Archive for November, 2008

Across the Universe (2007)

-You’re either on the bus or off the bus.


It’s quite odd, but I seem to keep accidentally encountering Jim Sturgess in my reviews this fall. I have to admit, I was completely unfamiliar with him until I saw The Other Boleyn Girl. He made a minor, albeit, favorable impression on me. Then, I was watching 21 and thought he looked familiar. Oh yeah, it was the same guy. That movie made very little impression on me at all. Now, I’ve encountered him a third time, and again it wasn’t intentional. I had heard of Evan Rachel Wood, but until I reviewed The Life Before Her Eyes a few months ago I don’t think I’d actually watched her perform. When I chose to review Across the Universe, the decision was made near the beginning of the semester and was entirely based upon seeing the trailer for the movie a couple of times. I’d found it intriguing and visually appealing. I learned that it was being directed by Julie Taymor, famous for her choreography of The Lion King on Broadway, and featured the music of the Beatles in a Moulin-Rouge sort of way. Sweetening the deal was the involvement of U2’s Bono. I knew it was a film I wanted to see, but imagine my surprise to encounter young Mr. Sturgess once again. I’m glad as this is by far the best movie I’ve seen him in so far, and he’s good in it.

Sturgess plays Jude, a working class lad from Liverpool, who leaves his mother and girlfriend behind to take ship for the United States. He wants to find his father, who left his mother while she was pregnant with Jude. He has a lead that he works at an Ivy League University, and so incorrectly assumes that his father is a professor. It turns out that the man is a janitor with another family. Jude is an embarrassment and inconvenience for him. Still, while at the college, Jude quickly makes friends with Max who invites him home for Thanksgiving dinner with the folks. Max’s family doesn’t agree with Max’s attitude toward life, but Jude finds Max’s sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), irresistible. Max and Jude take off for a bohemian life in New York and are later joined by Lucy.

Lucy and Jude’s love story plays out over the tumultuous events of the 1960s and so it seems only natural that the soundtrack of their lives be the Beatles. I’ve always been more of a Rolling Stones fan, myself, and usually am either annoyed or bored by covers. With that in mind, I have to say I was completely enthralled by this musical extravaganza. If I had only listened to the soundtrack divorced from the life performances of the actors, and with the songs completely out of context, then I doubt that I would have enjoyed the soundtrack much. Watching the songs being performed was an entirely different experience. Sturgess and Wood are both wonderful actors and have beautiful voices. These are not merely good actors who can carry a tune – the kind that I usually am lenient towards. These are the rare genuine article – good actors who have musical talent. The familiar songs felt new and fresh, the highest compliment I can give to such an endeavor.

My favorite musical moments, though, upon reflection were with Sadie (Dana Fuchs), Jude and Max’s landlady, and her band. Sadie symbolizes Janis Joplin and Fuchs wisely understood that for the part she needed to be fearless and uninhibited in her singing. She goes all out which is the only way to invoke the spirit of Joplin. Her guitarist/lover in the movie, Jo Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), is meant to represent Jimi Hendrix. I didn’t feel he was quite as successful in capturing Hendrix, but McCoy was fine on his own merits.

I was looking forward to seeing Bono in this movie and I wasn’t disappointed. I have no idea if Bono can actually act, and this movie doesn’t really ask him to. It does give him a persona which is all he really needs. He has the charisma, the swagger, and the attitude. He uses them to make his character, Dr. Robert, lively, eccentric and memorable. I wasn’t really sold on the handlebar mustache, but since he was singing “I Am the Walrus” it was appropriate.

Taymor uses the gift for visuals she had developed on Broadway to outstanding effect here. The movie is brimming with trippy, psychedelic imagery…bizarre at times but never boring. She never loses the center of the movie, though, Jude and Lucy’s journey. I can’t wait to see what she turns her hand to next.


Read Full Post »

Captains Courageous (1938)

–Wake up, Little Fish. Hey, wake up, wake up! Somebody think you dead, they have celebrations.


Since this week is Thanksgiving, I wanted to be sure to review a good family movie. Captains Courageous certainly fits the bill. Directed by Victor Fleming and starring Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholomew, this movie adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s novel is exciting, funny and quite moving. Freddie Bartholomew was the Freddie Highmore of his day – only more famous. Bartholomew was the most famous child actor in the world in his day. By the time he made Captains Courageous, he’d already made several films including George Cukor’s David Copperfield, Clarence Brown’s famous Anna Karenina starring Greta Garbo and John Cromwell’s Little Lord Fauntleroy. Here he is reunited with two former co-stars Lionel Barrymore from Copperfield and Mickey Rooney from Fauntleroy, but they are joined by the strong presence of Spencer Tracy who won a Best Actor Academy Award for this film.

Here, Bartholomew plays the opposite of his character in Little Lord Fauntleroy. In the earlier film, he played a poor boy who finds himself unexpectedly rich and his good nature and noble character inspire those around him to behave the same way. In Captains Courageous, Bartholomew plays rich brat Harvey Cheyne. Harvey uses his brains, charisma and his father’s wealth and position to bully other boy’s at his private school. When a teacher stands up to him, he expects his father to back him up unquestioningly. When Mr. Cheyne (Melvyn Douglas) discovers Harvey’s true nature, however, he agrees with the school that something needs to be done in order to save Harvey from being the selfish little brute that he is.

Unfortunately, a large part of Harvey’s problem is that his father never has time for him. There are always too many things competing for his attention. They go on a cruise together, but Mr. Cheyne is constantly working. Harvey accidentally falls overboard and is rescued by a fishing boat. This is where the true meat of the story begins. The fishermen cannot return until their hold is full—it would mean the livelihood of everyone aboard. They think Harvey’s claims of wealth merely a boy’s boasting and try to put him to work. Harvey indignantly refuses until he realizes that no work means no food. He is put under the tender cares of Tracy’s Manuel Fidello, a poor Portuguese man who loves his fishing life. Manuel finds Harvey a right royal pain in the butt, but he patiently (most of the time) works with the boy.

Of course, Harvey will be changed for the better by the application of hard work, learning to earn respect and having quality attention paid to him. That’s never really in doubt, and yet the movie works splendidly in all areas. Bartholomew makes Harvey’s metamorphosis real and interesting. It’s not an overnight change, and in fact he resists complying with the demands made against him for quite some time. Tracy’s Manuel is crafty and patient enough to train Harvey to slowly think in different ways. They grow to care about each other although the fact seems to surprise them both. Tracy puts on a thick Portuguese accent, but his Manuel is a delight. He’s a good man, not a perfect one. He makes mistakes with Harvey, just as Harvey makes mistakes with him. They have a wonderfully engaging chemistry together that doesn’t feel forced or sappy. All of the other performances are uniformly good as well. They don’t make them like this anymore. It’s a tricky business balancing heart with grit so that you achieve a story that makes you feel warm without going into sugar shock. Little Lord Fauntleroy, for all of its good qualities, often tips the scale on the sentimentality. Captains Courageous manages to find the balance…perfectly pleasurable for the whole family.


Read Full Post »

We Own the Night (2007)

–Remember. It’s better to be judged by twelve people, than carried by six.


Joaquin Phoenix recently announced that, at age 34, he is retiring from his career as an actor. I’m not sure what has prompted this decision though mention was made of turning his attention to music. If he decides to stick by his choice, he will be sorely missed. I will always remember his performances in To Die For, Gladiator and Walk the Line. Good luck to him, in whatever he does. One of Phoenix’s last films was 2007’s We Own the Night, also starring Robert Duvall, Eva Mendes, and Mark Wahlberg.

Phoenix plays Bobby Green, born Bobby Grusinski. Bobby’s family are all cops, but Bobby rebelled against going into the family business and instead becomes the manager of a successful Brooklyn night club. A particularly vicious Russian drug dealer likes to do business there as his uncle is the owner. Bobby’s father (Robert Duvall) and brother (Mark Wahlberg) ask him to keep an eye on the drug dealer, Nezhinski. Bobby doesn’t want to get involved. He’s much happier partying, running the club and romancing his girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes). Then, Nezhinski has Bobby’s brother, Joe, shot and Bobby is forced to choose sides.

The strengths of this film lie in its acting and the way the director, James Gray, has composed certain scenes. Phoenix is a strong lead and his charisma and intelligence carry the film a long way. Robert Duvall’s performance is everything one would expect from him. Wahlberg is given much less to do, but his scenes with Phoenix are noteworthy. Eva Mendes was the real surprise, for me. I have to admit, until this film I had been very underwhelmed by her in films like Ghost Rider and The Women. We Own the Night, though, actually gives her something to do besides look voluptuous. Her character’s relationship to Phoenix’s lies at the heart of the film and she delivers. I was startled and impressed…good for her.

I was also impressed by Gray’s handling of two scenes in particular: when Bobby is taken to the drug house and the car chase in the rain. Both are put together in such a subjective way. As Bobby is being led further into the drug house, the tension is ratcheted up by the narrowness of the hallways and the noises in the background. It feels like a waking nightmare. The car chase was also tense enough to make you nearly feel sick. The camera and sound are used in such an internal way showing us how Bobby perceives the events. Amazingly enough, the scene is not confusing as many action sequences are these days. Very nice work by all involved.

Where things fall down, though, is in the script. Things start off by introducing us to Bobby and his family, friends, and business associates. The complicated relationships play out in interesting ways and I was hooked for a long time following the dysfunctional family dynamic. Eventually the plot twists become unrealistic, however. There are some rather large holes that the acting (no matter how good) or directing (no matter how accomplished) can plug. The whole is not as a good as its parts. It’s a shame, since this is supposedly one of Phoenix’s last films. I hope the upcoming Two Lovers sends him off on a better note.

Read Full Post »

JFK (1991)

–The FBI says they can prove it through physics in a nuclear laboratory. Of course they can prove it. Theoretical physics can also prove that an elephant can hang off a cliff with its tail tied to a daisy! But use your eyes, your common sense.


If the ‘60s were, according to popular media, a confusing time of hippies, drugs, riots, Vietnam, Woodstock and assassinations, the ‘90s were a time of introspection, change and paranoia. There was a significant shift in paradigms symbolized by the advent of The X Files over Star Trek. Conspiracy theories were no longer shuffled off to the fringe groups, but proudly on display every Friday night. Two years before the debut of The X Files, Oliver Stone made his own significant contribution to the world of conspiracy theories in one of the most controversial films ever made – JFK. Over fifteen years later, just after a significant presidential election and on the 45th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, Stone’s conspiracy epic has made its way onto Blu-ray.

Before re-watching the film, I asked a colleague who teaches American history what the current field of thought about the events in 1963 was. His response led me to the conclusion that things are still nebulous with important questions still left unanswered. It does seem to be a fairly common opinion, however, that the report by the Warren Commission is not the ultimate authority on the assassination and that there was more than likely a second shooter.

When Stone was making this film, he was attacked by the media before the film was even finished. Time, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times all wrote scathing pieces condemning the picture. Ironically, Time would also name JFK as the fourth best picture of the year while both Roger Ebert and The Sydney Morning Herald named it the best picture of 1991. Ebert went on to name it one of the best films of the decade. Ebert declared that whether you believe in Stone’s conspiracy theories was irrelevant because the film “…tries to marshal the anger which ever since 1963 has been gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche.”

That anger, that righteous, indignant fury is the most overwhelming emotion one takes from the film. The President of the United States was murdered, and yet 45 years after his death we still mourn not only his loss, but the fact that we as a nation have never received closure. We still want to know why and how and who was responsible although my guess is that the truth will never be known. History records many unsolved mysteries although it seems amazing that there is no satisfactory solution to a crime with as much evidence as has been collected. The key word there would be satisfactory, I suppose.

Stone assembled an incredible cast: Kevin Costner, Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Kevin Bacon, Donald Sutherland, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ed Asner, Gary Oldman and others too numerous to mention. The audience is deluged with information which mostly makes sense as it’s presented, but sometimes becomes confusing later. We can feel the tension, paranoia, exhaustion and confusion of Jim Garrison and his investigative team. The movie is extremely long, (The Director’s Cut that I watched was 206 minutes.) but like Nixon was never boring. The way Stone assembles the movie is incredible with a blend of documentary footage blended with eerily accurate recreations and flashbacks that help the audience to keep track of what’s going on.

Jim Garrison was a lightning rod for controversy, but he remains the only person to prosecute a suspect for being involved in a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy. Stone shows us a man who despises injustice and can’t stomach deception. As a young person watching this film in the 90s, it encouraged me to think for myself and to never be afraid to ask hard questions. Surely, that is one of the hallmarks of any great work of art. On this anniversary weekend, you could do much worse than spend three hours with this film. Our country is faced with hard choices and inevitable changes. Let us hope we can follow the advice of Santayana and learn from our history, not repeat it.

Read Full Post »

Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938)

–All right, fellas. Let’s fake it till we get our orchestrations.


I grew up watching RKO Astaire/Rogers and MGM musicals. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve discovered the musicals made at other studios like Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox. Warner Brothers had Busby Berkley and James Cagney. This summer I watched a box set of Busby Berkley films. Now, I’m discovering the fun of Fox musicals. Fox had such stars as Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda and Betty Grable. I’ve been more familiar with Don Ameche and Alice Faye by name than performance and mostly knew Grable from her role opposite Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire. Tyrone Power I knew, of course, but mostly from his swashbucklers like The Mark of Zorro and The Black Swan.

Alexander’s Ragtime Band reunites Power with Alice Faye and Don Ameche who all starred in the earlier In Old Chicago. In that film, Power played the rakish bad boy, the black sheep of the family while Ameche played the good law abiding brother. In Alexander, Power plays a much more heroic sort, a young classically trained violinist from Nob Hill who accidentally acquires the moniker Alexander. He is a natural band leader and gets his first job by playing ragtime. He becomes fascinated by this new sound and with his talent and encouragement his band quickly rises to the top in San Francisco.

Alice Faye plays Stella Kirby, a girl from the wrong side of town with a beautiful voice. She unintentionally helps Alexander and his band land their first job. At first, she thinks he’s a snob who can do nothing but criticize her. He thinks she’s flashy and slightly common, and so they are prickly towards each other. There’s an interesting subtext here about change. Alexander tries to mold Stella into the quieter kind of woman he’s more accustomed to, and she resents that fact. When they first confess their romantic feelings towards each other, he compares himself to Pygmalion. Not surprisingly once he explains the reference she finds this offensive, but he backs away from it so she forgives him.

This exchange fascinated me because I’ve followed this theme in other works before: My Fair Lady being a prime example. As Shaw so wisely pointed out Galatea must surely resent Pygmalion. Who wants to be cherished only for the ways that you allow yourself to become a mirror for someone else and allow them to see only their own reflection whenever they look at you – to be perceived as having no personality of your own, no original thoughts in your head…for me that’s not love, it’s hell. Here, Stella kicks up a fuss about Alexander changing her, but ultimately she does alter as a result of knowing him.

Don Ameche plays Charlie Dwyer, a member of Alexander’s band with a deft hand at cranking out Irving Berlin ballads. Ameche has a pleasant voice, but also provides for the third leg of a triangle with Stella and Alexander. The film also features a very young Ethel Merman, delivering songs like “Heat Wave” as only she could, and the dancing of Jack Haley.

The success of the picture is easily explained by the talent of all involved, but its primary components are Power’s incredible looks and charisma, the eternally popular music of Irving Berlin, and the sultry voice of Alice Faye. Faye is new to me which I deeply regret. She has a wonderful screen presence, a natural chemistry with Power and a rare voice. It’s not often that the singing star of a musical is an alto with a voice as deep and rich as hers. As someone who also sings in the lower female register, I felt like I’d finally found someone who represented me on-screen. This is a gift that I will definitely be returning to again. Expect to see more from me in the future about Alice Faye and Tyrone Power.

Read Full Post »

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

–Wow, I feel sore. I mean physically, not like a guy who’s angry in a movie in the 1950’s.


–Umm, clearly I’m interrupting. I feel badly. Let me… What are you drinking?
–Bad? Sorry… feel…?
— You feel bad.
–Badly is an adverb. So to say you feel badly would be saying that the mechanism which allows you to feel is broken.


Go. Sleep badly. Any questions, hesitate to call.
Excuse me?
Sleep bad. Otherwise it makes it seem like the mechanism that allows you to sleep…
–… Who taught you grammar? Badly’s an adverb. Get out. Vanish.


I swear that I haven’t laughed so hard at a movie made in recent days in a long time. Kiss Kiss
Bang Bang is the directorial debut of screenwriter Shane Black, most famous for writing the Lethal Weapon series. It also teams up two actors who were originally popular in the ‘80s: Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. Black has made his name for writing action movies, but he’s always had a good sense of humor to go along with the explosions. Here, his tongue in cheek parody of pulp crime fiction is entertaining and hysterical while Downey and Kilmer have magnetic chemistry together.

Downey plays Harry Lockhart. Harry is in L.A. for a screen test, but the backstory showing how he got there is not exactly your typical acting story. He was actually a thief and through a series of mishaps found himself stumbling into an audition. At his first Hollywood party, he meets two people important in the movie: Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan) and Gay Perry (Val Kilmer).

Harmony turns out to be the dream girl that got away in Harry’s life. She ran away from an abusive father and came to Hollywood hoping to make it big and go home to rescue her little sister. She and Harry play an amusing game where they describe the patrons of the bar they’re in. Unfortunately, she ends up having trouble with her baby sister and she calls on Harry to help her out.

Perry is a genuine P. I. He’s often consulted by movie producers and asked to show actors the ropes of how to act like a genuine detective. When he takes Harry along on a case, things go sour quickly. My favorite line, amongst many, is an exchange between Harry and Perry about how dumb Harry is. When Perry asks what Harry thinks he would see if he looked up idiot in the dictionary, Harry admits it would be his own picture. No, Perry replies scathingly, he’d find the definition of the word idiot, which Harry definitely was. This and the riff on adverbs tickled my English professor’s heart.

This movie is definitely not for the easily offended. It is unashamedly un-PC, though there is a funny apology at the end for using the f-word so liberally. Along with the standard noir-ish voiceover, comes a running meta commentary that gleefully deconstructs the movie as it goes. This is amusing upon my first viewing of the film, but I think would be something that would quickly grow annoying upon repetition. Still, it’s a minor nit-pick, as overall I found this film to be funny, exciting and entirely entertaining.


Read Full Post »

Forbidden Planet (1956)

–One cannot behold the face of the gorgon and live!


As much as I love classic films and science fiction in general, it almost seems odd that it’s taken me this long to see Forbidden Planet. I’m not regretting the wait, though, because I was able to watch it on HD-DVD which made the experience even more fun. This film is a SF treasure with the iconic Robbie the Robot and a plot that’s obviously derived from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

A very young Leslie Nielson plays Commander J. J. Adams, the captain of an Earth spaceship sent to a planet to relieve the expedition there only to discover there are only two survivors: Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). Morbius explains that all of the others were killed by something monstrous that he can’t really describe. Adams and his crew are in awe of the good doctor’s home, his advanced technology and his beautiful, naïve daughter.

The film has a great deal of humor in its beginning and middle parts with Altaira playing a coquettish Miranda who is very impressed with this “brave new world/that has such people in it!” Altaira is less demure than Shakespeare’s heroine although equally naïve. Her father is not entirely pleased by the reactions she provokes in the lonely, hormone-driven crew.

Ariel and Caliban, in a way, are replaced by Robbie the Robot. Robbie is delightful. His design is awkward and clunky by our 21st century standards but his dry wit remains as potent as ever. His response to hearing raptures over the oxygen rich atmosphere of the planet is to say, “I seldom use it myself, sir. It promotes rust.” And, of course there’s the hilarious scene between Robbie and Altaira. Altaira is very miffed that she can’t seem to get the same response out of Commander Adams that she gets from his crew, and so she instructs Robbie to make her a new dress immediately. Her suggestions follow the Commander’s directive that she cover up more, but she obviously intends to be seductive as well. Somehow Robbie manages to capture a feeling of fond exasperation with the girl. Then of course, there’s this exchange: “Where have you been? I’ve beamed and beamed.” “Sorry, miss. I was giving myself an oil job.”

Robbie’s exchanges with the cook are also classic and hysterical and are obvious allusions to Caliban’s dealings with Trinculo and Stephano. The hilarity abruptly ends, though, when the same monster that killed the original team reappears to begin slaughtering Commander Adam’s men. Here is where the strength of the film truly lies – I was genuinely surprised to find out what the monster was. Its origins were much more interesting than your ordinary homicidal monster/alien.

Walter Pidgeon is marvelous as Dr. Morbius. Anne Francis, no doubt, knocked the boys dead in 1956 and brings a sly humor to the part. It’s fun to see young versions of familiar character actors like Richard Anderson, Jack Kelly, Warren Stevens and James Drury.

The eternal appeal of this film lies in its charm and humor, particularly with Altaira and Robbie, but also with its theme of man struggling with himself. Technology, as is usual, is made to be both wondrous and frightening, but ultimately the deepest terror lies in the depths of the human mind. Morbius’ renouncement of his power in the end, is not, like Prospero, a gentle sacrifice and recognition of change. His metaphoric breaking of his staff and drowning his book is tragic and terrible and noble…a reminder of humanity. One can almost hear him cry from the depths of Altaira:

                        Now my charms are all o’erthrown              

                        And what strength I have’s mine own…

…As you from crimes would pardoned be,

                        Let your indulgence set me free.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »