Showing posts with label Blogathon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Blogathon. Show all posts

August 25, 2017

Van Johnson Blogathon: The Caine Mutiny

Van Johnson stars with Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny.

It’s easy to look at The Caine Mutiny as an actors’ showcase. Humphrey Bogart chews up the scenery and gives an iconic courtroom speech that stands alongside Nicholson’s work in A Few Good Men. Fred MacMurray excels at playing a morally flexible soldier, and a quiet Van Johnson struggles with the burden of removing his superior. Even the bland Robert Francis gets a lot of time on screen as the idealistic young newbie. We recall these guys playing off each other, but that focus pushes aside the other predominant theme on the destructive power of war.

Adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Herman Wouk, this film doesn’t glamorize life at sea during World War II. The Caine is a beaten-down vessel that needs an extended stay at dry dock. Instead, it’s given a new captain and pushed to the front once again. We spend limited time in battle with this crew, but the impact of war stands out on the face of guys like Bogart’s Captain Queeg. His obsessive ticks help cope with the horrors that play constantly in his mind. He desires control over every detail yet has little ability to secure his own impulses.

A cynicism about institutions and authority permeates the story, even when it’s patriotic on the surface. It was directed by Edward Dmytryk, a member of the Hollywood 10 that eventually testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dmytryk did not write the adaptation, but it’s fairly easy to connect his experiences to this tale. When the government prosecutors grill Francis’ Willie Keith and Johnson’s Steve Maryk about their involvement in the mutiny, it easily connects to the anti-communist investigations.

Maryk spends the final act with a pained look that reveals the turmoil beneath his choice to mutiny against Queeg. It’s like he’s carrying a giant weight on his shoulders, and even ultimate vindication won’t remove that burden. The real scar on Johnson’s face seems fitting given the emotional scars he’s carrying for this choice. The stoic Johnson is the right choice to play a well-meaning guy thrust into an unenviable position. He gets no joy out of removing the unfit leader from his position. Johnson remains in the background while we stick with Keith for the first half, but he’s a lot more interesting once the plot kicks into gear.

The mystifying part of The Caine Mutiny is how much time we spend with Keith and his story away from the ship. The conflict between his devotion to his mom (Katherine Warren) and love for singer May Wynn comes from a lesser story. Francis’ flat vocal delivery stands out next to pros like MacMurray and Bogart. He’s a young guy with the right look but is in over his head. That sense actually works for his time on the ship because Keith is new to war. The problems appear when he’s separated from the army. Wynn (who took the character’s name as her stage name) has charm but can’t do much with Keith and the predictable domestic material.

Disregarding the lesser parts, this story clicks as a tight drama. Queeg’s presence keeps everyone on edge, even a smooth guy like MacMurray’s Tom Keefer. Queeg disrupts the ecosystem of The Caine with more than just careless orders. The courtroom scenes are gripping, particularly due to a knowing performance from Jose Ferrer as defense attorney Barney Greenwald. The way he rips apart Queeg’s façade is frighteningly precise. He takes no joy in it and knows it will destroy a man’s career. It’s eerily similar to the way Chuck disintegrated in Better Call Saul this year. Once the house of cards breaks, the fall is swift and destructive.

There’s a gripping 90-minute courtroom drama trying to break out of the two-hour film. On the other hand, it could work as a three-hour epic with more back stories for the other characters. Instead, The Caine Mutiny straddles the middle and provides great scenes and lost moments. Led by Bogart’s stunning performance, the actors keep us invested through all the ups and downs. Regardless of screen time, the cagey veterans rarely miss a beat.

This article is a contribution to the Van Johnson Blogathon hosted by Michaela at Love Letters to Old Hollywood. Check out all the great articles from this blogathon here.

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February 8, 2015

Buster Keaton Blogathon: Daydreams

Buster Keaton stars in Daydreams, his 1922 short film.
Buster Keaton's young man just can't get a break in his 1922 film Daydreams.

Buster Keaton’s characters seem to spring from another world and just aren’t suited for this one. They constantly battle mechanical devices and inadvertently set the forces of law and order against them. The protagonists typically mean well; they just want love and happiness like the rest of us. The difference is that conforming to social norms rarely works. Holding down a job is a challenge, and that means that even nice girls (and their fathers) want nothing to do with them. Keaton’s physical skills are the perfect match for this type of character. He’s dodging bodily harm on a regular basis, and his facial expressions rarely show exasperation about the failures. Even when he’s covered in mud and debris, he still tries to find the next route to rewards that constantly elude his grasp.

A fitting example is Daydreams, a 1922 short film that depicts Keaton as “The Young Man” who tries valiantly to prove his worth in the city. The narrative device of letters back to Renée Adorée’s “The Girl” reveals his overly positive spin on mundane urban jobs. His role as “head of a big sanitarium with 200 patients” is actually caretaker of a dog and cat hospital. When he accidentally brings a skunk into the facility, it’s time for a new line of work. Even a straightforward job like cleaning the street is too much. The city seems determined to remove this interloper who’s invaded its streets. Inanimate objects attack him, and the citizens retaliate by dropping the young man in a muddy manhole. Despite his failures, we don’t see this guy sobbing in a corner. He’s ready to debut in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it’s clear by this point that even the small role of a soldier will overwhelm his limited sensibility.

There are a few clever gags in the first half of this 18-minute film, but most are fairly muted. The young man loses a pet by choosing a basket without a bottom to transport it. The humor is mostly on this level, which isn’t great yet sets up the final sequence. A second example of the missing-bottom gag happens on the street, so we aren’t in highly creative territory. Thankfully, it’s easy to forget these concerns as the mayhem begins. Once Keaton leaps onto a streetcar and flies horizontally, those ideas quickly disappear. It’s a wondrous stunt that’s more impressive with the knowledge that it’s all Keaton. Another fun move involves a ladder with the pursuing cops perched on top of it. Despite his inability to succeed in the workforce, the young guy makes the police look just as foolish. Those guys are pulled underground after foolishly venturing into the dangerous spot.

Shot in San Francisco, the chase uses the locations effectively including the famous streetcars. It also involves the young man’s unsuccessful attempts to escape the incoming horde by boat. After leaping onto a departing vessel, his solace lasts momentarily when it returns to the dock. This sets up the film’s best visual gag with Keaton running inside the boat’s paddle wheel. He’s like a hamster endlessly running on the wheel inside its cage. His diligent efforts to escape accomplish little, and it’s one of the best Keaton stunts that I’ve seen. When he finally escapes this nautical menace, the young man barely resembles a person and has become part of the scenery. He’s returned to his girl with the mail and is brutally dismissed by her father. I’ve yet to mention the young man’s promise that he would shoot himself if he fails in the city. The dad simply takes the gun out of a drawer and walks away. Of course, assuming that the dim-witted guy can even complete this simple task may expect too much.

It’s unfortunate that the current version of Daydreams is missing certain scenes. There are also rough cuts and transitions, and the quality of the Amazon Prime release isn’t great. Even so, it’s interesting to catch a fairly early glimpse at Keaton’s career. It may pale in comparison to his work in Sherlock Jr. and The General, but there’s still enough to make it worthwhile. The chase includes some impressive physical comedy, especially when you consider the time of its release. The components for Keaton’s success are all in place and will contribute to some of his best work just a few years later.

This post is a contribution to the Buster Keaton blogathon hosted by Silent-ology on February 8 and 9. You should check out all the great pieces about Keaton in this series

January 22, 2015

Miriam Hopkins Blogathon: Design for Living

Miriam Hopkins, Fredric Marsh, and Gary Cooper in Design for Living
Miriam Hopkins owns the screen in Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living

It’s thrilling to see the graceful way Miriam Hopkins glides onto the screen in Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living. She steps aboard a train and observes two sleeping guys on the opposite seat. There’s no hesitation at removing her gloves and making herself comfortable near the unknowing fellows. The glint in Hopkins’ eyes shows us immediately that her Gilda Farrell has the upper hand in this relationship. She charms men easily yet isn’t the typical lady you might expect. It would be too easy to pick one man and enjoy his success. Both Tom Chambers (Fredric March) and George Curtis (Gary Cooper) have potential but need a lot of encouragement. Gilda may complete them, but they aren’t really alive without the other guy. The warm relationship among the men keeps them happy, yet it takes a force like Gilda to push them to next level. Hopkins never hits a false note as she moves from guy to guy and refuses to get cornered.

What’s immediately apparent in Design for Living is the less restrictive view of sex before the crackdown of the Hays Code. Characters talk openly about the topic and don’t skirt around the issue. Even a simple act like Gilda putting her feet on the seat between Tom and George has sexual connotations. Both guys are interested in Gilda, and their first goal isn’t marriage. There’s a freedom to the ways the characters discuss love that avoids the predictable route of typical Hollywood romances. Lubitsch pulled a similar feat with the trio in Trouble in Paradise one year earlier. Statements about getting to “first base” probably wouldn’t bypass the censors by the mid-‘30s. The content never gets too blatant, but the freedom allows Writer Ben Hecht (Notorious) to bring a different type of wit to the dialogue. The story adapts a Noel Coward play but was changed dramatically for the screen version.

Tom and George have ambitions to succeed in various realms of the art world, but nothing comes together before they meet Gilda. They just click with her and have equally big personalities. Like Tom quips after they leave the train, “It's amazing how a few insults can bring people together in three hours.” Gilda falls for both guys and hooks up with each one in subsequent nights. Lubitsch and Hecht avoid bringing melodrama into this situation and keep the banter light despite the love triangle. The “gentleman’s agreement” could work on the surface, but none are so moral to avoid falling prey to temptation. George considers seducing the laundress to get a clean shirt, so they’re hardly prudish individuals. Gilda’s big scene at their apartment is a thrilling display of comic timing. The dust flies each time she lays down on the old furniture, and both guys tail Gilda closely as she strolls around the dilapidated site.

Design for Living, directed by Ernst Lubitsch
This shot shows the way that Gilda is in total control of Tom (Fredric Marsh) and George (Gary Cooper).

Lubitsch uses masterful composition to place Gilda between the two men vying for her affection. They’re like little boys pining for their first love, and she’s in total control. She stands between them while each shows off and revels in knowing that both are enamored. The surprise is the way that we still identify with Gilda and never look at her like a manipulator. She isn’t Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve who enjoys making Henry Fonda look silly. Gilda truly loves each guy, and Hopkins sells her interest in helping both men achieve their dreams. Tom is an unpublished playwright who doesn’t have the business skills to sell his work, and George is an artist with little confidence. Gilda easily succeeds and magically changes their professional fates, but staying platonic will be trickier.

Gilda is quite a forward-thinking woman for 1933, but it’s probably easier in Paris. Of course, the societal pull to settle into a secure relationship is still there. The establishment appears in the form of Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton), her square boss. He also loves Gilda but seems most concerned with making her respectable. His worldview comes in this statement: “Immorality may be fun, but it isn't fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day.” This single line plays multiple roles in the story, including enhancing Tom’s play and revealing Gilda’s dalliances with both guys. It’s one of many clever uses of dialogue that makes this film so enjoyable. Gilda’s choice to marry Plunkett seems odd but shows that she has given in to the forces of the puritan society. It’s clear that this coupling will never last; Gilda is far too self-assured to cave to such a controlling dimwit.

Gary Cooper and Fredric Marsh star in Design for Living
Gary Cooper does'n't make the comedy seem as effortless as Fredric Marsh. 

Design for Living was only my second experience watching Hopkins, who owns the screen even next to heavyweights like Fredric March and Gary Cooper. Her career was still fairly new at this time, yet she moves like a veteran in total command. March feels right as a witty playwright and brings such great energy to Tom. His excitement at reuniting with his old typewriter after years away is pitch-perfect. Tom has a particular joy in walking circles around Plunkett. March’s exuberant reaction when Plunkett utters a line that fits his play makes for great comedy. A tougher sell is Cooper as a tortured artist. He plays well off March and connects with Hopkins, but he can’t match their quick wit. Cooper feels more like a straight arrow than a free-thinking artist. He’s better than I’d expect given his persona, yet he doesn’t work with the same grace as the other leads. His attempts to play drunk are very unconvincing.

I can’t rave enough about the dialogue, which includes too many classic one-liners to mention. Gilda’s comment to George that “unfortunately, I am no gentleman” after Tom departs for London is all we need to know about what’s going to happen. Some lines wouldn’t have escaped the censors, but others might be clever enough to bypass them. Gilda’s assertion of being “more than fond” of each in the beginning carries the sense that she’s gone well beyond friendly chatter. Much has been written about the “Lubitsch touch”, but his skills can’t be understated. He wastes little time with unnecessary exposition and keeps the story moving through a brisk 91 minutes. The plot includes romances, break-ups, and reconciliations, and it's never too much. Skilled actors like Hopkins and March can sell the material with limited content, and Lubitsch employs their talents to deliver a wonderful comedy.

This piece is a contribution to the Miriam Hopkins Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and A Small Press Life/Font and Frock. Be sure to check out all the other excellent submissions.

August 28, 2014

Blogathon: The Ten Most Iconic Female Movie Characters

What makes a character iconic? That question rests at the center of this new series created by Wendell Ottley from Dell on Movies. It could relate to their importance to movies or just their role within a classic film. When you're talking about female characters, does the choice need to be someone who destroyed the boundaries of what audiences expected? There are some obvious choices that are hard to reject, but sticking with those feels too easy. The limited number makes it impossible to list them all, so it really comes down to personal preference. My pick comes from a movie that I love that deserves even more attention. Before I get to the pick, here's a summary from Wendell of how the relay race works:

A list of 10 iconic female movie characters has been made. That list will be assigned to another blogger who can then change it by removing one character (describing why they think she should not be on the list) and replacing it with another one (also with motivation) and hand over the baton to another blogger. Once assigned, that blogger will have to put his/her post up within a week. If this is not the case the blogger who assigned it has to reassign it to another blogger. After you have posted your update leave the link in the comments below and I will make sure it gets added to the overview post.

These fine bloggers have participated thus far:

Wendell at Dell on Movies
Nostra at My Filmviews
Jaina at Time Well Spent
Ruth at FlixChatter
Eric at The Warning Sign

Eric passed me quite a group of iconic female characters:

Ellen Ripley in Aliens

Ellen Ripley

Princess Leia in Star Wars

Princess Leia

Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz

Dorothy Gale

Marge Gunderson in Fargo

Marge Gunderson

Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Sarah Connor

Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's

Holly Golightly

Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind

Scarlett O'Hara

Lisbeth Salander

Lisbeth Salander

The Bride in Kill Bill

The Bride

Who Have I Removed?

Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate

Mrs. Robinson
This wasn't an easy choice to make. I considered removing Holly Golightly because I'm not a big fan of Breakfast at Tiffany's. However, that role seems to fit with this list. I also wonder about Lisbeth Salander, but I've only seen the American version. This sent me to Mrs. Robinson, who is well-known but differs from the others in my mind. She plays a key role in the movie, yet she'd never spring to mind as an iconic figure beyond her pop-culture significance. This place isn't enough from my perspective.

Who I'm Adding:

Jackie Brown
Before I even looked at the current list, my first idea was adding Jackie Brown. Pam Grier brought such a clear mix of excitement and world-weariness to the title role in my favorite Quentin Tarantino film. She expands on the character that Elmore Leonard created and fits perfectly in this world of double crosses. Tarantino's writing created the part, but it was Grier that took it to another level. She's the smartest person in the room yet is constantly underestimated by everyone she meets.

I'm passing the baton to Martin Teller at Martin Teller's Movie Reviews. Take it away, Martin!

August 26, 2014

1984 Blogathon - Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes

When you look back at the films of 1984, there are a surprising number of household names. Movies like The Karate Kid, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom topped the box office, while Amadeus and The Killing Fields took home the awards. Action films hadn’t taken over yet, so the diversity among the major releases was still there. When Todd Liebenow of Forgotten Films chose 1984 for his blogathon, the possibilities seemed endless. The challenge happens if you’re the 100th blogger to join the mix. This left obscure choices that were difficult to find or prestige films that didn’t charm audiences. I ended up with the latter with Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Director Hugh Hudson was coming off Chariots of Fire and its Best Picture Oscar. The cast included British legends and fresh young faces. What could go wrong?

Andie MacDowell in Greystoke

This story is adapted from the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel and presents a more laid-back take on the title character. John Clayton is still a guy raised by apes, but he isn’t a super human capable of swinging across vines and dominating the jungle. He comes from a wealthy heritage yet is a wild guy born after his parents were marooned in Africa. It’s a gorgeous natural location, but danger lurks around every corner. The ape Kala raises him as her own after losing her infant child. Before discovering a mirror in his parents’ former home, John failed to realize he wasn’t an ape. He returns to England to claim his great status, but it’s clear that the high-brow lifestyle is not for him. The wealthy visitors consider him a curiosity, and he forms a relationship with Jane Porter (Andie MacDowell). The American girl accepts John despite his eccentricities, but that may not be enough to soothe his isolation.

Christopher Lambert in Greystoke

I hate to use such a generic description, but this is a boring film. The high production values and veteran actors aren’t enough. Hudson is a capable director and creates a mood for each location. The challenge is whether it makes us care about John’s story. There are long scenes with no dialogue, and the slow pace gives us a chance to understand his growth. Even so, there’s little dramatic tension. Natives arrive and kill his mom, but the impact is strangely muted. A possible reason is Christopher Lambert, who looks the part yet doesn’t inspire an emotional bond. I’ll admit that it’s a little hard to take him seriously after seeing the many Highlander films, Fortress, and Mortal Kombat. Lambert throws everything into the howls after each successive tragedy, but it all seems a little silly. Everyone plays the material so straight that there’s little joy in the oddball story.

One highlight is the make-up work from Rick Baker and Paul Engelen, who received a well-deserved Oscar nomination. The apes are surprisingly lifelike, which gets pretty eerie when one is carrying around a dead infant. It’s hard to not make them laughable, but it rarely enters that territory. Baker is well-known for his groundbreaking work in An American Werewolf in London and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. He brings that same attention to detail with his work on this project. The apes don’t feel out of place among the human characters, and that’s no easy feat. Their technical achievements help to create a believable world for John and his family. That isn’t enough to make it exciting, however.

Greystoke and make-up by Rick Baker

Despite the production values, Greystoke is a missed opportunity. Andie MacDowell’s voice was dubbed by Glenn Close, and it makes that performance ineffective. She looks the part, but the different voice doesn’t match her actions. The screenplay was originally written by Robert Towne, but he asked to have his name taken off the project when he was removed as director. It’s hard to say how much of his work made it to the final product. Michael Austin (Princess Caraboo) co-wrote the screenplay, and its tonal shifts are jarring. The final scenes with Ralph Richardson’s Sixth Earl of Greystoke are a prime example. His demise comes out of bad melodrama and is a laughable way to deliver an emotional climax. Lambert’s raw emotions afterwards are ruined by the Earl’s silly end. This is one of many head-scratching moments in this movie, which shows promise but never comes together.

This review is a contribution to the Todd Liebenow's 1984 Blogathon at Forgotten Films. You should check out all the posts about the many great films from that year. 

July 10, 2014

John Ford Blogathon: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, directed by John Ford

Does any film director love the U.S. Cavalry more than John Ford? Better yet, does anyone in this country’s history adore the cavalry more than him? When the brave men climb aboard their horses and ride fiercely into battle, you get the sense that Ford would do anything to join them. In his book Five Came Back, Mark Harris documents the classic American director’s interest in establishing his credentials as a courageous warrior. Ford’s tall tales about being inside the battle resemble those about legendary heroes whose names are championed in song lyrics. He may have shot the famous “print the legend”scene in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but that doesn’t mean Ford dislikes the heroes. They rode into the camps of their enemies and stood bravely while arrows landed at their feet. Who wouldn’t want to be the type of man that can face that type of danger? When the trumpets blare and death is in the air, Ford revels in showing the guys who understand the risk yet realize it’s necessary to resolve the conflict.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, starring Joanne Dru

Despite this patriotic attitude, Ford shouldn’t be confused with a naïve filmmaker who doesn’t recognize the flip side. The first film in his cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache, shows the problems when this bravery turns into obsession. It’s one thing to defend against Native American invaders; it’s another to seek out conflict. The tragic finale shows the disastrous results of that fervor and the government’s willingness to push it under the rug. Henry Fonda’s Owen Thursday is a fictional variation of George Custer and endures a similar fate. This makes the direct reference to Custer at the start of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon an interesting choice. His failure at Little Big Horn connects directly to the environment that faces Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) at the start of this story. The 60-year-old veteran is days from his retirement but has no plans to fade slowly into oblivion.

Brittles has been assigned one last mission — providing safe passage for two women to the stagecoach. This seems easy, but the danger from a new group of Native American warriors is very real. It will take all of Brittles’ guile to keep them safe, and success is no guarantee. Ford presents their enemies in one-dimensional terms, which is disappointing given the depth of Fort Apache. The narrator describes their reasons for the attacks as protecting their hunting lands, which is simplified. While we can only expect so much in 1949, there’s something unsettling about the way the enemy is depicted. They’ve been armed by American gun runners, and the way they dispose of them shows a cruelty that goes beyond protecting their livelihood. The men are repeatedly tossed in the fire as sport while Brittles and his guys observe their deaths. Their casual reaction presents men who have been hardened by the loss of people they know and are hardly innocent in this fray.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, shot in Monument Valley

It’s impossible to understate the beauty of Monument Valley and other Utah locales that provide the backdrop for this story. Cinematographer Winton Hoch (The Quiet Man) won a well-deserved Oscar and presents long shots that reveal a grand scale rarely seen on the screen. The characters are minute parts of the screen and dwarfed by the massive landscape. It makes the story feel so much bigger, even when they’re just riding casually down the trail. When the action picks up, the scale creates a different environment than the typical Western. The quest for survival is more about the entire group than any particular individual. Ford is showing how the future of the cavalry and maybe the entire civilization is at stake. Following Custer’s failure, will the forces of the wild take over this land?

The screenplay from Frank Nugent and Laurence Stallings spends a lot of time on the love triangle between Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru), Lt. Cohill (John Agar), and 2nd Lt. Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.). The challenge is that neither guy is particularly memorable. It's also obvious that Cohill is the choice, and his angry rebukes of Dandridge mask the love in his heart. The saving grace of these scenes is the fine work from Dru, who had similar success with her character in Red River. Her most interesting connection is with Brittles, however. Wayne and Dru have great chemistry, though it's a fatherly relationship. It's possible that Dandridge reminds Brittles of his dead wife from his younger days. Their bond carries a lot more weight than the scuffles between the two young guys over her affections.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, starring John Wayne

I've yet to mention one of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon's strongest elements, which is the soulful performance from John Wayne. Playing a man several decades beyond his real age, he brings fascinating depth and weariness to the role. His last morning with the troops after receiving his walking papers is one of the best moments that I've seen from Wayne's career. The mix of frustration and graciousness is hard to play convincingly, and he never strikes a false note. We understand Brittles and his realization that nothing in his life will match his experiences with the cavalry. He's determined to complete this final mission and refuses to fade into obscurity. This melancholy tone is the key factor that allows this story to overcome its limitations and deliver an emotional impact. Ford and Wayne create a convincing portrayal of a noble guy whose entire life is devoted to a single pursuit. This fully realized character lifts this modest story to much greater heights.

Note: This piece is a contribution to the John Ford Blogathon hosted by Krell Laboratories. A group of talented writers have delivered great pieces on every corner of Ford's career. 

April 1, 2014

Big League Blogathon: Eight Men Out (1988)

Growing up in St. Louis in the ‘80s, I was obsessed with baseball. The Cards made the World Series three times and were led by Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, and other household names. The sport felt pure, and salaries were still relatively low. While that vision of baseball was idealized, there’s something about the game that makes it easy to feel that way. That excitement is present on the face of Buck Weaver (John Cusack) in Eight Men Out. The third baseman for the 1919 White Sox dives for balls, flies around the bases, and celebrates each win like it’s for the championship. His team is also known for one of the game’s biggest scandals. John Sayles’ 1988 recreation of the events surrounding that year’s World Series shows both the joy and the greed that surrounded it. It isn’t as simple as fallen angels on the diamond, and he shows the complexities that make it so riveting.

Sayles’ film is based on the 1963 book 8 Men Out by Eliot Asinof and does a brilliant job in explaining all the factions involved in throwing the World Series. The players are at fault, but they’re hardly the only culprits. Owner Charles Comiskey (Clifton James) orders the team flat champagne instead of promised bonuses and sits his star pitcher to keep him from getting one. In the time before free agency, the players had little power and barely made a living wage. The prospect of making $10,000 to take a dive was lucrative. Unfortunately, there was no incentive for the unsavory figures to pay the guys. Once they stopped playing on the level, they were doomed.

The opening sequence is a master class in exposition and introduces the players without awkward dialogue. The fast-paced style includes a tremendous amount of dialogue and rarely takes a breath. Sayles packs in the information, yet it moves smoothly and doesn’t lose us. It helps to have actors like Cusack, David Strathairn, D.B. Sweeney, and even Charlie Sheen to make their characters unique. The players driving the deception are played by veterans Michael Rooker and Don Harvey as shady guys who just can’t help themselves. They’re itching to do something out of the ordinary and don’t even consider how obvious it looks to anyone paying attention. Once newspapermen Ring Lardner (Sayles) and Hugh Fullerton (Studs Terkel) start watching them closely, the gig is up.

The baseball footage captures the excitement of being at the ballpark long before corporations took over the stadiums. The actors’ skills aren’t always stellar, but the editing sells them as major league players. One of the most convincing is Sweeney as Joe Jackson, who just plays differently. He glides along the base paths and through the field like he’s walking on air. He’s not a smart guy, but he’s a natural on the field. Sweeney and Weaver are the collateral damage to the other players’ actions and guilty by association. If knowing about the fix is enough, they’re just as culpable. There’s a tragedy in seeing a sport that’s loved by so many tarnished by corruption, yet the personal stakes are even more impactful for these guys. Weaver is a shell of a man without baseball and will never be the same.

There have been plenty of scandals over the years in baseball, including steroids, Pete Rose, corked bats, and racism. What makes the Black Sox stand out nearly 100 years after it happened? The main reason is the World Series, which sits on a plateau and creates legendary players. Even given all the scandals that have occurred, the idea that so many players would conspire to throw the entire thing is shocking. Another part is the era, which was even before the heyday of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. It seems hard to believe that organized crime might have such control over baseball that early in its life. On the other hand, the legitimate guys running the game aren’t much better than the gangsters.

The final act of Eight Men Out looks at the investigation and grand jury trial of eight players from the White Sox. This is hardly a situation where the big game decides their fate. Instead, they’re being tried in the court of public opinion right along with the real trial. Even when they appear to escape thanks to a high-priced lawyer, their victory is short-lived. It’s one thing to survive in their hometown with fans judging them; it’s another to face a stern commissioner looking to make his name. It’s an intriguing story that could easily cover three hours. What makes this film so much stronger is the fact that Sayles barely gets to two. He keeps the drama centered and doesn’t veer into unnecessary subplots. That focus allows us to fill in the gaps and still understand the stakes. It remains my favorite baseball film and one of the high points from Sayles’ fine career.

Note: This review was written as a contribution to the Big League Blogathon organized by Todd Liebenow at Forgotten Films. 

December 27, 2013

Pirate Radio: What Ever Happened to My Rock 'n' Roll?:

Back in college in the late ‘90s, I worked at the student radio station and discovered a community of like-minded enthusiasts. We rarely agreed on which bands were truly great but shared a different approach from your average music listener. I didn’t realize how good we had it until after graduation. Sitting in an office in the real world 15 years later, I still miss the weekly DJ slot and would love to revisit it. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “The Count” expresses a similar sentiment near the end of Pirate Radio. The guys aboard their marine radio station are having so much fun that they don’t even realize how amazing it is. Set in 1966 during the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll, this story depicts passionate goofballs who love music and care little for what’s appropriate in mainstream society. They’re hardly perfect guys but share the excitement for communicating this new wave to the masses.

This British film has an interesting history. It’s directed by Richard Curtis, who’s known mostly as the writer of Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Love Actually. He also directed the latter, which was a huge success. Pirate Radio is his second film, and it drew a limited audience under its original title The Boat That Rocked. Its American release had a new title and the removal of about 20 minutes from the original running time. This didn’t help the box office, and the U.S. marketing did a poor job in selling its charms. Despite having Phillip Seymour Hoffman and a large group of memorable character actors, the cast doesn’t include an obvious selling point. The plot centers on the radio station, but it’s more of a setting for a series of interludes. This episodic feeling is trickier to market within a short trailer, which ends up feeling more generic than the actual film.

I’m a sucker for any movie that glorifies rock, and the soundtrack makes it an easy sell. Once The Count steps up to the microphone and the music blares from the speakers, I’m hooked. It really helps to have likable actors like Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Darby (Murray!), and Nick Frost to sell the material. It’s easy to bypass a generic story when these guys are having fun. Our entry point into their world is 17-year-old Carl (Tom Sturridge), who arrives on the ship due to problems with civilization. He’s hardly a bad kid and seems out of place among the grizzled veterans, but it doesn’t take long to change that fact. How can he not like this place? Through his eyes, we meet the different radio personalities who charm the kids while playing hits from The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, and many others. They’re signaling a new era of music, but the old guard might not be ready for it.

The conservative authorities are embodied by Kenneth Branagh’s Sir Alistair Dormandy, who might be the least fun guy in world history. Despite some mustache-twirling from the acting veteran, this one-note character is pretty dull. He barks out orders to the painfully named Twatt (Jack Davenport) and keeps it hard to take anything seriously. There’s no need to make these guys such caricatures, and we get far too many scenes of their scheming. Even so, it’s just a minor blemish on the enjoyable tale. It’s fun to spend time with the DJs, and the characters’ pain from minor betrayals only lasts for a few minutes. They’re having a party, and we’re all invited. Why worry about decency when you can hear Mick and Keith, Jimi, Darlene Love, and Brian Wilson?

Pirate Radio ends with a very strange Titanic-like sequence with everyone scrambling while the ship sinks. The Count even decides to go down with the ship like the captain, which leads to a ridiculous moment after he changes his mind. Without this sequence, Curtis might have lessened his production budget to a more reasonable number. Even so, this ending matches the freewheeling tone of the entire movie. It’s all over the map, yet it works because there’s plenty of energy and wit on display. The actors sell the material and make it engaging no matter how far overboard (pun intended) it goes. It’s the type of movie that plays well at home and should continue to build a following in the future.

This review was part of The CK’s Not So Secret Santa Review Swap organized by Nick Powell at the Cinematic Katzenjammer. Pirate Radio was gifted to me by another blogger, and you should check out all the posts in this series.

October 14, 2013

What's the Cultural Future for Movies?

We've reached the final entry in the excellent 5 Obstructions Blogathon organized by Nostra at My Filmviews. The restrictions this time are pretty simple. I can write about anything related to movies, though it shouldn't be a standard review. There were so many enticing options to consider with these open-ended instructions. Should I dig into a specific genre or filmmaker? That approach could offer interesting material, but I decided to go a different route. There's been plenty of chatter about the future of movies as a popular medium. We've seen the changes in the music industry and the challenges for labels and merchants when they didn't evolve. Will movie studios face a similar fate? The bigger question is whether the public still cares about their survival.

The Way Way Back

During the past few months, I’ve had several movie theater experiences that have made me wonder about the future of the medium. In late July, my wife and I had a multiplex theater completely to ourselves on the Sunday of the opening weekend for The Way Way Back. Last month, I caught up with In a World… in a massive local independent theater along with just two other attendees. While these showings did not happen during the peak times, they still offer a telling reminder than movies don’t rule the roost. They’re facing stiff competition from a wide range of activities. When attendance is sparse for most screenings, does it make sense to have them? Can studios justify the huge promotional costs to sell a film when there’s a good chance it will fail? Where does this leave filmmakers who aren’t interested (or capable) of leading an army to direct the must-see blockbusters? Technology is changing faster than we can keep up, and movies my need to evolve or risk being marginalized.

The examples that I cited are obviously smaller productions that won’t earn huge numbers at the box office. Blockbusters like Iron Man 3 and Star Trek into Darkness still drew major crowds and earned big receipts in 2013. There are other examples of films without giant budgets like The Heat that earned lots of money through counter-programming. If we just look at the successes and the total box-office numbers, Hollywood seems to be in good shape. The global marketplace is booming, and even misfires in the U.S. can make their money in other countries. I’m not as concerned with the financial well-being of the movie industry. Major corporations like Disney and Time Warner can absorb flops because they’re part of their overall packaging. What interests me is the idea that films aren’t as culturally essential to our society as they were even 10 years ago. Film bloggers and cinephiles may obsess about the latest casting rumors and upcoming releases, but we’re truly in the minority when compared to most audience members.

Star Trek into Darkness

I realize that I’m not breaking new ground. Anyone who’s worked in an office can testify at being amazed at their co-workers’ lack of basic movie knowledge. I haven’t been to the theaters as much this year. When there’s a baby at home (our second), the priorities shift from catching new releases. Even so, I’ve still gone there a lot more than most customers. Intelligent people with great tastes in other areas will talk about not going to the movie theaters more than a few times in the past 10 years. These are well-read individuals who’ve switched their focus to other ventures. What has changed about movies? Part of the issue are the costs for tickets and concessions, which continue to rise and won’t slow down as budgets increase. The U.S. economy is still struggling, and it’s hard to justify the expense. Families are choosing to stay home, watch great television, and not bother with the challenges of the multiplex. Once their habits change, some people realize they don’t really miss the experience. This may seem crazy to a movie nerd, but sometimes it’s just easier to sit on the couch and relax after a busy week.

There are interesting parallels now to the rise of TV during the 1950s, which spawned gimmicks from movie theaters. We’re seeing that today with IMAX, 3D, and other technologies used (with a sizeable upcharge) to make the experience seem different than home. From a cultural perspective, there was so much chatter about the Breaking Bad finale during the past few months. No summer movie received that type of attention, and this isn’t the first example of a TV show being the major story. This golden age of television is making it even easier to stay at home. Why watch Superman pummel buildings for hours when you can see Walt and Jesse? There’s also a different level of staying power through Netflix and DVD that is keeping these shows in the public consciousness more than most films. People still debate the merits of the Lost finale and where Vic Mackey was going at the end of The Shield. Are many of us having the same conversations about The Dark Knight Rises? The pressure is on filmmakers to create better content, and many are doing amazing things. The question is whether they can achieve the same event status except in rare cases. Audiences will go nuts for the Star Wars sequel in 2015, but other contenders will generate only a passing interest.


There are two periods of time that used to draw excitement from both casual and dedicated film viewers. The summer movie season promised amazing blockbusters with stars battling aliens and crashing cars. We still have those films, but there are too many. When a pretty solid Wolverine film is barely remembered a few months later, you know we’re in overkill territory. The “summer movies” start arriving in April, and viewers are tired of them by the end of June. There are multiple big releases every weekend, and few people can keep up with even half of them. This overload diminishes the impact of all but a few movies, and plenty are going to flop. Elysium stars Matt Damon and is the follow-up to the very popular District 9, and it drew little interest.  The other big time period is the awards season, when prestige pictures arrive to make their case to win the Oscar. While the Academy Awards still have a box-office impact for indie films, they lack the excitement they once achieved. By the time the show arrives, we’ve already seen the Golden Globes and many other ceremonies, so they feel anti-climactic. It’s even less interesting for common audiences, who scratch their heads when movies they loved aren’t nominated.

Where do we go from here? This summer feels like the tipping point. Hollywood may break records in 2015, but its cultural impact is getting more limited each year. The ease of access to films through Netflix, Redbox, and other venues has made them less essential. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made headlines by claiming that movies were heading for a Broadway pricing model. While that approach could work for Star Wars, it will make the flops even more calamitous. If attendance lags, it’s possible that theaters will go to a tiered pricing system for different movies and show times. The challenge is fighting against the public’s perception of the way movies have been presented for a long while. Will they spend hundreds of dollars for a single night at the theater? Raising the prices won’t bring people back to the cinema; it could mean the death knell for their interest. I love seeing movies, but I’m in the minority beyond film lovers’ circles. No matter what happens, changes seem necessary within the next few years. I’m intrigued to see where the medium goes, though I expect it may be heading for an unfortunate destination.

September 23, 2013

Casino Royale: A Closer Look

Nostra at My Filmviews has organized an intriguing blogathon designed to push writers out of their comfort zones. It presents five obstructions (one per month) that force you to avoid the typical approach. This month's challenge wasn't too bad; writing reviews longer than 1,250 words isn't that abnormal for me. However, I chose to accept the higher level of difficulty and write a review that includes more than 2,000 words. My choice was to revisit Casino Royale, Daniel Craig's first appearance as James Bond. It revitalized the franchise creatively and is one of the series' best movies. I'd never written about it before, so this felt like the perfect opportunity to dig into such an intriguing film.

Daniel Craig in Casino Royale

Introducing a new James Bond is a tricky proposition. Within the first few minutes, the film makers are presenting their mission statement about the future direction for the franchise. Goldeneye announced that Bond had entered the big-budget world of the ‘90s. Brosnan jumped off a cliff and “flew” into a plane to save himself in ridiculous fashion. We were a long way from the more serious take of Timothy Dalton. The separation from those excesses is clear from the opening frame of Casino Royale. Daniel Craig drowns a man in a bathroom sink and then shoots a traitor in the head. Shot in black and white and emphasizing the grim nature of Bond’s work, this sequence makes us forget about invisible cars and space lasers. This guy is new to the force and recognizes the rough nature of his job. He’s a grunt who follows orders and kills, and the glitz of his predecessor is long gone.

Following a cool credits sequence with Chris Cornell shouting “you know my name!”, we jump right into the story. The villainous Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is making shady financial deals and rigging the system. It’s a quick introduction and does little but confirm that he isn’t trying to take over the world. This scene is a necessity but quickly forgotten once Bond starts a relentless pursuit of an enemy operative. The chase is the movie's standout action scene and arrives during the first 15 minutes. It’s an interesting move and sidesteps the usual method of the slow buildup in many Bond stories. The high-flying Parkour action signifies once again that Bond is working in a different arena. Would any of the other Bonds create this kind of destruction? It’s a long sequence that might lose viewers hoping for a more sophisticated Bond, but it’s needed to clearly delineate Craig’s incarnation. He'll shoot and ask questions later, and that's not always a wise idea.

Judi Dench as M in Casino Royale

Bringing Judi Dench back as M (the lone crossover from the Brosnan era) is a wise move, and she plays an even larger role in Craig’s films. She’s the stern mother who chastises the inexperienced Bond for his rash actions. Her description of him as a “blunt instrument” is accurate, yet there’s still compassion for him. Bond respects few adversaries, but he’ll always listen to M. It takes an actor with Dench’s presence to make that relationship believable. He breaks into her house and flaunts the rules, yet M isn’t ready to turn on her back on Bond. The question is whether audiences have the same affinity for this guy. Craig is the right man to play this brutal agent, yet he’s so different from the other actors. Dalton had a fiery personality and could sell the drama, but he was never physically imposing. Craig lumbers around the room like a guy looking for his next fight.

The beach sequence is a curious one for such a different movie. It’s clearly an homage to Ursula Andress walking out of the water in Dr. No, yet now Bond is the sex object. We’re in the world of Sean Connery at an island paradise in the Bahamas. Bond visits the hotel casino and plays against an outmatched underling (Simon Abkarian). Even the music seems familiar to long-time fans. It’s also the first time he interacts with a beautiful woman, and we’re already 35 minutes into the film. Solange (Caterina Murino) is a tool at his disposal, and she’s doomed from the moment Bond appears in her sights. The surprise is that Bond doesn’t stick around once duty calls. This guy is all business, and the women take a back seat to his main objectives. Although she helps to signify a new side of Bond, Solange doesn’t stray too far from the normal model. We’re moving forward, but the problematic history for the franchise with its female characters hasn’t completely evaporated.

Casino Royale, directed by Martin Campbell

This portion of the movie is intriguing because it isn’t clear where Bond is headed. The main story has hardly begun, yet we’re nearing the end of the first hour. He stumbles upon a bombing plot at the Miami Airport, and it’s time for another cat-and-mouse chase. This is a post-9/11 world gone mad, and a threat exists around every corner. After some T1000-like running from Craig, the old-school driving stunts are a refreshing change of pace from the CGI-dominated modern landscape. Even when he’s performing daring feats, this Bond feels real and experiences actual pain. Roger Moore would have passed out after taking a few punches. This guy is almost too reckless and is basically a “demolition man” that destroys everything that he touches. His fearless attitude may be needed to stop this new crop of villains. They aren’t sitting in their lairs and preparing to blow up the world. These guys are on the ground, and it will take more than brains to stop them. The brief smile that appears on his face at the end is a rare moment of joy for the unflinching agent.

Solange’s off-screen death is notable because it’s given such a brief mention. Bond shows no emotion while M describes her brutal fate. Despite the fact that he saved the day at the airport, there are innocent victims to his efforts. After an hour, the main plot kicks into gear and sends Bond into a high-stakes poker game. We also meet Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a modern woman that truly seems different from most of the past examples. Their conversation on the train says a lot about both characters. Each has plenty of confidence and enjoys ripping into the others’ issues. Still, there still are limitations to any progress. Green is gorgeous and fits within Bond’s normal world; the difference is that she’s a capable actor. Thankfully, we aren’t in Denise Richards territory with this performance. The challenge is making Bond and Vesper’s romance feel natural and not just a plot requirement. They don’t get together too quickly, so the romance feels earned when they finally reach that point.

Eva Green as Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale

Giancarlo Giannini brings a convincing presence to René Mathis, who supports Bond in Montenegro. His return in Quantum of Solace feels natural because this world seems more grounded in reality. His story isn’t finished after the events of this film. The set-up for the big card game feels similar to a less-inspiring moment from License to Kill. Bond gives Vesper pointers on looking the part, and the conversation sounds a lot like Dalton giving Carey Lowell pointers about her attire. The difference here is that Vesper turns the discussion back on Bond’s generic dinner jacket. It’s sort of clunky and obvious, yet it’s still a move forward. There’s also the first appearance of Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter, and it’s another example of a talented supporting actor. Excluding Never Say Never Again, he’s the only African-American actor to play the character. More importantly, he adds layers to a typically one-note associate. Bringing him back for the follow-up connects those films even further. Wright clearly enjoys the role and has a subtle glee as the serious CIA agent.

The tricky part with pulling this story from Ian Fleming’s novel is that the entire plot hinges on the results of a card game. It’s been changed to Texas hold’em to make it easier to understand for modern audiences. Still, pulling drama out of this game isn’t easy. Martin Campbell returns to the franchise after Goldeneye as the director, and he uses every trick to keep us engaged. The action scenes during the breaks also keeps the pace rolling. Bond’s vicious fights inside the hotel stairwell bring us back into the rougher tone. It’s a wild and violent world out there, and it’s only a matter of time before Bond’s pretty suit gets bloodied. Vesper’s reaction is a key moment for her character; despite what we learn near the end, this isn’t really her comfort zone. Their scene in the shower is surprisingly tender and shows that this is more than the typical conquest for the suave agent.

Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale

The poker game reveals why Mads Mikkelsen is such a different brand of villain. With an intense stare that hides the glee behind his eyes, Le Chiffre plays Bond for a fool and capitalizes on his ego. There is some unfortunate exposition from Mathis, but it’s understandable in a commercial picture. Even with the popularity of the World Series of Poker, it’s still a niche game that might confuse audiences. The Bond character is known as a suave guy who’s always a step ahead, but this guy’s a novice who’s frequently bested by Le Chiffre. He loses his money, is poisoned, and barely escapes with his life. Bond needs a lot of help to stay alive and blunders his way into every situation. The potential to become a superb agent is there, but he’s struggling to make his way in the big leagues. It’s a gutsy move to show Bond in such a fragile state, and it makes us care more about his success.

Casino Royale was Fleming’s first Bond novel, and it revealed the hardening of the character after betrayal by his love Vesper Lynd. It also includes a brutal torture scene where Le Chiffre reduces Bond to a shell of his former self. One of the film’s most daring scenes is keeping this moment and making few changes. A lesser film would change the outcome and have Bond act like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. Instead, he’s bailed out by circumstances beyond his control. Once again, he’s lucky to survive the ordeal. Craig does his best work in this scene and reveals the grit behind the stoic façade. Bond isn’t killed, but little fight remains in his wounded soul. The job is over, and sailing around the world with Vesper is the perfect way to forget the past. He’s found love and is ready to quit the game, yet there’s one more betrayal that will bring the armor back for the changed guy.

Eva Green as Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale

The Venice finale is an impressive scene but seems to over play the moment. Was an action scene really necessary this late in the film? Green sells Vesper’s tragic death, and it’s a surprisingly poignant moment for a Bond film. Even so, the utter destruction of the sinking building slightly diminishes the impact. It’s still an impressive practical stunt that’s directed well by Campbell. He knows how to stage an action scene and keeps us on the edge of our seat while Bond faces off with a horde of goons. The MacGuffin of the suitcase of money is a nice touch, so the sequence hardly diminishes the movie. There’s even a creepy goon with silly glasses who dies in grisly fashion. The ultimate result matches the novel, though it’s hard to argue with the simplicity of the source material.

Daniel Craig at the end of Casino Royale

Uttering Fleming’s words “The bitch is dead”, Bond returns to the stern look he had before meeting Vesper. He’s reached a new low, and the only solace will come from justice. This leads us to the iconic finale, which succeeds despite being obvious. The image of Bond with a machine gun standing over Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) is a perfect conclusion. Craig in a black suit uttering the famous line “the name’s Bond, James Bond” feels earned because we’ve taken the long journey with him. Some fans decried the choice of Craig for this new incarnation at the start, but now it feels like no one else could play this rougher variation. He brings a physical presence that Brosnan lacked, and the writing doesn’t stick him with painful one-liners. Casino Royale is a brilliant opening to a new era for the franchise and hasn’t been topped by its sequels. Skyfall was an excellent movie, but it lacks the same emotional punch as the origin story. It’s one of the top Bond films, and it ranks among the best modern action films of the new millennium.

August 30, 2013

Stoker (Five Obstructions Blogathon)

Nostra at My Filmviews has organized an intriguing blogathon designed to push writers out of their comfort zones. It presents five obstructions (one per month) that force you to avoid the typical approach. I'm not thrilled about doing this one, but I won't shy from the challenge. This assignment is writing a review composed entirely of statements from other writers. To preserve my sanity and ensure that the original author is given proper credit, I've separated each person's comments into a unique paragraph. My choice is Stoker, the American debut from legendary Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park. Released earlier this year to great acclaim, it includes remarkable imagery and a dark tale of family and violence. I've provided notes following the review that call out the source of each quote. It's one of the pivotal films of the first half of 2013, and that makes it a perfect choice for this obstruction.

Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman in Stoker

"Stoker isn’t setting out to do anything new. Its story will seem familiar to many, and even derivative to some. The question one needs to ask oneself coming away from the movie is how much that matters. I, for one, don’t think it matters all that much. I don’t believe the story needs to blaze any new trails because there is so much else that the film does so well – specifically, the sensory delights it unloads on its audience. What’s more, Stoker is able to use many of those sensory moments to underline its theme of the end of innocence."

"Leave it to a Korean director to cast his first American film with two Aussies and a Brit (with supporting work from another Aussie, a Virginian and Harmony Korine… because, why not?), and have it written by a once-famed television star. Basically, Stoker is a random mixing bowl of talent that results in a film tailored to Park’s style, with plentiful dashes of Hitchcock. In short, everyone in front of and behind the camera is on point here."

Mia Wasikowska in Stoker

"On paper, Stoker’s plot outline would look flat and conventional; at heart, it’s a startlingly simple story. The strength is all in the execution, particularly Goode’s steely-but-smiling performance and Wasikowska’s sullen, reluctantly captivated response. Their interactions, and Kidman’s fluttering obliviousness, make Stoker feel like a third film adaptation of Lolita. And Park mines immense tension out of a narrative that only seems predictable after the fact. A lush, rich wave of emotion, usually repressed and occasionally explosively released, buoys the film past its pedestrian structure."

"The real beauty of Stoker comes from Park’s incredible style. He directs the actors towards a mannered style of acting uncommon in modern films. He also infuses the tale with a great Southern Gothic tone — all the more impressive considering Park is not American. Then there are all the visual tricks: freeze-edits, camera swoops during dialogue scenes, sudden close-ups, carefully placed shaky-cam, incredibly creative scene transitions, and a looseness of chronology to keep the audience consistently on edge."

Stoker, directed by Chan-wook Park

"The final act of Stoker walks a fine line between the sensational and the silly. Mr. Park is less interested in narrative suspense than in carefully orchestrated shocks and camouflaged motives. Learning the truth about Charlie does not so much explain what had come before as turn everything upside down, scattering the puzzle pieces in a colorful, brutal cascade."

Sources (in paragraph order)
Ryan McNeil, The Matinee
Alex Withrow, And So It Begins...
Tasha Robinson, A.V. Club
Corey Atad, Movie Mezzanine
A.O. Scott, The New York Times

July 28, 2013

The Five Obstructions Blogathon: Interviews

Nostra at My Filmviews has organized an intriguing blogathon designed to push writers out of their comfort zones. It presents five obstructions (one per month) that force you to avoid the typical approach.. This month's challenge is intriguing because it involves more than just writing a review. Along with giving your thoughts about a movie, you also must interview someone about it. If possible, this conversation would be with a person involved with making the film. I hadn't done interviews with a project's cast and crew in a long time, and none were for the blog. This mission from Nostra drove me to contact the director of a recent movie that I really enjoyed, and the result was a resounding success.

The Frames In the Deep Shade

A few weeks ago, I picked up the concert film The Frames: In the Deep Shade, which chronicled one of my favorite bands during their 20th anniversary tour. Hoping to spread the word about this movie, I wrote a piece about it. I knew little about Director Conor Masterson but took a shot at contacting him. The talented photographer brought a more artistic style and avoided the standard format of the tour documentary. Conor was kind enough to answer my questions about In the Deep Shade and gave excellent responses. This interview enhanced my enjoyment of the movie and was a great experience. The Frames deserve a lot more attention, and this picture should only help that cause.

Although I'd considered doing interviews for the blog, I hadn't given it serious thought because I don't have connections with any publicists. I'm also writing frequently about older films, so this site isn't really designed to promote the latest releases. Nostra's blogathon was the perfect inspiration to push me to give it a shot. I'm planning to do more interviews in the future, and the discussion with Conor was a great start. It's a cool way to spotlight lesser-known movies and the artists who make them. I can't wait to find out what obstruction Nostra will throw out next month. I expect that it's going to be a challenge.