Monthly Archives: June 2009

Review: Rear Window

rear window one sheetThere are many films that have been written about Hollywood, but none have done a better job of exploring the relationship between the film viewer and the film than the absolutely brilliant 1954 Rear Window.

The story has James Stewart (playing L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies) as a photo-journalist with his entire left leg in a cast, toe to hip, stuck for two months in his Greenwich Village apartment during a hot summer. Day by day he sits, bored, watching his neighbors through his window with binoculars, from the barely-clad ballet dancer Miss Torso to the sad Miss Lonelyhearts, to the songwriter and newlyweds.
More ominously, however, is Lars Thorwald (played perfectly by Raymond Burr) as the angry man across the courtyard who gets into fight after fight with his wife and then she mysteriously vanishes. Did he finally get fed up and kill her?  Did Jefferies witness a murder?
In Rear Window, Stewart plays both the armchair detective, the nosy neighbor and a surrogate for all of us sitting in the theater watching the screen and sneaking into the lives of the people up there on the big screen, the flickering shadows on the wall.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt a bit that Grace Kelly (as media darling and cover girl Lisa Carol Fremont) is his fianceé and is an absolute vision of loveliness. In fact, the scene where we first see her is, in my mind, one of the most beautifully filmed moments in all of cinema. She’s breathtakingly stunning, and director Alfred Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks both know it.
When we watch a film, do we see what we think we see, or do we see what we want to see?  Are films a peek behind the scenes of reality or are they their own reality?
As Jefferies’ housekeeper Stella (as played by the great character actor Thelma Ritter) says early in the film: “Mr. Jefferies, we’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”


Review: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

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Michael Bay is one of those film directors that people seem to either love or hate. I know of many film aficionados who cringe when they hear that Bay is involved in a project. His signature style is certainly big, loud, flashy, with big, big special effects and, too often, a weak or completely incoherent story line.

My relationship with Michael Bay is a bit more complex because I really do like some of his films while others are just ghastly. I really like both The Island, and especially the thrilling The Rock, and mostly like the blockbuster Pearl Harbor and Bad Boys. I think that Bay has also made some daft films too, notably Armageddon which was out and out stupid in this reviewer’s opinion. 
The first Transformers movie?  I didn’t like it that much because I couldn’t really figure out what was going on most of the time. I also wasn’t much of a fan of the original Transformers TV show or toys so that entire “autobots versus decepticons” story passed me by.
Which brings us to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
In so many ways, this is the quintessential Michael Bay film, so without even reading any further I can safely tell you that if you like big, loud, beautiful visual effects and can safely ignore hiccups in the story, then you’ve got a great film to go see this weekend.
If you care about the story in a film, not just the sf/x, however, things get a bit more complicated…

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Mini-Review: Sunset Boulevard

sunset boulevard onesheetWhat the heck?  What am I doing reviewing a film that was released before I was born, and, probably, before you were born?  Sunset Boulevard was released in 1950 and, directed by the great Billy Wilder, ranks as one of the very best films made, particularly if you’re interested in the self-referentialism of films about the movie industry like I am.

Sunset Boulevard is all about lost dreams, about the inevitable march of progress and of those who are left behind. It’s about the world we all see ourselves as inhabiting versus the harsh light of reality, of the extraordinary lengths we’ll each go to deny that reality and live within our cocoon, and even of the lengths others who love us will go to keep us safely in our delusions.
There are three characters in Sunset Boulevard and it’s their interaction that power this entire movie: the hack screenwriter Joe Gillis (played beautifully by William Holden) who can’t sell a script and is hiding out so that the bank won’t reposes his car, forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond (played brilliantly – and frighteningly – by Gloria Swanson in what is probably her best role) who lives in a run-down mansion with her servant and companion Max Von Mayerling (an interesting, albeit somewhat creepy role for the great character actor Erich von Stroheim).
In their own way, each of the three is living in their dream, their memory of a better day, pushing away anything that doesn’t jibe. Gillis is a cynical writer who gets sucked into a strange relationship with the far older Desmond, who, for her part, continues to play the role of Hollywood star even without an audience. When Gillis literally drops into her world (in an opening scene that sets the tone and light wry touch of the entire movie) she embraces him and slowly traps him in her world of faded lights, nostalgia and forgotten celebrities.
All the while Mayerling hovers around the scene, orchestrating as needed to ensure that Desmond can remain in her dream world even as reality increasingly forces its way into the story in ways that cannot be denied. When you realize who he was and how he and Desmond are connected, whole new layers of the film open up, like a trap door dropping out from under you, the viewer.
The ending is tragic and somehow inevitable, while, in so many ways, echoing the basic pretension of the entire film process (as Singing In The Rain, in a very different way, also offers up a dry commentary on Hollywood and the evolution of film from silent to talkies).
I have been careful not to spoil any of the many interesting and surprising twists in this movie, widely considered one of the very best ever made. 
Watch it and find out why.

Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

pelham 1 2 3 onesheetWhenever I review a remake I like to start out saying whether or not I liked the original and in this case, I definitely need to disclose that I loved the original 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw as the protagonist and antagonist, respectively. It ranks as one of the best crime dramas of the mid-70s, with a story line that surprises the viewer more than once, an ingenious escape for the subway kidnappers, and a beautiful denouement that ends the film.

The original is also rather surprisingly non-violent, though it’s gritty and quite tense. More importantly, there are some interesting ambiguities in the story that leave you wondering how things are going to transpire, but never quite seem to trip up the criminals as you would expect.
The Tony Scott-directed remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 features two big Hollywood stars, Denzel Washington (as MTA transit controller Walter Garber) and John Travolta (as the criminal mastermind Ryder). Unfortunately, both walk through their roles with precious little engagement, which leaves us as viewers uninvolved with the story itself. 
In fact, there’s a curious lack of emotional engagement and acting on the part of everyone in this film, most notably the hostages who seem oddly blasé about being held hostage by a crazed kidnapper who demonstrates more than once his willingness to kill innocent people in cold blood.

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Mini-Review: Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens)

Every so often I’ll be writing a 2-3 sentence mini-review of a favorite old film, hopefully to entice you, dear reader, into watching it and leaving your own comments on the movie. I’ll try to use this to explain why I like each of the films whose one sheets are in the background graphic of this site too.

nueve reinas onesheet.jpgIf you like films about cons like The Italian Job (either the recent remake or the wry original) or The Spanish Prisoner, then you’ll love this Spanish-language film set in Argentina, where nothing is what it seems. Or is it?

The Nine Queens of the title are a sheet of exceptionally rare stamps and the film is about grifters who meet by chance and concoct the big con after pulling off various smaller scams.

Pay particular attention to the last five minutes of the film as many things that transpire earlier are explained in subtle ways.

I love the genre and this is not only one of my all-time favorite con movies, it’s just one of my favorite films of all time.

Now, go see it, enjoy it and let me know what you thought!

Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens) was released in August, 2000 and distributed in the United States by Sony Pictures Classics. Directed by Fabián Bielinsky, the film stars Gastón Pauls as Juan and Ricardo Darín as Marcos and has an MPAA “R” rating.

Review: The Hangover

the hangover onesheet.jpgThis is a guest review from my friend Steve Oatney. Generally, I run guest reviews of movies when the critic has a strongly divergent opinion to my own or when it’s a movie that I just know I’m not going to see (like a scary horror film or chick flick). Anyway, here we go!

Having recently seen The Hangover, I feel I must start by telling you, I LOVE TO LAUGH!

Having said that, The Hangover succeeded in giving me many reasons to utilize most every form of laugher that I have in my personal bag of chuckles. In the beginning parts of the film, during which we are introduced to our primary, and secondary characters, I found myself giggling and chortling often. 

Our main characters are all about to head to Las Vegas for a bachelor party. 

Justin Bartha (of the National Treasure films) plays Doug, a regular guy preparing to get married, and our reason for the story. Doug’s pal Phil is played by Bradley Cooper (He’s Just Not That Into You) and is our fun-loving, cool, and cool-headed hipster. Ed Helms plays Stu, the guy for whom we feel pity as he’s in a bad marriage and is almost completely subservient to his domineering wife. Zach Galifianakis (What Happens in Vegas) plays the brother-in-law to be, and is the unpredictable enigma of the group. 

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Review: Up

up one sheet.jpgThere is no greater compliment that I can pay modern animated fare than to say that the best of them are now most properly viewed as films, not as animated films. 25 years ago we talked about “feature-length animation” but in the last few years we’ve seen such landmark achievements as Wall-E and Spirited Away, films that let us stop looking at how they’ve achieved the visuals, stop thinking about how much work it was, stop contemplating texture mapping, and just enjoy good storytelling.

Up joins that list of films that use animation to tell a story, that stand up as complex movies with story arcs, character development, back stories, and everything else we have learned to expect — nay, require — from good movies.
This is not a pean to the film, however: Up is not without its problems and a disturbing element in the story line that makes me take pause before I decide whether it’s appropriate for my children to see. But then again, I didn’t rave about Wall-E either, specifically because I view animation of this nature as films, not as cartoons, and so I hold them to the same standards I would any other fare.
As with all Pixar releases, Up starts with a very sweet short called Partly Cloudy, which nicely introduces some of the core themes in Up and shows off the amazing rendering of clouds and weather that the Pixar team have clearly mastered.

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Review: Land of the Lost

land of the lost onesheet

I didn’t like Land of the Lost. I’m not a big Will Ferrell fan overall, but I had high hopes for this film anyway because  the original TV series upon which it’s based was such a fun, innocent adventure show. 

I should have known better.

The fundamental problem with Land of the Lost is that it couldn’t decide whether it was going to be a nice G-rated family film (which was certainly the premise of the original show) or whether it was going to give in and be raunchy, rife with both sexual and drug jokes, as if it were some sort of prehistoric addition to the Porky’s series.

To be blunt, there was a shocking amount of profanity, stupid sexual jokes and at least one drug-themed scene that surprised and angered me in a film that’s ostensibly marketed to families with children under 15. But then again, maybe I’m the one who is out of touch.

I can’t help wondering, however, how many parents would be comfortable bringing their pre-teen to a movie just to have a sophomoric series of jokes about women’s breasts (they also appear prominently on mugs, a lighter, and Holly (actress Anna Friel) has her breasts fondled and commented upon time and time again) and a scene where two Sleestak lizard-men have sex (off camera, but with a running commentary about “oh, he’s about to tap that ass” “no he’s not” “oh. oh, yes he is” “oh, yech!”)?

Not upsetting enough? In one early scene, Dr. Marshall (Will Ferrell) crouches down and quietly says “f*ck you!” to the child-like Chaka (played, in heavy makeup, by Jorma Taccone).

What the heck?

This is what passes for a family film nowadays? 

And, worse, Sid & Mart Krofft, creators of the original TV show, produced this remake? Unbelievable.

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