December 28, 2013 · Posted in Uncategorized  

American Hustle, director David O. Russell’s tale of con artists and corruption in the disco era, has a first-class cast, gorgeous production values and directorial ambition to burn. Since its premiere earlier this month, it’s attracted favorable critical attention, increasing awards buzz and healthy returns at the box office.

If it only had a brain.

Russell scored a knockout last year with Silver Linings Playbook, a quirky romance that artfully skated the tricky area between importance and triviality, thanks in large part to a talented collection of actors unafraid to embrace the script’s whimsically mannered characterizations. With American Hustle he’s attempting the same trick, but this time he’s missed the mark. Though the new film’s actors have characters to play that are at least equally vivid, there’s just nothing of importance to the film they inhabit.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams star as a pair of swindlers who are pressured by an overeager FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) into conducting an ambitious sting loosely based on the real-life Abscam operation of the late ‘70s. Originally aimed at entrapping politicians into being caught taking bribes, the scheme becomes increasingly complex and dangerous as murderous underworld figures are drawn into the con. It’s a classic noir set-up, with our grifting protagonists trapped between the law and the mob…but Russell is too busy straining for cheap laughs and creating flashy set pieces to make us care about what happens next.

In retrospect, there’s a strong enough structure to it all, but, curiously, while it’s unspooling it seems to be a disjointed mess. So much attention is directed to the garish period costumes, hairstyles and what comes to feel like a relentless parade of songs from the ‘70s and earlier, that the story seems constantly pushed to the background and its characters rendered inconsequential.

It doesn’t help that Bale’s and Adams’ characters have been written in a minor key; they’re professional con artists, but they’re strictly petty crooks pulling off tacky crimes – and Bale’s performance in particular is so understated and colorless that he brings little of his usual charisma to any of his scenes. Adams is given little more to work with, but she does manage to add a hint of mystery to her underwritten character. Of all the other main cast members, only Jeremy Renner as the New Jersey mayor who’s the target of the federal sting delivers a recognizably human and relatable performance. Everyone else is a caricature of one kind or another, talented actors trapped in a series of scenes with little more art or depth than a Saturday Night Live sketch.

It would be easier to simply shrug and accept the film as a lavishly produced misfire if it weren’t so full of itself. It’s hard to escape the sense that Russell is bending over backwards to out-Scorcese Scorcese, trying hard to channel the look and ambience of works like Casino and Goodfellas…a comparison that proves not only unflattering but quickly annoying. In a movie so shallow that it draws its biggest laughs from two separate moments of poking fun at its leading mens’ hair, there’s little room for such pretension.

In recent years, the loudmouth New Jerseyite has replaced the Southern redneck as the stock comic stereotype du jour, and Russell’s film is filled with them. Of all the cast members, Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s loose-cannon wife most successfully makes the characterization work, though it’s at the cost of transforming herself into a cartoon character. Everyone else seems to fall short of the mark; the self-conscious dialogue falls so uncomfortably from their lips that they seem less Scorcese-like – or even Russell-like – than  members of a road show production of Guys and Dolls.

Like many films about con artists, there are occasional moments here with little twists intended to make the audience wonder how they couldn’t have seen it coming. Your mileage may vary as to how successful those are, but don’t expect anything as clever as such gold-standard examples as The Sting or The Grifters. The biggest con pulled off by American Hustle is the one it’s pulling on anyone who buys a ticket expecting anything special, let alone anything they haven’t seen done better before.

    
December 15, 2013 · Posted in Now Playing  

 

There’s a reason for all the glowing reviews and Oscar talk that have greeted All is Lost since its recent premiere: It’s really that good, really that inspiring, really that impressive.

The same goes for star Robert Redford, who at age 77 is experiencing the kind of third-act triumph of which most actors can only dream. His performance as the film’s unnamed hero is rock solid, as exemplary a display of underplaying as you’ll find anywhere in American cinema. Always an admirably authentic actor, these days – just as his golden matinee-idol looks have been slowly blasted by wind and sun into a rugged expressionistic version of his former beauty – his minimalist strength seems to have been boiled down to the essence of absolute truth.

Redford plays a man who’s sailing his yacht in the Indian Ocean when a collision with a drifting shipping container transforms his solo voyage into a series of disasters. There’s an ugly gouge in the hull, his electronics have been flooded, a devastating storm is sweeping toward him, and there’s nothing standing between survival and destruction except his own persistence and ingenuity.

He has plenty of each, and it’s fascinating to watch as he methodically tackles one problem after another, doing his best to remain on-task and unflappable; like a man quietly determined to maintain order, he continues to cook and clean in between making repairs and even finds the time to shave. His illusion of order slowly comes apart as the situation continues to deteriorate…but no matter how bad things become, he accepts the constantly-changing status quo and looks for solutions for each new problem.

This is clearly a man of means – he owns a yacht, after all, loaded with expensive survival gear – but it becomes clear that his best chance of staying alive lies not with the pricey toys he’s bought, but from within himself. It can be argued that director J.C. Chandor is making a quiet statement about the moral superiority of humanism over commercialism – note the contents of the shipping container that precipitates the film’s crisis, and the obliviousness of commercial cargo ships to the desperate plight of a man struggling to stay alive.

For all his quiet resourcefulness and grace under pressure, the film’s hero is never painted as perfect. The opening voice-over (virtually the only spoken words in the entire picture) suggests that he’s a family man who’s taken this voyage to sort out some serious problems of his own making, and it’s entirely possible that the initial collision could have been avoided if he’d paid more attention to the business of sailing instead of spending time inside his own head.

An old-fashioned story of survival that evokes Jack London and Hemingway – and, for that matter, this year’s equally stunning GravityAll is Lost is a stripped-down and gripping drama about a man whose determined fight for his life becomes an object lesson in acceptance. It’s a fine and memorable piece of work, just possibly the one film that will be remembered and cherished above everything else to hit the big screen this year.

    
December 9, 2013 · Posted in Now Playing  

On their goofy five-minute Christmas flexi-disk recorded for fan club members in 1963, the Beatles pause in the midst of reflecting on the really gear year just ending to offer a shout-out to their fan club secretary Freda Kelly. “Good ol’ Freda!” they chorus.

A half-century later, the former Miss Kelly is a 68-year-old grandmother who works as a secretary at a respectable law firm. But as we see in Ryan White’s engaging new documentary, she’s still every bit the Good Ol’ Freda of old.

Kelly was a 16-year-old typist in Liverpool when she first encountered the pre-moptop (and pre-Ringo) Beatles at the legendary Cavern Club, and quickly became one of the scruffy quartet’s biggest fans. She also became their friend, hanging with the boys at the club and ringing them up at home to suggest special songs be included in their next set to commemorate some other fan’s upcoming birthday. By the time Brian Epstein became their manager and their career began its steady skyrocket, Freda was the natural choice to run the group’s official fan club – a more than full-time gig that ballooned to nightmarish proportions during the 11 years she worked for the Fab Four.

The scenes in which Kelly describes hauling stacks of photos, autograph books and even the odd pillowcase to the Beatles’ homes for them to sign – not to mention tracking down hair clippings from the guys’ barber and cutting their old shirts into souvenirs – demonstrate how above-and-beyond was her devotion to making the fans happy. (Of course, she explains, “I was a fan, too.”) Her reminiscences and those of other players on the old Liverpool scene make clear her ferocious loyalty to the Beatles as both music stars and personal friends.

In fact, one of the documentary’s chief contributions to Beatles history lies in its first-hand depiction of the Four as hometown boys. The pride of the Liverpudlians for their famous sons’ success is well documented, but it’s Kelly’s fond anecdotes of relative trivia such as her frequent visits with Ringo’s mom, Paul’s dad taking her under his wing for horizon-broadening visits to pubs and restaurants, and being given regular rides home from the office by George that show how very small and homey their early ‘60s world was.

It’s a charming portrait, made even more so by Kelly’s own prodigious charm. She was clearly a genuine sweetheart during her decade with the Beatles, and half a century later, she still is. It’s touching to watch her continue to respect her boys’ privacy after all these years, pleasantly but firmly drawing a line between happy memories and tawdry gossip. Beneath her self-deprecating good humor one can occasionally detect a flash of the steely pride that earned fan club workers their pink slips when they were caught cutting corners (such as trying to pass off their own hair for genuine Beatles souvenir clippings)…and which once forced John Lennon to drop to his knee and beg her forgiveness after firing her in a fit of pique.

The documentary originated as a private recording, a way for Kelly to pass along her memories to her young grandson. Director Ryan White, filmmaker and son of a family friend, had agreed to interview her on camera as a favor, but soon realized that he’d stumbled onto something far bigger than a simple family history. Eventually convincing Kelly to take an unexpected step into the spotlight, he began to weave old photos, rare film footage and additional interviews into the mix. The result is a sweet and winning slice of pop culture history as seen through the eyes of a woman who grew up and worked alongside four of the most famous men in the world.

Other Beatles histories have more to offer in terms of concert footage or backstage scandal, but this simple documentary is one of the few that brings its famous subjects to life in such quiet, intimate terms…thanks to the affectionate memories and delightful presence of good ol’ Freda.

    
October 19, 2013 · Posted in Legends  

    
October 5, 2013 · Posted in Now Playing  

If Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity doesn’t make you catch your breath or feel your heart drop into your stomach at least once, Major Tom, you may as well cut your tether and float off into the void. You simply don’t have a pulse.

Cuarón and a bulging flight crew of movie magicians have crafted a suspense tale at once simple and spectacular, a straightforward story of survival that’s both visually stunning and viscerally gripping – and it clocks in at a satisfying 90 minutes, in itself something of a miracle in the current age of overstuffed blockbusters.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as members of a NASA team making adjustments on the Hubble Space Telescope when a disaster in low orbit leaves them fighting for their lives. Following an awe-inspiring opening sequence in which the space-suited crew goes about its duties against the heady vertiginous backdrop of the earth spread out below, the moment in which hell soundlessly breaks loose is positively hair-raising.

With their shuttle destroyed and the rest of the crew dead, the two stranded astronauts find themselves free floating in a Newtonian nightmare in which coping with the laws of physics is almost overwhelmingly complex…and every effort only serves to further diminish an inexorably dwindling air supply.

It’s virtually impossible to separate this movie’s conventional camerawork from its CGI – Cuarón’s planning and the execution by his technical team are seamless and absolutely brilliant. Opening with a breathtaking 13-minute take that plants us convincingly in the middle of the action, the screen is filled with images that would have been impossible to achieve so credibly only a few years ago. In either the 3-D or standard versions, it’s a magnificent achievement.

The script, by Cuarón and his son Jonás, is a beautifully understated piece of work. An impressive amount of it dares to do away with dialogue completely, choosing to let the silence of space carry the moment. Otherwise, it’s mostly devoted to utilitarian chatter and a few understandably desperate exchanges, all aimed at keeping the issue of survival front and center. Only one scene, in which we learn something about the background of Bullock’s character, seems extraneous…but Bullock plays it with such conviction that it’s a minor distraction at most.

Clooney brings his trademark regular-guy star power to the role of veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, a part originally intended for Robert Downey Jr. It’s still possible to hear vestiges of Downey’s quick-riffing bravado lingering in some of the lines, but Clooney makes the role his own, infusing it with warmth and low-key naturalistic heroism. It’s a fine performance and a generous one, Clooney choosing to quietly play his role to the hilt while allowing Bullock to remain at center stage throughout.

As first-time space traveler Ryan Stone, Bullock dominates the film. An engineer who’s uncomfortable in space to begin with, Stone spends much of the movie in a state of near-panic or worse. But far from being a typical movie heroine in distress, Ryan Stone is our POV character. Her panic is ours, starting from the moment the disaster sends her spinning off into space without warning, hands clutching reflexively and eyes searching frantically for anything to focus on. We struggle alongside her, hoping our own air will hold out, as she falls back on her training to find a way home. Bullock’s work here is wonderfully satisfying, an utterly relatable dramatic turn whose impressive physicality and sheer humanity prove to be as essential to Gravity’s success as Cuarón’s groundbreaking visuals. Hers is a magnificent achievement, too.

    
August 11, 2013 · Posted in Legends  

    
June 29, 2013 · Posted in Legends  

Publication and a long stream of publicity duties forced this space to maintain radio silence for most of the last two months, so now we’re playing catch-up with an extra-long list of reviews, profiles and articles posted by writers on film and TV.

Farran Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren, wrote a fond and appreciative farewell to the late Hollywood songbird Deanna Durbin.

Terence Towles Canote offered a brief but comprehensive survey of the memorable juvenile science fiction TV shows of the ‘50s on the A Shroud of Thoughts blog.

“Gloria” of the Home Projectionist blog interviewed one-of-a-kind actor Austin Pendleton about his memories of the shooting of Otto Preminger’s 1968 Skiddoo.

Writing on The Forgotten site, David Cairns reflected on the imaginative delights of Gerhardt Lamprecht’s 1931 production of Emil and the Detectives.

Glenn Kenny took a fond look back at the career of the late and very great animator Ray Harryhausen on his Some Came Running blog.

TCM “morlock” David Kalat presented multiple takes on the career and reputation of classic comedian Harold Lloyd. Part One is available here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.

“Danny” of the Pre-Code.com site offered a fresh peek through the keyhole at one of the kinkiest and most reviled comedies of the early ‘30s, the 1934 Smarty.

Stacia Jones of She Blogged By Night gave us a sharp and humane look at Liberace’s single stab at movie stardom, the 1955 romantic drama Sincerely Yours.

C. Jerry Kutner toured some of the great “small town noirs” on the Bright Lights After Dark site.

Bill Gibron celebrated the accomplishments of the late acclaimed fantasy writer Richard Matheson, on the Popmatters site.

David Bordwell flashed back to the intricate parceling out of moments in time in Michael Curtiz’s 1945 noir tear-jerker Mildred Pierce.

Enjoy this super-sized post and start clicking on these interesting and entertaining links.

    
June 22, 2013 · Posted in Legends  

    
May 14, 2013 · Posted in Legends  

    
May 3, 2013 · Posted in Legends  

Movie blogging in April was dominated by thoughts on the death of a much-loved critical voice in the film community, accompanied by some solid writing on Golden Age classics of  the screen.

Turner Classics “morlock” Susan Doll contributed a typically sharp and well-researched look at the unwritten censorship of Hollywood films long before the notorious Pre-Code era.

Jeremy Richey wrote a fascinating new take on the social criticism embedded in Murnau’s 1922 groundbreaking vampire chiller Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror on the Moon in the Gutter blog.

J. Gabriel, writing as “monstergirl, ” presented an epic interpretation of Edgar Ulmer’s 1934 The Black Cat on The Last Drive-In site.

David and Kristin Bordwell pooled their considerable talents to offer a heartfelt personal goodbye to the late Roger Ebert.

Find a kindred soul and share a look at these fascinating and well-written links.

    

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