelessly self-serious and mercilessly jingoistic that it plays like a two-hour recruitment video for the Marines. 
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Filled with colorless, archetypical characters and banal, stone-faced dialogue, Bertolini's script is all about hoo-rah patriotism and duty and bravery and loyalty and it's all as delicate as a grenade launcher - complete with a snare drum taps score and one-knee'd monologues about honor and glory.
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Tired, clumsy writing can be excusable here-and-there (the first ten minutes of squad introductions are about as bad as it gets), but perhaps what's most inexcusable about "Battle: Los Angeles" is how it manages to somehow take the fun out of an alien invasion. [D-]

Friday, March 11, 2011

Trailer: "Super 8" (2011)

Patiently awaiting an HD link from somewhere, anywhere. J.J. Abrams' "Super 8" gets its first official trailer today and it's essentially an extended version of the 30-second Super Bowl spot that we all saw. 
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I think it's fair to say that of all the stuff coming out this summer, "Super 8" has the highest ceiling - an obvious, no-shame Spielberg riff about small-town kids discovering some kind of extra-terrestrial presence. It oozes with nostalgia, innocence, wonder, etc. I really can't wait to see it in the dead heat of Summer. 
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Classic Rewind: "Caprice" (1967)

Frank Tashlin's baffling and ditsy spy thriller "Caprice" was, at the time of its release, not only an embarrassment for 20th Century Fox, but for the film's star, Doris Day, who quite famously was mistakenly obligated to do the role after unknowingly having her contract signed by her husband/manager, Martin Melcher.
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Richard Harris, who lends the film his best Cary Grant impersonation, hated it so much that he never even bothered to see it.
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And indeed, the film is an undeniable mess, full of ambiguous identities, deadly ski-shooters and an international cosmetics spygate, yet like a woozy cross between "Charade" and "The Glass Bottom Boat", the film eventually finds (or rather surfaces as) a unique blend of romanticized global thriller and Hitchcockian satire.
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How else could you explain away the sheer inanity of the film's madcap plot which at one point centers around a secretive, waterproof hairspray. Doris Day even stumbles into a movie theater to lop off a piece of hair from a prospective user to see a film called "Caprice" - what's going on here? [B]

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Review: "Jane Eyre" (2011)

I had a chance to see Cary Fukunaga's "Jane Eyre" last night and it was lovely - eloquent, intelligent, spooky. Charlotte Brontë's century-and-a-half old classic, which is a poignant love story with a touch of Gothic mystery, has been endlessly and needlessly adapted, yet the filmmakers and the wonderful cast headlined by the two young up-and-comers breathe new life to what could have a been a deliberate, dawdling exercise. 
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The casting of Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender just made too much sense to falter on screen and thankfully they're both up to the task. The former, delicate, firm, devastating and the latter a towering Mr. Rochester - both unwaveringly boorish and mysteriously charming. (Of course, Mr. Fassbender knows all about courting young English ladies, as he did so ambiguously in Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank").
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Director Cary Fukunaga (who debuted two years ago with the stark, moving immigration tale, "Sin Nombre") has publicly stated that he intended to embrace the spookier elements of Brontë's novel, but his bigger contribution (in collaboration with Moira Buffini's adaptation) is the seamless, time-shifting narrative, which is deftly applied and rarely settles into a predictable groove. 
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And the technical aspects are all first-class, from Adriano Goldman's naturally-lit interiors to Dario Marianelli's subtle, ascending score to Fukunaga's unfussy, carefully measured injections of weight, "Jane Eyre" is both classical enough to please Brontë fans and curious enough to attract new ones. [B+]

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Complete Preston Sturges Retrospective

Well, it was fun while it lasted, the Preston Sturges Retrospective is over. If you read any of the entries, you have too much time on your hands, and that goes for the guy who wrote them, as well. 
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Anyway, I really enjoyed watching and writing about the films, it's great motivation to plow through a director/actor/film genre that you may be feeling undernourished or uneducated about, I highly recommend it for anyone who hasn't done so - categorized viewing is the only way to go.
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For future and present reference, here are the eight films I watched, re-watched and wrote about over the past two weeks, all in one spot:
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"The Great McGinty" (1940)
"Christmas in July" (1940)
"The Lady Eve" (1941)
"Sullivan's Travels" (1942)
"The Palm Beach Story" (1942)
"The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" (1944)
"Hail the Conquering Hero" (1944)
"Unfaithfully Yours" (1948)

Movie Theater Round-Up

So I have actually seen a few films in theaters over the past week or so, believe it or not. 
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First up was Jaume Collet-Serra's authorless thriller, "Unknown", which was exactly what you would expect it to be - breathless, tricky, illogical. It's basically a cheap pastiche of every European identity thriller from "Frantic" to "The Bourne Identity" yet it lacks the direction and smarts of both. 
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In short, it moves and it's fun to piece together, if only fleetingly so and eventually the film's junky and uncouth demeanor envelopes the proceedings. [C]
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Next was Don Roos' "The Other Woman", which is only marginally distinguishable from the Hallmark movie of the week. IFC Films bought the rights recently and planned an early 2011 release to capitalize on the Natalie Portman coattails, but I can't imagine anyone other than 20-60 year-old women being able to stomach this hoary material. 
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Dealing with her perception as a home-wrecker and a healing mother (she loses her newborn baby at just three days old), Portman's performance is tetchy, but not altogether winning. After "Rabbit Hole", which offered a stark, honest viewpoint on grieving and marital irritability, "The Other Woman" feels belated and phony. [D+]

Monday, March 7, 2011

Preston Sturges #8: "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948)

The first of two films that Preston Sturges would make at 20th Century Fox before bowing out of the Hollywood landscape, "Unfaithfully Yours" was but a blip on the radar until recently, where it's now deservedly considered one of its invaluable creator's more skillful and ingenious originations. 
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The story of a brilliant conductor (Rex Harrison) who suspects his wife (Linda Darnell) of cheating and thus plots her murder, the film re-examines the same marital insecurities and infidelities of "The Palm Beach Story," only more so on this occasion with the added conditions of excess paranoia and baleful begrudging. 
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Sir Alfred de Carter is the dapper and soon to be obsessive conductor, played wonderfully by the aforementioned Harrison, who incidentally uncovers the suspicious findings of a private detective who shadowed his wife will he was away to his native England. Offended by the gesture, he destroys the revealing documents, only the hear the findings later, straight from the horse's mouth. 
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The rest of the film is played out in the deranged and highly vengeful mind of Alfred as he imagines three completely different scenarios involving the confrontation of his wife's infidelity as he conducts that night's symphony concert. 
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It's here, where Alfred's musical pieces become the soundtrack for his vindictive fantasies that the film's brilliance is on full display. It becomes more than just a black comedy on marital suspicion, but an example of our natural inclination to project our lives into our art. [A-] 

Friday, March 4, 2011

Preston Sturges #7: "Hail the Conquering Hero" (1944)

Part two of Preston Sturges' wartime farces, "Hail the Conquering Hero" is a stealthily suggestive comedy about the demythification of good old American heroism and small-town hypocrisy - a madcap gem, and if you're asking this viewer, the crowning achievement of the Sturges pantheon. 
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Eddie Bracken, who played the stammering and lovelorn Norval from "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" reunites with Sturges in one of the more befitting and enduring - albeit brief - actor/director duos in film history. 
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Like a voodoo doll subjected to the wrath of his master's sadistic tricks, Bracken's characters endured the awkward tensions and morally prickly situations with a wide-eyed gaze and a m-m-mumbled dialect, and never so hilariously as in "Hail the Conquering Hero". 
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A hero's son, medically discharged from the Marines and shielding the news from his mother and hometown while sipping beers on the California coastline, Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) divulges the information to a group of Marines one evening, much to his regret.
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The Marines, led by Sgt. Heppelfinger (William DeMarest), grab poor Truesmith by the collar and drag him back to his hometown, where despite his reservations, he's thrown to the welcoming committee and thrust into the town spotlight, where they ignorantly hand him the keys to the city (and a mayoral candidate seat), unaware of his disappointingly unheroic military service. 
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One can draw similarities in the way that the townspeople throw themselves at Truesmith coming home in uniform to the way that the advertising executives immediately glorify and promote the lowly desk clerk Dick Powell once they believe that he's won the tagline contest in "Christmas in July"
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Indeed, making light of the soldiers' return home and the sheepish mentality of its citizens is a risky move, but Preston Sturges is the kind of guy who understood the various inconsistencies of life, someone who would rather laugh than sneer. [A]

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Preston Sturges #6: "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" (1944)

It is this brief sojourn in Preston Sturges' career that saw the director slip into a one-two punch of small-town wartime hysteria - the first half being the wacky, unbounded and ultimately buoyant "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek"
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In a career rife with production code red flags and taboo middle-class issues, Sturges never skirted the line of controversy like he does here. 
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Trudy Kockenlocker (played by Betty Hutton) is a small-town girl who wants to give the soldiers a fine night before their sent off to war in the morning. Against her father's wishes, she organizes a cover-up with the local dweeb, Norval, (Eddie Bracken, who would team up yet again with Sturges) so she can attend the dance and see the boys off. 
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In true hangover fashion, the events of the night are revealed piece-by-piece - partly because Trudy doesn't remember and partly because Sturges can't directly reveal the misdeeds of a young, drunken family girl. 
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To make a very long and very convoluted story short, Trudy finally realizes that not only did she remember marrying one of the soldiers, but she's pregnant. Together, she and Norval must find a way out of this predicament, which eventually will lead them up against the law. 
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It's well know that Sturges' films are like a student cramming for the exam that's twenty minutes away - dense, furious, nearly incomprehensible - but "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" is without a doubt his wildest ride.
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But wild for wild's sake would not a good movie make, for Sturges elevates the bare essentials of the material by injecting his self-referential and googly dialogue, abrasive small-town virtues gone amiss (a drunken marriage, out-of-wedlock pregnancy) and all at the expense of American soldiers on their way to the front - how's that for ya, censors?
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Now Sturges brilliantly frames the film around a certain telephone conversation (involving two townspeople speaking to two state officials, cameo appearances by Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff, reprising their roles from "The Great McGinty") in which the point is made clear that something newsworthy or revelatory is going to happen. "You won't believe it," the men claim, and we wait patiently for the unbelievable.
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Well I'm not going to spoil the ending - the eponymous miracle - but it's perhaps the wackiest final card that Sturges has ever played at the end of his films, easily the most ironic punch-line of his career. [B+]