Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Classic Rewind: Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

If there is one consistently admirable quality in the works of Howard Hawks, it is the director's careful, studied approach to professional male relationships, which he accomplishes through marvelous performances and astute, reverential writing.

In Only Angels Have Wings ('39), the hazardous, all-too fragile lives of small-band mail pilots stationed in Barranca (and the beautiful women who battle for their attention) serve as the subjects in this masterful and criminally overlooked aviation pic.

Cary Grant plays Geoff Carter, a tough, hard-nosed, impenetrable pilot who is seemingly desensitized to the sight of death from above (as seen in the opening few minutes). Not nearly as strong-willed is the fresh-off-the-boat blonde, Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), who reacts to Geoff's insensitivity as if he committed the act himself.

What the film boils down to is the inability of Geoff to become attached to anyone but the airways. Bonnie loves Geoff, but his perilous career and flippant detachment leaves her confounded and angry. Geoff isn't really sure what he wants, all he knows is what to do in the air and how to run his pilots.

Only Angels Have Wings is essentially a far more sophisticated, edgier and eloquent version of Victor Fleming's Test Pilot ('38), which had Myrna Loy competing with the skies for the affections of the reckless daredevil played by Clark Gable, who is concurrently wrestling with the brotherly advice longtime friend and colleague played by Spencer Tracy.

In the Tracy role here is Thomas Mitchell, a superb character actor who owned the year 1939, appearing in such films as Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Stagecoach (for which he took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar). Playing The Kid, Mitchell is a sloppy, experienced pilot going on 22 years who is found out by Geoff to be severely handicapped - his eyes failing him during a visual test that he can't cheat - relegating him to a future-less onlooker and a full-time drunkard.

Although most audiences probably found themselves caught in the romantic subplot between Bonnie (Arthur) and Geoff (Grant), or perhaps in an old flame played by Rita Hayworth, the real intrigue is the sagacious, brotherly love between these desperate pilots working on borrowed time - just don't bother telling them, they already know it. [A]

A Kraken Shame

I had always planned on seeing Louis Leterrier's Clash of the Titans in 2D, but even I didn't see this shitstorm brewing, with critics hailing the post-conversion 3D print of the Ray Harryhausen remake as an absolute disaster.

Massawyrm of Aint It Cool News revealed that "half a dozen critics watched the film blurry rather than subjecting themselves to the torment of this bastardized hack job of a 3D render." Devin Faraci of CHUD added that the "post-conversion creates pop-up book 3D, where everything is a flat plane that is separated from other flat planes, offering illusory depth, but Clash takes that to the next level."

And lastly (and this is the worst of all), Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeff Wells said that from what he saw, the film "looked too dark". When I saw Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, this same dark, dim 3D post-conversion haze, which makes you feel like you're watching it with a pair of Ray-Ban's on, put a significant dent in the proceedings.

The trouble with gauging a temperature for the film itself is that all of these critics are emerging disgruntled and irate from the murky, flubbed conversion process. As it stands, Clash of the Titans has a 35% RT rating, but I can't really find a review that doesn't relegate the film's merits to mere background noise in favor of pounding the 3D.

Trailer: The Expendables

Everybody is pumped for Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables (Lionsgate, 8.13), the 80's meets 00's steroid action movie bonanza, but I've always been a little leery.

Obviously, Stallone is coming from a nostalgic, this-is-how-we-used-to-make-em place (hence the inclusions of Eric Roberts, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis) but this still looks like garbage if you ask me.

Classic Rewind: Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)

Holly Golightly is a flimsy, materialistic party girl - a pseudo upper-class fashionista who peers into the windows of Tiffany's in order to soothe her anxieties with its glittering cases of serenity and elite status. One would imagine that Truman Capote - who wrote the 1958 source novel - ran into all kinds of Holly's at social gatherings not unlike the one that Audrey Hepburn hosts in Blake Edwards' Breakfast at Tiffany's ('61).

A prickly subject, Hepburn plays Holly with all of her snobbish self-interest while still making the character somewhat endearing and sympathetic as she sips champagne while perched in the sink or slides down the fire escape to her new neighbor Paul's (George Peppard) bachelor pad. Of course, whether that's Holly or Hepburn herself, is a bit harder to decipher.

Darting around Manhattan in search of a suitor (provided the price is right), we quickly begin to realize that Holly is a distressed, perhaps delusional individual on the run from her Texas roots and her ex-husband, Doc Golightly (Buddy Epsen). As she lovingly croons the incessantly prevalent "Moon River" from her balcony one morning, there's a desperate plea in there somewhere - perhaps one worthy of some less-cloying manner of expression.

As Holly becomes closer to Paul the writer, an engagement to a Brazilian millionaire blocks out any and all possible attraction to her comparatively insubstantial East Side bunkmate. Will she change? Will she pursue true love instead of petty fortune?

The conveniently plotted final moments recklessly abandon the ambiguity of Capote's writing in favor of audience compassion. Consequently, Breakfast at Tiffany's amounts to little more than a minor fluff piece, a film worthy of that frivolous title song. [B-]

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Review: How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

For all of the blundering, hazardous mass-market kids films that get released on an almost weekly basis (just see Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland) and with the usually reliable beacon of sophistication apparently out of ideas (see Pixar's Toy Story 3), it's mighty refreshing to see a piece of children's animation this full of life, especially considering the source.

Dreamworks has always been second-fiddle to Pixar in terms of artistic quality, their films normally tainted with an overwhelming sense of pop culture brushstrokes and audience pandering, like a grade-schooler making fart noises. But here, with the irresistible How To Train Your Dragon, the studio exercises surprising restraint in bringing to life a film more concerned with emotional story pull than with silly comedic grubbing.

Set in the Viking Age, in the fictional sea-side town known as Berk, the film quickly establishes the conflict between man and beast in the opening scene. The dragons (in all of their differing, colorized quantities) attack from above while the Vikings (with the elders built like bearded Hulk's and the younglings like emo quasi-hipsters) fight back, dispersing the fire-breathers in-between neighborly "good mornings".

This scene, which serves as an introductory roll call of sorts, is voiced-over by our measly protagonist, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel, who if we're staying with the current Apataw brand-of-the-month, is about a 3). He's scrawny, he's squeaky, and he is the antithesis of his brutish bear of a father, the village leader Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler).

When Hiccup blindly snares one of the dragons in his handy net-canon, he discovers that he can't bring himself to kill it, establishing a hesitant yet brotherly inter-species bond between the hunter and the hunted. And it's here (as Hiccup crosses over to the "other" side) where How to Train Your Dragon turns into the peaceful, pro-ecology, anti-domineering message film that it is, something that we've admittedly seen countless times before (especially recently).

However, once it settles into its groove (and the Viking jokes seem purged from focus), the film exudes a kind of undeniable grand-sweep that classics are made of. Whether its flexing its muscles during the climactic battle scene or tenderly depicting the quiet moments between a boy and his dragon, the results are magical.

And the 3D visuals - a new watermark for the animated medium - are never less than wondrous, evoking the same kind of escapism and technical immersion that made the similarly-plotted Avatar a multi-billion dollar worldwide hit. The difference lies in the pre-loaded anticipation and murky histrionics of the latter. With all due respect to James Cameron, here is a film that reinforces the wonder of cinema. [B+]

New Godard

I plan on buying Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie ('62) on Blu-ray when it comes out on 4.20 (reviewed here by DVDBeaver), if for no other reason than I've never seen it and any new high-def Godard is certainly worth spending for.

If I had to go through the French New Wave director's filmography, the cream of the crop would be Breathless, Contempt, Alphaville and Band of Outsiders (all great to masterful). I honestly couldn't make myself sit through Weekend all the way through and Made in U.S.A. is just too Looney Tunes and too self-referential.

I would certainly recommend to someone who hasn't gone through the Godard treatment to start at the beginning with Breathless and work your way up. Anyone who jumps in with Alphaville or Weekend or 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her will just throw in the towel thirty minutes in.

Villainous Rachel Weisz

I would be delighted if this 3.29 Playlist report/rumor turned out to be true regarding the possibility of Rachel Weisz being cast as the main antagonist in the next Bond film, to be directed by Sam Mendes.

Weisz needs a bit of a high-profile release to get her back in the limelight after films like Agora, The Lovely Bones and The Brothers Bloom have struggled mightily to gain much of an audience with the former struggling just to gain distribution in the U.S.

It wouldn't only be great for Weisz, but for the Bond franchise as a whole, which if you ask me, hit a wall with Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace. Now if we could only get Thom Yorke to sing the title song.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Classic Rewind: Ambush (1950)

This cavalry western, the last film made by notable golden age director Sam Wood, is an under-appreciated gem. It's a superbly-directed ensemble drama about a scruffy, impenetrable scout (Robert Taylor) working for a cavalry division that must head off into Apache Territory to rescue the sister of the Major's significant other (Arlene Dahl) who is being held captive.

Although the synopsis sounds like a Searchers-like expedition, the majority of the film takes place inside the fort, where Ambush ultimately reveals itself as a character-driven melodrama in which several romantic subplots are deftly juggled (including Jean Hagen as a victim to domestic violence), giving these characters a distinctive weight before the rousing, climactic battle scene ensues under the Arizona moonlight.

Extraordinarily, the film begins with the traditional MGM logo under a bed of driving Apache drum which give way to a wonderful shot tracking the bodies and wreckage of an apparently ill-fated convoy. The camera then tilts up to the sight of the culprits, a sizable band of Apache warriors riding off into the distance as the film's title emerges from the pack and flies towards the screen.

The film's star, Robert Taylor, was at the time starring in just the second western of his career - the first being David Miller's Billy the Kid ('41). Known almost exclusively as a pretty, romantic counterpart for the ladies of the screen and the audience to ogle at, Ambush marks (for me anyway) his first breakthrough role into the realm of the gritty, self-interested individual a Ward Kinsman.

With his arched, determined brows and unanimated delivery, he's a convincing vessel for the nomadic self-preservation of the open plains. But when persuaded by the charms and looks of the Major's glamorous prize (Dahl), we can feel and believe the conflict of his ideals.

"People only die when they have something to live for," a Lieutenant reassures Kinsman before heading out, "I know, that's why I'm a little worried," he answers. And so the richness of a film like Ambush lies not in its anticipated U.S.-Apache chess match , but in its quieter moments, where the real conflict proves to be much closer to home. [A-]

Yes, I've started applying grades to classic films - why not?

"Would You" Sing That Again

It's pretty well-known among fans of Stanley Donen's Singin' In the Rain ('52) that Debbie Reynolds' singing voice is actually dubbed by Betty Noyes. (The irony, of course, being that in the film, Debbie's character dubs the squeaky off-putting voice of Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont.)

Well here is a chance to hear what Debbie Reynolds actually sounds like crooning my favorite song from the film, "Would You?". It's definitely an imperfect rendition (especially if, like me, you're used to hearing Noyes sing it) but it's hardly treacherous.

Find more videos like this on Lost Vocals

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Classic Rewind: Star of Midnight (1935)

For those who love the wittiness and screwball mystery of W.S. Van Dyke's The Thin Man ('34) or After the Thin Man ('36), need look no further than Stephen Roberts' Star of Midnight ('35).

Starring Nick Charles himself (William Powell in one of his last roles for RKO before signing exclusively with MGM), Star of Midnight makes no mistake of its intentions - a playful, sarcastic kid-sister romance and scotch-and-martini jokes wrapped around a scandalous New York City mystery purposely evokes the Hitchcockian zest of those early Thin Man smash-hits.

Even Ginger Rogers (taking a break from her dance partner Fred Astaire) mocks the gaudy glamor and comedic timing of Myrna Loy, even scrunching her face at a sly comment from her counterpart detective whom she flirtatiously calls "Sherlock." (He fires back with "Watson.")

And when Powell's Clay Dalzell attempts to solve the crime by using the patented Nick Charles maneuver of inviting all of the suspects to get together at the end, we're too busy reveling in the zany one-liners to even notice the similarities. Star of Midnight is one enjoyable and authentically molded rip-off.

Review: Greenberg (2010)

Noah Baumbach's first film since the abysmally invidious Margot at the Wedding ('07) means more 30-something neurotics on the brink of (or on the rebound from) mental and physical breakdown, reuniting with their past to dissect a life gone astray.

For me, Greenberg represents a return to form of sorts for the edgy writer-director (who emerged on a lot of people's radars after 2005's The Squid and the Whale), while for others, the film may be considered too tame and too prim in comparison.

Baumbach fans will probably feel underwhelmed by the admittedly unsubstantial plotting and surprisingly docile approach, but this is a keenly-observed character drama that has enough dry, awkward moments of wit and insight to see it through.

Ben Stiller plays the titular character Roger Greenberg, off to relax in his brother's almost mockingly adequate LA home after a brief stint in a mental hospital. "I'm just really trying to do nothing," he makes sure to tell people (most of them his old bandmates and disinterested ex-girlfriends). They squawk through their false, dishonest smiles, while one (Florence, the "personal assistant" to Roger's brother, played very well by Greta Gerwig) somehow sees something vulnerable and apologetic about Greenberg's itchy, scornful temperament.

As Greenberg tries to face and somehow rebuild his past friendships and relationships (old LA dwellers played by Rhys Ifans, Mark Duplass and Jennifer Jason Leigh) the further evident it becomes that this is a life best buried in the past, along with those cheesy album covers of his own band, now dispersed.

And Stiller, normally an effective comedian of the broad Tropic Thunder variety, is shockingly qualified to play this mentally off-kilter and contemptuous being. From the first moment, we believe in this character, his odd features and scruffy hair now an emblem of alienation instead of stuttering amusement. In the end, Baumbach isn't so much asking us to sympathize with this guy, but rather to identify him as one of our own. [B]

Friday, March 26, 2010

Trailer: Marmaduke

Without a doubt, this is the worst trailer of the year. And that was before the synchronized dance scene at the end. I mean, could you imagine having to sit through this thing in a crowd of Coked-up, squirming, over-laughing 6-year olds?

Frank Capra #14: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

If not Frank Capra's most prestigious and recognized film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ('39) is certainly one of his greatest and most enduring, controversial works.

Conceived initially as a direct sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town ('36), the film is glaringly similar in its approach of an altruistic small-town patron who heads off to the big city, falls in love with Jean Arthur and finds their own charitable, optimistic worldview to be unfounded - caught in a stink of corruption and greed.

Where Mr. Smith Goes to Washington becomes a more significant work is in who Capra depicts as the malignant, upper-crust subjects. Edward Arnold as a hoggish, cold businessman is one thing (as he plays in You Can't Take it With You), but Edward Arnold as a state politician in collusion with a Senator (Claude Rains) is another.

And credit must be given to Mr. Capra for stepping into the realm of scrutiny - not towards petty greed-stricken business moguls and upper-class stiffs - but towards the nation's political appointees, shown in all of their indifferent, heartless insensitivity. (Mocking tax dollars in You Can't Take it With You and bank ignorance in American Madness is mild disapproval in comparison.)

The fact that the film screened in Washington with actual state Senators in attendance (who reportedly walked out before its conclusion) is proof of the kind of adverse, radical subject matter that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was depicting. (Now a days, a film like Paul Greengrass' Green Zone is hardly a surprise.)

But those who, at the time, said that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was anti-American and pro-Communist were as naive as Mr. Smith himself, excusing the fact that ultimately, the film is about the same mirthful optimism that exudes from all of Capra's works. In the end, Jeff Smith's filibustering triumph under the capital dome is as absurdly hopeful and patriotic as it gets.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Trailer: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Universal, 8.13) looks even crazier than I thought it would - almost like a cross between Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and Naruto.

I have no doubt that it will get good reviews and generate a good amount of buzz and money, just based on the pedigree of Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hott Fuzz) alone.

Classic Rewind: Billy the Kid (1941)

Perhaps it's my unabashed affection for early studio-era action films, but I found David Miller's Billy the Kid ('41) to be a perfectly watchable MGM Technicolor western.

It's a standard, unsurprisingly romanticized dream-factory interpretation of the legendary outlaw, complete with the Cain and Abel narrative backbone between Billy the Kid (Robert Taylor) and Pat Garrett (Brian Donlevy), but I think it holds its own against a moderate film like Henry King's Jesse James ('39).

The film didn't perform particularly well at the time of its release due to the typecasting of its lead, Robert Taylor as a "pretty boy" who didn't have any "hair on his chest." Brian Donlevy, who specialized in these kinds of films in Cecil B. DeMille's Union Pacific ('39) and George Marshall's Destry Rides Again ('39), is oddly positioned as the moralistic peacemaker.

Westerns received a large bump domestically during this time due to the fledgling European market as a result of WWII. Stagecoach ('39) elevated the genre from its B-movie roots, and while Billy the Kid ('41) certainly feels like a mid-level project on paper, it looks like anything but.

Anatomy of a Title Sequence

These opening credits (composed by legendary title-screenmaker Saul Bass) for Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder ('59) are tremendous. They aren't on the level of his work on North by Northwest or Vertigo, but the way the capture the tone and the mood of the film in just 90 seconds is wonderful.

As a whole, Anatomy of a Murder is an excellent monochrome smooth-jazz courtroom drama with a refreshing air of crazed dry humor and lightness about it. It deviates from your standard variety legal spectacle because of its almost self-mocking, burlesque spirit. James Stewart's Paul Biegler (a washed-up, broke defense attorney) isn't Atticus Finch and his almost deadpan performance is certainly one of his most interesting.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Classic Rewind: Raintree County (1957)

Known more as the film that was interrupted by Montgomery Clift's damaging car accident than anything else, Edward Dmytryk's Raintree County ('57) was billed as the next-gen Gone With the Wind, filmed for the first time in Ultra Panavision (aka MGM Camera 65), which would later be used on William Wyler's Ben-Hur ('59).

Based on Ross Lockridge Jr.'s 1948 novel of the same name, Raintree County is a sprawling, decades-spanning summation of 19th century America. The novel may be a revealing and accomplished look at Civil War-era social issues and myth, but the film is anything but.

It's basically competently staged and constructed period glam - a well-dressed, glossy MGM Technicolor widescreen epic that strives to capture that tumultuous, ever-changing landscape of the mid-19th century and all of its illustrious, romanticized beauty. Instead, Raintree County feels like an overcooked, monotonous concoction with half of the appeal of Gone With the Wind and twice the pettiness.

Shooting was suspended for two months while Clift recovered from his gruesome accident, his scenes dissected by those shot beforehand and those shot afterward. (The difference isn't as discernible as you might expect - the effects of the accident are revealed strangely from within and from the subtle numbness and slight disorientation of the left side of his face.)

Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor also have sizable supporting roles, but it's Lee Marvin of all people who injects some life into this 188-minute marathon, a film that is certainly watchable as a piece of cinematic history, but a downright disappointment considering the talent involved.


Nicolas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954), the apparently socially-conscience, slyly intelligent western-allegory plays on TCM Friday at 4:30 PM ET. The film, shot just one year before Rebel Without a Cause, is unavailable on DVD and therefore can only be seen through old VHS copies, repertory screenings or cable airings.

I've never gotten the chance to watch it myself, and seeing as how I'm ready to go on a western kick (I've got Sam Peckinpah's Junior Bonner ('72), David Miller's Billy the Kid ('41), Anthony Mann's The Far Country ('54) and Henry Hathaway's Nevada Smith ('66) on my DVR), I'm excited to finally see it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Maggie the Cat

My immense enjoyment for Richard Brooks' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) stems almost entirely from Tennesse Williams' brilliant, firecracker dialogue and the way that the three principal actors chew and spit it out.

As a film, its tameness in contrast to the original play (Paul Newman's Brick is a homosexual, but it isn't addressed in the screen version due to censorship) hurts it a bit, rendering the ending a tad false, but I don't think there's a two-hour film of pure stage acting from beginning to end that's as entertaining and scrumptious as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Frank Capra #13: You Can't Take It With You (1938)

This Best Picture Oscar winner may be Frank Capra's ultimate success, granting the director his third Oscar in five years while going on to become the top grossing film of 1938. A predictable portrait of good old Capra optimism and goodwill, viewers turned off by its foamy sentimentality are missing an exquisitely pointed and downright enchanting comedic work.

You Can't Take It With You is essentially a meet-the-parents social-clash between the upper-crust, highfalutin Kirby's (with their tall, gentle son, James Stewart) and the merry, lower-class hooligans, the Sycamores (with their sweet, angelic daughter, Jean Arthur.)

Based on the 1936 stage play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the film is ultimately about the value of priceless commodities like friendship and family while taking calculated shots at the cold, corporate business life and, wherever possible, those men in Washington. (Although, we'll get to that in Capra's next film.)

As the predictable roadblocks and pitfalls halt the young couple in reckless, naive love, the Sycamore's grandpa-on-crutches (Lionel Barrymore, suffering on screen from a fall down the stairs - in reality, suffering from arthritis) is slow to give the Kirby's and their snotty superiority a piece of his own mind, but when he does, he exposes both the mean-spirited nature of their actions and jeopardizes the relationship linking these unlikely families together.

Of course, this being a Capra film, we know where this ordeal is headed and the question isn't so much if this blithe and bathetic finale is going to occur, but when. Nevertheless, it's a testament to the man behind the camera (and the performers in front of it) that the moment when Mr. Kirby finally sheds his Scrooge facade works as well as it does - the rousing final moments as welcome as they are inevitable.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Classic Rewind: The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938)

Hollywood invades the 13th century in Archie Mayo's The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938). notoriously known as one of producer Samuel Goldwyn's largest financial failures, the adventure film (very loosely based on fact) is estimated to have lost close to $700,000.

Now, the film itself isn't all that bad - it's a playful, tongue-in-cheek, exaggerated and romanticized account of Marco Polo's real-life trip to Kublai Khan's vast Chinese empire. Once our titular explorer (Gary Cooper) makes a move towards the emperor's daughter (Sigrid Gurie), the ruthless and villainous Ahmed (Basil Rathbone) sends Marco across the Himalayas and puts into action his scheme to take over the throne.

For the most part, The Adventures of Marco Polo is a rather agreeable and slightly amusing adventure film - like a middling Errol Flynn pic. The costumes are aces and the production design is on a first-rate scale, but its pallid, stark-white sets are a bit of a bummer, as is the fact that Goldwyn was forced to shoot in black-and-white when he couldn't get his hands on the then-scarce Technicolor resources.

Its saving grace is it's flippant, casual mood, which lost original director John Cromwell his job when he attempted to play the script straight, resulting in a quick five-day stint before Archie Mayo took over.

But the bottom-line is that Gary Cooper, with his tall, slender, broad-shouldered appearance and Tennessee Valley accent, is hopelessly miscast. Bringing his frank, unassuming and wholesome persona to the role of Marco Polo, Cooper proves to be completely out of his element and the result is flatly absurd.

With the way that he and his romantic counterpart Sigrid Gurie (in her first screen role) awkwardly chat about cultural gaps, the film truly becomes "Mr. Deeds Goes to China" - a line that a certain reviewer wrote upon seeing the film in 1938. Strangely enough, by the time the mustache twirling Alan Hale shows up as the outlawed rebel leader, with his almost offensively slanted eyebrows, you just sort of go with it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Classic Rewind: A Place in the Sun (1951)

The miracle of George Stevens' dark, ravishing and deeply moving A Place in the Sun (1951) is how it generates such sympathy out of a perplexing, confused and justifiably guilty and sinful character. Montgomery Clift received his second of four Academy Award nominations for his role as George Eastman, the nephew to a powerful business tycoon who lends his hand and offers him a job in one of his factories.

The film evolves into a twisted tragedy (based on a true story) as George impulsively and forbiddingly beds a young worker (Shelley Winters) while concurrently falling for a beautiful socialite (Elizabeth Taylor). When the former reveals her untimely pregnancy to George, he is awkwardly caught between a hazardous double life that causes him to act on - or at least ponder - the idea of eliminating the problem.

George is, at the root of it, a reckless and selfish character, but Clift brings such an innocence and an understandable impetuousness to him that although he's justly culpable for his actions, the events depicted are nevertheless delivered with enough ambiguity that even George isn't sure what happened.

The other half of it is Elizabeth Taylor, who turns in the first truly prestigious and honorable role of her then young career. (Although the Best Actress attention beguilingly went to Shelley Winters that year.) Playing the rich, buoyant Angela Vickers, Taylor initially appears to be a woman of high social standing undeserving of George's gawking, stupefied looks.

But in the two's first encounter - in a quiet, vacant billiards room - Angela appears instantly fascinated by George's coy isolation, leaning against the wall, making him nervous as he lines up his shot.

It's in the couple's second meeting - a radiant and ethereal ballroom dance - that sets this doomed romance on fire. As a credit to the actors, this scene feels unusually impassioned, as if they were falling in love before our eyes, and considering the well-chronicled close-knit relationship between them, they probably were.

Frank Capra #12: Lost Horizon (1937)

The film that certainly sticks out in the filmography of Frank Capra is his against-the-grain 1937 epic Lost Horizon. By a Tibetan-mile, it was his most expensive film - costing Columbia producer Harry Cohn north of $2 million - and upon its first test screenings (at over three hours long), it was an absolute mess.

To say the least, the film baffled audiences and Columbia execs alike, so much so that Capra cut the prologue, which shortened it to its now 133-minute running time. The film was also long considered lost, until new-age technology was applied to restore it to its best possible quality, nearly the same film that premiered in San Francisco on March 2, 1937. (In the current print, some scenes are either missing or badly damaged, so still photographs are inserted over the original soundtrack.)

Based on the James Hilton novel of the same name, Lost Horizon follows the story of a small band of airplane passengers who crash-land in the Tibetan mountains only to find a Utopian society called Shangri-La, free of crime, sin, conflict and oppression. Most, including our lead Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) are drawn to the peacefulness and serenity of the place, while some, including George Conway (John Howard), his brother, are doubtful of its promises and drawn away, back to the outside world.

The film may have set Columbia back and forged a rift between Cohn and Capra for life, but the gaudiness of the production is nevertheless present in every frame. Even away from Shangri-La and its giant, pristine sets, the scenes in the treacherous cold of the Himalayas are breathtaking, their realism (check out the convincing avalanche in the final act) a far cry from the South Pole escapades in Capra's own aviation adventure, Dirigible (1931).

The brilliance of Hilton's novel is how is places doubt in the mind of Robert near the end of the novel (is this place really magical or is it a prison?) until he ultimately questions the value and possibility of a perfect, everlasting life free from worries or conflict. In the film, Capra dresses up the ending in a tidy fashion - what else? - and prevents the audience from speculating about Robert's whereabouts in what proves to be just one of Lost Horizon's precious few missteps.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Review: "The Runaways" (2010)

Floria Sigismondi's The Runaways is an adequate, agreeable and spunky rock biopic that's too innocuously patterned and constructed, yet it gets by on its central performances and penned-up girl power pugnacity.

Kristen Stewart, playing the more enduring and recognizable Runaway's guitarist Joan Jett has top-billing, but the film is ultimately about lead singer Cherie Curry (Dakota Fanning) and her premature rise to (and fall from) stardom, conflicted by the relationship with her family including her twin sister Marie (Riley Keough).

And Fanning, whose name still carries with it the sound of a child actor, delivers a personal and credible performance as a girl who uses her fascination with David Bowie to escape her marginalized family before ultimately reverting back to the person we see at the beginning of the film, waiting for Daddy to come home.

In a sense, Fanning's transformation from singing in front of a mirror to singing in front of a mob is enhanced by her own personal history as a snaggle-toothed Spielberg discovery - we can't believe the unimpeded rage and anarchy that we see on the stage, and inevitably, neither can Cherie.

But even with his comparatively quaint screen-time and allowing the girls to shred the guitars and shriek the vocals, it's the manic, theatrical explictiness of Michael Shannon's crude record producer Kim Fowley that makes the most noise. Even during the obligatory construction-of-a-song scene (in which the Runaway's hit single "Cherry Bomb" comes to life in a rusty backwoods trailer) the conviction of the performers makes us forget that we've seen it all before. [B]

Not Bad

The teaser for Nimród Antal's Predators (20th Century Fox, 7.9.10) doesn't look bad. Obviously, with the strange cast and the Robert Rodriguez guidance, the film is going for the same kind of shameless, cheesy, fun 80's action vibe, the same environment which allowed John McTiernan's 1987 original to thrive.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Review: The Crazies (2010)

A virus is afoot in a quaint Iowa farm town in Breck Eisner's The Crazies, but this isn't your average Dustin Hoffman pandemic of vaccines, monkeys and puffy eyes. Well, okay, there are those (along with a hell of a bloody nose), but the victims of the mysterious illness here - coursing with icky black veins and suffering from an apparent weight fluctuation - appear only at ease with a good dose of killing.

And so Johnny Cash's "We'll Meet Again" ironically foreshadows the madness about to be unleashed upon the tight-knit community of Ogden Marsh, with their baseball games and their all-American couple - Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) and his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), the town doctor.

In this day-and-age of 70's and 80's horror revival, The Crazies draws upon a lesser-known '73 film of the same name from the output of zombie-king George A. Romero. Although the afflicted are never referred to as "zombies" in Brock Eisner's update, that's more or less what the film amounts to, with a good helping of governmental closeting mixed in. (Hazmat crews and masked-soldiers swoop in to "assess" the situation and contain the sickly, as if things weren't bad enough.)

And thus when Sheriff Dutton (Olyphant), his pregnant wife Judy (Mitchell) and his deputy, Russell Clank (Joe Anderson) escape the roundup and attempt to evade both the portly infected and the insensitive fatigues, The Crazies becomes a set-piece driven chase film that's as breezy and amusing as it is loud and disposable.

Our triumvirate manages to show up at just the right time to keep each other alive, supporting characters are introduced only to be offed in due time, and the new-wave horror tactic of manufacturing suspense through jump-scares and prolonged bad-guy motives all give the film a feeling of familiarity and certainty that drowns the proceedings.

There are exceptions, of course, as evident during an excruciating and deliciously-conceived automatic car wash, or through the psychological paranoia that sets in during the latter half over who's infected or just mentally cooked - but all of this just goes to show how content with mediocrity the whole production is. For all of the blatant attempts to get a rise out of the audience with the humdrum jack-in-the-box routine, the most frightening thing in here is Deputy Clank's moral deterioration. [C+]

Dreamworks "Megamind"

The boom-box, the star-studded voicework, the Cartoon Network art design - yep, it's a Dreamworks movie. Of course it's hard to tell from a fifty-second teaser, but this makes How to Train Your Dragon look like Grave of the Fireflies.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

TV Review: "Justified" (FX, Tuesdays)

I've never written about television on here (mostly because I only watch "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" with any regularity) but last night the series premiere of FX's "Justified," starring Timothy Olyphant, caught my attention.

Ever since "The Shield," FX has become a seal of quality as of late. I haven't watched "Damages" or "Sons of Anarchy," but both do very well critically and are probably two of the highest quality non-premium cable shows going.

Based on an Elmore Leonard character, "Justified" is a southern drawl crime drama following the exploits of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Olyphant) who is transferred back to his hometown in Kentucky after a questionable shooting at a seaside Miami establishment in the opening scene.

Givens certainly has the kind of reckless yet admissible stoicism of a Clint Eastwood or a Jimmy Stewart and any comparisons of the series to a contemporary Western are certainly valid. Besides the obvious fact that Olyphant's last hit series was HBO's "Deadwood," this land of lawlessness and white supremacists (watched over by a pistol-wielding badass who snorts about his quick hand) certainly has westward machismo to burn - let's hope it doesn't bust a wheel. [B+]

A-Team Poster

Joe Carnahan's The A-Team (20th Century Fox, 6.11) might be a really fun piece of mindless 80's nostalgia, but this poster is just disgusting. It looks like an advertisement for an A&E reality show about mercenaries.

Date Night

The only thing keeping Shawn Levy's Date Night (20th Century Fox, 4.09) from looking like a total dud are the endless train of seemingly well-placed cameos. I might pay up just to see James Franco and Mila Kunis as a gutter-trash couple. Otherwise, it looks like a one-night New York City spin-off of Get Smart.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Review: "Remember Me" (2010)

At one point in Allen Coulter's bromidic and hazardous Remember Me, our two leads - played by Robert Pattinson and Emilie de Ravin - surrender to a little afternoon delight, their movements harsh and their faces swollen and cut so as to illustrate their tragic, misfortunate upbringings.

And when this post-teen drama isn't wallowing in the murky waters of the adverse and the banal, it offers mild rewards in the chemistry of its two battered, recouping souls. But at the end of the day, these characters aren't so much the gophers of life's bumpy misfortunes, but rather the victims of a desperate screenwriter.

Tyler Hawkins (Robert Pattinson) is a 21-year old slacker; he seethes with rage at the mere sight of his father (Pierce Brosnan), a friction further enhanced after the loss of his older brother Michael to suicide. After a run-in with a carefree, spiteful police officer (Chris Cooper), Tyler, with the help of his standard-order roommate, discovers that the cold-hearted cop has a daughter (Emilie de Ravin).

Conceived initially as a mere bet - or petty revenge - Tyler starts seeing the slinky, playful Ally who likes to eat her dessert before her meal because what better way to become endearing to an audience than to possess some quirky, against-the-grain character trait? Right, but she also does it because she believes that "if you want something, why wait?" Oh boy, looks like someone has a walk of shame in their future.

Needless to say, after a romantic night at the bachelor pad - full of more dessert and a friendly water war - the two begin to hit it off and lick their collective life wounds with Ally revealing her very comic-book origin childhood story (shown in full detail in the opening scene) in which a duo of hoodlums rob and shoot her mother before her eyes.

And it's this cheap, manipulative sense of coincidence and tragedy that ultimately drowns the film - probing and searching for any emotional response, regardless of sincerity. The final act of desperation - astoundingly foolhardy and exploitative - proves to be the proverbial nail-in-the-coffin. [C]

Frank Capra #11: 'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town' (1936)

Perhaps the best and earliest example of Capra's penchant for "portraits of optimism" was this 1936 comedy-drama Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Written by frequent collaborator Robert Riskin from a story by Clarence Budington Kelland, the film earned Capra his second Best Director Oscar statuette in three years and is widely recognized today as one of his best works.

It follows the journey of a small-towner (Gary Cooper) on his way to the top of the social ladder after falling into a $20 million inheritance. Once in the city, the titular Longfellow Deeds sees his moral and rural values clash with the conniving, opportunistic big-city folk, until the fortune becomes too much of a burden to bear.

Deftly mixing comedy and romance, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is also a delicate social critique and a timely Depression-era wish-fulfillment fantasy. (Deeds' fortune becomes a nifty bailout for the poor and starving farmers of rural America). It also made a star out its leading lady (played by Jean Arthur as a newswoman covering the escapades of Deeds in the big city ) and completely reinvented its leading man.

Gary Cooper, now known for his coy, noble and wholesome performances in films like Sergeant York (1941), Ball of Fire (1941) and High Noon (1952) can thank Capra for laying the groundwork for decades of morally-conscience portraits of selflessness - his work here is very much in the mold of "career-defining".

And although a late-act courtroom scene draws on for about fifteen minutes too long and the whole production feels weirdly indiscreet, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town has laughs and appeal to burn. Shameless optimism has never been so downright rewarding and easy to dismiss.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Frank Capra #10: 'Broadway Bill' (1934)

Essentially an inspirational follow-your-dreams sports drama, Broadway Bill is the kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy that audiences ate up in the Depression-era studio age. Equal parts comedy, romance and drama, it's easy to see why audiences and critics lauded the film upon its release and also easy to see why Frank Capra, to his death, was never particularly fond of it.

The story of a man (Warner Baxter) who gives up his father-in-law's business and abandons his overbearing wife in order to strive for his lifelong dream of racing horses, Broadway Bill (named after the lightning-fast steed) is a classic underdog feel-good story, the kind Capra relished in producing through the majority of his career.

It's also sentimental to a fault (particularly in its mawkish climax) and the relationship between Baxter and his sister-in-law (Myrna Loy), which is one-sided in its seriousness, is overplayed. Nevertheless, Broadway Bill eventually pulls through as a candid piece of modern entertainment.

(Released and shot after Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, this film was long considered "lost" until resurfacing in the 1990's as twenty minutes shorter, from 125 to 105).

Criterion June Titles

The Criterion Collection announced their June titles today and it's a boatload of goodies. First, on the high-def front are:

The Leopard (Luschino Visconti; 1963) [Blu-ray]
Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch; 1989) [Blu-ray]
Red Desert (Michelangelo Antonioni; 1964) [Blu-ray]

and on DVD we have:

Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami; 1990) [DVD]
Everlasting Moments (Jan Troell; 2009) [DVD]
Night Train to Munich (Carol Reed; 1940) [DVD]

Red Desert and Night Train to Munich are certainly most welcome, as neither are available on DVD in North America, and the latter Carol Reed film stars Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison and Paul Henreid!

Jan Troell's Everlasting Moments is a very good film (it made my Top 10 list) and Luschino Visconti's lush period drama, The Leopard, is an obvious in-house choice, considering Criterion already had the rights and simply had to convert it to high-def.

Cover art? Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich takes the cake, easily. I'm a little disappointed in Red Desert, it's a little boring, I have to say.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Organ Player

The only reasons to see Miguel Sapochnik's Repo Men (Universal, 03.19.10) are a) the science-fiction angle, which gets me every time and b) Jude Law. Otherwise this mid-level studio film looks awfully familiar.

It tells the story of two "repo men" who repossess artifical organs - produced by an evil corporation known as 'The Union' - from the customers who can't pay their bills, no matter the circumstances. Of course, when Remy (Jude Law) is fitted with a new heart himself, the hunter becomes the hunted and it turns into a man-on-the-run corporate beatdown.

Now let the "which came first?" argument start between Repo Men and Repo! The Genetic Opera.


This summer we get not one, but two paycheck animated films. Not even Pixar is spared.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Review: "A Prophet" (2010)

There's a scene in the early moments of Jacques Audiard's affecting and absorbing A Prophet in which our protagonist - the 19-year old Malik El Djebena, newly imprisoned, unassuming and raw - is approached by an apparently well-established figure in the prison yard (measured by the size of his entourage) about performing a certain task for him.

It's the heinousness and the persuasiveness of this early act - built-up to a nearly unbearable tension and delivered with startling conviction - that ensures the kind of viewing experience that awaits in this ineffaceable, heavyweight prison drama.

Essentially chronicling the unlikely rise to the top of the French underworld - both inside and outside of the prison - by the scrawny and quick-learning Malik (an Arab played with a genuine vitality by Tahar Rahim), the film is two-and-a-half hours of nail-biting crime drama set within a rigid, hostile, cage-rattling atmosphere.

Morphing from manager to survivalist to schemer, Malik soon learns (though not without trepidation and hardship) his role to play in the power struggle between the Arabs and the Corsicans through the persuasion and assistance of spiritual elements, handled with a subtlety and a grace that grants the film a unique resonance otherwise excluded in the crime-world genre.

Punctuated with inter-titles and soft fades-to-black, A Prophet never fails to feel like anything less than the singular vision of its artist. Inspired to make the film after a screening at a French prison, Jacques Audiard, in this his fifth feature, delivers nothing less than a masterwork.

As Malik takes his place in the yard near the end of the film - his ruthless mentor left to share a bench across the way, isolated and powerless - the journey from hack to king, from apprentice to master and from victim to prophet is at last complete. That the transformation doesn't become entirely evident until that moment is one of the film's greatest rewards - I can only wait to experience it again. [A]

Review: "Green Zone" (2010)

Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass take on the Bush-Cheney administration in their WMD-free Iraq action-thriller Green Zone. Both tantalizing in its production and overt in its politics, the film takes the aesthetic of the Bourne series (snap-zooms, handheld spasms) and turns it into an unrelenting anti-Iraq war tirade. As a message-film, it's cumbersome and heavy-handed - as a thriller, it's tenacious and enthralling.

In the early moments we see Chief Roy Miller (Matt Damon) - before he's encumbered by deceitful D.C. higher-uppers - prowling through the streets of post-invasion Baghdad with his nose in the sand, searching for those elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction. In these comparatively unpronounced scenes, Green Zone actually achieves a sense of engaging and unexhausted condemnation otherwise absent in the film's last hour or so of Hajji-hunting and governmental closeting.

What Damon's Roy Miller (a Bourne-again truth-seeker) uncovers is a flaw in the Intel which continually sends he and his men into hostile territory looking around for WMD's that don't exist. More than a little perturbed, Miller seeks guidance from a CIA agent (Brendan Gleeson) who has been on to the suspiciousness of Washington (given a face by Greg Kinnear) for a while now.

Armed with an unyielding disposition and a fearless resolve, Miller attempts to single-handedly blow-the-lid on the entire Middle-East campaign (with some help from a well-meaning journalist played by Amy Ryan), therefore exposing the war as a meaningless charade. "We're here to do our job, the reasons don't matter," a fellow officer pleads. "They do to me," he responds.

And thus is the way of Brian Helgeland's oppressive script, which takes great liberties with Rajiv Chandrasekaran's source novel, shaping the model and bending the details into a familiar genre entry of a rogue warrior attempting to out-duel the conniving and fraudulent government slimes. And why not? After all, this is what director Paul Greengrass and Damon usually do best.

With his hardened physique and facial features, Matt Damon has turned into a dependable morally-grounded action hero and man-on-the-move. If nothing else, Green Zone proves that it's still worth it to pay to see him on the big screen. He's magnetic, endearing and forceful, and it's a joy to watch him here, regardless of the film's issues.

And the problem here simply lies in the telling, which bludgeons with so many broad, criminally obvious anti-Bush slants ("You don't have the right to decide what goes on here," a benevolent Iraqi citizen implores) that the overall impact of the film becomes reduced to a desperate, dated conviction - albeit a fundamentally sound one.

Comparison's to Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker are inevitable, and here Greengrass, clearly both aided and burdened by his big-budget filmmaking, just further enhances the strengths of the 2009 Oscar winner. Where The Hurt Locker avoids blatant political pitfalls and thrives on intimacy, Green Zone flounders in its domineering explicitness - instead of coaxing or gently affecting its audience, it constantly talks down to them. [B-]

Kick-Ass at SXSW

Are we supposed to believe the uncontrollable gushing coming out of Austin, Texas in regards to Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass (Lionsgate, 04.16.10)? The comic-book action-comedy, complete with (mostly) powerless characters has just reached out and sucker-punched the journalists in attendance at Friday night's festival opener.

Devin Faraci at CHUD gave the film a perfect score, while Variety's Joe Leydon ("audacious dark comedy") and Hollywood Reporter's John DeFore ("funny, unexpectedly violent") both sung its praises in the trades.

Honestly, this sounds like the same hoopla we heard over Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, which I ultimately saw and despised. The geek-house genre films certainly can rile some feathers.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Classic Rewind: 'High and Low' (1963)

I've always considered Kurosawa's filmography to be of two halves - his Shakespearean period-samurai films contrasting with his contemporary musings on society - and High and Low certainly falls squarely into the latter group as his sharpest and most inspired.

Through a botched kidnapping and the subsequent quest to rescue the victim and track down the perpetrator, Kurosawa uses the platform to wind together and compose a sprawling work on class-differences, corporate greed and moral turbulence.

What's always gotten me though is Kurosawa's brilliant two-act structure, which follows Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) as he attempts to deal with and come to terms with his options - pay the ransom or follow-through on his scheming buyout of the National Shoe Company - while the second half pivots and turns into a thoroughly effective David Fincher-esque police procedural.

As the final scene approaches - our ethically-tested Gondo and our guilty-as-charged criminal architect face-to-face, separated by a thin wire barrier - it feels like a crime-epic crescendo along the lines of Heat or The Dark Knight. The difference is Kurosawa's social relevancy, which elevates this thriller into a pointed examination of contemporary Japanese culture. As Stanley Kubrick would say - rich or poor, good or bad, high or low, "they are all equal now."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dial M for Blu-ray is reporting (via Spanish site Planeta HD) that Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1953) will be coming to Blu-ray sometime this year. I wish I could get excited about this, but alas, I'm not.

I've never been a fan of Dial M for Murder, the Grace Kelly, Ray Milland foiled-murder mystery. It's too stagey and claustrophobic and detail-oriented, like one giant, long scene out of an Agatha Christie novel.

I'm all for Hitchcock movies on Blu-ray, and I understand that Warner Bros. only has the rights to 8-9, but how can these other studios sit back when they have To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, The Birds, Psycho, The Man Who Knew Too Much - most of which were shot in VistaVision or Cinemascope with that bold, widescreen Robert Burks allure? If I'm ranking Hitchock films, Dial M for Murder doesn't even register in the Top 15.

Green Zone

I'm going to see Paul Greengrass' Green Zone sometime this weekend, despite its assorted and collective buzz as something trivial and outlandish. (It currently holds a 50% Rottentomatoes score).

Most reviewers have kicked up a storm because Brian Helgeland's script strays far from the source novel by Rajiv Chandrasekaran and plays up the one-man thriller elements, resulting in something far less substantial and more ludicrous. So much so, that Roger Ebert, in his 4-star review posted today, felt compelled to issue a defense of the film:

"Yes, the film is fiction, employs far-fetched coincidences, and improbably places one man at the center of all the action. It is a thriller, not a documentary."

I'm also interested (as I would imagine many people are) to see what a big-budget action-thriller placed in the Iraq War looks and feels like after the well-earned success of Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker.

Ridley + Crowe

I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit giddy about seeing Ridley Scott's Robin Hood (Universal, 05.14.10), but this latest trailer is most discouraging. I'm absolutely positive that it will contain first-rate action scenes, flaunt with its sun-through-the-trees lensing and muted colors, but who doesn't watch this and think it looks like a Gladiator re-skin?

Plus I'm not sure that molding the Robin Hood legend, a tale of merry men and romance and fun, should be reduced to a medieval-era bone-crusher and gritty tale of destiny and vengeance. The father-son stuff looks terrible and so does Cate Blanchett, who looks bad enough posing as a damsel-in-distress before donning Joan of Arc gear towards the end. I'm worried.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Frank Capra #9: 'The Bitter Tea of General Yen' (1933)

Throughout the first handful of years in which Capra emerged as the top director for then-minor league studio Columbia Pictures under Harry Cohn, the director churned out middling, creaky melodramas, newsroom comedies and aviation epics - all of them financially successful.

Nevertheless, Capra admittedly wanted to break into the mold of prestigious, awards-caliber filmmakers, and thus The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) became that project that would bring Capra prestige, awards and an audience.

Although The Bitter Tea of General Yen is, from this seat, Capra's most sophisticated, artful and complete work to date, it was also his least successful and most controversial. The story of an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) who is initially held captive by a General (Nils Asther) in war-torn China before submitting to his will and his wisdom, the film was highly contested and dismissed due to its deviant depiction of an interracial romance.

Essentially a Beauty and the Beast-like tale, and based on a story by Grace Zering Stone, The Bitter Tea of General Yen works because of the clashing ideals and cultures between Stanwyck's hypocritical missionary and General Yen's stiff, rough demeanor masking an affectionate, selfless persona. Even if it doesn't reach the tragic heights and emotional crescendos of a great work, it's such a step above Capra's early studio-age material that it can't help but be commended.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen was the film that opened the Radio City Music Hall on January 11, 1933 for a two-week run. It only played for eight days. Capra's quest for critical notoriety and artful prominence postponed.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tron: Legacy

My unabashed, geeky love for the original 1982 Tron gets my blood-pumping a little bit when I watch this trailer (once in 3D before Alice in Wonderland and a second-time just a moment ago). The allure of the original for a lot of people I assume lies in the cybernetic, virtual-reality Matrix-like world, which looks great even by today's standards.

I was worried that a reboot would add unnecessary gloss and precision to the technology, but a) I think it looks faithful without being excessive and unfamiliar and b) the fact that this sequel takes place almost thirty years after the original gives the creators and the animation team freedom to expand upon the program that Jeff Bridges now inhabits for good, apparently.

Tron: Legacy will open on 12.17.10 opposite Warner Bros.' Yogi Bear, in what will likely be the first weekend ever to debut two 3D films simultaneously.

Two-Trick Pony

I knew that well-known art-house actress Charlotte Gainsbourg (I'm Not There, Antichrist) was off into the music scene somewhat, but watching this clip of her performing "Trick Pony," on David Letterman about 5-6 weeks ago is a little bizarre, I have to admit.

It's a little odd watching a well-known screen performer on stage, and it's also odd that Letterman had to ask, "are you Charlotte?" upon taking the stage - really, Dave?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review: 'Fish Tank' [B]

Great lengths were taken during the production of Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank - a scummy, staunch British coming-of-age drama - to ensure absolute authenticity.

Scenes were shot chronologically, the actors unaware of their character's fate as the story progresses, and the film's lead, a 15 year-old wannabe dancer with a short fuse (played on screen by newcomer Katie Jarvis), was discovered by casting director Jill Trevellick on the streets of England in the midst of an apparently convincing argument with her boyfriend.

And it's this remarkably convincing and unabashed dedication to realism that - combined with the talents of its principal actors - gives Fish Tank its narrative spunk and uncomfortable veracity, which at times becomes too nihilistic even for me.

But the way in which Arnold keeps tricks to a minimum and takes the time to accentuate the pleasures of an afternoon car ride or the smell of her mom's boyfriend's cologne, she's able to get inside the disaffection and desires of her confounding and temperamental teen subject.

Living in a pinkish, boxy apartment with her sleazy, self-serving mother and a matured younger sister, Mia (Jarvis) escapes the harsh realities of lower-class England by dancing away to old-school American hip-hop and playfully prodding away at mom's frank and unpredictable boy toy (Michael Fassbender).

Proving his worth in art-houses and multiplexes alike (Hunger, Inglourious Basterds), Fassbender, who becomes quietly enamored with young Mia himself, turns in a textured and rich supporting role, concurrently becoming a father figure of sorts while still exuding a sense of inappropriateness and attachment beyond paternal mentoring.

And young Katie Jarvis - who even walks as if she's fed up with it - gives a dynamite, true-to-life performance as the always-present subject in this bleak, unforgiving and ostensibly futile drama that wavers significantly at points during the latter half before eventually re-righting the ship. Even when Mia crosses the line and becomes contemptuously vindictive, Arnold and Jarvis are quick to draw us back in and remind us of youthful arrogance and the elusiveness of life's even playing field.

Of course, the title Fish Tank refers to the enclosed world of Mia Williams, reduced to an onlooker and helpless dreamer of life out in the ocean. This is a film that sees our characters initially finding solace in listening to "California Dreamin" before finally and more appropriately settling on "Life's a Bitch." While it may seem like a tragic concession, it plays out more like a timely realization - our characters now unchained from their deluded optimism.