Fall Break

The Crop Duster takes a fall break. You might think about breaking your own fall, too. We’ll be back next week.

The Dish (The Cornfield #45)

And another Film.com review from 2001. This movie is one of those unheralded little Aussie pictures (Love Serenade is another) that provide a large amount of feel-good.

The Dish comes to us from the Australian filmmaking group that made The Castle, a splendidly silly film (and a huge hit down under). They’ve come a long way from that film’s bumptious, frowzy style; The Dish has a much more elegant look, and a mellow tone that feels as reassuring as lead actor Sam Neill’s cardigan sweaters and pipe. It even has a gooey framing device, with an aged Neill visiting the site of his glory thirty years after the fact—one of the periodic off-key notes in this otherwise nice movie.

Neill plays Cliff Buxton, the head man at a giant satellite dish located on a sheep farm outside the provincial town of Parkes. His moment of glory comes during a week in July 1969, when the first American moon landing brings the spotlight briefly to Parkes: the satellite dish is the only one of its kind capable of beaming back live TV pictures of the moonwalk. This is the kind of “footnote to history” that seems made for the movies, served up with more than a dollop of Aussie national pride.

True to its theme, the movie offers plenty of absurd irrelevance alongside the important issues of whether the dish will actually work or not at the moment of truth (power outages, a windstorm, computer glitches—there are plenty of monkey wrenches thrown into the path of our intrepid scientists). Cliff’s crew includes a lovesick Shrinking Violet and a pugnacious engineer, the latter with a chip on his shoulder about the imperious American organization man (Patrick Warburton) sitting in during the crucial week.

Warburton (last seen adopting a noir attitude in The Woman Chaser) is terrific, neatly balancing the casual America confidence (or arrogance) with an essentially nice-guy core. The movie is like this: it stirs up enough petty conflicts to divert us, but basically everybody’s all right, and eventually all the characters tap into the awesome wonder of just what it is they are doing. Neill, who plays the watchful/wise John Wayne role from Rio Bravo here, has the job of reminding all concerned about the galactic importance of their job.

There’s also lots of whimsy, of the familiar Aussie variety, with the dithery townsfolk. Director Rob Sitch has a droll way with throwaway gags, such as a local band that bursts into the theme from “Hawaii Five-O” when they mean to be playing the U.S. national anthem. I have to confess that this movie’s niceness ultimately made my skin crawl a little—when it’s this insistent, it’s a problem. And need I mention the numbingly persistent soundtrack of Sixties pop hits, nearly all of which are used in other movies? (There are thousands of good songs available for these purposes! Please, people, give the Top Forty a rest.) If it weren’t so pushy about selling itself, The Dish might have been a very special movie.

Love Shelter (Weekly Links)

Links to reviews I wrote for the Herald this week, as soon as I can make the links.

Take Shelter. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

The looming figure of Michael Shannon, a 6-foot-three-inch actor with a square jaw and a haunted countenance, would seem to be hard to keep on the sidelines.

But that’s where Shannon has spent most of his screen time, doing interesting work in small roles in “The Runaways” and “Machine Gun Preacher,” participating in the ensemble of “Boardwalk Empire,” and notching a supporting actor Oscar nomination for “Revolutionary Road.” When he occupies the center of a movie, look out, because something peculiar is surely going to happen. “Take Shelter” is built around Shannon’s oddness, his almost palpable discomfort in his own skin, and his biblical-prophet look.

He plays Curtis, a Midwestern construction manager whose seemingly ordinary life is suddenly cracking. Curtis begins having visions, in his sleep and eventually while waking: of terrible storms, of violent attacks, and of inexplicable plagues of birds and rain made of oil. He has his reasons for not sharing this torment with his wife (Jessica Chastain, “Tree of Life”), and besides, they’ve got their hands full with their hearing-impaired daughter (Tova Stewart). In panicked desperation, Curtis begins building out the modest storm shelter in the backyard, preparing for something that must be on the level of a nuclear apocalypse.

Not much more plot should be described, which doesn’t have a whole lot of plot to begin with. In fact, my problem with “Take Shelter” is that writer-director Jeff Nichols (“Shotgun Stories”) has an interesting idea and not much more than that.

As Curtis’s hallucinations move by, we must ask: is he really seeing warning signs, or is he just losing his marbles? And beyond that, we might sense a parable about trust, especially in the way Curtis can’t share his worries with his wife.

Although I found most of “Take Shelter” tedious, I liked a very late scene set inside the backyard storm shelter, where Curtis is challenged to actually trust in someone else’s assertion about reality. If the film ended where that scene ends, I think I’d admire it more. But it goes forward for a final sequence that is sure to cause debate. It seems extraneous to me, but then I already knew where I stood on the question of Curtis’s mental illness.

Shannon and Chastain give strong performances, as expected. In a way, the film explains why Michael Shannon is generally exiled to supporting roles: he’s such an unsettling, uneasy presence, it really is difficult to watch a film in which he stars. That’s a compliment to the actor, but a misgiving about the movie.

Love Crime. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

“Love Crime” has some of the calm, civilized appeal of a good literary mystery. There’s absolutely nothing flashy about this movie, which—considering the meticulous nature of its heroine—is completely appropriate. Unlike most crime mysteries, however, the question here is not whodunit, but why, and how? Getting those answers makes for a satisfying experience.

Let’s not spell out the crime, actually, because one of the wicked pleasures of the film is how that incident sneaks up on us. The setting is the corporate world, where Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas), a manipulative, hard-charging executive, shamelessly exploits the work of her underling, Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier). Isabelle tires of this treatment, and for a while the movie appears to be a rather dandy look at the subtle ways a businesswoman and her protégée are going to stab each other in the back. The more Isabelle tries to succeed, the more Christine has anticipated her every move.

Then things get seriously nasty, and we spend the rest of the movie wondering how this situation is going to work out. At first it’s puzzling, but all will be revealed.

Kristen Scott Thomas plays up her crisp, chic aspects, but with enough humanity so that we might deduce how Christine could have become this person, especially with the quiet reminders that this is a man’s world, still. Ludivine Sagnier, the star of “Swimming Pool” and the recent “Devil’s Double,” makes a good contrast: if Christine if fully formed and armored, Isabelle is still putting it together. But her attention to details will serve her well as the drily sinister tale moves along.

“Love Crime” was the final film from the director Alain Corneau, who died last year. He’s still best known for his 1991 picture, “Tous les matins du monde,” a beautiful film set amongst musicians in the 17th century. If “Love Crime” isn’t at that level, it’s still an excellent way to go out. And it provides some welcome, dark diversion for grown-up viewers.

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about the optics of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and include some Batman references. It’s archived here; the movie bit kicks in around the 16-minute mark.

Movie Diary 10/19/2011

No movies today. But take a look at Thursday (Oct. 20th)’s Today Show on NBC, as I am rumored to pop up during a segment on movies shot in Seattle. That’ll be on during the 10:30 a.m.-11 a.m. segment.

Meanwhile, the Eighties unfold madly at What a Feeling!, with Halloween tricks such as Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers and The Return of Swamp Thing.

Movie Diary 10/17/2011

Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor, 1935). Re-acquainting oneself with this movie after many years, I have to say it seems an even weirder item than ever. You can’t fault audiences of the time for being bewildered, and it seems like something that Jacques Rivette would have to tackle many years later. But here it is, mad and singular.

At What a Feeling!, we continues browsing through examples of Eighties horror, just because it’s October. So a 1988 review of Hellbound: Hellraiser II seems appropriate.

Town & Country (The Cornfield #44)

I’m reprinting a few Film.com reviews from 2001. And besides, one had to address the unending demand for more material on Town & Country.

When Charlton Heston is the funniest thing in a comedy, you’ve got problems. Such is the case with Town & Country, the star-crossed film that strands a group of talented people in what appears to be a floating wax museum. This long-delayed, $80 million picture deserves to be reviewed not on its budget or its production problems but whether it provides a reasonable amount of diversion, so let us stick to what’s on the screen.

It’s still pretty bad. The movie opens in tired “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” form: Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton are fabulously rich Manhattan architects. In the opening moments, we learn that Beatty has strayed from his marriage, into a dalliance with Nastassja Kinski’s fantasy babe (i.e., she’s sexy, cheerful, and undemanding of anything other than the occasional afternoon liaison). The glamorous architects are friends with Garry Shandling and Goldie Hawn, whose marriage comes apart when Hawn spies Shandling in the midst of an affair.

The rest of the picture criss-crosses their problems. Beatty and Hawn go to Mississippi to check out her country home, and enjoy a brief coupling. Beatty and Shandling go to Sun Valley to relax at Shandling’s country cabin, where they meet up with a literary cashier (Jenna Elfman) and an apparently psychotic socialite (Andie MacDowell). Beatty visits MacDowell’s parents (a gun-toting Heston and Marian Seldes) at their Idaho lodge, where he and MacDowell snuggle in bed with a lot of stuffed animals with cutesy names. This is how Heston gets to the point of speaking the line, “I know Floppy well,” which was one of the only things in the movie that made me laugh.

Garry Shandling carves some moments out of this, by virtue of his signature stammering and whining. Hawn reminds us of her perky physique, which is undeniable, but Diane Keaton can’t do much of anything, having no character to play. There’s only the occasional flicker of directorial oddness from Peter Chelsom, who made Hear My Song and Funny Bones into delightful odes to directorial oddness.

The stitched-together feel is enhanced by Beatty’s spotty voiceover, which appears at the beginning and then disappears for about an hour. Eventually the movie comes around to a Beatty speech about fidelity and commitment (as in Love Affair, another toneless comedy on the same subject). It is tempting to conclude that this is the legendary womanizer’s way of publicly atoning for his past; but that’s a lot of money to spend for a confessional, especially one with so little entertainment value.

Big Footloose Thing Year (Weekly Links)

Julianne Hough and other people, Footloose

Links to reviews I wrote for the Herald, and etc.

The Thing. “A reasonable job of keeping the screws tightened.”

Footloose. “Like watching a tribute band imitate the original.”

The Big Year. “It never feels like a real movie.”

Trespass. “It shames me to say I enjoyed this trashy movie.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about the re-dos of Footloose and The Thing and why someone thought we needed them. The session is archived here; the movie bit kicks in around 20:15 or thereabouts.

At What a Feeling!, some horror reviews for the pre-Halloween season. There’s a double of The Stepfather and Wanted Dead or Alive, and another double of Impulse and C.H.U.D.

On Sunday afternoon, I’ll introduce a screening of Nicolas Philibert’s Nénette, his 2010 documentary about a longtime resident of the Paris Zoo. That’s 2 p.m. at the Frye Art Museum, free; more details here.

Movie Diary 10/12/2011

The Big Year (David Frankel, 2011). Birders chase rare avian specimens, and each other, in a competition to see who can see the most birds in a calendar year. This premise is totally understandable if you’ve come across the series passholders at the Seattle International Film Festival each Spring. A very mild movie, needing a touch of wacky Americana à la Melvin and Howard. (full review 10/14)

At What a Feeling!, a look back at The Kindred, from 1987, which features a memorable Rod Steiger meltdown.

Thursday night, the 13th, join me at the Renton Public Library for “Things to Come: Visions of the Future on Film,” a consideration of how movies have imagined the future. That’s at 7, and it’s free.

Movie Diary 10/11/2011

The Thing (Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr.). All right, so it’s not technically a remake, but as prequels go it looks awfully familiar – it’s more of a premake, then. Some decently handled Ten Little Indians stuff amidst the ciphers. (full review 10/14)

Zardoz (John Boorman, 1974). I didn’t remember just how wiggy this movie gets after the first hour or so – and considering what happens in the first hour, that’s saying something. You have to like the way Boorman just goes for it, and the thing feels like a really big, really late Sixties hangover.

At What a Feeling! a round of Halloween horror movies begins with a double review of Frightmare and The Dorm That Dripped Blood, an undistinguished pair from the early Eighties.

Movie Diary 10/10/2011

Footloose (Craig Brewer, 2011). Somehow I hadn’t heard that this version would be so close to the original, but sure enough, some stuff is re-created down to the camera angle. You can still see Brewer’s care in moments, however, which makes you wonder why the movie couldn’t have cut loose (sorry, it’s the only way to put it) a little more. (full review 10/14)

At What a Feeling!, well, why not? We check out my 1984 review of Footloose, before Eighties horror movies take over for a couple of weeks.