Movie Diary 11/30/2011

Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011). A relatively unknown director got an awful lot of top-line talent (Spacey, Irons, Bettany, Tucci, et al.) to participate in his movie; but seeing the thing, you can understand why. The strong sustained mood is matched by an admirable sense of clarity in (and explanation of) the financial meltdown that messed up the lives of so many people well beyond the boardrooms and boiler rooms seen here.

At What a Feeling!, all hail Ken Russell, with a review of one of his maddest Eighties pictures, Salome’s Last Dance, which I feel rather warm toward. One more Russell title in tomorrow’s Eighties cavalcade.

Movie Diary 11/29/2011

At What a Feeling!, a look back at Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape, a movie some people like quite a bit. Tomorrow, look for a brazen Eighties offering from Ken Russell, who died yesterday.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) night, I’ll be delivering “Things to Come: Visions of the Future on Film” at the Sammamish Library in Sammamish, WA. 7 p.m., free.

Movie Diary 11/28/2011

Torrid Zone (William Keighley, 1940). The movie’s so fast-moving and wise-cracking and appealingly played, it almost completely distracts you from noticing what the hell it’s about and how it feels about its subject (Front Page re-do in the foreground, with jerkhole Pat O’Brien conniving to re-hire James Cagney to manage giant corporate banana operation, and insurgent leader George Tobias trying to get a revolution going in the background). Also in foreground: Ann Sheridan.

Kinyarwanda (Alrick Brown, 2011). Different threads of story tie together in Rwanda during the genocide, all in an expected way. (full review 12/2)

Empire of Silver (Christina Yao, 2009). Epic financial-dynasty stuff, with great head-spinning tides of court intrigue: kidnappings, suicides, scandals. And yet not quite enough of that. (full review 12/2)

Clearcut (Peter Richardson, 2006). Remarkable documentary about the early 21st-century Culture War in Philomath, Oregon, a microcosmic portrait of America in the era of Fox News. It’ll show on KCTS’ “ReelNW” series on Dec. 12.

At What a Feeling!, pause to ponder The Philadelphia Experiment, an X-Files movie before its time.

Thirteen Days (The Cornfield #49)

We just passed the anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which will serve as pretext for re-printing a 2000 Film.com review of a movie I found particularly annoying.

I think I’ll stick with The Missiles of October. That 1974 TV production (shot on video, if memory serves), starring William Devane as John F. Kennedy and Martin Sheen as Bobby Kennedy, brought the Cuban missile crisis to vivid life. It did so by easing up on the melodrama and leaning on facts. What a concept: that a series of conversations among men in suits could make for utterly gripping drama.

Something about the TV-ness of The Missiles of October, the tight focus of the small screen, the emphasis on talking heads in close-up, added to its impact. Now we have Thirteen Days, which blows the whole thing up, so to speak. This film covers the same material, but filtered through the perspective of Kennedy aide Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), who was present at the innermost heart of that suspenseful fortnight in October 1962.

The generally solid Roger Donaldson directs a script by David Self, who wrote last year’s truly execrable remake of The Haunting. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that the basic events of the missile crisis would need goosing along, and the resulting movie has an unpleasant hyped-up attitude that keeps getting in the way of the story. One of the most egregious examples has to do with Adlai Stevenson, then the American ambassador to the United Nations, and the adminstration’s fears that he would not be tough enough on the Soviet Union when it came time to face off on the floor of the U.N. The film practically paints a yellow stripe down Stevenson’s back (“Nobody thinks he’s up to this,” warns RFK) in order to set up a cliffhanger.

Due, presumably, to Costner’s star (and producer) status, Thirteen Days occasionally makes O’Donnell look like the real hero of the situation; there are times when he is propping up both Jack (Bruce Greenwood) and Bobby (Steven Culp) like a personal coach talking a client through a patch of self-doubt. This seems skewed; on the other hand, one recalls the moment in the documentary The War Room when George Stephanopolous was seen cooing reassurances to Bill Clinton on election night. In general, the Pentagon representatives are conniving and war-hungry (led by Kevin Conway’s blustery Curtis LeMay), the Kennedy boys are noble, if conflicted. The one actor who seems to be digging at some kind of ambiguity in his character is Dylan Baker, an inspired choice as defense secretary Robert McNamara.

It is so difficult to portray characters as familiar as the Kennedys that Greenwood and Culp deserve credit for eventually blending into their roles. But oh, is it wince-inducing when they first begin speaking; their Boston accents immediately bring to mind political impressionists from the early 1960s. But you do get used to hearing them, which is more than you can say for Costner, whose New England honk could shred paper and set dogs to yelping. None of which would be any problem if Thirteen Days would simply play fair with the marvelous story it has to tell. Instead, this overdone project dissipates its energy in strange ways (sudden shifts to black-and-white, as though hailing the spirit of Oliver Stone and that other Costner JFK movie), and makes you wish its makers had shown the same restraint the government did during the crisis.

My Week with the Artist (Weekly Links)

Clooney, in a world of Payne

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

The Descendants. “The border between the slapstick and the tragic.”

The Muppets. “Funny and likable enough to stand on its own two feet.”

The Artist. “Dujardin is the movie’s main source of delight.”

My Week with Marilyn. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Who plays Marilyn Monroe? This is always going to be the key question in any depiction of the legendary doomed actress, who might be easy to impersonate but surely is difficult to capture.

The role goes to Michelle Williams in “My Week with Marilyn,” a film based on Colin Clark’s memoir of being a third assistant director on the Monroe movie “The Prince and the Showgirl” in the late 1950s. In his role as a gofer, Clark got to know Marilyn for the needy and vulnerable person she was.

Michelle Williams is a gifted actress, lately associated with small, truthful performances in indies such as “Wendy and Lucy” and “Blue Valentine.” So she’s probably going to do something interesting, whatever the role might be. Director Simon Curtis does her no favors by beginning “My Week with Marilyn” with a re-created clip of Williams as Marilyn performing a song from one of MM’s films. Williams may be gifted, but she doesn’t have the pizzazz, the physical theatricality of a trouper like Monroe—or maybe she doesn’t have that hunger to be loved that made Monroe so vampily vibrant.

Once the movie settles into its groove, Williams is thoroughly convincing: wounded and insecure, with a playful streak. On the set of “The Prince and the Showgirl,” Monroe is up to her exasperating tricks, showing up late and not knowing her lines; offstage, she finds solace in the lovestruck gaze of young Colin (Eddie Redmayne). All of which cause headaches for the film’s star and director, Laurence Olivier. He’s played, in a crisp piece of impersonation, by Kenneth Branagh, who clearly has a ball capturing the rhythms of Olivier’s distinctive speech. (In a couple of scenes, Julia Ormond floats through as Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh; there’s also a nice, warm turn by Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike.)

Branagh’s performance is thoroughly artificial, but he is fun to watch. Less fun is the movie’s garish look, which I guess is somebody’s idea of re-creating the feel of a 1957 movie. And the scenes with Marilyn and Colin have the standard “my brush with greatness” quality to them, although at least Colin is engagingly rascally in ignoring his superiors and breaking a few rules. The costume girl (Emma Watson, from the “Harry Potter” industry) he’d been romancing, with whom he has a more realistic chance than he does with Marilyn Monroe, doesn’t find his sudden absences all that engaging.

The film has observations that might have seemed new in 1957 but are pretty commonplace now: the thought that a raw, undisciplined talent like Monroe might actually be more alive on screen than the superbly-trained Olivier, for instance.

So, a treatment that rarely rises above the level of a TV-movie … except for Michelle Williams. And there’s the main draw: watching an actress negotiate her way into an original performance of one of the most iconic movie stars ever. There’s some fascination there, to be sure, and maybe even an Oscar.

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Katy Sewall about the nostalgia seeping out of this week’s openings, and other throwback items such as Taco Flavored Doritos. The talk is archived here; the movie bit kicks in at the 15:30 mark.

The week at What a Feeling! has been all Eighties sequels; catch up on reviews of Fletch Lives, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and The Jewel of the Nile. And hey, we’ve reached the one-year birthday of this website, but don’t worry – there is much more 1980s-osity to come.

Next Wednesday night, Nov. 30th, stop by the Sammamish Library at 7 p.m. for “Things to Come: Visions of the Future on Film,” in which we look at utopian and dystopian pictures from the history of movies.

Movie Diary 11/22/2011

TAD: Busted Circuits and Ringing Ears (Adam Pease, Ryan Short, 2008). The Seattle rock band known as TAD richly deserves a rockumentary of its own, and by god, here it is. The band and its big-boned frontman were part of that which is called grunge; I saw them play in Seattle in 1990, or possibly ’91, and can verify the effectiveness of the act. I watched this because I’m doing some work for the ReelNW program on Seattle’s PBS station, KCTS. Their blog is here, and my interview with the directors of TAD should be up next week.

At What a Feeling!, a week of Eighties sequels continues with Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, a dead experience if ever there was one.

Movie Diary 11/21/2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011). John le Carré by way of the director of Let the Right One In. And let’s pause to note that it’s awfully good to see a movie again – you know, like a real one. (full review 12/23)

The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011). Has anybody writing about this movie pointed out that it’s the film for the Occupy movement? I’m serious – the Muppets are the 99 percent, and the film catches the zeitgeist, in a funny sort of way. Plus, best version yet of that song by Cee-Lo, plus some very agreeable bits by the gang. (full review 11/23)

Cube (Vincenzo Natali, 1997). Darned if this little Twilight Zone number doesn’t hold up pretty well. The director went on to make Splice, which I wasn’t crazy about, but I’d like to see more of his work.

Devil (John Erick Dowdle, 2010). I missed this Shyamalan-scripted offering when it opened, and needed to catch up because I was in the zone of movies about confined spaces: here, a group of people trapped in an elevator, strong suggestion that one of them is Satan. And by gum, it’s mostly legit, even though I’d really like to see a movie that never actually leaves the elevator.

At What a Feeling!, we embark on a week of sequels from the 1980s, with a twofer review of American Ninja II and Creepshow 2.

Tomcats (The Cornfield #48)

Welcome to hell: Tomcats

A Film.com review from 2001, this time hitting the nadir.

In the old days of stupid teen sex comedies, a certain amount of gratuitous female nudity was implicit in the purchase price of the ticket. One could expect a Peeping Tom scene involving the girls’ shower, for instance, or a never-to-be-seen-again starlet doffing her bikini top poolside. It’s not unreasonable to assume T&A in a Spring Break movie, is it? Yet here is how the culture has changed: aside from one F/X shot and a flash of anonymous cleavage in the end-credits outtakes roll, Tomcats contains no naked women. It is, however, obsessively interested in men’s bodies. I worry about this generation of young men, I really do.

The premise of the wretchedly unfunny Tomcats is that a group of guys, hateful idiots all, make a pact. They each contribute to a stock portfolio; the last unmarried man will take all the cash. After seven years in the Nineties bull market, the stake has grown to nearly half a million bucks, and two of the guys remain ball-and-chain-less. Since the callous stud played by Jake Busey is the kind of man capable of extolling the physical sensations in having sex with a woman while she’s vomiting out the car window, his buddy Jerry O’Connell comes across as the movie’s hero, even if he is a misogynistic goon in his own right.

O’Connell needs the money, because he’s deeply in debt to a Las Vegas mobster (played, curiously, by “Politically Incorrect” host Bill Maher). Although all the Tomcats appear to be wealthy—otherwise, how could we root for them?–O’Connell mysteriously can’t ask them for a loan. So he connives to get Busey married off before the Vegas bill comes due. This is where Shannon Elizabeth, the American Pie exchange student, enters the picture.

The writer-director, Gregory Poirier (whose writing credits include the suicide-inducing See Spot Run), appears motivated by the desire to see the philosophical insights of “The Man Show” translated to the big screen. Thus, a girlfriend is run over by a golf cart driven by O’Connell and Busey, a meek librarian is revealed to be a secret S&M dominatrix, and the sign of a good woman is always measured by her ability to drink as much Jagermeister as the guys.

Tomcats is like an X-ray revealing the floating anxieties of men, circa 2001. It begins with a Viagra joke, and moves on to fears/fantasies of wives turning lesbian, the terror of breast-feeding women, and finally testicular cancer. Played for laughs, of course, culminating in an extended sequence in which the excised body part is kicked around hospital hallways and finds its way into the cafeteria. I cannot describe the rest, because I cling to the remaining shreds of civilization I have left. Let’s leave Tomcats in the gutter where it belongs, and re-adjust the levels of cinematic hell, because Porky’s just got bumped up a notch.

Sunshine Twilight Melancholia (Weekly Links)

Something’s coming, something big: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia

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

Melancholia. “Moves at its own very odd, elongated stride.”

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1. “Actually seeing the big computer-generated wolves go at the golden-eyed vampires is something that never fails to trigger the giggle reflex.”

Everyday Sunshine. “Among the nutsiest live acts ever to take the stage.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about movies with a strong sense of place, the Seattle runs of Le Havre and Curling being the immediate inspiration. The talk is archived here; the movie bit kicks in at the 15-minute mark.

At What a Feeling!, a 1986 cruise through Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law.

I will be giving a Magic Lantern talk at the Frye Art Museum on Sunday at 2 p.m. The title is “A World in a Rear Window: The Cinema of Limited Perspective,” a look at how movies narrow their gauge to make us see: Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Lifeboat, natch, but also Wavelength and recent stuff like Buried, Lebanon, and Paranormal Activity. Details here; it’s free.

Monday night I’ll be at the Shoreline Library at 7, with “Things to Come: Visions of the Future on Film,” a talk with clips about the way movies have imagined the future. See here for that.

Movie Diary 11/16/2011

The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011). A very soft touch given to a couple of weeks or so in the life of a Hawaii family. George Clooney provides a lesson in what a movie star means to a film. (full review 11/23)

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (Bill Condon, 2011). Or possibly just Breaking Dawn – Part 1, as the opening credit has it. Condon was a cool choice, and the picture has a grisly appetite (it also resembles an actual movie from time to time, which hasn’t happened since the first installment). But sheez, overall it’s weird. (full review 11/18)

And What a Feeling! recalls those halcyon days of the early career of Chris Columbus, with a review of Adventures in Babysitting from 1987.