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Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Sting

The Sting
1973 -- Rated PG
Director: George Roy Hill
Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw


It's a damp cold day today so I pulled out my copy of the DVD The Sting, the 1973 classic con movie staring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. I don't know for sure what it is about a grifter movie I love so much - maybe it's the intricate plot twists involved, maybe it's the level of trust the con artists must have in each other, but whatever it is I love it and The Sting is a masterpiece of con movies as evidenced by the seven academy awards it walked away with including Best Director (George Roy Hill), Best Music (Marvin Hamlisch), Best Screenplay (David Ward) and of course Best Picture.
As a period piece The Sting is a jewel. The costumes (which also won an Oscar), the vintage cars, the locales (again, also an Oscar for set design) and the lingo are breathtaking to behold. The character actors in this movie read like a Who's Who of character actors with Harold Gould (Patch Adams), Ray Walston (South Pacific and TV's My Favorite Martian), Dana Elcar (TV's MacGyver), and many more. Newman and Redford though are, of course, the stars and their bountiful talent plays well against each other. In fact I feel their performances in The Sting are far superior to the other great buddy film they joined forces in - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (also a George Roy Hill film).
The premise of the sting is the long con of a dangerous New York racketeer (Robert Shaw) in retaliation for his having a friend of theirs killed. Pitting Lonnegan's (Shaw) weaknesses against himself the duo of Gondorff (Newman) and Hooker (Redford) lead an ensemble of veteran con artists in a magnificent game of deception to lure Lonnegan in and take him for half a million dollars (which in the 1930's was a lot of money) and to do it without him knowing he was taken.
So if you can find it on iTunes or Amazon or Netflix or any of those movie services you really need to invest in it and pull it out on a wet rainy day - believe me, it'll make you feel good!

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Get Low

Get Low
2009 -- Rated PG13
Director: Aaron Schneider
Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Lucas Black


As I sat and watched this film I wondered if Robert Duvall ever did a bad film. I couldn't think of any. I even looked him up on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) to see if there were films that might have been less than stellar. The answer is no. Well, there was Gone in 60 Seconds which wasn't a highly acclaimed film but it was fun and Duvall's character definitely helped that movie stay away from the basement.
In Get Low, Duvall plays a cantankerous old hermit in rural 1930's Tennessee who sets out to throw his own funeral party while he is still alive but with a catch - those attending have to tell a story about him.
The story is well crafted, the casting is superb and the acting is above par. Bill Murray (Stripes, Lost in Translation) is absolutely mesmerizing as Frank Quinn the slightly skewed owner of the funeral parlor. Other notable performances include Sissy Spacek (Carrie, Coal Miner's Daughter), Gerald McRaney (TV's Simon & Simon), and Lucas Black (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) as Buddy, a young up and coming funerary apprentice.
As wonderful as all the performances are, Duvall's acting stands far above his castmates. Get Low is humorous at times, nostalgic always and poignant when it needs to be - in short it is a masterpiece of film-making.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Across the Universe

Across The Universe
2007 -- PG13
Director: Julie Taymor
Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, Joe Anderson

 For my friends who know me well it comes as no surprise that I would write about Across the Universe, the 2007 film that is built upon and around the music of the Beatles, after all the Beatles are without a doubt the greatest rock band that ever was or ever will be. Okay, I know that's a very subjective statement to make but hey - it's my blog! What I would find to be an even bigger surprise (especially to me) is that I actually LOVE this film. A surprise because I am extremely picky when it comes to artists who cover these icons of rock and roll, it either has to be an absolutely dead on cover that sounds like the original OR the artist has to make it completely their own - neither of which is an easy thing to do. In fact my friend, musician Clay Howard is probably the only artist I've heard that can do the Beatles, even acoustic, and do it well. I've even dubbed him the "sixth" Beatle. (Beatle fans should understand why sixth and not fifth).
 So the other day I decided to pop Across the Universe into the DVD player for the purpose of studying it's screenplay structure but of course it didn't take long to just get lost up in this beautiful piece of art - in fact I forgot about studying it the moment Jim Sturgess's character Jude launches into "Girl" in the very first scene.
Across the Universe is a musical tale fabricated from the stories and characters created in the music of the Beatles. I'm not going to say much about the story line here (you'll have to rent the DVD) other than to say it is set against the backdrop of the turbulent, often violent 60's, the Vietnam war, hippies and the revolution America's youth was embroiled in at that time with the establishment.
 What I will say though is that each and every song is crafted and performed with an immensely powerful emotion that occasionally left me crying - yes crying. When Max (Joe Anderson) reports for his physical to determine his eligibility to be drafted into the Army the imagery that accompanies "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" is staggering. Likewise the mental pain and anguish of post traumatic stress is more felt than heard when Max sings "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" in the Army medical ward. Bono (as Doctor Robert) and Joe Cocker (as a bum) both deliver exhilarating performances of "I Am The Walrus" and "Come Together" respectively but comedian Eddie Izzard's tripping performance as Mr. Kite is truly spectacular, a prime example of making a song your own as he speaks the song ("For the Benefit of Mr. Kite") rather than singing it.
 That Dana Fuchs as Sadie and Martin Luther as Jo-Jo appear to channel Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix is surely no coincidence. The performance by each is truly mind blowing.
 Many of the best and most popular Beatles songs are to be found here including "Let It Be," "Hey Jude," "Helter Skelter," "All You Need Is Love," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Strawberry Fields," "Something" and many more, all of which tell an integral part of the story that is Across the Universe - a movie that is far and away one of the best, if not the best neo-musical movie yet.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

True Grit

True Grit
2010 -- PG 13
Director: Ethan & Joel Coen
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin


 It is difficult to fathom anyone playing a role originally played by John Wayne, especially from one of his western or war films. Being a huge John Wayne fan it was with a lot of trepidation that I went to see the new Coen Brothers remake of the Wayne classic True Grit. "How," I wondered "can a couple of brothers who admittedly have made some fantastic dark comedy movies in the past (Fargo, Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou), possibly remake an iconic film like True Grit and expect it to be well received? The answer it would seem is that they stayed true to the original story, including much of the exact dialog. Jeff Bridges is cast in the role of the oft drunken and always cantankerous Rooster Cogburn and Matt Damon takes on the role of Texas Ranger La Boeuf, roles portrayed in the original by John Wayne and Glenn Campbell respectively. Apart from the wonderful cinematography, this film uses a wonderful musical score that is based solely on traditional Christian hymns such as "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms," "What A Friend We Have In Jesus," and "Hold To God's Unchanging Hands." The hymns are presented principally as orchestral pieces and provide the scenes with a musical theme that is understated so as to embellish and not to detract from the scene.
 Clearly though the Rooster Cogburn character could very well be the first movie role to provide the actor playing the part with an Oscar for both versions. John Wayne won his only Oscar playing Rooster in the original and Jeff Bridges could very easily win it for his portrayal of the same one-eyed lawman in this version.
 Other notable performances in this film include Josh Brolin who got top billing over Barry Pepper even though Pepper has more screen time. Both actors turn in wonderful performances in the respective roles of outlaws Tom Chaney (who Cogburn is after) and Lucky Ned Pepper. As far as the role of Mattie Ross, portrayed in the original by Kim Darby, new-comer Hailee Steinfeld makes the character every bit as insufferable as Darby's original portrayal.
 Bottom line is - go see this movie! True Grit is a throw-back to the days when movies were meant to be fun. This is how westerns were meant to be made!

*****UPDATE*****

True Grit ended up receiving ten Oscar nominations including Actor (Bridges), Supporting Actress (Steinfeld) and Film of the Year but alas it was a tough year and this incredible film came away with no wins.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Cloverfield

Cloverfield
2007 -- Rated R
Director: Matt Reeves
Michael Stahl-David, Jessica Lucas


    Cloverfield, the monster flick from J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias), is an intensely crafted work of art that succeeds on every level of keeping you on edge and tense. Filmed entirely from the point of view of a hand held video camera (a la 1999's Blair Witch Project), Cloverfield begins with filming a going away party for Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David - The Black Donnellys) at his New York City apartment when a sudden violent shaking of the building and subsequent blackout sends everyone to the roof top to see what's going on. From there the mayhem ensues and the camera continues to roll as Hud (T.J. Miller) leaves the camera on throughout their frightening night.
    The creature that has suddenly appeared in New York, lays waste to the big city in horrible fashion, knocking buildings over, beheading the Statue of Liberty, destroying the Brooklyn Bridge and on and on. The monster is not seen clearly through all of this, though it's size is definitely on an astronomical scale. Not until the very end do we get a good look at the behemoth and then not in its entirety due to its size.
    The one downfall of Cloverfield is that the filming style can become annoying at times and can cause you to feel nauseous. Even with a cast of unknowns it is largely due to the style of filming that this movie succeeds. You "feel" the tension, the anxiety and the fear as the creature and its smaller "offspring" devastate and devour.

Monday, September 17, 2007

3:10 To Yuma

3:10 To Yuma
2007 -- Rated R
Director: James Mangold
Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Peter Fonda


   It could be that Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Life, Master and Commander: Far Side Of The World) is a good actor. Or it could be that Christian Bale (The Prestige, Batman Begins) is a good actor. Or maybe the story is good or the action is good or... maybe I'm just glad to see a bona fide western in the theater again. Or maybe it's all of the above. Whatever the reason 3:10 To Yuma is a good western movie.
    The original film was based on the Elmore Leonard short story of the same name. With this new treatment, Academy Award winner Crowe takes on the role of outlaw leader Ben Wade and Bale is the hard working rancher Dan Evans (roles played by Glenn Ford and Van Heflin respectively in the original film) who takes on the job of delivering the smooth talking outlaw to the nearest town with a train going to Yuma and the penitentiary located there. Along the way to the train the group battle Apaches, vengeful railroad lawmen and money hungry townspeople all the while each man gaining a degree of respect for the other that must be dealt with at the end of the line.
    One surprising delight in 3:10 To Yuma is the enigmatic performance turned in by relative newcomer Ben Foster as Charlie Prince, Wades myrmidon second in command. Prince, whose only allegiance is his fatally flawed devotion to Wade, is a sociopathic killer and Foster brings the character scarily to life.
    New westerns are few and far between so thankfully 3:10 To Yuma is worth the wait.

Mr. Brooks

Mr. Brooks
2007 -- Rated R
Director: Bruce Evans
Kevin Costner, Demi Moore, Dane Cook, William Hurt


   Most folks I know are either a Kevin Costner fan or they’re not and if they’re not they say he has very limited acting range and his emotions are monotonous. That being said Mr. Brooks is a perfect vehicle for Costner. Mr. Brooks (Costner) is a very complex man and he must hide that complexity as best he can, which means his emotional range is very limited. You see, Mr. Brooks is a serial killer and not just your garden variety of serial killers either, Mr. Brooks is a schizophrenic – and he knows it.
   Yet while he spends his evenings killing, his daylife is consumed by a boorish existance as the owner of a box making company. He has even been named Portland, Oregon’s Man of the Year.
   Mr. Brooks has managed to keep his schizophrenia under control for two years by attending AA meetings, divulging only that he is an “addict.” But Marshall, Mr. Brooks’ imaginary alter-ego played wonderfully by the talented William Hurt, manages to convince Mr. Brooks to “do” one more killing.
   As complex a person as Mr. Brooks is, his complexity rivals that of the movie plot which, though never too hard to follow, successfully intertwines several different storylines. Demi Moore is Tracy Atwood, a Portland detective who has been on the trail of the “Thumbprint Killer” (Costner) for quite some time. Dane Cook is Mr. Smith who accidentally takes photos of Mr. Brooks’ latest escapade, but rather than turn him in, he wants to learn how to kill. Amidst all this, Mr. Brooks’ daughter suddenly appears on the scene, having dropped out of college because of an alleged pregnancy but it turns out that she too suffers from the same homicidal disease as her father.
   It would be difficult to divulge more of the plot lines without giving away too much of the movie. Suffice it to say that this is one heck of a movie that will keep you riveted to your seat. Costner is perfectly cast as Mr. Brooks and Mr. Brooks is easily the best movie of the year so far.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

300

300
2007 -- Rated R
Director: Zack Snyder
Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West


    Admittedly I didn’t know a whole heck of a lot about King Leonidas and the Spartans before I saw 300, and though I have since been educated via the History Channel specials, I came away from this movie with a greater understanding and appreciation for the actual event that inspired the story. Based on the Frank Miller graphic novel, 300 is beautifully filmed and told, albeit with an ample amount of creative license. Gerard Butler (Timeline) renders King Leonidas as both a powerful leader and a loving husband and father. Lena Headey (The Cave) portrays Queen Gorgo in a way that keeps the viewer riveted through both her beauty and her unflappable devotion to her country.
300 is one of the best films of 2007